FREEDOM UNDER ATTACK IN AFRICA
By Paul Ndiho
Across Africa, young people are putting their respective governments and longtime leaders on notice. They are standing up to abuses of power and expressing their disapproval through protests. But at what cost?
In its annual report, Human Rights Watch says violent government crackdowns against dissent shaped Africa’s human rights landscape in 2018. Government leaders often bullied peaceful protesters, political opponents, human rights defenders and civil society organizations, while suppressing the freedoms of citizens.
From Harare to Khartoum — to Kampala, Kinshasa and Luanda, there were mass arrests of peaceful protesters, beatings, excessive use of force, and, in some cases, killings.
For example, in the wake of violent protests over massive fuel price hikes In Zimbabwe, the government impose unlawful restrictions and bans on peaceful protests.
“We have received reports of serious human rights abuses including beatings, abductions, torture and the involvement of ZANU-PF, the ruling ZANU-PF party, groups beating up people in the high-density suburbs around Harare.”
Throughout the region, people were denied their right to peacefully protest through unlawful bans, use of excessive force, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The right to freedom of assembly was the exception, rather than the rule, as young people advocated for democratic values.
Dirk Ferry, a Zimbabwean rights activist, says the democracy cannot just be about the majority towards those who did not vote for the ruling party.
“In a democracy what is important is the balance of power. The institutions do we have strong institutions or what can the elected officials get away with, If the executive does something blatantly bad can the parliament hold them to account.”
In Sudan, demonstrations calling for President Omar al-Bashir to step down continue. The anti-government protests first erupted in mid-December over inflation, and soaring food and fuel prices. Human Rights Watch says that protection of democratic values, self-determination and freedoms are being challenged every day.
“If you’re an autocrat, it’s very convenient to violate human rights. It’s the way you stay in power. It’s the way you fill up your bank account. It’s the way you pay off your cronies. So, there are reasons why governments want to violate human rights.”
Attacks on freedom of speech are seemingly at an all-time high, as democracy is continuously being challenged, instead of being perfected, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow on Foreign Policy at Brookings Institute, a Washington DC-Based non-profit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions.
“Having an informed public requires freedom of media, freedom of speech, but it also requires access to media and assets, it requires that people have the physical space to concentrate on something other than their survival. For example, assuring access to basic healthcare, assuring access to basic food and livelihoods, all of those determine what kind of quality and democracy there is.”
Vanda says in some African countries, you have longtime leaders exploiting ambiguities in the law to extend their term in office — while simultaneously undermining the nation’s constitution.
“I would say presidential term limits are a crucial facet of democracy. And It’s something that is very much contested around the world. Certainly, throughout Africa there has been a lot movement to abolish term limits and change constitutions.”
As some African administrations clamped down on dissenters, they became more emboldened to attack traditional media and social media too — including blocking the internet and text message services.