African citizens, activists and organisations are finding new and innovative ways to resist, organise and mobilise in the face of mounting restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
By David Kode and Mouna Ben Garga*
Restrictions on civic freedoms are increasing worldwide, but are being acutely felt in African countries. According to the CIVICUS Monitor – a constantly updated tool rating countries’ fundamental civic freedoms from open to closed – 43 African countries fall under the bottom three categories of closed, repressed and obstructed with only two African countries rated as open. In most African countries, freedom of expression, assembly and association are stifled by state and non-state actors through the use of restrictive legislation, policies, and judicial persecution as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists. While these restrictions generally occur when civil society groups speak out in direct opposition to public policy, there is strong evidence that restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders.
Activists, organisations and citizens are responding to these restrictive measures by adopting innovative approaches to advocacy, such as: the formation of loose social movements, which make it difficult for the authorities to target the structure and its leaders; peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations; holding sustained protests under specific themes targeting government malpractices; focussing on groups in the diaspora; using social and alternative media; and engaging with regional and international actors in cases where freedoms are curtailed at the national level.
The following analysis provides a review of current trends across the continent that represent the most serious threats to activists and organisations in their attempt to form, operate and advocate for the issues that matter most. Select case study countries are used in the latter half of this article to highlight not just examples of restrictions but those of resistance where ordinary citizens are using unique and innovative methods to challenge the status quo. These countries include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Burundi, Uganda and Tunisia.
Repression, delegitimisation and shrinking space for civil society in Africa
The last few years have witnessed an increase in restrictions on fundamental civic freedoms in Africa. This has taken different forms. Though states remain the main perpetrators of these restrictions, increasingly non-state actors, like armed vigilante groups, terrorists organisations, offshoots of ruling political parties, corporations, and individuals have been seen to attack, threaten and target civil society organisations and human rights activists to deter them from continuing their work. In most of these cases those responsible are not held accountable and are not brought to justice and this breeds impunity, forces human rights activists to flee their countries and compels others to self-censor. These restrictions are triggered by several factors.
Challenges to formal democracy
Many recent elections held in Sub-Saharan Africa have showcased democracy at its most narrow, rather than its finest. These elections saw increased polarisation and contestation, and restrictions on civic space. There have been successes, such as a mostly peaceful election in Côte d’Ivoire in October 2015 – an achievement, given the violence that followed the 2010 election – and the peaceful change of a new democratically elected president in Nigeria, a country once notorious for its inability to pass on the reins of power peacefully. However, elections in many countries have been flawed, illegitimate, or marred by violence. Elections held in Chad in April 2016 reaffirmed President General Idriss Déby Itno’s longstanding hold on power that began in 1990. In the run-up to the election, a ban on any public activities other than electoral campaigning was introduced, denying civil society the ability to engage in debate. From February to April, a number of activists supporting the opposition were detained and remained jailed during the elections.
States often increase restrictions before, during, and after elections to intimidate supporters of opposition parties and make it difficult for citizens to access objective information and make informed choices when they reach the ballot box. In certain countries, journalists, private radio stations and human rights activists are accused of being the mouthpieces of the political opposition. Human rights defenders are attacked and subjected to judicial persecution for calling for democratic reforms or criticising the actions by incumbents to change the constitution to extend their stay in office.
Independent media outlets have been shut down and journalists attacked for reporting electoral processes, publishing information on the activities of opposition parties and candidates and covering human rights violations during elections.
In Ethiopia, a country where dissent is heavily repressed, the ruling party and its allies won every single seat in the May 2015 election. Ahead of the election several journalists were detained and there were reports of opposition candidates being attacked and killed. During the February 2016 elections in Uganda, private radio stations were shut down for hosting opposition party candidates and journalists were targeted for covering political rallies, whilst gatherings organised by opposition parties were violently disrupted. A similar approach saw Burundian journalists and media houses accused of being mouthpieces for the political opposition and for having anti-nationalist tendencies.
During election periods, civil society organisations working on electoral reforms, voter education, democracy and good governance are often forced to amend the scope of their campaigns. These groups are threatened with closure and sometimes forced to shut down their operations.
States have on several occasions refused to renew or cancelled the registration of some associations. In some countries the premises of civil society organisations have been broken into and sensitive information and reports stolen. Government officials and state media have also engaged in smear campaigns demonising civil society organisations and their representatives and accusing them of attempting to destabilise the state. While the right to assemble peacefully is enshrined in the constitutions of most African countries, in practice, this right is in many cases not respected as governments refuse to grant permission for protesters to hold peaceful demonstrations, and when protests do occur, they may be violently repressed.
Attacks on environmental and land rights activists
The super-wealthy and the companies they benefit from remain acquisitive. For this reason, among the most targeted civil society activists are those who seek to uphold land, environmental and indigenous people’s rights. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association notes that often there is a lack of legislation that recognises the traditional ownership of land, and the abuses most often come against those who are already most excluded from traditional, elite power dynamics. Processes that are highly technical and secretive around land and natural resource development lend themselves to a lack of transparency, and the potential for corruption.
Terrorism and security as a pretext for restrictions
While extremist forces such al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have had a profoundly negative impact on human rights in some parts of Africa, like many other parts of the world, states are increasingly using the justification of combating terrorism and maintaining state security to restrict civic space. The response to terrorism is often disproportionate, and its impacts on the protection of human rights are devastating.
When a particular community is the focus of anti-terrorism measures, this can create a sense of being under siege, and of being targeted on the basis of identity, which in turn can fuel extremism. In Kenya security forces have responded in heavy-handed ways, abusing particular citizens under the banner of addressing terrorism, which fuels anger and suspicion, a perfect recruiting ground for extremist groups. Further, when civil society or media expose these abuses, the response by governments is not to question the proportionality or appropriateness of the tactics, but to attack the messengers.
Challenges to ruling elites are wilfully misinterpreted as threats to the nation, and the expression of political dissent itself labelled as terrorism. In Ethiopia in August 2015, 18 people, including protesters, journalists and Islamic leaders, received lengthy sentences under the anti-terrorism law for protesting in support of religious freedom. Under the auspice of the anti-terrorism law, Ethiopia’s government maintained that its actions were justified because this law is similar to anti-terrorism laws in the UK and the USA.
In Sudan, the country’s National Intelligence and Security Service is regularly used to deal with civil society activists that the state finds troublesome. The 2010 National Security Act grants the NISS extensive powers to arrest and detain people up to four-and-half months without judicial review, and with complete impunity, as was the case when human rights defender and lawyer Amin Mekki Medani began trial at the Special Anti-Terrorism Court in 2015 for “undermining the constitutional system” and “waging war against the state.”
Quantifying civic space restrictions in Africa
The extent of these restrictions and attacks on fundamental rights in some countries on the continent is captured in the analysis and ratings by the CIVICUS Monitor, which draws civil society generated data from a range of sources through a multi-stage process of scoring and verification to establish a spectrum of five ratings for a country’s civic space conditions – open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, only Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe are open, defined as being a state that both enables and safeguards civic space for all its people. Of the 18 states across the world that are rated as closed, 9 are in Africa. Closed equates to a complete closure in law and practice on civic space, and an atmosphere of fear and violence prevails where state and non-state actors are routinely allowed to attack, detain and often assassinate people for expressing their rights to association, expression and assembly. In addition, 15 of the 34 countries across the world that are rated as repressed – where civic space is heavily constrained – are in Africa.
Despite these restrictions, civil society groups working on different issues continue to operate in these countries, sometimes at great risk, in order to promote and protect human rights and human rights defenders.
Pushing back on restrictions
Across the world, including across the continent, activists, human rights defenders, and the organisations that support them have found creative ways to tackle the legal and social obstacles set before them by the state, corporations and individuals seeking to maintain the status quo. Through the use of alternative outlets and social media, alliance building, the forming of social movements, and advocacy at the legislative level, communities, individuals, and organisations have found ways to circumvent restrictions of their fundamental, civic freedoms. Despite facing oppressive elites in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Burundi, Uganda, or Tunisia, activists continue to fight.
Movements and activism in the DRC
As some governments continue to target civil society activists and use different methods to restrict associational rights, one response has been the emergence of new or rejuvenated youth movements to call for reforms. In the case of the DRC, the LUCHA movement was formed in June 2012, in Goma, North Kivu. The loose structure of the movement, and the spread of its membership in the different parts of the DRC, is aimed at circumventing government actions that target formal civil society organisations, their members and their legal status using restrictive policies and actions. LUCHA advocates for non-violence, denounces the use of arms to attain its goals and uses different methods to call for democratic reforms, social justice and the respect for the rule of law. Some of these include peaceful sit-ins in front of government buildings and other significant sites, use of social media, meetings with government representatives to make their requests known, mass mobilisations of communities and the use of symbolic gestures during peaceful protests.
The response of the authorities to LUCHA’s actions has been disproportionate. They have arrested movement members during peaceful protests, detained them, labelling LUCHA an illegitimate movement and accusing it of attempting to destabilise the country. On 21 December 2016, several LUCHA activists organised a peaceful sit-in at the offices of the governor of Goma to denounce the decision of President Joseph Kabila to stay beyond his constitutionally mandated term. They held signs calling for the respect of the constitution and the rule of law, and asking President Kabila to vacate office.
In response, the authorities arrested and detained 20 activists. LUCHA has established good relationships with regional and international human rights networks and works closely with them to exert pressure on the Congolese authorities to release activists whenever they are arrested.
Activism beyond borders in Eritrea
For well over a decade authorities in Eritrea have sustained one of the worst crackdowns on civil liberties ever documented. Eritrean human rights activists and citizens in the diaspora have created forums and networks through which they engage in advocacy. Given that it is impossible to obtain information on Eritrea from abroad, these activists rely on those who successfully flee from the country for the most recent information. These networks and activists use this information to raise awareness at regional and international human rights institutions and mechanisms. These mechanisms use this information to develop reports used by the international community to exert pressure on the government of Eritrea for reforms. Eritrean human rights networks in the diaspora also collaborate with regional and international human rights organisations to lobby for resolutions on Eritrea at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
While the severe restrictions on the right to peacefully organise and assemble in Eritrea mean that much resistance is led from outside its borders, seeking to leave Eritrea also bears considerable risk. For example, Eritrean Forum Radio, an opposition radio station operating in exile, reported on the arrests of two journalists working for the state-owned Eritrean Radio and Television Agency on 19 February 2017. The two journalists were detained on suspicion that they were attempting to flee the country, considered by Eritrean authorities as an act of treason, punished with indefinite imprisonment and forced labour.
Alliance building in Burundi
Civic space in Burundi deteriorated in April 2015 following protests by citizens and civil society organisations denouncing a decision by the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza to amend the constitution and extend his stay in power beyond his mandated term in office. The government responded with violence, destroying independent media houses, carrying out arbitrary arrests of citizens, extrajudicial killings and threatening anyone with contrary views against the government. Most human rights activists and journalists fled Burundi to avoid being targeted by the authorities.
Like Eritrea, most of the Burundian activists have created forums and networks and engage in advocacy and activism with partners with an interest in Burundi and with regional and international human rights institutions and mechanisms. These networks release reports on a regular basis informing the international community of ongoing violence targeting perceived opponents of the government and representatives of civil society organisations.
Creative responses to restrictive policies in Uganda
In Uganda, activists have confronted restrictions on civic freedoms with creative acts of defiance. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections held in February, the government used violence to disperse peaceful protests. To circumvent the government’s restrictions, academic Stella Nyanzi has used taboo subjects, like sex and menstruation, creative language and profanity to challenge conservatism and raise awareness about the actions of the government and issues affecting Ugandans. More recently Nyanzi has attracted the ire of Ugandan President Museveni by calling him a “pair of buttocks.” This led to her arrest on 7 April after an event on menstruation and schooling for girls in Uganda.
Nyanzi’s activism has also inspired responses from Uganda’s burgeoning arts scene; including an exhibition from Ugandan artist Collin Sekajugo titled “the Fist of Stella Nyanzi.” In response to Sekajugo’s paintings Nyanzi said, “In the fight against one’s oppression by agents embedded within powerful systemic structures we use whatever we have at our exposure to fight for our humaneness. Use what you have to fight. Fight to win.”
Uganda’s LGBTIQ community have also successfully skirted intimidation by authorities. Their creative responses have included hosting a combination of both open and secret events during Pride Week. Some events have welcomed international media as a way to safeguard against government restrictions. Others, such as the annual Pride March, have been held in relative secrecy to avoid harassment from authorities. It should be noted that while Ugandan activists have successfully used international scrutiny to challenge government restrictions on civic freedoms, some other international actors in Uganda have sought to influence government policies against civic freedoms, including LGBTIQ rights.
Innovative methods in Tunisia
Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisians have been taking to the streets, using social media, and demonstrating their capacity to engage government on issues including LGBTIQ rights, women’s rights, and regional inequality. However, ordinary citizens and civil society organisations have faced significant resistance from political parties and government that have curtailed their ability to successfully advocate on the issues that matter most to them. These types of violations of freedom of speech, assembly and association are not exclusive to Tunisia, but can be seen across the continent and increasingly, around the world.
In Tunisia, government has been seen to engage in a number of tactics to prevent dissenting citizens and organisations from voicing their opposition. The post-revolution decree, Decree Number 88 of 2011, broadly protects all organisations’ freedom of association and supports their right to speak out, organise and take action. This law on associations also includes provisions for public funding and prohibits state interference in organisations’ operations.
After the wave of terrorist attacks in 2015, the government froze the activities of 38 organisations suspected of having provided direct or indirect support to terrorist entities. Now, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and the current government are working on amending the existing Law on Associations to enhance oversight and control of entities that receive foreign funding.
The demonisation of national and international groups continues under the pretext of combating the financing of terrorism, an excuse used to expedite the modification of this Law of Associations and prevent citizens and organisations from playing their pivotal role in supporting the democratic transition. For more than two years, civil society organisations have been mobilising to face any potential threat to this decree and the freedom of association in Tunisia.
LGBTIQ organisations have also been a primary subject of the state’s legal harassment and an easy target in the state’s mounting crackdown against a growing opposition. Authorities can force citizens to undergo “anal testing” if they suspect that a person is homosexual under the auspice that this can scientifically provide evidence of a person’s sexual orientation. The National Council of the Medical Order called for doctors to stop carrying out these anal exams without patients’ consent and the LGBTIQ community and human rights organisations are campaigning to end this inhumane practice.
While the repression of social movements, groups, and organisations has been trending for more than two years, a new leaked recording exposed a plan by Tunisian television station, Nessma, to intimidate an anti-corruption Tunisian watchdog, iWatch. In this video, Nessma directors can be heard issuing threats of violence against individuals and slander to damage the reputation of iWatch and its members. This has, incidentally, strengthened the mobilisation against corrupt tycoons in Tunisia and the use of media to delegitimise social movements and civil society.
Tunisian citizens and organisations have shifted tactics and are moving away from protesting to influencing by increasing dialogue with government officials and legislators. Social media serves as a first step to raise awareness of ongoing attacks, including those against citizens’ and organisations’ abilities to organise, assemble, and speak freely. This is also a means of circumventing the alternative facts espoused by state-owned and private media entities.
Some of the most important work however, occurs through alliance building between non-governmental organisations, international organisations and social movements and the power of these alliances to speak directly with policy makers to impact the legislation that affects them and their work. Some of these alliances have been able to successfully form campaigns, like that of the 2016 campaign against a draft law restricting access to information formed by civil society organisations and launched on social media.
Fighting back and fighting to win
All over Africa activists and organisations are fighting back. New innovative methods of challenging the state and other repressive non-state actors can be seen in countries across the continent. In DRC, youth and social movements have grown and are ever expanding, connecting with the global Congolese diaspora.
Awareness raising and alliance building at the regional and international levels by those in exile or those who have fled the country have successfully drawn attention to the current and ongoing crises in Eritrea and Burundi. Art and creative campaigning has seen success in Uganda and reaching out to politicians directly has been one avenue pursued to expand and exercise civic freedoms in Tunisia.
As Stella Nyanzi states, Africans across the continent are using whatever they have to fight. And they are fighting to win.
* David Kode from Cameroon is Senior Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS ([email protected]) and Mouna Ben Garga from Tunisia is Innovation for Change Programme Officer ([email protected]). CIVICUS is a global alliance of more than 3,600 civil society organizations and activists. Innovation for Change, a CIVICUS project, is a regional network of online and physical centers aimed at supporting and connecting civil society across the globe.
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