African Commission on Human and People’s Rights meets this week as crisis deepens all over Africa

This week the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission) starts its 67th ordinary session to evaluate the performance of African countries in implementing the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and other major human rights instruments. The session continues until 2 December 2020.

The African heads of state established the African Commission in 1987. It was intended to be the prime institution to promote and protect human rights and interpret the ACHPR. The ACHPR has the widest ratification in Africa with 54 out of 55 countries supporting it. Morocco is the only member of the African Union (AU) that has not yet ratified it. In the light of its universal acceptance and binding nature, this issue examines deteriorating human rights across Africa at the end of 2020 and wonders what the Africa Commission will do to change it. 

Escalation of violations as 2020 closes

2020 has seen the evils of Covid-19, authoritarian consolidation, corruption, inequality and poverty as significant threat multipliers for human rights violations in Africa. It is possible that Covid-19 lockdowns and emergency measures may have contributed to slowing down the spread and impact of the coronavirus. However, there is little dispute, as the civil society-led Coalition for the Independence of the African Commission (CIAC) states, that such measures “have also exposed and exacerbated human rights violations such as abusive law enforcement practices, unlawful detention, arbitrary arrests, silencing of human rights defenders and killings of peaceful protesters”.

With many people still struggling to come to terms with the devastating effects that Covid-19 has had on their lives and livelihoods – governments have variously unleashed a reign of terror on them. Africa is indeed bleeding and some of the most basic freedoms of its people are disappearing fast. 

The assault on human rights is happening on multiple fronts. Across Africa, many governments are at loggerheads with their citizens. The causes of friction range from a lack of commitment to democratic principles to poor, and in many cases the absence of, basic and essential service delivery. When citizens protest, the regimes’ default response is deploying the military and riot police leading, as Zimbabwean academic Alex Magaisa says, to predictably bloody outcomes on the part of civilians, as military forces are not trained to carry out policing functions, let alone respect fundamental rights and freedoms. 

We now consider the human rights situations in a number of countries that should be of concern to the African Commission and where civil society expects that they should make specific findings and recommend measures to protect human rights.

Tanzania’s stolen election

Under President John Magufuli, the human rights record in Tanzania has deteriorated over the past five years. Reports by organisations like Civicus and Amnesty International have pointed to a frightening shrinking civic and democratic space, information manipulation and restriction of freedom of expression, association and assembly. Newspapers have been shut down, journalists and opposition members harassed and arrested, civil society groups have been deregistered and their accounts frozen while the president forced the government to deny that Covid-19 existed as a threat to humanity. 

The situation worsened ahead of the presidential election held on 28 October where Magufuli was re-elected with 84% of the votes.

On the eve of the election, the internet was disrupted in a move to stifle enjoyment of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights including the freedom of expression and right to access information. Opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, which reported deadly violence ahead of the vote, said its polling agents witnessed ballot box-snatching by security agents, ballot box-stuffing and voters turned away by authorities who said ballots had run out. 

At least 11 citizens were reportedly shot dead during the run-up to the presidential vote. Now with opposition parties demanding a fresh election and continuous, peaceful, countrywide mass demonstrations from 1 November until their demands are met, there is a renewed police crackdown

International election observers, particularly the European Union and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), expressed concern on the election environment including lack of transparency that undermined the opposition’s trust and would have an impact on the overall credibility of the process. 

Shockingly – but, sadly, predictably – the Southern African Development Community (SADC) via Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, President of the Republic of Botswana, who is also chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation applauded the people of Tanzania “for once again demonstrating their commitment to democracy by exercising their right to vote in a calm and tranquil manner” and commended President Magufuli on his “resounding electoral victory”.

Not to be outdone, in a statement issued on 4 November, the African Union Commission (AUC) through AUC chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat also congratulated President Magufuli on his re-election. 

Ivory Coast: Another President for Life

President Alassane Ouattara took a decision to seek a third term, which critics say was unconstitutional. He was controversially cleared by the Apex court to do this. As a result, two leading opposition candidates boycotted the presidential vote that was held on 31 October and called for civil disobedience. 

Tension grew ahead of the election, as did the use of threatening and discriminatory tactics to stifle dissent. According to the BBC, at least 35 people have been killed since August in inter-communal clashes and violent confrontations between Ivorian security forces and opposition protesters.  

The BBC also reported that several polling stations were ransacked in opposition strongholds on election day while election materials were burnt. Opposition leaders have since demanded a “civil transition” which would organise a new election. In the immediate aftermath, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan – who boycotted the election – went on to create a rival government.

Ouattara’s government swiftly responded by arresting him and his whereabouts are unknown. 

Participation in electoral processes cannot be effective and outcomes legitimate unless a wide range of rights is respected including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, and freedom from fear and intimidation.

Nigeria: extra-judicial killings on the rise

The country continues to be under the spotlight following reports of excessive use of force by police in some regions, against people participating in the protest against Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which has led to scores of deaths primarily as a result of security sector brutality against civilian protesters. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Army has reportedly denied using live ammunition on unarmed #EndSARS protesters during the shooting at Lekki Tollgate on 20 October.

Ethiopia: On the brink of civil war

The political renaissance that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been spearheading in Ethiopia is under serious threat by the conflict with Tigraya. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was a dominant force in Ethiopian politics until Ahmed’s take over in 2018. But it has seen its influence waning following Ahmed’s radical reform agenda aimed at dismantling the old, ethnicised political system with a more unitary one. 

The TPLF quit the governing coalition which it has been part of for decades, citing marginalisation, and reorganised itself into a regional anti-government force. 

This “explainer” by Al Jazeera explains why tensions with the TPLF have been escalating since September when Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote “illegal”. Early last week, Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a military base in Tigray and responded by declaring war on the Tigrayan state. Reports on 6 November indicated that the army had carried out air strikes in the region and casualties were reported on both sides. 

This security situation risks destabilising the already fragile horn of Africa region and the United Nations has already expressed grave concern; in a statement UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warns that “there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders”.

Mozambique: Barbaric insurgency and rights violations by the army

In Mozambique, armed groups continue to carry out attacks against unarmed citizens in Cabo Delgado province. According to some reports, in the latest killing spree, ISIS-linked militants beheaded at least 50 people, chopped up their bodies and abducted women in a gruesome attack on 9 November. 

As many as 2,000 civilians have reportedly been killed while an estimated 430,000 have been displaced since 2017. Security forces are alleged to have committed serious human rights violations in their response to the violence. The failure of SADC to intervene to protect civilians is shocking. It has not done anything more than devoting two paragraphs in the communique of its recent summit “expressing solidarity and commitment to support Mozambique in addressing the terrorism and violent attacks, and condemning all acts of terrorism and armed attacks”. This, too, is an issue on which the African Commission must urge the AU to act urgently and decisively as every day lost means the situation gets more complicated.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Crimes against humanity continue

In early October, the United Nations (UN) human rights office issued a report expressing worry over the acts of violence that have left hundreds dead and more than half a million displaced in the DRC. According to media reports Rupert Colville, a spokesman of the UN Human Rights Commission, says the inter-ethnic violence, killings, rapes and other forms of violence are mostly targeting the Hema community

The violence has left more than 700 people dead in the past two years and may constitute crimes against humanity. Since 2017, attacks against the Hema have multiplied and gained in intensity, mostly carried out by the Lendu, a rival ethnic group that has been long in conflict with the Hema over grazing rights and land. The report also says army and police deployment in the area since 2018 has failed to stop the violence, accusing security forces of carrying out arbitrary arrests and executions. 

The Sahel Region: Soldiers v civilians

Amnesty International has also accused soldiers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger of unlawfully killing or causing the disappearance of about 200 people this year, arguing that:

“The deliberate killings of unarmed civilians by security forces in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger may constitute war crimes under international law and should be thoroughly investigated.”

Despite thousands of French and UN troops being deployed, reports indicate that the Sahel states have struggled to quell the jihadist insurgency. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict, and many have fled their homes.

Burundi: Another undemocratic election

Ahead of the presidential and local elections held in Burundi in May 2020, the AUC and the UN issued a joint statement registering their concern about reports of intimidation and violent clashes between supporters of opposing sides. 

The election went ahead against a backdrop of repression of the political opposition, independent media and civil society. Killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and disappearances of opposition members were reported. Efforts by the opposition National Freedom Council (CNL) to have the election results overturned hit a brick wall as Burundi’s constitutional court rejected the challenge, accusing the CNL of failing to provide sufficient proof of its claims. The country remains unstable with attacks on civic space, human rights actors and political opponents.

Angola: Repression returns

After the handover of power from long-time president José Eduardo dos Santos to President João Gonçalves Lourenço, optimism rose that Angola would improve in its observance of human rights. However, lately the situation has taken a negative turn as reports of closure of civic space and attacks on human rights activists increase.

On 10 November, prominent human rights defender and Catholic Bishop Father Jacinto Pio Wacussanga wrote to the UN agencies, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, expressing grave concern that Angolans are dissatisfied with “high levels of corruption, oppressive and dictatorial methods of governance coupled with the continuous degrading of living [standards] of ordinary citizens”. 

Wacussanga referred to the 24 October protests in Angola that the president tried to ban by decree, prohibiting meetings/assemblies of more than five people. Nonetheless, hundreds of Angolans took to the streets demanding that President Lourenço schedule municipal elections, take concrete measures to address degrading living conditions and the high cost of living and take action against his chief of staff, Edeltrudes da Costa, for being involved in corruption and illicit businesses. 

Father Wacussanga regretted that “the police used live ammunition trying to prevent the protests and, in the wake, two young people were shot dead with the police using disproportionate force against unarmed protesters”. 

The situation continues to escalate.

Zimbabwe: Repression tightens

It is difficult to imagine a country that has taken advantage of Covid-19 measures to clamp down on civic and democratic space and consolidate power as the Zimbabwean government has done. It has banned political activity, suspended elections, arrested and detained civil society leaders and legitimate political opponents. 

Elected parliamentarians are being brazenly and systematically recalled (withdrawn) from parliament in a way that raises questions about the legitimacy of parliament. In October, the Minister of Information, Monica Mutsvangwa, advised that Zimbabwe’s cabinet wants to bar citizens from holding “unauthorised” communication and negotiations with hostile governments, on the grounds that “such communication or negotiation has a direct or indirect implication on Zimbabwe’s foreign relations and policy”.  

This latest cabinet memo may result in the enactment of a law that will criminalise work that civil society actors and human rights activists do: it is a  normal part of advocacy to highlight human rights violations and lobby for other states to intervene to ask that pressure be brought to bear on Zimbabwe to comply with its obligations under international human rights law. 

Conclusion: The guns are getting louder

On 28 February 2020, the African Commission issued a press statement calling upon state parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to take appropriate measures to give effect to the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined in the charter, including through taking steps necessary for preventing threats to the life, safety and health of people. 

Yet, as we have shown, across Africa civic space, off-line and online human rights activism are being criminalised right under the nose of the African Commission’s session.

The African Commission must use this session to reflect on why the 2020 AU theme of “Silencing The Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development and Intensifying the Fight against the Covid-19 Pandemic” has turned into its opposite.

The guns are speaking loudly again. Those who try to silence them become victims. 

Without accountability, a culture of impunity is normalised. Tragically, African leaders are increasingly seen as no longer part of the solution, but central to the problem of the failure of Africa to deliver on its human rights obligations.

The question, though, is what the African Commission will do about this DM/MC

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. 

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