African Leaders Should Respect People's Right to Protest

Ugandan soldiers beating up Reuters photojournalist James Akena as he covered the protests over the detention of several Opposition MPs in Kampala (file photo).

On January 14, 2019, thousands of Zimbabweans protested against a 150 percent hike in fuel prices imposed on January 12 by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Security forces used excessive force including live ammunition on unarmed protesters.

I n Sudan, the government has cracked down violently on protests sparked by price increases , institutional corruption and mismanagement, including massive spending on the security apparatus at the expense of basic services. Dozens have been killed, many others injured, and thousands arrested. Hundreds of people still languish in national security detention.

In Togo, the wave of civic protests raged against the current repressive political climate and economic situation was brutally repressed by both the military and the police.

While the targets of outrage vary, and locations differ, recurrent themes underlie protests in many sub-Saharan African countries: rejection of corruption, systemic forms of inequality and enduring tyrannies .

Regardless of the reason for demonstrating, the people protesting are largely trying to exercise a basic human right – to assemble and protest peacefully. Protest may be a common avenue for ordinary citizens to make their voices heard, exercise their right to freely assemble and a useful tool to hold governments to account.

African leaders should respect people’s right to demonstrate even, and especially, when they disagree with the aims. Unfortunately, few governments seem to adhere to the principle that people should be allowed to protest peacefully. Indeed, some governments have brutally quelled street demonstrations, using excessive force , arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment.

In Zimbabwe and Sudan, there has been no move to prosecute those responsible for killing hundreds of protesters, and forcibly disappearing others. In Cameroon , Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda , pro-democracy peaceful protesters also have been persecuted, tortured, and sometimes, simply killed, with no move to prosecute those responsible.

The right to peaceful protest is a basic human right. It was reaffirmed by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights just two years ago, who said “The rights to freedom of association and assembly are fundamental rights that should underpin all democratic societies in which individuals can freely express their views on all issues concerning their society.” But too many governments still see peaceful demonstrations as a threat to be prevented, not a right to be respected.

In response to government’s attempts to silence them, people have intensified their efforts to peacefully protest and demonstrate. Protests are not new; they may remind those in power of their duties to uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights. They have formed an important part of civic and political movements in Sub Saharan Africa as far back as the anti-tax protests in  Tanzania in the 1940s. But they have returned in recent years in a form that has been transferrable from country to country.

The 2014 protests led by a Burkina Faso citizen movement, “le balai citoyen,” which ultimately ousted President Blaise Compaore, may have been inspired by the Senegalese movement “ Y en a marre”. These in turn inspired and built solidarity with similar movements such as LUCHA in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Burundi citizens’ protest movement , commonly referred to as “Sindumuja.” Furthermore, some of the protests, especially those led by young people , are reflected in art, music, literature, and magnified on social media platforms.

These and other protests on the continent stir memories of the disquiet in the period of pre-independence and Apartheid in South Africa when African—and non-African—protesting and calling for justice, equality, and respect for human rights ultimately ushered in a new era of basic freedoms in many countries. Today, above all, the most fundamental issue at stake is the right to freely protest and to express opinions in concert with others.

Ethiopia is a good example of how people, even under the most authoritarian and repressive governments, can maintain a resolve for change against all odds. And if the current protests in Sudan-where large segments of society have persisted the drumbeat of protests for over three months- say anything, it is that people are taking risks; and are ready to withstand even lethal force to pressure governments to abide by key principles of law and respect for human rights.

African leaders need to uphold the right to peaceful demonstration. They also ought to listen to people’s calls to respect their rights, and do so carefully, before more lives are lost, and the bond of trust is completely broken between them and those they have sworn to serve and represent.

Carine Kaneza Nantulya is the Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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