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Democracy and the Social Practice of Human Rights in Africa

By Satang Nabaneh

Globally, democracy is showing tremendous fragility and most indexes note a global shift toward new forms of authoritarianism. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this trend and the need for reflection at a time when democracy, human rights, and liberal values are under increasing pressure. This trend is also impacting the African continent in specific ways. Building on the 2021 Social Practice of Human Rights conference, I recently organized a panel on the theme ‘Democracy and the Social Practice of Human Rights in Africa’ as part of the NGO Forum during the 73rd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in The Gambia. This discussion is particularly vital as the work of human rights defenders on the continent can catalyze a broader impact even under political repression.

The panel explored human rights advocacy in the wake of the global pandemic and increasing repressive measures by states and others aimed at curtailing fundamental freedoms. It was comprised of leading African scholar-practitioners, Bonolo Makgale, Manager of the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit at the Centre for Human Rights, the University of Pretoria; Basiru Bah, Legal Officer- Research at the National Human Rights Commission of The Gambia; Saikou Jammeh, Journalist, and Press Freedom Advocate and Essa Njie, Political Science lecturer, University of The Gambia. The panel tackled four key questions: 

What are the new issues, strategies, and tactics of advocates and repressors in Africa?
For advocates, emphasizing the transnational nature of human rights issues, and thus the need to establish linkages and a strong sense of solidarity, has emerged as a strategic response. Bonolo shared the example from Southern Africa, where there were violent responses from state security agencies in 2020 and 2021. Both physical violence from law enforcement agents, such as the police, and legal violence, where the law was used as a tool of repression, were experienced in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Eswatini. Notably, this also went beyond the Southern Africa region, given the 2020 #EndSARsprotest in Nigeria against police brutality. A strong sense of solidarity emerged during the #EndSARS protest movement.

The democratization of digital space with the significant increase in digital media use since the pandemic is another evident trend. For example, statistics show that Southern Africa has the 2nd highest social media penetration on the continent, at approximately 45%, placing the region as the second highest social media user after Northern Africa. The increased use and access to social media have given rise to a new form of activism in Africa called ‘hybrid activism.’ Digital media has raised awareness about abuses by states through the increased visibility of human rights violations and state-sanctioned violence, which we have experienced in Africa. Before social media, censorship and the controlled narrative, especially in repressive states, were effective at hiding human rights violations, especially in repressive states. This has meant that states that use repressive tactics to shrink the civic space must evolve.

Repressors, for their part, have increased the use of emergency laws in the Covid era. According to data from the International Centre For Not For Profit Law’s (ICNL’s) Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, 17 states of emergency, 11 public health emergencies, 9 national states of disaster or calamity, and 2 states of health alerts were declared in African countries, thereby placing limitations on freedoms of movement, association, and assembly. This has demonstrated that the legal frameworks regulating society and procedures during public health emergencies are inadequate and outdated. By way of illustration, Basiru noted that since independence, The Gambia had maintained laws that allow for wide curtailment of fundamental rights during public emergencies. Other examples included attempts to postpone elections, the creation of unequal footing relating to campaigning, and other electoral process manipulations. For instance, in Ethiopia, elections that were slated to be held in 2020 were postponed due to COVID-19. In other countries, COVID restrictions were used as opportunities to target opposition members and leaders, including the arrest of Bobi Wine in Uganda and key opposition leaders in Guinea. In some cases, lockdown restrictions were used as tools to prevent gatherings of people from exercising their fundamental rights, such as freedom of assembly and expression. In Malawi, for example, the government tried to use COVID-19 regulations to prevent protests against the outcome of the 2019 election.

What are the challenges facing human rights advocates and groups in Africa? 
With parochial political cultures in Africa, the work of human rights defenders, activists, and civil society is fraught legally, culturally, and practically. As noted by Essa, repressive media laws still exist in many African countries, including The Gambia, coupled with infamous Public Order Acts that severely limit freedom of expression and the right to protest. In addition, there remains a significant limitation in promoting and protecting the rights of vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as women, children, and LGBTIQ. 

What promising strategies, tools, and methods are human rights advocates generating? 
A range of promising practices is emerging in small countries, such as The Gambia, and, more broadly, across the human rights ecosystem. Saikou, in sharing work done by journalists and press freedom advocates, showcased the importance of coalition building. He noted that this has led to some landmark achievements, including initiating and leading the campaign for the enactment of access to information law, the review and amendment of some anti-press and free speech laws, and the establishment of institutions and mechanisms for media development and professionalism. 

It was highlighted that the shift in the political dispensation from solely authoritarian regimes to a more democratic climate across African countries also calls for change in methods. For example, while advocacy in a dictatorship focuses on calling out abuse and campaigning to end tyranny, the current moment demands the use of a combination of investigative reporting and public journalism to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with authorities and also the public. In this era, activists have to work even harder to ensure that the democratic systems and human rights norms that we fought so hard to create are nurtured and sustained. In this regard, democracy must deliver tangible results, such as visible improvements in service delivery, living conditions, good governance, accountability, and justice. An insightful example is the groundbreaking investigations - from election-related issues, environmental crimes, human rights violations, and corruption, leading to prosecutions and reform of laws and policies - done by Malagen, The Gambia’s first and only non-profit investigative journalism magazine. 

Another promising strategy explored is making local human rights campaigns international. Speakers gave practical examples of how they have used mechanisms and instruments from international and regional human rights bodies to make human rights violations more visible and foster collaboration. The examples in Africa reinforce the message that, as noted in our last SPHR 2021 blog, “it is important to not only see human rights as a useful organizing approach or tool, but also its holistic nature in motivating a politics of solidarity and cooperation amongst diverse constituencies.”

How should advocates focus their efforts and who should lead these in Africa? 
One crucial area for advocacy is the intersection among the rising cost of living, food security, and climate change, given that over 85 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is dependent on the informal sector. Individuals and families depend on their daily income for survival, and most have no social protection. The effects of climate change are increasingly being felt, which have broader implications for all facets of life on the continent, including food security, human security, and other socio-economic implications.

While there is a huge opportunity to leverage Africa’s demographic dividend, the continent’s growing and youthful population continue to be one of its underutilized resources.  In asking ourselves, what is the way forward, we coalesced around an approach that leverages the social practice of human rights, one in which human rights activists must be more creative and innovative in their work. The best responses to critical issues facing the Continent are collaborative efforts geared toward building solidarity across issues, organizations, and communities. The consensus view that emerged was that COVID-19 had taught us that working in silos is no longer an effective method. Equally important is the need to use varying methods and tactics of advocacy to build more strategic and impactful campaigns in Africa.


Satang Nabaneh is the Director of Programs at the University of Dayton Human Rights Center and a Research Professor of Law. She is the co-editor of The Gambia in Transition: Towards a New Constitutional Order (PULP, 2022). Her teaching, advocacy, and research focus are on international human rights law and monitoring mechanisms, human rights in Africa, democratization and governance in Africa, and comparative constitutionalism.

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