Soldiers wearing red berets travelled 300 kilometres north from the
Guinean capital Conakry, to Khoréra, near Boké. They were looking for
Karamba Dramé, a youth leader in the town. When they found him, one of
the soldiers shot him. He died before he reached hospital on 31 October
As in many countries across Africa, Guinea’s population was hit hard by rising food and commodity prices during the year. Demonstrations erupted and the authorities believed that Karamba Dramé was one of the organizers of the protests. So they killed him.
The food crisis, which marked 2008 in Africa, had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable population groups, especially those already living in poverty. Across the Africa region, people demonstrated against the desperate social and economic situation and the sharp rise in living costs. While some demonstrations turned violent, leading to the destruction of private and public property, the authorities often repressed protests using excessive force. Security forces injured and killed numerous people who were claiming their right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food. Protesters were arbitrarily arrested and detained. Some were ill-treated in detention or sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. Most of the time, no investigations were carried out to identify those among the security forces responsible for the human rights violations committed while responding to the protests.
Millions across the region continued to be deprived of their basic needs in spite of the sustained economic growth in many countries in Africa during past years. People faced enormous challenges in securing a daily livelihood, often aggravated by marginalization or political repression, attempts to muffle their voices and render them powerless.
Despite such repression, demonstrators against the dire social and economic situation and the sharp rise in living costs took to the streets in numerous countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Somalia and Zimbabwe. The demonstrations, sometimes violent themselves, were usually met with yet more violence by the state. In late February security forces in Cameroon killed up to 100 people in response to violent protests in various towns against the escalating cost of living and low wages. Some of those killed were apparently shot in the head at close range. In Mozambique, the police killed three people and injured 30 others in February when live ammunition was used against people protesting against an increase in transport costs.
In Mali, marches were organized against the rise in the price of basic commodities and against plans to privatize the supply of water in Lere, in the north-west of the country. At least six people were injured in November, one of whom died later in hospital, when security forces shot at the demonstrators. In Burkina Faso, security forces arrested several hundred people, after demonstrations against rising living costs in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso erupted into violence. At least 80 of those arrested were sentenced to prison terms without having had access to a lawyer.
In Zimbabwe, hundreds of activists protesting against the dramatic decline in the economy and social infrastructure were arrested and detained without charge. Many protests were broken up by the police, often using excessive force. The government continued to manipulate access to food for political motives even though by the end of the year the UN estimated that about five million people were in need of food aid. Thousands of people, mostly in rural areas, became displaced as a result of the state-sponsored political violence and no longer had access to their food stocks, land or other forms of livelihood.
Thousands of people continued to migrate to other countries hoping to improve their families’ lives. Many, in desperation, took to the sea, putting their lives in the hands of ruthless traffickers. Hundreds of people leaving the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden, in an attempt to reach Yemen, died during the journey. In Mauritania, hundreds of migrants, believed to be heading to Europe, were arbitrarily arrested and detained in the country. Many were detained in inhuman conditions and ill-treated before being expelled, frequently not to their countries of origin and without being able to challenge the expulsion decision.
The rapid urbanization and prevailing poverty in many African countries means that many people find themselves without adequate housing, often living in slums. They are at risk of being forcibly evicted by the authorities and while living in the slums frequently have no access to basic facilities, such as water and sanitation. In Lagos, Nigeria, numerous people were forcibly evicted without due process and subsequently did not receive compensation or alternative housing. In Chad, a presidential decree, issued during the state of emergency early in 2008, ordered the demolition of thousands of homes in the capital N’Djamena, as the authorities considered they had been built on government land without authorization. Tens of thousands of people became homeless and had to seek alternative accommodation. In Kenya, hundreds of families living close to the Nairobi River faced the threat of forced evictions after the government announced that people living in informal settlements close to the river needed to leave these areas.
"We have been hit with a double misfortune. First we had to flee because our city came under attack. Now we have nowhere to return to because the government has destroyed our homes. Will the misfortune ever end?" - Chadian refugee, Maltam refugee camp, Cameroon, May 2008.
Prison conditions in many countries remained well below international
standards, often linked to overcrowding. As ever, prisoners from poor
families were worst affected as they often lacked the resources to
ensure their basic needs while in detention.
Armed conflict and insecurity in several African countries forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee from their homes, trying to find international protection across borders or some form of security within their own country. In some of the worst armed conflicts still affecting the region, government forces and armed groups completely disregarded the dignity and physical integrity of the population. The civilian population was routinely the object of attacks by parties to the conflict; rape and other forms of sexual violence remained widespread; children were often recruited to take part in hostilities; and humanitarian workers were targeted. Those responsible for crimes under international law, committed in the context of these armed conflicts, were hardly ever held to account.
The role of UN and regional peace keeping missions in Africa increased during 2008, but failed to make a significant impact in terms of protecting the civilian population. This was partly, but not entirely, the result of inadequate resources. The UN and regional bodies, such as the African Union, made little progress in resolving the armed conflicts in Sudan (Darfur), Chad, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (North Kivu).
The proliferation of small arms remained a significant contributing factor to the continuation of armed conflicts and to widespread human rights abuses. UN arms embargoes have not been effective.
The international community mobilized unprecedented resources to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia and to protect its commercial interests. It made no such efforts, however, to halt the flow of arms to Somalia – despite a UN embargo. Nor did it act effectively to stop the widespread violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict; nor to hold those responsible for crimes under international law accountable.
Hundreds of thousands of people were also newly displaced as a result of the conflict in Somalia. Fighting in and around the capital Mogadishu has led to 16,000 deaths, and undocumented numbers of wounded, among the civilian population since January 2007. The Transitional Federal Government was not able to establish its authority across south central Somalia and lost ground to armed opposition groups. Humanitarian organizations had only limited access to provide emergency assistance to an estimated 3.2 million people in need. Aid workers, as well as journalists and human rights defenders, were often targeted for political and criminal reasons.
The armed conflict in Darfur intensified throughout the year with no political resolution in sight. Attacks against civilians continued, as well as rape, looting and the destruction of villages. Millions of people remained internally displaced and humanitarian organizations often had no access to those in need because of the overall insecurity and the attacks on humanitarian convoys. As a result, thousands of people remained beyond the reach of emergency aid. People lacked protection from violence, even in internally displaced sites. In just one example in August, the authorities surrounded Kalma camp in South Darfur, opened fire and reportedly shelled the camp, killing 47 people.
The armed opposition group, Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), launched an attack against Omdurman, on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum in May. In the aftermath of the attack, the Sudanese authorities persecuted people thought to be of Darfuri origin. Hundreds of people were arbitrarily arrested and detained –many were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. There were also reports of extrajudicial executions.
Fighting also erupted in Abyei, South Sudan, between the Sudanese Armed Forces and forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), resulting in the destruction of the town, the displacement of 50,000 people, and additional strains on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan.
Tensions between Chad and Sudan rose again during 2008, especially after an attack in early February by Chadian armed opposition groups on N’Djamena. After two days of intense fighting, Chadian government forces repelled the attack. Subsequently, the government declared a state of emergency and arrested various members of the opposition, one of whom has become a victim of enforced disappearance. There were also reports of extrajudicial executions immediately after the attack. An estimated 50,000 people fled the violence in N’Djamena and sought refuge in neighbouring Cameroon.
Armed conflict was not the only source of widespread insecurity in the
region in 2008. Political violence following elections also played its
part in a number of countries. In Kenya, more than 1,000 people died as
a result of politically motivated ethnic violence and associated police
killings after the elections on 30 December 2007. Hundreds of thousands
of people fled their areas of origin and some fled to neighbouring
countries such as Uganda. In Zimbabwe, at least 180 people were killed
and thousands injured as a result of state-sponsored political violence
before and after the second round of presidential elections. Many
continued to flee to neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa.
In both Kenya and Zimbabwe, the violence and insecurity not only
affected the people’s physical security, but also their capacity to
earn a livelihood as thousands lost their homes, food supplies, access
to land and other sources of income. Hundreds of thousands of people
became dependent on humanitarian assistance for their basic needs as a
result of political violence.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing xenophobic attacks in South Africa in May also became dependent on humanitarian assistance as they had to flee from their homes and lost all their possessions. Over 60 people were killed and more than 600 were injured after people were beaten, sexually assaulted and killed in various provinces, often by people living in the same community. These xenophobic attacks against individuals, targeted because of their perceived nationality, ethnicity or migrant status, were fuelled partly by the deprivation in which many South Africans still live. Official investigations failed to bring the perpetrators to justice, or to clarify the causes of the violence.
"I was at home when a young FARDC soldier came to the house... Then he raped me... I was told later that he was whipped as a punishment, but the soldier is still at the camp and I see him regularly. When I see him, he tries to joke with me. He frightens me. I feel very anxious and depressed. I would like to press charges, but what could I really do to a soldier?" - Venantie, a 56-year-old widowed farmer in Beni territory, North Kivu, DRC, was raped on 25 January 2008.
Many groups in African societies continued to face discrimination and exclusion from protection or the means to get redress for the abuses they suffered. In Uganda, for example, victims of numerous human rights abuses during the armed conflict in the north of the country remained destitute and traumatized, often excluded from any means of redress.
Across the Africa region, people suffered discrimination within their families and communities because of their gender or their HIV status, exacerbated by their poverty. In South Africa for example, where 5.7million people were living with HIV, poor rural women continued to face barriers in accessing health services for HIV and AIDS due to unmanageable distances from health facilities and transport costs. Stigma and gender-based discrimination, including violence, also affected the women’s ability to protect themselves against HIV infection and to seek health care and support.
Women were also discriminated against in various societies under customary laws and traditional practices. The customary laws of certain ethnic groups in Namibia, for example, discriminate against women and girls, specifically laws on marriage and inheritance.
In various countries, notably Tanzania, albino people were murdered in what were believed to be ritual killings. Although the government of Tanzania denounced the killings, nobody was prosecuted in relation to them during 2008, even though a number of people were arrested.
People were persecuted for their (perceived) sexual orientation in countries including Cameroon, Gambia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda. In various countries, same-sex sexual relationships were a criminal offence.
In many African countries the judicial system lacks independence. In addition, the justice systemis often under-resourced, poorly equipped and understaffed, leading to excessive delays in hearing criminal cases. For those with little access to financial resources, negotiating the criminal justice system can prove a nightmare.
In Nigeria, for example, those who are poor face numerous obstacles to obtaining a fair trial within an acceptable period of time. Although some efforts have been made to provide legal aid, it is not nearly enough to grant legal representation for all who need it but cannot afford to pay for a lawyer – even in cases carrying the death penalty. The more than 700 people living on death row in Nigeria in 2008 all had one thing in common – they were poor.
However, in a landmark decision, the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ordered the government of Niger to pay reparations to a woman who had been held in domestic and sexual slavery for a decade, on the basis that the authorities had failed to implement existing laws against slavery.
Governments continued to restrict, without justification, the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. However, efforts by governments to control information were also countered by increasingly vibrant civil societies, often working in partnership with each other, and stronger independent media.
Legislation or other forms of regulation were frequently used to restrict the work of civil society and the media. In Ethiopia, the authorities prepared a draft bill that criminalizes human rights activities and gives authorities an excessive level of control over civil society organizations. In Swaziland, the new Suppression of Terrorism Act, with its impermissibly broad definitions of terrorism had a chilling effect on the activities of civil society organizations and infringed the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. In Chad, a presidential decree to limit press freedom remained in place even after the state of emergency was lifted. In Sudan, censorship over privately owned media outlets was reinforced. In Rwanda, the space for independent media workers, including foreign journalists, remained restricted. In Lesotho, restrictive broadcasting regulations and the use of criminal defamation, sedition and similar charges continued to take their toll on individual media workers and infringed the right to freedom of expression. In Kenya, parliament passed a media bill, and in Uganda, the authorities were drafting legislation: both laws would further restrict press freedom. In Niger, the government imposed a media blackout on the conflict in the north of the country and banned journalists from travelling there.
In numerous countries, including Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Togo, media outlets were suspended because the authorities disapproved of their stories. Journalists were routinely arrested and sometimes charged with criminal offences, purely for carrying out their work.
Political opponents of the government were arbitrarily arrested and detained in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mauritania, Republic of Congo, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. In some cases members of the political opposition were subjected to enforced disappearance or unlawfully killed. In other countries the space for political opposition, free speech and civil society was non-existent, such as in Eritrea.
Human rights defenders remained at risk in various countries and were often harassed and sometimes arrested for defending their rights as well as the rights of others. Journalists and human rights activists regularly had to flee their country because of security risks.
In Zimbabwe, numerous human rights activists, trade union representatives and political opposition members were arrested. Some were abducted and killed by government security forces as well as non-state actors working on behalf of the authorities. In Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad and Sudan, human rights defenders were also arrested. In some cases those detained were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. In a number of countries civil society organizations were closed down, or threatened with closure, by the authorities.
Unless governments address impunity in a serious manner the widespread human rights violations across this region will continue. At the moment, those who abuse others’ rights can continue to do so freely. Occasionally, after large-scale human rights violations, commissions of inquiry or other types of investigative panels are set up, but they are often more to appease public opinion than to establish the truth and identify those responsible.
"I want to be compensated for the injuries. I want to talk to my attackers and be told the truth about why I was beaten. I also want them to be brought to justice." - Lyn, an 86-year-old woman victim of politically motivated violence, Zimbabwe, August 2008.
In Chad, a national commission of inquiry into hundreds of killings and
other human rights violations in February 2008 published its report in
September – no action was taken by the government to implement its
recommendations. A commission of inquiry set up in Guinea to
investigate human rights violations committed in 2006 and
2007 did not conduct any investigations. In Liberia, the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission concluded its public hearings and its
findings were pending by the end of the year. The commission of inquiry
in Kenya, set up to investigate the post-election violence, made its
findings public in October. Even though the government pledged to
implement the recommendations in the report it had not, by
the end of the year, put in place a comprehensive plan of action to do
Unfortunately, governments often use commissions of inquiry, or truth and reconciliation, as surrogates for judicial inquiries, which are essential for establishing individual criminal responsibility.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) continued to pursue a number of cases from Africa. The application by the ICC Prosecutor for an arrest warrant to be issued against President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide triggered efforts to undermine the work of the ICC by various states and regional bodies, including the African Union (AU). The AU, the League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference called on the UN Security Council to defer the case. On the initiative of Rwanda, the AU adopted a decision criticizing what it called the abuse of universal jurisdiction.
While the ICC continued to pursue a number of cases from Africa, it can only prosecute a limited number of individuals. It is essential that national jurisdictions also investigate and prosecute those suspected of being responsible for crimes under international law, including by exercising universal jurisdiction. Regrettably, Senegal has only made limited progress in the case of former Chadian President Hissène Habré, indicating a lack of political will to initiate serious investigations.
On amore positive note, the AU adopted the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights in July. Once operational, the Court could contribute to ending impunity in Africa if AU member states agree to allow victims of human rights violations to approach the Court directly for an effective remedy.
"Even the short man can see the sky. When will the international community see what is happening in somalia?" - Somali human rights defender Abdullahi Alas Jumale, currently in exile, July 2008
There is still an enormous gap between the rhetoric of African governments, which claim to protect and respect human rights, and the daily reality where human rights violations remain the norm.
In 2008, Africans deprived of their rights took to the streets. Protests often became violent, with resentment fuelled by the repressive attitudes of governments towards dissent and protest. These protests are likely to continue.
So many people are living in utter destitution; so few of them have any chance to free themselves from poverty. Their dire situation is exacerbated by the failure of governments in the Africa region to provide basic social services, ensure respect for the rule of law, address corruption and be accountable to their people.
As the global economic outlook appears more and more gloomy, hope lies in the continuing vitality of civil societies across the region, and the determination of human rights defenders willing to challenge entrenched interests despite the risks they face.
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