If there was ever a glimmer of hope that 2020 would see a break in the cycle of armed conflicts in Africa, continued fighting in several war-torn countries dashed any cause for optimism. The 2013 pledge by African leaders to “silence the guns” by 2020 remained unrealized. Instead, the sound of gunfire grew louder, claiming thousands of lives in the process.
Serious violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law remained common features of conflicts. From the 10-year conflict in northeastern Nigeria to the newly erupted conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, security forces, armed groups and militias committed atrocities with impunity.
The devastating impact of conflict was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as locust invasions and climatic shocks. These converging factors took their toll on populations, revealing deep seated barriers to, and structural fissures within, systems for the protection of human rights. The pandemic particularly exposed the deplorable conditions of public health care as well as inequalities in access to basic socio-economic rights. Meanwhile lockdowns and curfews increased the risk of sexual and other gender-based violence which targeted women and girls while survivors struggled to access legal aid, justice, and health care. On the positive side, there were some notable advances in the protection of women and girls from discrimination, ranging from the first ever marital rape conviction in Eswatini to criminalization of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan.
Governments used excessive force to enforce COVID-19 regulations and to break up protests. The pandemic also served as a pretext for governments to escalate crackdowns and the repression of dissent. Meanwhile, elections were characterized by widespread human rights violations.
Armed conflict and attacks on civilians
Conflicts with armed groups and attacks on civilians continued or escalated in most parts of the region. Armed groups maintained a foothold in West Africa and the Sahel region, attacking civilians in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. In response, state security forces also committed grave human rights violations against civilians. In Central Africa, armed groups blighted many lives in Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad. In Southern Africa, the long simmering violence in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province intensified, becoming a full-blown armed conflict. The Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions remained home to protracted conflicts. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan, conflicts continued to fester, albeit with varying degrees of intensity and geographical coverage. A new conflict flared in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, a country also plagued by communal violence.
Between February and April, governments in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger increased military operations to fight armed groups. In the process, security forces committed serious human rights violations against civilians, notably extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. In Nigeria, government forces launched indiscriminate attacks in the context of the conflict in the Northeast. In one such incident, at least 10 children and seven women were killed when the Air Force bombed a village in Borno state.
In Mozambique, by September, 1,500 people had been killed in the conflict in the Cabo Delgado province. While armed groups beheaded civilians, burned houses, looted villages and abducted women and girls, security forces arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured and extrajudicially executed alleged armed groups members or sympathizers.
In Somalia, the US military’s Africa Command (USAFRICOM) continued to use drones and manned aircrafts to carry out more than 53 airstrikes during the year. Two airstrikes in February killed two civilians and injured three others. In South Sudan, sporadic clashes between parties to the armed conflict continued. Soldiers looted civilians’ belongings, burned villages and destroyed properties, including hospitals, churches and schools.
In Burkina Faso, clashes between armed groups, and attacks against civilians, often along ethnic lines, continued. Attacks and killings by different armed groups took place in villages, mosques and cattle markets in the Northern, Sahel and Eastern regions of the country. In Mali, dozens of civilians were killed by various armed groups, especially in the central regions. Notably, in July, gunmen thought to be affiliated with the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, attacked several villages in the Tori and Diallassagou communes, killing at least 32 civilians. In Nigeria, Boko Haram was responsible for more than 420 civilian deaths and continued to recruit child soldiers and abduct women and girls.
The crisis in the Anglophone region of Cameroon continued unabated. Separatist armed groups targeted people perceived as government supporters. A new low in October saw gunmen kill eight school children and injure several others in the South-West region. In the Far North region, the armed group Boko Haram continued to carry out hundreds of attacks targeting civilians.
Inter-communal violence intensified in Ethiopia. In November, at least 54 people from the Amhara ethnic group in Gawa Qanqa village in Guliso District of West Welega Zone were killed in an attack by suspected members of the Oromo Liberation Army, an armed group. In the same month, an armed conflict erupted in the Tigray region and scores of ethnic-Amhara residents, likely hundreds, were massacred in Mai-Kadra town on 9 November. This attack was carried out by local militia.
In Niger, armed groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), targeted civilians and humanitarian workers. In June, 10 humanitarian workers were abducted by gunmen in Bossey Bangou in the Tillabéry region while in August, seven humanitarian workers were killed by ISGS members at the Kouré giraffe reserve. Similar violations were recorded in CAR where there were 267 attacks against aid workers, resulting in two deaths. In Mali, attacks by armed groups extended to UN personnel, two of whom were killed.
Al-Shabaab continued to target civilians and civilian infrastructure in Somalia. In August, it detonated a car bomb in a beachside hotel in the capital, Mogadishu, killing at least 11 people and injuring 18 others. In South Sudan, fighting between ethnic groups and clans surged, resulting in the killing of at least 600 people and 450 injuries and the displacement of thousands more.
All parties to armed conflicts should immediately end indiscriminate or targeted attacks on civilians, non-combatants or civilian infrastructure. The African Union (AU), the UN and member states need to enhance pressure for protection of civilians and respect of international law during conflicts.
Impunity for crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations and abuses remained pervasive. In conflict countries, the pursuit of justice presented a mixed picture of progress undercut by retrogressive steps taken by governments.
CAR’s criminal court of Bangui convicted five leaders of the armed group Anti-Balaka of war crimes and crimes against humanity in February while the Special Criminal Court confirmed in September that 10 cases were under investigation. Yet several armed group leaders continued to hold roles in government while their members committed human rights abuses.
In DRC, the North-Kivu operational military court sentenced Ntabo Ntaberi alias Sheka, leader of the militia group Nduma Defence of Congo, to life imprisonment for crimes against civilians in North-Kivu between 2007 and 2017. Charges included rape of some 400 women, men and children in 2010.
In South Sudan, civilian and military courts convicted several soldiers of conflict-related sexual violence. At the same time, there was no discernible action to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, provided for in the 2015 and 2018 peace agreements. Moreover, the President appointed a former opposition commander suspected of widespread conflict-related sexual violence as governor of Western Equatoria state.
There were new developments at the ICC concerning several country situations, including Mali, Nigeria and Sudan.
In June, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman (also known as Ali Kushayb), a former Sudanese senior militia commander, surrendered to the ICC after 13 years spent evading justice for crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in Darfur. However, by the year’s end, the Sudanese authorities had failed to hand over former President al-Bashir and two others to the ICC to answer allegations against them.
In July, the trial of Al Hasan ag Abdoul Aziz ag Mohamed before the ICC began. He is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Timbuktu while he was a member of the Ansar Eddine, an armed group which controlled the city during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali between 2012 and 2013.
In December, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC concluded a 10-year preliminary investigation into crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed by Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces. It decided it will request authorization to open a formal investigation.
Developments connected to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda included the arrest, in France during May, of Félicien Kabuga, suspected chief financier of the genocide, and his transfer in October to the custody of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) in The Hague. Also in May, the IRMCT’s Chief Prosecutor confirmed that Augustin Bizimana, indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2001 for genocide, had died in 2000 in the Republic of the Congo.
African governments must re-commit to the fight against impunity by undertaking thorough, independent, impartial, effective, and transparent investigations into crimes under international law and by bringing suspected perpetrators to justice.
Repression of dissent and freedoms
In a region where state overreach and repression were already major concerns, 2020 saw the situation worsen. Governments took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. In almost every country monitored, states of emergency were imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, these measures were frequently used to violate human rights, including by security forces using excessive force to enforce them.
Crackdowns on human rights in the context of elections also deepened. While 22 elections were scheduled to take place, several were postponed or suspended. Those that went ahead took place in a climate of fear and formed the backdrop for widespread human rights violations.
Excessive use of force
The use of excessive force to enforce COVID-19 regulations was common. In many instances, such force led to deaths and injuries, including in Angola, Kenya, South Africa, Togo and Uganda.
In Angola, a 14-year-old boy was among dozens of people shot dead by the police. In Kenya, at least six people, including a 13-year-old boy, died from police violence in the first 10 days of a nationwide curfew. While the President publicly apologized, police excesses continued throughout the year.
In Rwanda, an outcry on social media prompted the President and the Minister of Justice to condemn police violence in curfew enforcement and promise accountability. In Uganda, security forces killed at least 12 people, including an 80-year-old woman. In South Africa, the death of Collins Khosa after he was brutally beaten by military and police officers enforcing a national lockdown reflected a longstanding concern about the security forces’ use of excessive force.
Crackdown on peaceful protests
Security forces continued to unleash violence on peaceful protesters. In Ethiopia, security forces used excessive force to break up protests, killing hundreds of people. In June, the violent dispersal of protests triggered by the killing of a renowned Oromiffa musician, led to at least 166 deaths in Oromia alone. In August, security forces killed at least 16 people following protests over the arrest of zone administration officials, community leaders and activists in Wolaita zone.
In Nigeria, the #EndSARS protests led to the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit notorious for human rights violations. But this came at a heavy price when, in October, at least 56 people were killed nationwide as security forces attempted to control or stop the protests. Among the dead were 12 killed after the military opened fire on protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos city.
In Guinea, seven people were killed in May during demonstrations against the security forces’ enforcement of COVID-19 movement restrictions. Many more died during demonstrations against a bid to change the Constitution to allow President Conde to run for a third term. On 22 March, the day of the constitutional referendum, 12 demonstrators were killed, nine of them by gunfire. In the days following the October presidential election, security forces killed at least 16 people while they protested the results.
Crackdowns on protests took other forms, including unlawful bans, judicial harassment and arbitrary arrests. In Burkina Faso, several protests were arbitrarily banned or stopped, including a January sit-in outside the Ouagadougou Court that had been organized to demand justice for the killing of 50 people by an armed group in 2019. In Côte d’Ivoire, dozens of people were arbitrarily arrested in August for having participated in demonstrations against President Ouattara’s running for a third term. In Cameroon, authorities issued a nationwide ban on demonstrations after the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) called for street action against the government’s decision to hold regional elections in December. On 22 September, at least 500 MRC supporters who turned up for protests were arbitrarily arrested.
On a positive note, Uganda’s Constitutional Court in March nullified parts of the Public Order Management Act which had given police excessive powers to prohibit public gatherings and protests.
Attacks on human rights defenders and opposition activists
Even amid a pandemic, attacks on human rights defenders and opposition activists did not relent. This was particularly the case in countries that held or headed towards elections, like Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger, Tanzania and Uganda.
In Burundi, more than 600 opposition party members were arrested before and during election day on 20 May. In Niger, a wave of arrests of political activists preceded the December presidential election. In Tanzania, at least 77 opposition leaders and supporters were arrested and arbitrarily detained in the aftermath of the October elections. Before the Tanzanian elections, authorities had suspended the activities or frozen the bank accounts of several human rights NGOs.
Elsewhere, human rights defenders were abducted, forcibly disappeared or killed. In Mali, an anti-corruption activist was abducted by hooded intelligence service agents and detained incommunicado for 12 days. Spurious charges brought against him were later thrown out by a court. In Mozambique, security forces arrested two activists who were later found dead along with another 12 civilians. Meanwhile, community radio journalist Ibraimo Abú Mbaruco was forcibly disappeared by army officers; his whereabouts were unknown at the end of the year.
In Niger, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, human rights defenders and activists exposing allegations of corruption and demanding accountability were particularly targeted. In Zimbabwe, the criminal justice system was misused to persecute investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, among other human rights defenders.
A few positive developments were recorded. A Ugandan High Court ordered the release of Stella Nyanzi for wrongful conviction and violation of her human rights, in February, days before she had completed an 18-month prison sentence after a magistrate’s court found her guilty of the cyber harassment of the President. In June, the Burundian Supreme Court set aside an appeal court decision upholding Germain Rukuki’s conviction and ordered a fresh hearing of the appeal.
Repression of dissent was also manifest in governments’ curtailment of media freedom. In Mozambique, unidentified assailants firebombed the offices of independent newspaper, Canal de Moçambique, around the same time that the authorities issued trumped-up charges against two of the paper’s senior staff members. In Tanzania, newspapers and broadcasting stations critical of the government were penalized, suspended or banned. Regulations on radio and television broadcasting were also amended to limit international media coverage of the elections.
In Togo, a new Press and Communication Code passed in January provided for journalists to be punished with hefty fines for insulting government officials. In March, two newspapers were suspended for running a story about the French ambassador. A third newspaper was suspended for criticizing the suspensions. Journalists, including in Niger and the Republic of the Congo, were also harassed for criticizing the governments’ response to COVID-19.
In a positive development, Somalia’s Attorney General established the office of a Special Prosecutor to deal with crimes against journalists.
Governments must ensure that security forces act in accordance with international human rights standards on the use of force and firearms and that cases of excessive use of force are promptly, thoroughly, independently and transparently investigated and suspected perpetrators brought to justice.
They must respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, release all those arbitrarily detained, and carry out prompt, effective and transparent investigations into reports of excessive use of force against protesters, bring to justice suspected perpetrators and ensure access to justice and effective remedies for victims.
They must end harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and immediately and unconditionally release those who are detained or imprisoned.
Governments must respect media freedom and ensure that media outlets are free to operate independently, and that media practitioners are able to carry out their job without intimidation, harassment and fear of reprisals.
Economic, social and cultural rights
Right to health
The first case of COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa was reported in Nigeria on 28 February. By the year’s end, there were more than 2.6 million confirmed cases and more than 63,000 COVID-19-related deaths throughout Africa. With a dire lack of medical equipment, such as ventilators and PPE for health workers, most health care systems in the region were ill-prepared to respond adequately to the pandemic. Insufficient testing capacity led to serious delays in the provision of test results. Lesotho, for instance, had no testing capacity until mid-May, before which samples were sent to South Africa.
Some countries withheld or stopped publishing COVID-19-related information, while others disregarded WHO public health guidance. In May, the governments of Burundi and Equatorial Guinea expelled senior WHO staff members from their countries. Response to the pandemic was also hampered by poor road infrastructure, and a lack of hospitals and health care workers.
The pandemic highlighted decades of neglect and chronic under-resourcing of public health sectors across the region, despite commitments made by African governments in 2001 to devote at least 15% of their annual budgets to health care. The pandemic also exposed inherent corruption in the sector. Theft and misappropriation of COVID-19 funds, medical equipment and care packages were reported in many countries, including in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
On the positive side, at least 20 governments in the region sought to decongest prisons as part of broader responses to the pandemic. Even so, most prisons in the region remained overcrowded, putting prisoners’ health at risk.
Health workers’ rights
Governments across the region failed to adequately protect health workers from exposure to COVID-19. Workers operated in insanitary and unsafe environments due to shortages of PPE and sanitizers. In South Africa, by early August, at least 240 health workers had died after contracting COVID-19. By July, about 2,065 health workers in Ghana had been infected and six had died due to COVID-19-related complications.
Despite facing increased workloads and additional occupational risks, health workers in most countries remained without adequate compensation. As the pandemic’s impact became unbearable, health workers resorted to industrial action to demand better working conditions. Health workers across the region raised their concerns through formal complaints, protests and strikes, including in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Lesotho, the Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Togo and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, governments responded with various forms of reprisal.
In Equatorial Guinea, a nurse faced executive and judicial harassment for complaining in a WhatsApp message about the lack of oxygen in Malabo’s Sampaka Hospital. In Zimbabwe, 17 nurses were arrested for contravening lockdown regulations after they protested to demand improved wages and working conditions.
Impact on livelihood and the right to food
COVID-19 had a devastating impact on the region’s already fragile economies. Curfews, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders had a disproportionate impact on people working in the informal economy who constituted 71% of the region’s workforce. Many of them lost their livelihoods and incomes and could not afford food or other essential supplies. This exacerbated an already dire situation for those facing long-term food insecurity including as a result of recurrent droughts and the locust invasions.
Businesses and companies were forced to stop operations, leaving thousands of workers unemployed. In Lesotho, more than 40,000 workers in the mining and manufacturing sectors were laid off. While most governments implemented social relief programmes, including the provision of food to those living in poverty, this support was often insufficient.
Governments also continued to violate the right to adequate housing even as COVID-19 highlighted its importance. In Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, government demolitions of informal settlements in the capital cities of Addis Ababa, Accra and Nairobi, respectively, left thousands of people homeless and at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile in Eswatini and Lesotho, thousands lived in perpetual fear of forcible eviction by the authorities and private actors.
In a positive development, the Zambian High Court ruled in April that the forced displacement of the Serenje rural communities from their ancestral land violated a series of their human rights.
Right to education
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning as schools were shut down across the region, especially in the first half of the year. The use of online education meant that millions of children were unable to access their right to education due to lack of appropriate technology. This also entrenched existing patterns of inequality and poverty. In conflict-ridden countries, like Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali, access to education was also undermined by insecurity and constant attacks by armed groups.
African governments must utilize the maximum available resources to urgently address the chronic under-resourcing of public health sectors and also seek further regional and international co-operation to strengthen their health care systems. They must also listen to and address safety and other concerns of health workers and end all forms of harassments and arbitrary prosecutions.
Governments must also ensure that evictions comply with international standards and that all children have access to education.
Rights of refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and internally displaced people
Millions of people continued to be displaced from their homes by armed conflict, humanitarian crises and persistent human rights violations. In Burkina Faso, the number of internally displaced people reached 1 million. In CAR, 660,000 people had been displaced by conflict by 31 July. Eritreans continued to flee the country in droves, primarily to avoid indefinite national service. In Somalia, a worsening humanitarian crisis arising from conflict, drought, floods and a locust invasion had displaced almost 900,000 people by August. In Mozambique, by September, the conflict in Cabo Delgado had displaced over 250,000 people
Refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers were among those disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Border closures left many of them stranded. The South African government’s COVID-19 social relief programmes excluded refugees and asylum-seekers during the first half of the year.
Governments must respect the right to seek asylum. They must keep borders open for refugees and asylum-seekers, while taking appropriate public health measures at border crossing points. Governments must also guarantee access for all asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants to national health and social protection systems.
Discrimination and marginalization
Violence against women and girls
COVID-19 lockdowns or curfews increased the risk of sexual and gender-based violence which targeted women and girls. Survivors often struggled to access justice, health care, legal aid and counselling services. In South Africa, sexual and gender-based violence continued to soar with a rate almost five times higher than the global average. COVID-19 also had a devastating effect on women’s reproductive health and rights as it disrupted access to maternal health care services.
Rape and other sexual and gender-based violence also continued in conflict situations. In CAR, the UN recorded 60 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, including rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery, between June and October. In DRC, there was an increase in sexual violence against women and girls in the context of the conflict in the east.
There were, however, some advances in the protection from discrimination of women and girls. In January, a man was convicted of marital rape for the first time in Eswatini. In February, South Africa announced that it would draft a regional treaty on violence against women. Sudan criminalized FGM in April. The following month, the Rwandan President pardoned 36 women convicted for abortion. Sierra Leone established the first Sexual Offences Model Court to fast-track rape cases in July.
People with albinism
People with albinism continued to face violent attacks and mutilation. In Zambia, the dismembered body of a 43-year-old man was discovered in March; his eyes, tongue and arms had been removed. In April, a man’s body was exhumed from a grave and his body parts stolen. In Malawi, the grave of a two-year-old boy was tampered with in January. The following month, a 92-year-old woman had two toes severed in an attack by an unidentified assailant.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people
Discrimination against LGBTI people continued and consensual same-sex relations remained criminalized in most countries. In Madagascar, a woman was held in pre-trial detention on charges of “corruption of minors” after she was suspected of having a consensual same-sex relationship with a 19-year-old woman. In Eswatini, the authorities rejected an application from the LGBTI advocacy group, Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities, for registration. In Uganda, police arrested 23 youths from a shelter for LGBTI people on the pretext of enforcing COVID-19 directives. While four were released on medical grounds during the first three days of arrest, the rest were held for 44 days without access to their lawyers and medical treatment.
Governments should strengthen measures for prevention of and protection from gender-based violence especially in the context of lockdowns, curfews and conflict situations. More steps are also needed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls, in law and in practice, including ensuring conformity with international obligations.
African governments must take measures to end all forms of attacks and discrimination against marginalized groups. Urgent measures are needed to offer effective protections for people with albinism, to bring suspected perpetrators of crimes to justice and to ensure access to justice and effective remedies for victims. Governments must also repeal laws which marginalize LGBTI people and criminalize same-sex relations.