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Report Reveals Attacks against Freedom of Association in Many African Countries
Freedom House released a report today outlining actions against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by governments across Africa. Entitled Freedom under Threat: The Spread of Anti-NGO Measures in Africa, the report finds that 12 African countries have passed laws that improperly constrain NGOs in the last 15 years, while six more have anti-NGO measures pending. In six countries, restrictive legislation has been abandoned by executives, rejected by legislatures, or invalidated by courts, often in the face of pushback from civil society.
“Restrictions that hamstring NGO activity are often part of a broader strategy to narrow democratic space and prevent challenges to the rule of strongmen and governing parties,” said Godfrey Musila, the report's author.
“Civil society plays a central role in holding governments accountable and protecting human rights,” said Freedom House’s Jon Temin, director of Africa programs. “Cracking down on NGOs through legislative and other restrictions doesn’t bode well for the health of democracy in many of these countries.”
Curbs on NGOs working in Africa, particularly those that focus on human rights and governance, come in the context of a global assault on democracy that often appears to be coordinated across borders. Antidemocratic African governments mimic and draw inspiration from each other, but may also be influenced by major actors on the global stage such as China and Russia, which have both forged close ties with many countries in Africa.
The study identifies which countries may be next to introduce this kind of legislation. Political and economic challenges, preexisting limits on freedom of association, and susceptibility to backsliding in countries that have recently transitioned to democracy all threaten NGO rights. Such conditions make Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia particularly vulnerable to restrictive NGO laws.
Importantly, the report highlights lessons from countries where civil society has effectively halted anti-NGO measures. Successful tactics include lobbying legislators, policymakers, and the international community; pursuing litigation; building cross-border coalitions; and using technical experts to help develop lobbying strategies, educate legislators and NGO leaders, and prepare draft legislation.
“Blocking these measures, or turning them back once they’ve passed, is possible,” said Musila. “It often takes coordinated actions among NGO actors, cross-border learning, and the use of courts to dramatize the NGO cause.”
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.