10 Positive Developments in Africa in 2013

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Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report paints a bleak picture of democracy and human rights in Africa overall, with 88 percent of the population living in countries designated either Not Free or Partly Free. Nevertheless, there were a number of small victories on the continent during 2013, even in countries where the prevailing trend remains negative.

Senegal (Free): After the International Court of Justice in 2012 ordered Senegal to either try former Chadian president Hissène Habré or extradite him to face trial elsewhere, the government in Dakar decided to charge the notorious dictator with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture in June 2013. Senegal’s decision represented a breakthrough for African justice, particularly at a time when efforts to try the leaders of countries like Sudan and Kenya face ongoing obstacles.

Kenya (Partly Free): Kenyan civil society has been under almost constant threat from the administration of newly elected president Uhuru Kenyatta, but activists managed to achieve a significant victory in December 2013 when their advocacy efforts directly contributed to the withdrawal of certain provisions of the Miscellaneous Amendment Bill and its eventual defeat in Parliament. The bill, announced without notice or debate, would have placed tight restrictions on the country’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limiting foreign funding to 15 percent and dramatically increasing government control of the sector.

Botswana (Free): Legal efforts supported by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, a Freedom House partner, led to a landmark September 2013 ruling by the Botswana Court of Appeal that rejected gender-biased customary laws. The court unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling in the case of Ramantele v. Mmusi and Others, finding that Edith Mmusi and her three sisters were entitled to inherit their family home. The chief justice wrote, “Any customary law or rule which discriminates in any case against a woman unfairly solely on the basis of her gender would not be in accordance with humanity, morality or natural justice. Nor would it be in accordance with the principles of justice, equity and good conscience.” The decision establishes a legal precedent that can now be used by others in Botswana and the region to secure equal rights for women.

Zimbabwe (Not Free): Following more than four years of fierce partisan debate and political uncertainty, on March 16, 2013, Zimbabweans overwhelming approved a new constitution in the country’s first national vote since the violent elections of 2008. In addition to increasing checks on executive power, imposing presidential term limits, and strengthening judicial independence, the new constitution included a bill of rights that guarantees fundamental democratic freedoms to which all Zimbabweans are entitled. While President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have continued to curb the rights of citizens in practice since winning flawed elections in July, the judiciary has recently demonstrated a degree of independence by ruling against the government in a number of high-profile cases. Zimbabwe’s new constitution represents an opportunity for citizens to push for stronger rule of law and to hold their government accountable for abuses.

Guinea (Partly Free): For the first time in more than 11 years, Guinea held parliamentary elections in September 2013. The voting was preceded by minor irregularities and violence, but it represented an important milestone. Guineans turned out in unprecedented numbers and voted peacefully, dispelling fears of unrest and low participation. It is now President Alpha Condé’s responsibility to sustain this democratic progress by continuing a dialogue with opposition forces (as some are still protesting the election results), and demonstrating a good-faith effort to address past abuses.

Ethiopia (Not Free): For the first time since the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP) restricted foreign funding to human rights organizations to 10 percent, several Ethiopian human rights NGOs in 2013 submitted winning proposals to access critical funding from the European Union Civil Society Fund (EUCSF). Under international and domestic pressure to abide by the Cotonou Agreement with the EU, the Ethiopian government had agreed to treat the EUCSF as a local fund. This exception to CSP offered a much-needed lifeline to civic groups that were on the brink of closure due to lack of funding and a hostile political environment, though they and their international allies still face the bigger challenge of demanding repeal of its restrictive provisions.

Mali (Partly Free): After a catastrophic period of more than a year that featured occupation by militants in the north and a coup d’état in the capital, Mali successfully held presidential and parliamentary elections in 2013, taking a major step toward the restoration of what had been a fairly stable democracy. As Mali continues to recover and stave off further violence in the north, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his government must carry out an inclusive reconciliation process that will ensure lasting peace and good governance.

Sudan (Not Free): Mobilizing independent civic activism for even the most benign and apolitical causes is nearly impossible in Sudan under President Omar al-Bashir and his repressive National Congress Party (NCP) government. Thus it was a significant victory when a group of young activists launched a volunteer effort called Nafeer in August to provide emergency relief to more than 300,000 people affected by heavy floods. Nafeer, a word that invokes a Sudanese cultural tradition of raising an alarm to summon help when someone is in trouble, was critical in increasing public awareness about the inadequate government response. Around 6,000 volunteers joined the initiative to assess the needs of the flood victims, distribute lifesaving supplies, and conduct neighborhood sanitation drives to prevent the spread of disease. Nafeer was forced to disband after the NCP initiated a smear campaign against it. However, the movement achieved immense success in its short lifespan, as was recognized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Sierra Leone (Partly Free): In October 2013, Sierra Leone adopted the Right to Access Information Act, which aims to promote transparency, good governance, and accountability in the West African nation. It establishes the right to access government information and requires all governmental departments to widely distribute a formal strategy for making their records publicly available. The new law also imposes a penalty for those who fail to comply. In passing this legislation, Sierra Leone joined only 10 other countries in Africa with freedom of information laws in place. In the months to come, the government and the international community must ensure that the law is fully implemented, as observers have noted serious and growing problems involving corruption and a lack of transparency over the past year.

South Africa (Free): Justice for Zimbabwean victims of torture became a more realistic possibility when South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal ordered the South African Police Service (SAPS) to investigate high-level Zimbabwean officials accused of committing crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe. In a landmark judgment handed down on November 27, 2013, the court ruled that perpetrators of human rights abuses could be investigated and tried in South Africa, regardless of whether the alleged crimes took place in the country. The Southern Africa Litigation Centre and Zimbabwe Exiles Forum had demonstrated that the alleged violations formed part of a larger campaign of state-sanctioned torture that was sufficient to fall within the ambit of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Act, which domesticates the offenses listed in the Rome Statute of the ICC in South African law. The ruling reasserts South Africa’s international obligations under the Rome Statute, confirms that domestic courts have a crucial role to play in dispensing international criminal justice, and could have positive ripple effects beyond the borders of South Africa.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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