Conditions may be improving, but all is not well in Africa. In this piece MFWA’s Programme Officer for Freedom of Expression, Muheeb Saeed, reflects on the dark spots of freedom and governance in Africa.
“Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies – particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under assault and in retreat globally,” according to Freedom House.
Nowhere is the above damning verdict of the Freedom in the World Report 2018 truer than in Africa, where only ten out of 55 countries are rated free and 20 “partly free.” The latest global ranking by Freedom House rated 49 countries “not free”, about 50% of which are in Africa.
The sub-regional analysis further shows West and Southern Africa providing a thin streak of silver lining in Africa’s gloomy human rights horizon. Each of these two sub-regions has four out of the continent’s ten “free” countries; South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Mauritius from Southern Africa. Ghana, Benin, Senegal and Cape Verde represent West Africa in the continent’s Top 10, with Tunisia emerging as the lone ambassador from North Africa. Sao Tome and Principe literally confirmed its insular status by turning out as the only country in Central Africa to be rated “free.” All the remaining countries from that sub-region were rated not “free.”
On the whole, countries in North, East and Central Africa recorded monumentally low ratings. The 12 countries with the worst aggregate scores included seven from Africa. Of the seven, four are in East Africa, namely Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Two are from Central Africa; Central Africa Republic and Equatorial Guinea with Libya representing Northern Africa.
The African rankings largely reflect those of the quarterly West Africa Freedom of Expression (FOE) Monitor and the Africa Freedom of Expression Monitor published by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and the Africa Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), respectively.
The four top rated West African countries in the Freedom in the World ranking are also consistently decent performers in the MFWA’s FOE monitor. Senegal and Cape Verde have a record of uninterrupted democratic culture over the years. Alongside Benin and Ghana, who led the way in restoring multi-party democracy in West Africa at the beginning of the 1990s, the four countries have earned a growing reputation for their commitment to democratic values, including respect for press freedom.
Like their West African counterparts, the four free-rated Southern African nations – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Mauritius- are a bastion of democracy and civil liberties. This is also reflected in their consistent absence from the AFEX version of the Monitor which records and analyses free expression violations in African countries.
Thus, the African Top Ten reflects a practical reality of countries traditionally known to be committed to the tenets of democracy – human rights, rule of law, popular participation, political pluralism, regular free and fair democratic elections and freedom of expression rights. These democratic principles, which are the core civil liberty and political freedoms indicators of the Freedom in the World ratings, are also espoused in the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Good Governance (ACDEG).
These are quintessential democratic values for which countries from Northern, Eastern and Central Africa have been found wanting.
In North Africa, the Arab Spring has yielded little dividend in terms of human rights and civil liberties, with the exception of Tunisia, and to some extent, Morocco. In Egypt, for instance, the military has hijacked the revolution that toppled President Mubarak and established an iron-fist regime. Political dissent is brutally crushed and press freedom has been severely restricted. At least 35 journalists, citizen-journalists and bloggers are currently detained in the country alongside hundreds of critical activists and opposition figures. According to RSF, the Egyptian authorities have reduced the country to almost complete silence.
Algeria has been under a state of emergency since 1992, enduring 20 years of dictatorship under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. With the ongoing political and security nightmare in Libya and the continuing repression in Egypt, North Africa has become a human rights and civil liberties disaster.
The same can be said of East and Central Africa where aged autocrats have held their citizens to ransom for decades. These regions are the fiefdom of entrenched military strongmen masquerading as civilian heads – Equatorial Guinea’s Theodoro Obiang Nguema (39 years in power), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda, 32), Omar Hassan Al-Bashir (Sudan, 29), Idriss Deby (Chad, 28), and Dennis Sassou-Nguesso (Republic of Congo, 20). It should be noted also that in addition to the last 20 years, President Sassou-Nguesso was previously in power for 12 years. The relatively younger Paul Kagame last year (2017) secured a new five-year mandate to extend his then 17-year rule in Rwanda; same as Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi who has just pushed through a controversial referendum that could see him extend his 13-year rule up to 2034. Then come the traditional civilian regimes of Paul Biya (Cameroun, 36 years); Isias Afewerki (Eritrea, 25) and Ismail Omar Guelleh (Djibouti, 19).
Invariably, arrest and detention of critical journalists and bloggers, dissidents and political opponents, closure of media organisations with divergent editorial lines and imposition of crippling fines and damages in libel suits by a compromised judicial system are the basic features of the survival mechanisms of these regimes presided over by “live Presidents.”
West Africa, in contrast, has been comparatively more politically tolerant with relatively high democratic electoral standards. Thus, Faure Gnassingbe’s 13 year-rule in Togo is seen as an aberration. He has consequently come under severe political and diplomatic pressure to restore and respect term limits.
Similarly, with the exception of the two monarchies – Lesotho and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), as well as crisis-hit Zimbabwe, Southern Africa has been largely ACDEG-compliant. The two sub-regions have thus established themselves as models of good governance and high democratic standards. The ECOWAS and SADC therefore deserve to be commended for their proven commitment to promoting human rights and democratic accountability. On the other hand, there is the urgent need for the other regions to step up their game to change the narrative on freedom and democracy in the coming years.