“Maybe this could be the year when freedom of expression and association will be respected… Maybe this could be the year when Ethiopians will no more be imprisoned for their political convictions.”
Ethiopian journalist and former prisoner of conscience, Eskinder Nega, in a speech on press freedom on the eve of the new Ethiopian calendar year in September 2011. Days later he was arrested and charged with terrorism offences and treason.
The popular movements across North Africa resonated with people in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in countries with repressive governments. Trade unionists, students and opposition politicians were inspired to organize demonstrations. People took to the streets because of their political aspirations, the quest for more freedom, and a deep frustration with a life in poverty. They protested against their desperate social and economic situation and the rise in living costs.
Many of the underlying factors which led to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East also exist in other parts of Africa. They include authoritarian rulers who have been in power for decades and rely on a security apparatus to clamp down on dissent. Poverty and corruption are widespread, there is a lack of basic freedoms, and large groups are often marginalized from mainstream society. The brutal suppression of demonstrations during 2011 illustrated how the region’s political leaders learned little from what happened to their peers in the north.
Africa’s poverty rates have been falling and progress has been made in realizing the UN Millennium Development Goals over the past decade. But millions of people are still living in poverty, without access to essential services such as clean water, sanitation, health care and education.
Rapid urbanization means that many Africans live without adequate housing, often in slums, where they lack the most basic facilities and are at constant risk of forced eviction by the authorities. People who are forcibly evicted often lose their belongings when their homes are destroyed. Many also lose their livelihood, which pushes them further into poverty. Thousands of people were affected when mass forced evictions took place in at least five informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. Hundreds of people were forcibly evicted from a settlement in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria. Forced evictions also continued in N’Djamena, Chad, and in different parts of Angola.
Violence, including during anti-government demonstrations, was sometimes partially caused by high levels of unemployment and poverty. Anti-corruption initiatives were regularly squandered by a lack of political support. In Nigeria, for example, the President dismissed the Chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission six months before her tenure was due to end, without explanation.
Inspired by events in North Africa, anti-government protesters took to the streets in Khartoum and other towns across Sudan, from the end of January onward. They were beaten by security forces, and dozens of activists and students were arbitrarily arrested and detained. Many were reportedly tortured in detention. In Uganda, opposition politicians called on people to imitate the Egyptian protests and take to the streets, but violence marred the demonstrations. In February, the Ugandan government banned all public protests. The police and army used excessive force against protesters, and opposition leader Kizza Besigye was harassed and arrested. In Zimbabwe, a group of about 45 activists were arrested in February, merely for discussing events in North Africa. Six of them were initially charged with treason. In April, the Swaziland authorities repressed similar protests with excessive force.
Security forces used live ammunition against anti-government protesters in Angola, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Sudan, resulting in many casualties. The authorities usually failed to investigate the excessive use of force and nobody was held to account for the deaths caused.
Human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents in most African countries continued to be arbitrarily arrested and detained, beaten, threatened and intimidated. Some were killed by armed groups or government security forces. Investigations into the 2009 killing of human rights defender Ernest Manirumva in Burundi did not progress significantly. In June, five policemen were convicted for the 2010 killing of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, concerns remained that some individuals allegedly involved in this crime had not been investigated.
Governments tried to control publicly available information in Burundi, the DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. They placed restrictions on reporting certain events, closed down or temporarily suspended radio stations, blocked specific websites or banned the publication of certain newspapers. Rwanda embarked on a process of reforms to enhance media freedom, but some media outlets that were closed by authorities in 2010 remained suspended. Two journalists were also sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
The national assemblies of Angola and South Africa debated legislation which could severely limit freedom of expression and access to information. On a more positive note, President Goodluck Jonathan finally signed the Freedom of Information Act into law in Nigeria.
The political violence that erupted following Côte d’Ivoire’s November 2010 presidential elections escalated into armed conflict during the first half of 2011. Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara were supported by French troops and the UN peacekeeping mission. They took control of the country at the end of April and arrested former President Laurent Gbagbo and dozens of his supporters. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced because of the conflict and many fled to neighbouring countries, particularly Liberia. Several thousand civilians were killed or injured in the economic capital, Abidjan, and in the western part of the country. Both parties to the conflict unlawfully killed hundreds of civilians in March and April in the western area of Duékoué and surrounding villages. People were targeted because of their ethnicity or their perceived political affiliation. The UN peacekeeping mission failed to adequately protect civilians in Duékoué. Forces on both sides also committed acts of sexual violence, including rape. In October, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both parties to the conflict. After an arrest warrant was issued, Laurent Gbagbo was transferred to the ICC in the Netherlands in November. To preserve its credibility, the ICC should ensure that crimes committed by forces loyal to President Ouattara are also investigated and individuals prosecuted. The ICC should also investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed prior to the November 2010 presidential elections, as the judiciary in Côte d’Ivoire has as yet been unable or unwilling to do so.
The South Sudanese people voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence during the January referendum on self-determination. With South Sudan’s independence date set for 9 July, tensions rose in the so-called transitional areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. The envisaged separate referendum for Abyei did not take place as scheduled in January, and conflict erupted in May. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), supported by militia, took control of Abyei, causing tens of thousands of people from the Dinka Ngok community to flee to South Sudan. Houses in Abyei town were looted and destroyed. Here too the UN peacekeeping mission, deployed in Abyei, failed to take any meaningful action to prevent the attacks and protect the civilian population. By the end of the year, no resolution had been found for the status of Abyei.
Following disagreements over security arrangements and the outcome of the state elections, the situation in Southern Kordofan escalated into armed conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and the SAF. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the insecurity and conflict. The SAF carried out indiscriminate aerial bombardments that resulted in numerous civilian casualties. The UN and various organizations including Amnesty International documented these indiscriminate attacks and unlawful killings. In one example, Angelo al-Sir, a farmer, described how his pregnant wife, two of their children and two other relatives were killed in an air strike on 19 June in Um Sirdeeba, a village east of Kadugli.
By September, the Southern Kordofan conflict spilled over into Blue Nile state, again causing tens of thousands of people to flee to South Sudan and Ethiopia. The Sudanese government essentially sealed off the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states from the outside world by denying access to independent humanitarian organizations, human rights monitors and other observers. The AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council failed to take any concrete action to address the situation, including by not condemning the lack of humanitarian access or the ongoing human rights violations.
The conflict in Darfur, Sudan, also continued unabated, forcing more people to leave their homes. Those already living in camps for internally displaced people were targeted by the Sudanese authorities because they were perceived to be supporting armed opposition groups. Rape and other forms of sexual violence continued to be reported. Sudan still refused to co-operate with the ICC. The ICC Prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for the Minister of Defence, Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.
Continued fighting in Somalia against the Islamist armed group al-Shabab took on a regional dimension when Kenyan and Ethiopian troops directly intervened in the conflict. Indiscriminate attacks by various parties to the conflict killed or injured thousands of civilians, mainly in Mogadishu. Hundreds of thousands of people remained displaced as a result of the conflict and insecurity. The drought in the sub-region compounded the already dire humanitarian situation, and a famine was declared in parts of Somalia. Humanitarian organizations faced immense difficulties in accessing people to provide them with emergency assistance.
No end was in sight either to the conflict in the eastern DRC. Rape and other forms of sexual violence remained endemic, and were committed both by government security forces and armed opposition groups. Other human rights abuses, such as unlawful killings, looting and abductions continued as well, primarily by armed groups. The DRC’s justice system remained unable to deal with the many human rights violations committed during the conflict. Child soldiers continued to be recruited and used in various conflicts, such as in the Central African Republic, the DRC and Somalia.
Some African governments remained reluctant to ensure accountability for crimes under international law. Senegal continued to refuse to either prosecute or extradite the former Chadian President, Hissène Habré. At the end of the year, the Burundian government discussed a revised proposal for setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, the government seemed to have insufficient political will to create a Special Tribunal, as recommended by the UN in 2005.
Justice and impunity
Many human rights violations committed by security and law enforcement forces remained unaddressed. The authorities hardly ever initiated independent and impartial investigations in reported cases of arbitrary arrests and detention; torture or other ill-treatment; unlawful killings, including extrajudicial executions; and enforced disappearances. Only very rarely were individuals held to account for committing human rights violations. As a result, people have lost confidence in law enforcement agencies and the judiciary in many countries in the region. High costs are another obstacle to accessing the formal justice system, including for people subjected to human rights violations.
Impunity for human rights violations by law enforcement officers was pervasive in Burundi, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. For example, the commission of inquiry set up by the Burundian authorities to investigate extrajudicial executions did not publish its findings. The Burundian authorities also failed to investigate allegations of torture committed by the National Intelligence Service in 2010. Another blatant example of institutionalized impunity was Sudan’s rejection – during the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Sudan in September – of recommendations to review its 2010 National Security Act and to reform the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). As a result, NISS agents continue to enjoy immunity from prosecution or disciplinary action for the human rights violations they have committed.
The number of people in pre-trial detention remained very high, as most countries’ justice systems could not guarantee a fair trial without undue delay. Many people arrested had no access to legal representation. Detention conditions remained appalling in many countries, with overcrowding, a lack of access to basic sanitation facilities, health care, water or food, and a lack of prison staff. Detention conditions often fell below minimum international standards and constituted inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment or punishment. In one particularly gruesome incident, nine men died of asphyxiation caused by overcrowding during their detention in a National Gendarmerie facility in Léré, Chad, in September.
The trend towards abolition of the death penalty continued. Benin’s parliament voted to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, thereby confirming its intention to abolish the death penalty. In Ghana, the Constitutional Review Commission recommended that the death penalty be abolished. Nigeria’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice informed an Amnesty International delegation in October that the government had introduced an official moratorium on executions. Sierra Leone’s government had made a similar announcement in September. In contrast with these positive developments, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan were among the last remaining countries in sub-Saharan Africa to still execute people – often after grossly unfair trials.
Refugees and migrants were particularly affected by human rights violations and abuses in many countries. Congolese nationals were again exposed to gender-based violence while being expelled from Angola. Mauritania arbitrarily arrested several thousand migrants before deporting them to neighbouring countries. Refugees and migrants were also subjected to human rights violations in Mozambique, including reported unlawful killings by law enforcement officials. In South Africa, refugees and migrants continued to experience violence and had their property destroyed. In December, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, recommended that host countries take steps to terminate the refugee status of most Rwandans on their territory. Refugees and human rights organizations expressed concern about the extent to which the UNHCR had adequately articulated the rationale behind this recommendation, and also that its implementation by individual states could put large numbers of people still in need of protection at risk of being forcibly returned to Rwanda.
Tens of thousands of South Sudanese people decided to leave Sudan for South Sudan because they risked losing their Sudanese citizenship rights after South Sudan’s declaration of independence. They faced numerous difficulties, including harassment before and during their journey and a dire humanitarian situation on arrival.
Violence and discrimination against women remained widespread in many countries, including as a result of cultural norms and traditions. Existing legislation institutionalizes discrimination against women in some countries. Discrimination also affected women’s ability to access health care services.
Girls and women continued to be subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence in various countries in conflict or with a large number of refugees or displaced people. These included eastern Chad, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, eastern DRC and Sudan (Darfur). Members of government security forces were often responsible, and in most cases no investigations were carried out.
Discrimination against people based on their perceived or real sexual orientation or gender identity worsened. Politicians not only failed to protect people’s right not to be discriminated against, but often used statements or actions to incite discrimination and persecution based on perceived sexual orientation.
In Cameroon, people believed to be in a same-sex relationship were persecuted. Scores were arrested and some, such as Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The Cameroonian government also proposed to amend the penal code to increase prison sentences and fines for people found guilty of same-sex sexual relations. In Malawi, Mauritania and Zimbabwe, men were also arrested and prosecuted because of their perceived sexual orientation. The government in Malawi enacted legislation to criminalize sexual relationships between women, and President Bingu wa Mutharika described gay men as “worse than dogs” at a political rally. In Nigeria, the Senate passed a bill further criminalizing same-sex relationships. In Ghana, the Western Region Minister called for all gay men and lesbians to be arrested.
Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill was not discussed in parliament, but it was not formally withdrawn either. David Kato, a prominent human rights defender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist, was killed in January at his home. One man was arrested for the killing and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in November. In South Africa, civil society pressure to address violence against lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people, in particular lesbian women, led to a Task Team being set up by the authorities to prevent violence based on perceived sexual orientation.
In Eritrea, people continued to be persecuted on religious grounds. Scores were arbitrarily arrested and believed to be ill-treated while in detention.
Security and human rights
Africa has become increasingly vulnerable to acts of terrorism from various Islamist armed groups. They include al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), which operated in various countries in the Sahel; the religious sect Boko Haram, which stepped up its bombing activities in Nigeria throughout the year; and al-Shabab, which is active in Kenya and Somalia. These armed groups were responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including indiscriminate attacks, unlawful killings, abductions and torture.
In response, some governments increased their military co-operation, including in the Sahel. Neighbouring countries also intervened militarily. Nigeria set up a Special Military Task Force to counter Boko Haram in some states. Government security forces were often responsible for human rights violations during their response to violence by armed groups. In Mauritania, 14 prisoners sentenced for terrorism activities were subjected to enforced disappearances during a transfer to an unknown location. In Nigeria, security forces responded to escalating violence in some states by arbitrarily arresting and detaining hundreds of people, subjecting people to enforced disappearance and carrying out extrajudicial executions.
Time to embrace change
Improved respect for and protection of human rights will probably not develop as quickly and dramatically in sub-Saharan Africa as in North Africa. In some places the situation might even get worse. However, factors such as sustained economic growth, demands for better governance, an emerging middle class, stronger civil society and improved access to information and communication technology will gradually contribute to a better human rights situation. The question is whether Africa’s political leadership will embrace these changes or see them as a threat to their hold on power. In 2011, most political leaders – in their reactions to protests and dissent – were part of the problem, not the solution.