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Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

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. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen

Civil society leader Timothy Mtambo, now the Minister of Civic Education and National Unity in Malawi, explains how civic activism defeated the authoritarian regime of president Mutharika and created a foundation for building a durable and strong democracy. His recipe for social mobilisation has lessons for citizens of many other countries in Africa who are living under the yoke of oppression and authoritarian rule.

Far too many people in Africa are yearning for change and opportunity and unfortunately denied by those who govern them. A system of dictatorship can take its toll on ordinary people and create a sense of siege and helplessness with no clear pathway to freedom.

In the words of our own Africa liberation icon, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, “it looks impossible until it happens”.

Starting with the end in mind

In May 2019 when the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) announced election results that were not credible and the international observer teams endorsed what we Malawians were seeing as fatally flawed electoral processes, we knew immediately that the fate of Malawi was largely in the hands of ordinary Malawians. It is a truism that every country’s fate is largely in the hands of its own people. However people are paralysed by fear because of the ruthlessness of autocratic regimes.

As leaders of Malawi civil society we realised that without an independent, impartial and effective electoral commission, open civic space, effective civic engagement and participation and political reforms, that elections in Malawi were chronologically compliant meaningless rituals with no substantive value to ordinary people of Malawi.

We were determined to change that when we formed the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) in December 2017.We wanted to put the agency for accountable governance back to ordinary Malawians. Free, fair and credible elections were central to governmental legitimacy, important for implementing the social contract. But without MEC institutional reform, free and fair elections were a pipe dream. Yet we also knew that MEC reform would not be possible without people agency and power. Every generation has a mandate that it must achieve or betray. Our generational mandate was clear and we were not prepared for anything to stop us.

First things first – People power: Giving Malawians back their collective voice

As a human rights activist, leading the HRDC, we chose to mobilise and give the people of Malawi their voice. Thousands of people bravely took to the streets on a regular basis to peacefully campaign against bad and corrupt governance including the 2019 election.  We declared 2020 the year of mass protests. We actively and consistently called for the resignation of the chairperson of the MEC, Jane Ansah, and the holding of fresh elections. The message was simple, clear, and unambiguous. The demonstrations ranged from organised large-scale marches to smaller spontaneous outbursts. Teachers, sanitation workers, truck drivers, airline staff, students, lecturers, churches took to the streets. It was unprecedented.  

Some  of the most notable demonstrations that changed the democratic terrain include the demonstrations for resignation of MEC Chair Jane Ansah; the anti-bribery march to defend judicial independence; demonstrations for nullification of elections results of 2019; 16 January 2020 MEC reform Jane Ansah resignation Lilongwe demonstration; demonstrations to use chains to lock MEC offices, demonstrations for investigations of sexual assault and rape allegations against the police in Msundwe.

Mutharika’s reaction and the battle for the independence of institutions of democracy

President Mutharika tried various tricks to try to delay the elections. This included refusing to assent to the Electoral Reforms Bill that had already been passed by parliament, trying to get Members of Parliament to change the date of the elections and refusing to fire the then MEC chairperson, Jane Ansah and her team of commissioners who were found incompetent by the courts. 

Once it became clear that the HRDC leadership had mobilised ordinary Malawians to take agency for accountable governance into their own hands, Mutharika became paranoid and started constricting civic space and persecuting human rights defenders.

The law became weaponised. Arbitrary arrests and detentions of HRDC leaders became commonplace.

At a personal level I was arrested and experienced direct threats to my life and that of my wife and children, cyberbullying, character assassination, arson attacks and shooting incidents. My children were threatened at school and in social media messages. One such nasty posting encouraged people to mass-rape my wife on sight. I was forced, with the support of the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, to evacuate my family to safety in order to tackle the dictatorship bare knuckled.

Israeli agents were conscripted into the state house with sinister motives to  either rig elections or harm civil society leaders, human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents. I wonder till today how much Malawi paid to the Israelis to frustrate our democratic growth.

Deployment of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadres to spread fear and disrupt civil society meetings became commonplace. With HRDC and later Citizens for Transformation Movement (CFT), we mobilised more people to build a critical mass of courageous citizens who had passed the threshold of fear. In one instance, despite having security personnel with us, we were still attacked in the city of Mzuzu by 20 DPP cadres who pelted our convoy with stones.

We were very grateful that the Malawi Defence Forces were extremely professional and protected everyone, the protesters and the DPP cadres, and filled a critical gap in national security that arose as a result of the total loss of support and confidence in the police force by the Malawi people following their ready acceptance of being co-opted as a militia to protect the interests of president Mutharika.

The HRDC took an uncompromising demand that the MEC needed reform, in particular resignation of the MEC Chair as a precondition for free, fair and credible elections. Mutharika resisted this until the very last minute when in May 2020 under relentless HRDC-led civil society pressure, the MEC Chair resigned forcing the president to reluctantly appoint a new commission just 2 weeks before elections. According to a blog from Oxfam, Chifundo Kachale, the new MEC Chair, “brilliantly navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, despite only taking over two weeks before the election”.

As he realised that power was slowly but surely slipping away from him, an increasingly paranoid Mutharika turned into vandalising state institutions and behaving like an absolute monarch. In the run up to his predictable electoral defeat he started to rule almost by decree. In a spectacular period of less than two weeks, he fired his entire cabinet including a minister who was less than 2 weeks old in office; he fired the army commander Ndundwe; he fired the police commissioner. All the fired senior government officials were replaced by his cronies and relatives.

I was so terrified that the moves by Mutharika to summarily dismiss respected army generals would trigger instability in the army and also cause the army to lose its professionalism and be used to attack civilians as happens in other jurisdictions. We had meetings with the army and thankfully they remained professional and insistent on carrying out their mandate of protecting everyone in Malawi without fear or favour.

I would emphasize the role of a professional, disciplined and well trained army in the protection of participatory democracy. This distinguishes Malawi from many countries where the army is deployed to harm or even kill unarmed civilians and thwart democratic growth of our societies.

In his last days Mutharika converted the courts and judicial arena as a battle front in his insatiable quest for power retention.

He went after Chief Justice Nyirenda trying to force him into early retirement but this was resisted by the HRDC, the Association of Magistrates and the Law Society of Malawi, and in a quite  unprecedented way by the Chief Justices of the whole region under the auspices of the Southern Africa Chief Justices Forum (SACJF).

Despite his background as a former professor of law, Mutharika tried to put a knife into separation of powers by addressing parliament suggesting that in Malawi we did not have separation of powers but parliamentary superiority over the judiciary. The judiciary had really angered him by the decisions they made especially of nullifying the 2019 elections.

Happily the judiciary survived and again as a result of the resilience of civil society represented by the HRDC to fight for and claim the independence of their institutions, we now have a judiciary that is more independent than at any other time in the history of Malawi.

Citizens of SADC and indeed the AU must fight for and defend the independence of their judiciaries and election management bodies so that they are not co opted by the authoritarian regimes to be instruments at the hands of oppression.

Covid-19 measures as a political weapon

Like other despots around the world, Mutharika tried to use the Covid-19 pandemic to stifle dissent and prolong his stay in power. The HRDC challenged this approach in the streets through protests and in the courts through strategic litigation. The Covid-19 measures Mutharika was trying to impose were to be implemented by his cronies who aimed to milk national resources for political objectives.

This irregularity coupled with lack of safety nets for the socioeconomic effects on ordinary people left the HRDC with no option but to successfully challenge Mutharika’s announcement of a lockdown in the courts. Protests erupted in informal settlements, and in small towns and trading centers — all places predominantly made up of people working in the informal economy. Nurses and doctors embarked on go-slows and sit-ins, while the civil servants’ union also announced plans for a general strike in response to this and other issues such as corruption, the rising cost of living and drug shortages.   

These different aspects of Malawian civil society worked together to safeguard the democratic process despite the opportunity Covid-19 offered for Mutharika to undermine our democratic process that would culminate in elections. Thankfully, while Covid-19 posed a real and significant threat to both the public health of Malawians and to our democracy, elections were held and the rest is history.

In the end a government was elected that has strong legitimacy stands better prospects of getting people’s active and conscious cooperation in a sustainable fight against Covid-19.

From the terraces to the theatre: Entering the quasi-political zone 

Back in April 2020, upon the realisation that the Mutharika regime could not be shaken by human rights activism alone, and in a bid to encourage widespread participation and directly influence the democratic process, I decided to establish a politically oriented peoples movement comprised of vibrant young men and women who were determined to be governed better and actively announce their preferred political choices.

We announced the formation of a movement called Citizens for Transformation Movement (CFT), a people powered movement that was the first of its kind in Malawi. It was a new approach founded on “the values of human rights, peaceful co-existence, rule of law, active and patriotic citizenship in pressing for inclusive social, political and economic transformation and a prosperous future for all Malawians”.

Faced with and bearing the brunt of authoritarian practices of president Mutharika, we endorsed the candidature of Dr Lazarus Chakwera and his running mate Dr Saulos Chilima and actively and publicly conscientised citizens of our views holding large meetings covering the width and breadth of Malawi.  

Our philosophy as the CFT peoples movement was that we did not want to govern, but we wanted to be governed better.

This is an important philosophy for African people still suffering from the yoke of oppression by their own post-independent governments. A demand for accountable governance is indeed a legitimate demand to be governed better. It is not a demand to govern neither does it necessarily amount to a choice of any specific political party being in power. It is about constitutionalism. With this philosophy, electoral choices become easy. People’s movements actively associate with political formations that demonstrably promise better accountable governance. This is a post independence generational mandate that must be fulfilled if Africa is to be better.

Human rights as a people movement and election issue

The CFT people’s movement elevated human rights as an election issue in Malawi. We spoke against gross human violations and inequalities and became the voice of the voiceless. We spoke against the targeted attacks on people with albinism who had experienced ritual killings and yet the government had done little to either bring perpetrators to book or to protect them. We spoke on behalf of the women from Msundwe area in Lilongwe who were openly abused and raped by police officers but never got justice. All these issues, including dwindling educational standards, high unemployment levels, lack of quality healthcare and drugs and health personnel in hospitals resonated with the people’s day to day struggles. 

People’s movement and defending the vote

Due to Covid-19, we did not have international election observers. This left everyone in Malawi in no doubt that the responsibility to protect the vote resided in Malawians. This was especially so when confidence in the efficacy and utility value of international observation was in question given that in both Malawi and Kenya, international observers seemed to certify faulty elections as free, fair and credible only for domestic courts to overturn such elections.

Come Election Day, the people demonstrated a strong will to guard and defend their vote. Activists, civil servants, university lecturers and bankers were deployed to polling stations across the country to observe and to guard the vote.

This effort was complemented by informal patrols established by community leaders, composed predominantly of young men, who kept watch for any unusual activity in their areas. They fed information about suspicious people or vehicles to social media, and also informed units from the Malawi Defence Force, which was also deployed on Election Day. These informal patrols resulted in the arrest of several individuals allegedly carrying bundles of cash to bribe election monitors, and handed them over to the police in areas such as Nkhotakota, Salima and Rumphi districts.

People’s victory

Ultimately fresh presidential elections were held on 23 June 2020, following the annulment of last year’s elections first by the Constitutional Court and later upheld by the Supreme Court, citing serious irregularities. This was the second time on the continent and the first in the Southern Africa region where an African Court overturned a presidential election and called for a fresh election. The first was in Kenya in 2017, but saw the opposition boycotting the rerun election.

The Malawi Congress Party led the Tonse Alliance (meaning “all of us” in the local Chichewa language) of nine opposition political parties and Dr Lazarus Chakwera, won the elections by 58.5% of the votes against President Peter Mutharika’s 39.4%. The voter turnout was 64.8%. 

To many Malawians this was the dawn of a new era. 

Impact of people power acknowledged

This ‘people power’ as reiterated by Nic Cheeseman, a professor and African politics expert at the University of Birmingham, and Golden Matonga, a Malawian award-winning journalist, significantly increased pressure on key democratic institutions and those working within them. 

Afrobarometer’s Director of Surveys also echoed this:     

“Malawi was soon swept up in one of the most encouraging political revolutions to hit Africa in the last two decades — the rise of the activist generation. Indeed, an Afrobarometer survey at the time found that there was strong opposition to any attempt to subvert the democratic process, with 68 percent of its citizens believing that the opposition parties were justified in filing their case. 

“Nine months later, in February 2020, bolstered by its people, Malawi’s supreme court mandated fresh elections … The courts have really stood up to defend democracy, but so [has] civil society.” 

The fact that a coordinated opposition, protesters in the streets and independent judges in Malawi’s high courts sufficiently safeguarded Malawi’s democracy, cannot be overemphasized. 

Indeed, Malawians should be commended for adopting a “home-grown ownership” of this election process. 

Looking into the future with cautious optimism

As Malawians thronged the streets celebrating and dancing, and as the new President was sworn in, it was indeed a breath of fresh air.

As Dr Chakwera began forming his government and the realisation that I had been selected as one of the Ministers in his Cabinet, I sat down and reflected on the journey. A journey that saw blood, sweat and tears. A journey that had seen Malawians hit the streets demonstrating against the government more than any other time in the history of the country.

Today I find myself as Minister in a new ministry of Civic Education and National Unity. This is a perfect challenge for me. As someone who was being accused of being a terrorist and of bringing chaos in the country by former President Mutharika, now I find myself at the centre of promoting national unity. 

I am again reminded of Mandela’s words that it looks impossible until it happens. I sign off by sharing in solidarity with the oppressed people of Africa what Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” 

Timothy Mtambo is the Commander in Chief of the CFT People Power Movement and the Minister of Civic Education and National Unity in Malawi. 

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Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

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.

Zambia recorded its first two cases of the Covid-19 virus on 18 March 2020. At first, the virus appeared to be contained but gradually, as the number of local transmission cases increased, the virus increased exponentially. According to the latest official statistics, Zambia has recorded a total of 10,372 cases of Covid-19 (by 21 August) with the official number of Covid-19 related deaths at 274.

Zambia is hitting the peak of the pandemic.  Yet the government has announced that there will be no lockdown, so as to avoid curtailing the means of survival for ordinary Zambians. This is because the majority of Zambians live from hand-to-mouth, a situation now made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So far, we have been very lucky. We are not seeing apocalyptic numbers of deaths and our health facilities are just about coping with the numbers of the sick. Only a few months ago, in May, President Edgar Lungu announced that the government was advising citizens to follow the health guidelines laid down. He talked about “transitioning to a new normal”. But effectively our “new normal” meant each man for himself and God for us all.

Whilst the jury is out on whether the official figures tally with the actual numbers, it appears that the pandemic in Zambia is being managed reasonably well. Despite a shortage of protective clothing and testing kits, the health facilities are generally adequate.

However, as with many countries across the globe, the pandemic has also created an opportunity for political expediency that has had a detrimental effect on the human rights situation in the country. This is in the context of the fact that Zambia will be going to the polls to elect a new government in 2021.

All roads lead to 2021 and as a result political expediency has been the order of the day. For example, the Government has introduced two statutory instruments under the Public Health Act in order to manage the pandemic. Both are thin on the details as to how the health regulations will be enforced.

Just a few days ago the police spokesperson, Esther Mwata Katongo announced that the police would start arresting and fining people the equivalent of $US39 for not wearing masks in public. The police did start making arrests accordingly, but the Home Affairs Minister Stephen Kampyongo rescinded the decision days later as it became apparent that there was no legal backing for the move in the health regulations. 

In terms of human rights, probably Zambia’s most well-known Covid-19 victim is Prime Television, a popular independent television station that had its broadcasting licence revoked following its refusal to broadcast government adverts and programmes on the Covid-19 pandemic for free in the midst of the economic crisis facing the country. The current Zambian government already has a history of clamping down on media freedoms following the closure of the largest independent newspaper in Zambia, The Post in 2017, and various other radio stations that have been critical of the government. The official reason given for closing the television station was that its broadcasting licence had expired.

Another casualty has been the restrictions on freedom of assembly. Public gatherings in Zambia are governed by the Public Order Act, a notorious piece of legislation whose constitutionality has been challenged several times on the basis that its provisions are arbitrary and not necessary in a democratic state. To adhere to the provisions of the Public Order Act, Zambians now have to get authority from the Ministry of Health or the Local Authority to hold public gatherings of more than five people.

These restrictions are being selectively applied. Government officials and individuals considered close to the ruling party freely hold rallies and large public gatherings without the appearance of any health and safety regulations being adhered to. Zambians have been told that government officials cannot be blamed for people following them around. This has led to many Zambians either resenting any restrictions placed on them or believing that the pandemic is a hoax.

However, when it comes to dissenting voices such as opposition political parties, the restrictions are applied with efficient (and sometimes inefficient) responses. A group of youth protestors attempted to hold a public protest on the socio-economic challenges faced by Zambian youth on 22nd June 2020. The police came out fully armed in riot gear and roamed around the streets in armoured vehicles in an attempt to intimidate the protestors into stopping their protest.

However, the quick-thinking youth took their protest to the bush and beamed it live to an audience of around 300,000 people on their social media platforms. In June there were reports of police arresting opposition members for attempting to hold intra-party elections.

As always, the hardest hit by any crisis are the poor and vulnerable. As with most countries, we are grappling with how to send our children back to school.

Like countries all over the world, our ailing economy has been further crippled by the loss of business and resulting unemployment or underemployment. The government has partnered with donors to provide social protection to the most vulnerable but with 58% of the Zambian population of around 17 million living below the poverty line according to 2015 World Bank figures, resources are stretched. There has been little done to ensure that the rights most affected by the pandemic are still protected, promoted and fulfilled and this is impacting on the overall effectiveness of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Ultimately, whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has been a universal crisis, Zambia’s is a crisis of leadership. Our government needs to put the interests of the country above partisan interests and unite the country regardless of the upcoming general elections. We need to take a human rights-based approach to tackling the pandemic specifically and to tackling governance issues generally.

Our “new normal” should leave no one behind. 

Linda Kasonde is a lawyer and human rights activist heading Chapter One Foundation, a civil society organisation that promotes and protects human rights and the rule of law. She is also an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.

Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup

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.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summits never fail to come up with the most colorful and promising of themes. The 40th (SADC) Summit currently underway is themed: SADC: 40 Years Building Peace and Security, and Promoting Development and Resilience in the face of Global Challenges

In light of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the annual Summit is for the first time in history being held in a virtual format. Mozambique is coordinating the summit from 10-17 August 2020. Despite the colourful and hopeful theme the summit is being held in the midst of serious human rights violations with total impunity in Zimbabwe, where the government has mastered the art of using Covid-19 measures to stifle democratic participation and demands for accountable governance. 

As Maputo is co-ordinating the summit on peace and security, the main news was that Mozambique’s army had lost the key port of Mocimboa da Praia, to Islamist militants on Wednesday 12 August 2020. The Islamist militants now control the territory and have a resources foothold in southern Africa, given that Mocimboa da Praia is near the site of natural gas projects worth $60bn (£46bn). 

This could spell serious calamity. Southern Africa might as well kiss goodbye the long-held notion of southern Africa being seen as the most peaceful and stable sub-region in Africa.

This week’s roundup looks at the SADC Summit and issues around it.

Virtual Heads of State summit

The virtual summit is taking place with a reduced agenda to allow the leaders to focus more on critical issues in the region, including: co-ordinated response to Covid-19; review progress towards the development of a post-2020 SADC agenda; measures to address food insecurity; receive a progress report on the implementation of the industrialisation strategy; take stock of interventions undertaken to promote peace and stability member states; and renewal of institutional leadership.  

Over the years, SADC has been widely criticised for failing to tackle regional peace and security challenges, with some critics labelling it a ‘toothless bulldog’. The inability to resolve conflict is best demonstrated by the ignominious collective decision of the SADC heads of state and government to disband the sub-regional judicial organ, the SADC Tribunal, merely because Zimbabwe disagreed with a binding judgment of that court.  

Although some argue that in the absence of SADC, violent conflicts could have been more pervasive in southern Africa, the body’s interventions have not effectively dealt with violent and political crises, thereby undermining development. This is supported by the notion that it is inconceivable to have socio-economic development in the absence of peace and stability. 

Toothless bulldog?

SADC’s inherent weaknesses are both historic and institutional. First, the co-operation is rooted in historical ties steeped in anti-colonial struggles such that liberation war parties view themselves as each brother’s keeper. 

Second, the recurrent electoral crises produce contested outcomes and arguably illegitimate leaders. This unfortunately creates leaders who are not fully accepted by their populations and therefore rule by coercion and not consent. This results in unaccountable governance that breeds corruption and conflict. If unaccountable leaders of questionable legitimacy are at the helm of SADC, what reasonable expectation is there that they will fight impunity and work towards justice, peace and stability?

As political instability in many SADC states is driven by complaints of inability to conduct free, fair and credible elections, one thing SADC should focus on is to invest in strengthening the independence of election management bodies. Only South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and lately Malawi seem to get it right. The SADC Summit should devote attention to this to create a basis for sustainable peace and stability. It is unlikely that it will, though.

This year’s theme recognises that peace and stability are key preconditions for sustainable development and regional integration. However, SADC is also notoriously inefficient or incapable of enforcing its own protocols. The weak, and at times nonexistent, enforcement mechanisms for its decisions make the SADC a toothless bulldog.

Brotherhood philosophy

The Organ for Politics, Defence and Security (Organ) launched in June 1996 is the formal institution of SADC with the mandate to support the achievement and maintenance of security and the rule of law. Its leadership is in the form of a ‘troika’ system comprising a current chair as well as the previous and incoming chairs. 

Zimbabwe currently chairs this Organ, which is charged with ensuring peace and the rule of law in the region.  

However, when it comes to the crucial responsibility of building peace and security, efforts have been undermined by the ‘brotherhood’ approach that has resulted in the regional bloc failing to collectively solve the socio-economic and political crises that consequently deepen over time. 

Ringisai Chikohomore of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) characterises this cheap ‘brotherhood’ well. He describes it as member states who “opt for accommodation and fraternal solidarity as an unsaid modus operandi, resulting in a failure to sanction delinquent states.” 

The systemic failure by SADC leaders to hold each other to account for human rights violations is seeing southern Africa’s non-violent image fading due to events occurring in various countries in recent years. 

Current conflicts and crises in the SADC

Governance issues have ignited the most acute crises in the SADC states for more than a decade. These include coups, disputed elections, and political instability, authoritarian rule, civil unrest, abuse of state power, and lack of transparency and accountability by governments in their desperate bid to cling to power and authority. 

Members of the Zimbabwe National Army stand guard at a checkpoint in the central business district, Harare, Zimbabwe on 31 July 2020. Police and the army blocked planned anti-government mass protests organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). People were prevented from getting into town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

On 13 August prominent civil society leaders from southern Africa met virtually at a regional meeting facilitated by the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and the Zimbabwe NGO Forum to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis and make recommendations for consideration by the SADC Summit. 

A woman fetches water from a spring amid water shortages in Harare. (Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images)

The findings were that the government of Zimbabwe is guilty of attacks on democratic space; use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association; organised violence and torture and using the criminal justice system as a political weapon.

Their final communique concluded:

Zimbabwe’s human rights problems are highly entangled with the political developments. Similarly, the economy is reactive to political developments. According to the 2019 Labour Force Survey released in March 2020, 74% of Zimbabwe’s labour force is in the informal sector… Zimbabweans are therefore now suffering the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

Nurses at Harare Central Hospital protest over low salaries on 6 July 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

The Zimbabwe government of President ED Mnangagwa, which was born out of the November 2017 coup and a disputed 2018 election, has become notorious at weaponising the law and judicial persecution of human rights activists akin to how the law was instrumentalised during the colonial regime of Ian Smith.  

Critics are sceptical that President Mnangagwa as part of the Organ leadership can allow for a SADC-led solution to the Zimbabwe crisis. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent his special envoys Mbete and Mufamadi to Harare to try to mediate the low-intensity but high-impact conflict last week, but the envoys returned to Pretoria empty-handed after Mnangagwa apparently blocked them from meeting anyone else from the opposition or civil society.

That the current leaders got away with a soft military coup in 2017, the first time in the history of the SADC that a military coup was staged, might explain why the government of Zimbabwe is able to blatantly violate rights in a serial way with impunity.

Mozambique and Islamic terrorism: Mozambique has a troubled political history. In 2012, Mozambican Renamo rebels took up arms again and, although they apparently lacked the military capacity to rekindle a civil war, they attacked government troops and transport routes, creating economic disruption and insecurity ever since. 

Passengers and cargo board a boat from a fishermen’s beach that has become one of the main arrival points for displaced persons fleeing from armed violence raging in the province of Cabo Delgado, in the Paquitequete district of Pemba, northern Mozambique. Radical Islamist militant groups seeking to establish an Islamic state in the region, such as Ansar al-Sunna, have claimed responsibility for some of these attacks over the past year. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ricardo Franco)

In May 2020, there were reports of insurgents carrying out “some of their most daring assaults”, seizing government buildings, blocking roads, and hoisting black and white Islamic State flags in Cabo Delgado’s towns and villages. 

Recent reports indicate that the civilian security situation in Cabo Delgado continues to worsen. In Mocimboa da Praia, sporadic attacks by insurgents since July resulted in homes being burned, food supplies looted, and people killed and some kidnapped.

A child from the Vicente Tiago family of 30 people who fled the armed attacks in Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado, and took refuge in a small, precarious house in Chiuba, Pemba City, Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique. Thousands of families are in need of food aid in the humanitarian crisis affecting the northern province of Mozambique. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ricardo Franco)

Sadly as the current SADC summit is taking place there are reports that dozens of Mozambican soldiers have been killed, and a patrol boat sunk, while the army says it has killed about 60 militants. The Islamist militants took over and conquered Mocimboa da Praia from the ill-equipped, ill-prepared, and demoralised Mozambican army that fled the scene of fighting. 

For more than three years now, the SADC region has stared at the prospects of Islamic terrorism getting a foothold in the region via the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, where 700 000 people are now affected by the war. Yet such an obvious threat to regional peace and stability has not received any meaningful reaction from the SADC. It will not be a surprise if this summit comes and goes as if nothing is happening.

DRC and potential regression: When President Tshisekedi ascended to the throne in 2019, there was relief that for the first time in more than 60 years there was a transition of power to a civilian leader as a result of elections. 

However, political instability and ethnic-based conflict continue. Between October 2019 and February 2020, more than 300 civilians were killed in northwest Beni, North Kivu province, when the Congolese army launched a military operation against a non-state armed actor, the so-called Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), in an attempt to dismantle and expel the group. 

There are fears that a power struggle is currently raging between President Tshisekedi and former president Kabila, “who continues to wield enormous power through his parliamentary majority, control of the army and several cabinet ministries, to interfere with the country’s next elections in 2023.”

SADC can ill-afford another full-blooded conflict in the DRC. SADC’s military intervention in the DRC in 1998 has already been widely discussed and criticised as an illustration of SADC’s lack of unity, dearth of co-operation, and ability to be hijacked by national if not private interests. 

Zambia and Lungu’s power consolidation: President Lungu came into power after questionable elections. The United States’ 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Zambia notes that the country’s last election in 2016 was marred by irregularities. 

“Although the results ultimately were deemed a credible reflection of votes cast, media coverage, police actions, and legal restrictions heavily favoured the ruling party and prevented the election from being genuinely fair.

Civil society has of late reported systematic and sustained attacks on the free media in Zambia ahead of the 2021 elections. The following radio stations have been disrupted by Patriotic Front cadres during this Covid-19 period: Feel Free radio station, Power FM, 5FM radio, Muchinga Radio, and Radio Maria.

This systematic and sustained attack on free media in Zambia shows that the militias who religiously carry out these attacks act with the acquiescence of the state. Frankly speaking, no one expects SADC to do anything about this, in the process reinforcing the notion that impunity pays.

Eswatini – Last absolute monarchy in the world: Eswatini remains as the last absolute monarchy in the world, with notable governance deficits. King Mswati holds supreme executive power over the parliament and judiciary by virtue of a 1973 State of Emergency decree.

Why the SADC does not hold King Mswati to account and fully implement the 2005 constitution remains a mystery. 

Lesotho and failure to implement the Phumaphi report: Since its return to democracy in 1993, political instability, characterised by excessive meddling in civilian politics by the military, continued to rock Lesotho. In May 2020, former Prime Minister Tom Thabane finally bowed to pressure and resigned. Moeketsi Majoro, who according to analysts faces enormous hurdles ensuring peace and political stability in the country, replaced him. 

Such is the political instability in Lesotho that by 2018, when the SADC established a commission of inquiry into killings of the army commander led by Justice Phumaphi, Lesotho had had three elections in five years , after the government collapsed with votes of no confidence in Prime Ministers. 

SADC has failed to enforce the full implementation of the Phumaphi report resulting in prime Minister Tom Thabane being ousted and political instability and economic and social suffering of Basotho continuing unabated with the possibility of a fourth election in seven years.  

Can Tanzania hold credible elections? 

Despite the raging on of Covid-19, Tanzanian President Magufuli decided to power on with elections. Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who was shot 16 times in an attempt on his life in 2017, has said he lacks confidence in the electoral commission ahead of his presidential contest in October’s general elections. Lissu accused Tanzania’s electoral officials of serving at the pleasure of the incumbent, arguing that the chairman and the chief executive of the electoral commission were appointed by President Magufuli in an opaque manner, rendering their impartiality questionable. 

Lissu has also recently written to President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as Chairperson of the AU, appealing for his own protection ahead of the elections.

Peace, stability and development in southern Africa:  A pie in the sky

In 1992, a landmark achievement by the Community was the establishment of the SADC Tribunal. However, it died a slow death as the result of political interference by Zimbabwe after the Tribunal made judgments against Zimbabwe in 2007-8.

It was disbanded in 2011-12. Hope for the revival of the SADC Tribunal was re-ignited after South African High Court judge Dunstan Mlambo ruled that “if the intention of the Zuma-led government was to withdraw Pretoria from the SADC Treaty and Protocol, consent of Parliament had to be obtained first”.  This judgment was confirmed by South Africa’s Constitutional Court in 2018.

If SADC heads of state and government genuinely believe in the rule of law and human rights, then they should prioritise reviving the SADC Tribunal.

It is for reasons such as these that SADC’s institutional framework for regional peace and security is proving ineffective – its leaders are unwilling to enforce democratic principles and to hold each other to account. 

While it has established strong protocols on security co-operation and safeguards on democracy and human rights, SADC continues to operate on the pillars of absolute sovereignty and solidarity, leaving a yawning gap between standards and practice. 

Thus, according to former Botswana President, Ian Khama 

Most of the time presidents at the SADC and the African Union (AU) hold meetings just to look politically correct … they just go home after that and it is business as usual.”

This reinforces the criticism of SADC as a moribund organisation that is ill-equipped to confront critical challenges necessary for the achievement of real progress. 

SADC must be for the people of SADC and not an exclusive inaccessible club for the presidents and heads of state. In its current form and modus operandi, SADC is part of the problem driving instability in the sub-region.

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and the Technical and Strategy Adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazurura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) and an election expert.

SAHRDN 2020 Human Rights Award Nominations now open

We are seeking nominations for HRDs – an individual or organization working in any of the 16 Southern Africa region  – who have demonstrated an exceptional commitment to human rights defending. In these COVID-19 times,  human rights defenders are continuously under pressure globally, it’s never been more important to raise the profile and honor the work, of brave women and men around the world fighting to promote human dignity usually at great personal risk. To nominate individuals or organizations, please download the nomination forms below. Please use the language of your choice as the nomination forms are in English, French, and Portuguese.

The deadline to submit the nomination forms is 31 August 2020

Zimbabwean government must stop misusing the legal system to arbitrarily arrest and detain human rights defenders.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) demands the immediate release of Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume, who were arrested earlier today and are being arbitrarily detained at Harare Central Police Station.

The arrest of Hopewell Chin’ono was captured on camera when police armed with guns, vandalized his property, breaking a glass door to forcibly gain entry. He was dragged away from his home without a warrant of arrest and no identification from the officers, in an incident that was tantamount to an abduction. Chin’ono, an award-winning investigative journalist has recently been instrumental in exposing high levels and systemic corruption in Zimbabwe.


“We deplore the increasing weaponization of the law to attack civic space and silence human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Over the years we have seen the systematic misuse of the law by state security institutions, including the police and central intelligence agents, to target dissenting voices and those advocating for accountable governance. These were the same tactics used in pre-independent Zimbabwe and it’s unfortunate the phenomenon continues to exist in what is supposed to be a democratic and free Zimbabwe. Criminalizing defenders which undermines rule of law cannot be a good state policy and must be stopped immediately”

Professor Adriano Nuvunga, a steering committee member of the SAHRDN and Executive Director at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in Mozambique.

Leading human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa later posted a video standing in front of the shattered door of Hopewell Chin’ono’s house, confirming the arrest of her client, but unbale to verify who had taken him and where he had been taken to. SAHRDN is aware that for several hours, Chino’ono was denied access to his lawyers, nor was he promptly informed of the charges he is facing, which was in violation of his due process rights.

Preceding his arrest, Hopewell Chin’ono had reported receiving verbal threats from ruling ZANU PF members following his corruption exposé that eventually led to the firing of Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health who was implicated in the diversion of public funds meant for COVID-19 purposes.

Jacob Ngarivhume is the President of Transform Zimbabwe, an opposition political party in Zimbabwe, who has been calling for a public protest against bad governance and corruption that is scheduled for on 31 July. Prior to his arrest, he had been similarly receiving death threats from suspected government agents or sympathizers.

The arrest of Chino’ono and Ngarivhume are the most recent in a series of arrests and attacks of human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents, targeted for merely speaking out against corruption and bad governance in Zimbabwe. Just this past week suspected state security agents broke into the house of Mr Obert Masaraure, who is the President of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ). They briefly but forcibly held his wife demanding to be told the whereabouts of Masaraure. Masaraure has been a victim of abduction and torture by state agents for his activism. ARTUZ has been key in calling for better living conditions of Civil Servants, particularly rural teachers. We also saw nurses being arrested and detained for striking for better working conditions and essential protective clothing in light of Covid-19. Young human rights activists, Namatai Kwekeza, Youngerson Matete and Prince Gora were recently arrested for staging a protests against proposed constitutional amendments. This was the second arrest of Namatai Kwekeza in less than a month.

“We urge the Zimbabwean government to comply with its obligations under regional and international law, as well as the Constitution of Zimbabwe,” said Prof Nuvunga. “Section 58, 59, 60 and 61 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe specifically guarantee freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association”

added Professor Adriano Nuvunga

The United Nations Special Mechanisms have recently written to Zimbabwean authorities on the abuse of human rights defenders and violation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The continued targeting of defenders especially during a global pandemic where government should be more accountable is counterproductive.

The SAHRDN strongly calls on Zimbabwean authorities to stop persecuting human rights defenders, journalists, and democracy activists who are legitimately exercising their constitutional rights. We also call for the immediate and unconditional release of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume and that their safety be guaranteed.

For more information please contact Simphiwe Sidu the Regional Legal Adviser at ssidu@southernafricadefenders.africa or +27736202608.

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

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. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, most governments in southern Africa swiftly introduced lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of the virus.

The measures slowed the infection rates, potentially preventing calamities associated with the poor state of public health facilities in Africa. However, their most severe consequences were on livelihoods and national economies in a way that threatened stability. It came as no surprise that from May, we saw most countries slowly easing restrictive measures and opening up again — even though the peak of Covid-19 infections has not yet been reached. 

In this article, we take a look at the rate of infections vis-à-vis the state of lockdowns and the challenges that are complicating reopenings across the region.  

Lockdown measures and economic carnage

Reports indicate that 15 sub-Saharan African governments went so far as to partially or fully close their borders – closing airports, ports and in some cases land borders – before they had even confirmed a single case. 

As of 30 March, 46 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 sovereign states had imposed partial or full closures of their borders; 44 had closed schools, banned public gatherings, or put in place other social distancing measures; and 11 had declared a state of emergency. 

On a regional level, sub-Saharan Africa arguably responded more quickly and decisively than anywhere else in the world. 

While Africa hasn’t yet suffered the ravages of the pandemic on the scale that has hit other continents like Asia, Europe and America, analysts say Covid-19 could still have a devastating impact on the continent’s already strained health systems and is quickly turning into a social and economic emergency. According to the African Union, the continent faces its first recession in a quarter-century and has lost nearly $55-billion in the travel and tourism sectors in the past three months. 

South Africa, the continent’s largest and most developed economy, is the only African country among the 10 hardest hit Covid-19 countries in the world. South Africa is expected to experience its deepest recession for a century with at least a 7.1% contraction in GDP while the collapse in oil prices has hit Africa’s third-largest economy — Angola — as well as the second-biggest economy, Nigeria, hard. 

In May, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) estimated that Africa could lose up to $65.7-billion (2.5% of annual GDP) for every month of lockdown. 

 Covid-19 update and status in the region

Worldometer reported that as of 14 July, Africa had registered 616,345 cases and more than 13,500 deaths. According to WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, “Even though these cases in Africa account for less than 3% of the global total, it’s clear that this pandemic is accelerating.” 

South Africa reported its biggest increase in Covid-19 infections on 9 July when the Health Ministry reported that there had been 13,674 new confirmed cases in one day. By 14 July, the number of confirmed cases in South Africa had surpassed 280,000. A record 192 people succumbed to Covid-19 in 24 hours on 7 July. Fatalities increased from 3,502 to 4,172 within a week. 

Reports indicate that by 14 July, DRC had recorded 8,135 cases, Malawi 2,430, Zambia 1,895, Eswatini 1,434, Mozambique 1,268 and Zimbabwe stood at 1,064. Namibia had 864, Angola 525, Tanzania 509, Botswana 399, while Lesotho, one of Africa’s least affected countries, had recorded 256 cases.

It is not clear what is driving the significant differences in infection rates, but there is belief that the differences in numbers may be a factor of the capacity to test and compile up-to-date statistics. South Africa has carried out and continues to carry out extensive testing while some countries like LesothoZimbabwe and Eswatini have limited capacity and therefore their infection-rate statistics will not be reliable.

Reopenings: Economic necessity or health suicide?

Due to the enormous stress the lockdowns have imposed on economies, governments in the region have gradually been reopening economies from May. Zero economic activity is unsustainable. The balance between maintaining some economic activity and containing the spread of Covid-19 is delicate.

The opening up of economies has been accompanied by some strict measures, including quarantining returnees, enforcing the wearing of masks in public, restrictions on public gatherings and continuation of physical distancing. 

The conditions in some quarantine zones in some countries and how they then become zones for the spread of Covid-19 is a matter for another day.

Despite experiencing the highest number of cases, which continue to rise, South Africa continues to move forward with its phased reopening strategy. In June, schools, churches and businesses such as restaurants, hairdressers, and hotels, among others, were allowed to reopen. On 6 July, more pupils returned to school after nearly four months of interruption. 

In a nationally televised address on 12 July, President Ramaphosa, however, announced that while the country would remain on Level 3, regulations would be tightened to ease pressure on the country’s healthcare system and slow the spread of the virus, adding that top health officials had warned of impending shortages of hospital beds and oxygen as South Africa reaches a peak of Covid-19 cases. Ramaphosa reintroduced a ban on the sale of alcohol, arguing that since the sale and distribution of alcohol was permitted again in June, hospitals have undergone a spike in admissions in their trauma and emergency wards. A night-time curfew was also reintroduced and he extended the national state of disaster to 15 August.

In response, the National Liquor Traders Council, South African Liquor Brand Owners Association (Salba), the Beer Association of South Africa, Vinpro, and the Liquor Traders Association of South Africa expressed concern that the ban will lead to more job losses. According to News24, the country’s alcohol industry directly employs about 90,000 people. 

In Tanzania, where President John Magufuli has been accused of taking an aggressive reopening strategy and has criticised local health officials for inflating the country’s Covid-19 numbers, larger gatherings – including weddings and at schools – were allowed to reopen from 29 June. 

Angola lifted its Covid-19 state of emergency at the end of May and reopened businesses at 50% capacity.

African authorities have also decided to reopen airspaceSouth Africa has resumed domestic flights while Tanzania and Zambia now have commercial flights. Tanzania opened its skies weeks ago, hoping for a tourism boost despite widespread concern that it is not being honest about the extent of infections. The country has reportedly not updated case numbers since April.

Tanzania was also the first country to reopen its borders to tourists and international travel as Africa’s tourism gears up for a comeback. 

Other countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe have followed suit. 

Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu addressed the nation on 25 June and announced the reopening of international airports to boost international tourist arrivals. On 30 June, the government of Zimbabwe announced the easing of regulations in the tourism and hospitality sector. Restaurants will be allowed to welcome sit-in patrons, national parks will reopen and safari operators will resume economic activity. Restaurants may only occupy 50% of their licensed capacity. However, international travel remains banned. 

Zimbabwe remains under an indefinite “partial” lockdown, with a fortnightly review to determine when to reopen. Given the allegations of violations of fundamental freedoms and the arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders and political opponents, questions continue to be asked whether the indefinite lockdown in the country is meant to achieve public health or rather political outcomes.

As more African countries open their borders, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) led Global Tourism Crisis Committee has drawn up guidelines to restart tourismSouth Africa, one of Africa’s most popular destinations, but unfortunately the epicentre of the pandemic in Africa, has however opted to reopen its tourism sector in early 2021.

Covid-19 and the informal economy

The impact of lockdown measures on the formal economy has been the largest trigger of efforts by many governments to reopen. Yet a significant number of African economies and livelihoods have been supported by the informal economy. In other words, Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the poor and people who operate in the informal economy. 

The majority of the peopl live off the informal sector and cross-border trade. As long as the informal sector and borders remain closed, a lot of families face a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In addressing a SADC Parliamentary Forum Standing Committee on Trade, Industry, Finance and Investment meeting, Amnesty International “reckons that informal cross-border trade accounts for between $17-billion and $20-billion per annum” in southern Africa and “so if cross-border informal traders are unable to move and do business, the impact on household incomes would be dire.” 

This led Deprose Muchena, the Amnesty International Director for Southern and East Africa, to conclude that:

“While the globe is dealing with a health pandemic, Africa in general and southern Africa in particular, will be dealing with an economic pandemic.” 

The majority of the people, however, live off the informal sector and cross-border trade. As long as the informal sector and borders remain closed, a lot of families face a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In Zimbabwe, the suffering has raised political tensions with threats for a national anti-government strike on 31 July, led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, the country’s main opposition party. Faced with a combination of increasing infection rates and threats of protests, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has extended lockdown measures indefinitely, subject to review every two weeks. The reopening of schools in Zimbabwe has also been deferred owing to the rising number of Covid-19 cases. For now, it appears that the lockdown measures will respond to both the threats posed by Covid-19 and potential demonstrations.

Covid-19 reopening setbacks

Until June 2020 Seychelles had gone for “70-plus straight days without a single infection” before “two chartered Air Seychelles flights carrying more than 200 passengers also brought the coronavirus”, resulting in a situation between 24 and 30 June, where the country’s confirmed cases shot from 11 to 81. This made authorities “delay the reopening for commercial flights for its lucrative tourism industry until 1 August, if all goes well”. 

In Eswatini, the reopening suffered a huge setback when judges of the Mbabane High Court contracted the virus on 6 July, forcing the courts to close just a week after a cabinet minister had also tested positive. Schools are still closed and government plans to reopen them has sparked a fierce debate. So serious is the standoff between the government and civil society that the Swaziland National Association of Teachers has filed a court appeal against the government’s plan to reopen schools. The association argues that independent inspections at more than 22 schools had established that conditions were not conducive to learning. 

After easing restrictions for the first time in 48 days on 21 May, Botswana was forced to bring back a strict lockdown in its capital city, Gaborone, and surrounding areas after recording 12 new cases on 12 May. The lockdown was to be lifted on 16 June. On 3 July, the government announced the Ministry of International Affairs and Co-operation was being shut “due to Covid-19 exposure”.  

With Covid-19 being a poverty, inequality and human rights violations multiplier, serious questions continue to be raised on the adequacy of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and current efforts at tweaking such measures in order to facilitate the reopening of the economies. 

At the beginning of July, the president was back in quarantine for the fourth time “due to the discovery of a positive Covid-19 test result on one of the officials closely serving His Excellency the President Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi”.

On 15 July, BBC News reported that as doctors, unions and management fight over scarce resources in South Africa, one senior doctor described the situation as “an epic failure of a deeply corrupt system”, while another spoke of “institutional burnout… a sense of chronic exploitation, the department of health essentially bankrupt, and a system on its knees with no strategic management”.

RFI reported on 28 May that more than 400 people escaped from Kamuzu Stadium quarantine centre in Malawi — at least 46 of them had tested positive for the virus. Reasons for desertion included complaints of inadequate food, not enough bathrooms or other facilities at the stadium they were placed in while others simply bribed the police to escape. On 6 July, Malawi, which took to the polls on 23 June in a fresh presidential election, cancelled its independence celebrations that had been scheduled to coincide with the new president’s inauguration ceremony owing to a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases. 

In South Africa, teacher unions have strengthened calls for schools to close again after President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that the country’s Covid-19 peak is yet to come. Several teachers and students were infected with the virus at schools.

“Covid-19 is a global public health challenge, but in Africa, the malady has metamorphosed into an “economic pandemic” requiring bold and innovative parliamentary and governmental responses.” 

Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International says

While governments have been pushed to reopen economies largely by the impact of Covid-19 measures on the formal economy with estimated losses of $65.7-billion per month for each month of lockdown, according to Uneca, it is the carnage on the poor who rely on the informal economy worth $17-billion to $20-billion a year in southern Africa alone that the greatest impact on household incomes is felt. 

With Covid-19 being a poverty, inequality and human rights violations multiplier, serious questions continue to be raised on the adequacy of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and current efforts at tweaking such measures in order to facilitate the reopening of the economies. 

The predominantly weak economies in the region cannot cope for long without opening up. Yet without measures to enforce the conditions necessary for safe reopenings, it appears there is a looming danger of a further spike in infections and with it a possible return to strict lockdowns. The cost of another wholesale lockdown in southern Africa is economically unfathomable and a potential human rights disaster of incalculable proportions. 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer and the technical and strategy adviser of the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

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. The roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

On 7 July 2020, the government of Malawi issued a little-noticed announcement, withdrawing its decision on 12 June that the country’s chief justice, Andrew Nyirenda, had to go on compulsory leave pending retirement. In a nod to both the separation of powers and judicial independence, the notice acknowledged that the matter of the chief justice’s leave and how or when it should be taken was a “matter between the Honorable the Chief Justice and [the] Judicial Service Commission”.

It was a fitting bookend to the recent story of one of Africa’s unquestionably more unlikely political models, where the judiciary has emerged with credit in policing the ground rules of democratic politics.

In the 26 days from 12 June to 7 July, Malawi navigated a tumultuous path back to the future. On Sunday 14 June, the High Court of Malawi issued two orders suspending the presidential notice that would have effectively sacked the chief justice.

Two weeks later, on 28 June, Lazarus Chakwera, a Pentecostal pastor, took the oath as independent Malawi’s sixth president, replacing Arthur Peter Mutharika, the law professor whom he defeated in the rerun in June 2020 of a ballot from May 2019, which Malawi’s courts had found to have been characterised by high electoral larceny.

The path to this outcome was both tortured and, in the view of many people outside Malawi at least, improbable.

The Tipp-Ex elections

When Malawi went to the polls to elect a president on 21 May 2019, there were 10 parties on the ballot paper. They included Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), first elected in 2014. He was running for a second term.

Mutharika’s vice-president, Saulos Chilima, having fallen out with him, ran on the platform of the United Transformation Movement (UTM). Chakwera was the candidate of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Also on the ballot was Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Malawi’s first-past-the-post  electoral system was designed to produce as the winner the candidate with the highest lawful votes. The Malawi Electoral Commission registered 6,859,570 voters to vote in the ballot.

At the end of the contest, the commission announced a turnout of 5,105,983 votes, crediting Mutharika with 38.57% of the votes, Chakwera with 35.41% and Chilima with 20.24%. Muluzi came a distant fourth with 4.67%.

Both Chakwera and Chilima were unhappy with the declared results. The public mood was also fractious, and there were allegations that the electoral commission, led by supreme court justice Jane Ansah, had rigged the polls. Duelling public protests ensued, with vocal civil society advocating that #JaneAnsahMustFall as others claimed that she was the victim of targeted misogyny.

With the support of civil society, Chakwera and Chilima headed to Malawi’s constitutional court to challenge the results. On 3 February 2020, the court nullified the result and ordered a fresh presidential ballot with two stipulations. First, the rerun had to be held not later than six months from the judgment. Second, the winner had to emerge with a clear majority of at least 50% plus one of the votes cast. This was a high threshold for a country where presidential contests had historically been squeaky affairs.

As he was entitled to, Mutharika appealed the judgment to the supreme court. On 8 May, the supreme court affirmed the judgment of the constitutional court, throwing out Mutharika’s appeal. In doing so, the court identified three categories of irregularities that had marred the elections. It found “documents whose contents were altered by either the use of Tipp-Ex, a manual crossing out of the original content or overwriting on the original document. Then there are … completely new documents. In other words, documents that were never, at all, submitted by the polling station. Examples are duplicate, fake, reserve and uncustomised documents. The third category is unsigned documents.”

Under the terms of the court orders, the rerun was set to take place on or before 2 July. There was not a lot of time to get it done. This was only the second time that a court in Africa had nullified a presidential contest.

The first time, in 2017 in Kenya, ended in a fiasco when the irate ruling party decided in response to eviscerate the electoral process to the point where the opposition effectively pulled out of the rerun, paving the way for the incumbent to emerge practically unopposed.

Courts vs. despots

By the time the Malawi supreme court had handed down its judgment, the world was already in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. In other parts of Africa, Mutharika’s peers had set about using the pandemic as cover to retain power. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé used it to amend the constitution in order to secure a life presidency. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza saw in the pandemic an opportunity to install his hand-picked successor.

This was an appealing playbook for Mutharika. On 20 March, he proclaimed an indefinite “state of national disaster” during which he banned “all gatherings including weddings, funerals, church, congregations, rallies and government meetings” of more than 100 people. With this he sought to ban all political rallies during the period preceding the proposed rerun.

Five weeks later, on 28 April, high court judge Kenyatta Nyirenda stopped Mutharika’s government from “suspending or implementing the complete closure of religious gatherings”.

For Mutharika and his coterie, the courts and the church were tag-team against him in a contest in which his biggest opponent was a pastor. It was an odd place to be for somebody who is arguably Malawi’s best known law professor. He should have known that Malawi’s political history was defined by the contest between courts and despots, one in which his own family members have been prime actors.

On Christmas Eve in 1981, the government of Malawi’s founding president, “Ngwazi” Hastings Kamuzu Banda, abducted Malawi’s exiled first attorney-general and justice minister, Orton Chirwa, and his wife, Vera, from Zambia and returned them to the capital city, Lilongwe.

Orton was the founding president of the MCP, which led Malawi to independence in 1964. He was also Malawi’s first lawyer. As minister in the transitional government of 1962, Orton took issue with the presumption of innocence and burden of proof in criminal trials, arguing for their replacement with traditional African norms and institutions. As attorney-general, he pushed for these reforms but was turfed out of cabinet in September 1964 in a power tussle with Banda, before the reforms were promulgated.

A sequence of unsolved murders in the country ended up in the Chilobwe murder trials in 1969, which collapsed when the prosecution could not meet the standard of proof. In response, Banda scrapped criminal trials by regular courts, transferring jurisdiction over crimes to traditional courts, comprising a traditional chief as chair, with three citizen assessors and one lawyer.

Banda, by this time also his own justice minister, appointed the traditional leaders. They also reported to him. In an ironic twist of fate, Orton would be arraigned for treason in 1983 before the kind of traditional courts he had advocated for as attorney-general. His trial was a charade. The court denied him and Vera – herself Malawi’s first female lawyer – legal defence or the right to call witnesses.

He was initially sentenced to death on conviction, but Banda commuted this to life imprisonment. Orton spent the remainder of his life in solitary confinement at the Zomba prison in Malawi, where, in December 1992, he died at the age of 73.

It was the eve of Malawi’s transition from the despotism of the “Ngwazi”. In 1994, under the new multiparty constitution, Banda ran against and lost to Bakili Muluzi of the UDF, who himself had served Banda as minister. In 2003, a term-limited Muluzi sought to amend the constitution to extend his tenure.

Frustrated by the courts and the people, he chose a little-known economist and former deputy governor of Malawi’s central bank, Bingu wa Mutharika, as his successor. Following a royal falling-out between them, Bingu fled Muluzi’s UDF to start up the DPP. In 2009, Muluzi sought to return to presidential politics, but the courts ruled him permanently term-limited.

Seeking to consolidate power, Bingu tapped his own brother, Arthur Peter, as his closest adviser and minister, before installing him formally as his chosen successor as DPP leader. When Bingu died suddenly in 2012, his brother attempted to short-circuit the constitutional line of succession by hiding his demise and then exporting his body to South Africa in the hope that some malefaction could be invented to stop the vice-president from taking over.

He failed and the body of his older brother suffered the indignity of being buried in a state of considerable putrefaction. A man who could do that to the remains of his brother and benefactor should not have been entrusted with power, but in 2014 the people of Malawi did.

Back to the future

In the end, the country got tired of the despotic sleaze and cronyism of Peter Mutharika. Forcing him out, however, produced a drama fit for the script of Back to the Future. After being thrown out of power in 1994 following the 30 despotic years of the “Ngwazi”, the MCP was reluctantly accepted by Malawians this time as the vehicle for their political progress.

In doing so, however, they forced it to form alliances with nine other parties in the Tonse (together) Alliance, providing the kind of broad platform for what would become a sweeping victory and constraint on abuse of power.

To resist the Tonse Alliance, the Mutharika family made up with the Muluzis, enabling Atupele, Muluzi’s son, to become Mutharika’s running mate on the losing ticket.

The result is a rousing tale of democracy in all its messiness and inspiration. In all this, the people of Malawi found the voice to defend their democracy. When, therefore, Mutharika sought to oust their chief justice and eviscerate their judiciary, they rose as one to defend it.

In an unspoken understanding, Malawi’s judges have earned trust as the representatives of the only institution capable of holding the balance of power against the machinations of these resilient political families. It is an African example that should command attention beyond its own borders. 

Chidi Odinkalu is a former chair of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and works with the Open Society Foundations.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Condemns Xenophobic Attacks against Foreign Nationals in South Africa

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) calls on the Government of South Africa to immediately adopt measures that guarantee the protection of foreign truck drivers from the ongoing violence, intimidation, and harassment that is occurring in the country.

Since the start of July 2020, calls were made by several local organizations, including the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), for a national truck shutdown over the hiring of foreign nationals in South Africa. Actions taken by the ATDF thus far have included blocking several roads across the country, looting, torching of trucks and attacks of foreign national drivers. Furthermore, several reports indicate that there are also widespread plans to attack foreign-owned shops across the country. 

“The attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, particularly those who come from other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, are not new”, said Simphiwe Sidu, Legal Advisor of the SAHRDN. “What we are witnessing is part of a larger societal issue concerning the ongoing systemic challenge of achieving an equal society, particularly in relation to race, class and nationality”, added Miss Sidu

The Constitution of South Africa is founded on the values of equality and the creation of a non-racial and non-sexist society. Section 9 of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality and equal protection and benefit of the law for every person, including foreign nationals who are within the borders of South Africa. In addition, South Africa is a party to a number of international human rights instruments, which promote the right to equality and non-discrimination. Some of these instruments include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which all prohibit discrimination and guarantee the equal protection of every person according to the law.

According to previously published reports by Xenowatch, more than 300 deaths and 900 physical assaults related to xenophobia have occurred since 1994 in South Africa. Additionally, more than 100 000 foreign nationals have been displaced within this period. Although the South African Government has recently adopted a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, research shows that the attacks continue to worsen, and little has been done by the criminal justice system of the country to hold perpetrators of such actions accountable.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously spoken out against the attacks on foreign nationals, we believe that there further needs to be a strong demonstration of leadership from all sectors of government in order to protect the rights and interests of all foreign nationals in the country. The SAHRDN embraces the spirit of Ubuntu and Pan-Africanism, and we call on Mr. Ramaphosa as both the President of South Africa and Chairperson of the African Union to safeguard the unity and protection of all Africans, by ensuring that:

  1. The Police and every other relevant stakeholder to immediately investigate the criminal acts and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice for the harm done.
  2. Government needs to take urgent measures in reforming and implementing the National Action Plan to combat Xenophobia, by inviting all relevant stakeholders, including Civil Society Organizations and the public for comments.
  3. Government needs to urgently tackle the root cause of Xenophobia in South Africa, including eradicating inequalities in the country in order to promote peace and stability, within the framework of the South African Constitution and any other relevant instruments.
  4. Government should promote the founding values of the Constitution by seeking to ensure the need for equitable access of services for every person who lives in the country.

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

As Covid-19 takes hold in Africa, with rising numbers of infections, governments should prioritise the protection of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) who remain vital vehicles for social change and rights protection in the region.

The Covid-19 crisis has triggered disproportionate risks for marginalised and vulnerable communities globally and has made plain the structural inequalities built into our world. Across the globe, there has been an increase in authoritarianism and state repression in response to the pandemic, and southern Africa is no exception. Governments in the region have cracked down on dissent, activism and rights and increasingly securitised their enforcement of Covid-19 regulations. Thousands of citizens face fines, arrests, harassment and violence for violating Covid-19 regulations. 

WHRDS have played a significant role in fighting against this rollback of rights. Over the past three months, my organisation, the Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Program at Freedom House (ARISA) has spoken to WHRDs from Angola, Eswatini, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and South Africa and participated in regional discussions to assess the impact of the pandemic and government responses on WHRDs and their work. We found that in addition to the unrelenting nature and impact of the public health crisis, repressive government actions pose a serious threat to WHRDs and the rights of vulnerable and marginalized communities.

International human rights organisations have warned that Covid-19 measures in many countries have further restricted the space for civic activism. WHRDs in southern Africa have long faced government-backed threats and harassment in retaliation for their activism. Those who speak out are routinely subjected to arrests, threats of, and acts of violence, and gendered attacks and harassment, including online.

In the context of Covid-19, this has been reinforced by the particular effects of the pandemic on women, such as the additional burden of care, restricted access to health services, and a reduction in income for women in the informal sector. WHRDs are at the forefront of mitigating these negative effects, calling for greater women’s representation in government health responses and ensuring that women’s rights are protected. This has brought them in direct opposition to some governments and led to attacks and their exclusion from national government health responses to the pandemic.

For example, in Zimbabwe, security forces arrested, abducted and tortured three women members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance in May, after they participated in a citizen demonstration over the lack of government assistance for poor and vulnerable communities during the pandemic. The women were released but later arrested for violating lockdown regulations and making supposedly false reports about their abduction and torture. They spent several days in custody – putting them at great risk of Covid-19 infection – before they were released on bail. 

In South Africa, attacks have taken place in the context of gendered socio-economic rights violations. Soon after a government declared nationwide lockdown in March, security forces evicted hundreds of shack dwellers in parts of the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, despite a moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 crisis. Evictions often disproportionately and adversely affect women and children. Gender activists seeking to prevent local authority-led evictions faced threats of arrest and violent treatment by the security forces. Police fired rubber bullets at scores of community members and activists protesting the evictions in the Western Cape.

WHRDs face additional barriers of economic and structural discrimination, which have been worsened by the pandemic and government restrictions. WHRDs and human rights organizations in Angola, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana informed ARISA that government resources for Covid-19 have failed to reach WHRDs and women’s rights organisations working in remote areas even though many are on the frontline of pandemic responses.

Organisations providing legal services for women reported a reduction in access to courts and legal information on women’s rights due to travel restrictions mainly in rural areas. Organisations have been unable to reach women who have in turn struggled to access courts for adjudication and redress.

In Lesotho and Eswatini, women’s rights organisations reported that they had struggled to provide legal services to women involved in land grabbing and land dispute cases. The organisations reported a fear of a spike in women being evicted from their land due to a lack of access to their services and legal dispute mechanisms.

Indigenous People’s Organisations (IPOs) and those working with indigenous communities in Angola, Botswana and South Africa have also stressed the specific effects of Covid-19 on indigenous women. Indigenous women face multiple layers of discrimination and limited access to health and other social services. Government regulations in response to the pandemic have heightened these challenges.

IPOs in Botswana informed ARISA about the lack of information on the pandemic in indigenous languages and a lack of resources to specifically address indigenous peoples’ needs. Indigenous women, who often have lower literacy rates but have the greater burden of care than indigenous men, are likely to be most affected by the dearth of information.

WHRDs have also reported that governments have failed to take the impact of Covid-19 on women’s livelihoods into account in their legislative responses to the pandemic. While various national regulations in the region have allowed for essential services, including food manufacturing and supermarkets to remain operational, informal traders – a large percentage of whom are women – have been excluded by these regulations.

Initial lockdown measures in almost all countries in the region required informal traders and vendors to vacate their trading sites. In many instances, these bans have remained largely in place, even as countries have eased their lockdowns. The bans and restrictions have impacted rural women and women informal traders.

In Angola and Eswatini, women’s rights organisations reported that many rural women farmers were unable to sell their produce and lost earnings. In Lesotho, Covid-19 regulations failed to include informal traders and rural women farmers as essential goods and services providers leading to questions of whether rural women farmers and traders could continue to operate without violating regulations. In Namibia, the City Council of Windhoek initially closed all informal markets before re-opening some informal markets under strict conditions. In Zimbabwe, even as the government eased restrictions, it retained its ban on informal traders. In one case, police in Mutare, in the eastern province of Manicaland, confiscated and burnt tons of fresh produce at the province’s largest open-air fresh food market as part of enforcing lockdown measures.

WHRDs have also had to deal with a spate of gender-based violence cases during the pandemic. While gender-based violence in southern Africa is endemic, the number of reported cases of violence against women in a number of countries has increased during the pandemic. A women’s rights organization in Lesotho informed ARISA that the country recorded 1,450 cases of gender-based violence, including 12 cases of femicide during the country’s emergency lockdown. They reported that the number had surpassed annual numbers of gender-based violence in the country.

In South Africa, despite police figures indicating a decrease in reported cases of domestic violence during the lockdown period compared to previous years, calls to domestic violence hotlines increased significantly. As Covid-19 restrictive measures eased, a spate of femicides in the country compelled President Cyril Ramaphosa to condemn the rise in gender-based violence cases. Women’s rights activists have called for tougher action by the police and expressed frustration at the slow-pace of reforms to address gender-based violence.

Government-led pandemic health responses in local, national and regional Covid-19 policy and decision-making spaces have in many cases failed to reflect women’s experiences.

Although women constitute over 50% of the poor population in the Southern Africa Development Community, their views are often overlooked. There are few WHRDs or women’s rights organisations represented on national Covid-19 task forces or committees and their expertise and knowledge has not been fully incorporated into public health responses.

In Malawi, WHRDs called for equal representation of women and men in the decision making process after former President Peter Mutharika announced the restructuring of a special cabinet committee on Covid-19 to a task force in May. Only four out of the 21 members of the task force were women. Another organisation, Human Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities (HRWGD), made a similar call highlighting the lack of women with disabilities on the task force.

In grappling with these multiple challenges from the pandemic, WHRDs are experiencing significant socio-psychological pressure. They face extra burdens of care in their homes, loss of earnings and the threat of infections in their interactions with communities. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, women journalists informed ARISA that the pandemic had added to their hours of work and placed extra burdens on their lives. This was coupled with the fear of infection due to a lack of protective equipment and overexposure to the virus in the course of their work.

The reduced public visibility of WHRDs and their reporting on rights due to Covid-19 restrictions has heightened the risk of violence for many WHRDs and further impacted their social and mental wellbeing. WHRDs reported that they felt less safe during Covid-19 lockdowns. Some reported experiencing more online harassment after they turned to online forms of activism and mobilisation during the pandemic.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The crisis has also led to different forms of mobilisation by WHRDS, including in responses to the crisis. Throughout southern Africa, WHRDs are providing essential services, distributing food, care packages and protective equipment to communities and bolstering government responses. They are working closely with local authorities and donors to generate awareness about the needs of the most vulnerable and ensuring that they are catered for. WHRDs have also shone a spotlight on national inequalities and inequities and engendered critical reflection by governments on the need for rights respecting and inclusive political and socio-economic reforms.

The catalytic role that WHRDs play in the region underscores the need for the introduction of government protections for WHRDs in the region that is not only representative and consultative in approach, but responsive to their multiple and intersectional needs. 

Tiseke Kasambala is the Chief of Party, Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Program.

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

Every year, the African Union (AU), besides electing a new Chairperson, adopts a theme for the year. At the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as the AU Chairperson for 2020. The theme “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020” was also adopted with the primary objective to achieve a conflict-free Africa. 

In this article, we analyse how well Africa has performed in efforts at Silencing the Guns, taking into account the context of the fight against Covid-19. We are also halfway through 2020, making it a good time to stop and look at whether the theme can be achieved in earnest. 

Africa Day Commemorations 

In May 2020, this year’s Africa Day and Africa month celebrations were held under the theme: “Silencing The Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development and Intensifying the Fight against the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

Unfortunately, the celebrations happened amid ongoing conflicts on the continent in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, South Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Lesotho and countries in the Sahel region. It was also in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, a health crisis that is also inflicting damage of incalculable proportions on African economies and raising social as well as political tensions in many states across Africa.

As a result, AU leaders and AU civil society had sharply contrasting views about Africa’s performance and prospects for silencing the guns. 

In his Africa Day speech, President Hage Geingob of Namibia reported that Africa continues to make progress and has witnessed an increase in regular free and fair elections, smooth transition of power between presidents, increased levels of transparency, strengthening of democratic governance architectures by refining processes, systems and institutions, and increased respect of independent institutions, for example, court decisions after election disputes. 

In sharp contrast, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), representing millions of workers across Africa, lamented in their commemorative statement that: 

The road to a real integration in Africa remains strewn with challenges such as poor leadership and abuse of democratic rights, institutionalized corruption, violent conflicts, poor infrastructure, poor public services, dependent mentality and above all, lack of confidence and ability to take our destiny into our own hands… today the Covid-19 health crisis in the world has exposed Africa in all its weaknesses.” 

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and its sister sub-regional networks, under the umbrella body of the Pan-Africa Human Rights Defenders (AfricanDefenders), reacted to the Africa Day celebrations by asserting that the celebrations offer a historic opportunity to remind AU leaders that “silencing the guns” and defeating Covid-19 are not just mutually reinforcing objectives, but are critical enablers of creating an inclusive and prosperous Africa, which is anchored on sustainable peace, justice, equality, human dignity and equal opportunities for all.

SAHRDN pointed out that Africa still lags in implementation of the human rights and developmental standards that it has set for itself. This mismatch between adopted standards and their implementation has led to the post-independence African states being unable to adequately transform and improve the lives of African people and the African continent. 

A significant number of AU member states lack the political will to domesticate and implement many progressive protocols and instruments they voluntarily developed and adopted at various summits. Despite the existence of the frameworks and instruments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the AU Peer Review Mechanism, and the AU Governance Architecture Framework, unaccountable governance remains rife. 

Corruption, organised crime including trafficking in people and precious resources, State Capture, money laundering and illicit financial flows continue with impunity and are part of the governance culture in many countries.   

SAHRDN points out that these ills are the structural drivers of violent conflict and until they are dismantled in a systematic and sustained way, the vision of a conflict-free and fully developing Africa remains a pipe dream.

Countries where guns speak louder than words

On Africa Day, the Libyan capital was under siege in fierce fighting between forces loyal to rebel leader Haftar (called the Libyan National Army), and the forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government. The Haftar forces are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia while Turkey supports the recognised government. 

Libya has the world’s largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile, with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of uncontrolled munitions across the country, meaning there is little hope that guns will be silenced any time soon.  

In May 2020, at least 300 people were killed in a “fresh wave of intercommunal fighting in South Sudan”, in Jonglei state. Homes were destroyed, warehouses belonging to aid groups raided, and women and cattle abducted. A staggering 380,000 people have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war. 

Amid this prolific intra-state fighting, South Sudan is not spared the ravages of Covid-19: Vice-President of South Sudan, Riek Machar, and several other members of the South Sudan Covid-19 task force have tested positive.

In Mozambiqueas AU leaders were celebrating Africa Day, there were reports of insurgents carrying out “some of their most daring assaults, seizing government buildings, blocking roads, and hoisting black and white Islamic State flags in Cabo Delgado’s towns and villages. In the attacks, villages were burnt down and people beheaded. The militants also killed government soldiers before retreating into the bush.” 

In Somalia, Amnesty International continues reporting on civilian casualties mounting “from the United States military’s secret air war in Somalia, with no justice or reparation for the victims of possible violations of international humanitarian law”. 

During the Africa Day celebration week in the Central African Republic, where one in four Central Africans still remains either internally displaced or living as a refugee, fighting between rival militias left at least 25 people dead and 51 injured. 

In March 2020, the New York Times reported that in the Sahel region “the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a potent armed group with loose ties to the Islamic State, has been conducting sophisticated attacks in the border regions of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In the past four months, militants have raided four major military outposts in Mali and Niger, killing 300 soldiers”.

‘Low intensity’ conflicts: the violence of hunger and corruption

In Zimbabwe, a low-intensity conflict has raged on for over two decades, anchored in the failure to build a genuine multi-party democratic state.  Despite its immense economic potential, the refusal of the Zanu-PF elite to embrace political pluralism and tolerance has trashed the economy, and caused a social crisis that has degenerated into a humanitarian emergency: The World Food Programme has projected that over 9 million people are food insecure

The current stranglehold on the opposition, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, extra-judicial killings, resource and economic asphyxiation, politicisation of humanitarian support and weaponisation of the law all point in a direction towards a one-party state and an anti-democracy development. 

The impact of this low-intensity conflict has produced the same results as a country going through a full-blooded war like South Sudan. 

Since its return to democracy in 1993, Lesotho has been plagued by political instability. A never-ending low-intensity conflict has not given the country a chance to develop. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) deployed a Commission of Inquiry under the leadership of Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi that produced a set of recommendations that have not been fully implemented. Analysts say that South Africa’s “frequent involvement in Lesotho’s politics has not helped the mountain kingdom achieve lasting peace. Instead, it has had the unintended consequence of encouraging Basotho politicians to act in intransigent and inflammatory ways.”

From aspirations to real action

If guns are to be silenced, there is the need for the AU to be true to itself by acknowledging its glaring shortcomings rather than engaging in self-praise. 

A united and prosperous Africa also requires respect for democratic governance, rule of law and dignity of its citizens. The AU needs to be people-centred and based on genuine commitment, and political goodwill. It is inexcusable for AU leaders to run the continent on aspirations only and not on concrete actions.

The big and unanswered question is how the AU vision can be achieved within the context of the current leadership or lack of it, and the current system of largely unaccountable governance in many parts of Africa. Now, there is a danger that Covid-19, which has once again exposed the inequalities in Africa, can further reinforce the already-existing trend to authoritarianism and may significantly undermine the AU’s objectives to silence the guns.

It is clear that the guns will not be silenced in 2020. The question is whether they ever will and what it would take to make peace and equal rights a reality rather than a political slogan?

The overly optimistic mood of the chairperson of the AU on Africa Day 2020 sounded fake. It was hollow, and meaningless amid the inequality, poverty and injustice that pervade the continent. 

Civil society still believes that another Africa is possible. Civil society welcomes the dream of “silencing the guns”. But it will take a different brand of political leaders to achieve it. DM/MC

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.