africa

 

  • ‘Civil society needs a compelling counter-narrative’

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Lynnette Micheni from PAWA254, an organisation that fosters social accountability and active citizenship among young people, mainly through arts and media.

    1.Your organisation, PAWA254, defines itself as a movement of young, socially conscious artists and activists. How do you connect art and activism in your work?

    We use art, pop culture and media as an empowerment tool. We believe in artistic expression as a means for social change and the deepening of democracy, and we harness it to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Kenyans, and against social and political vices, including corruption and abuse of power. As a result of our work, we have seen ‘artivists’ multiply, and a movement of active, freethinking youth emerge in our country.

    We work with a variety of arts and media, including photography, film, spoken word, poetry graffiti, cartoons, blogging and writivism, which has opened such great spaces for accountability in Kenya.

    Our programs are two pronged: some focus on the economic development of emerging creatives and activists and others on social accountability, all the while leveraging the arts, pop culture and media.

    The former entails developing the capacity of emerging artists and facilitating the integration of artistic expression for livelihoods development through the provision of a state-of-the-art co- working space consisting of creative suites, professional equipment, skills transfer and networking opportunities. PAWA convenes key annual events such as the PAWA Festival, an annual street festival that showcases East Africa’s visual and performing arts and disseminates the Kenya Photography Awards.

    Our social accountability programs entail using art and pop culture as a form of civic engagement through dance, poetry, graffiti, theatre, music, film and photography to spark civic participation by focusing attention on emerging social concerns in the country and to prompt action in the process. Key current interventions include Off-The-Record, a weekly space where participants can express their thoughts on issues affecting society strictly off the record, with no fear of censorship or repercussions; #JengaHustle, an initiative aimed at advancing policies regarding employment and decent jobs for youth; #EmergingVoices, an intergenerational leadership development project aimed at empowering emerging social justice organisers and #ARealManIs, a transformative masculinity project aimed at leveraging media in mobilising young men’s fight against gender-based violence.

    2. Does artivism, and activism in general, face any challenges in Kenya?

    Indeed. Civil society is currently fighting a battle for its legitimacy, and it’s not winning. From every podium, including national television, the government is pushing a narrative discrediting civil society. Last year, two prominent human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down over their alleged non-compliance with regulations, including tax and employment laws, and for operating without a licence. There have been attempts to de-register other organisations as well.

    The prevailing narrative is that activists and CSOs are donor-funded disrupters. The idea is also being disseminated that people do it for the money. If you mobilise, you are asked: ‘how much have you been paid?’ – like there is no other driver than money. Ideas or visions of change don’t count. They will say that critical civil society activists and organisations are ‘Soros people’ - implying they are being funded by the Open Society Foundations and are therefore puppets of foreign interests. It is very difficult to counter this narrative when it is constantly being propagated on national television.

    It is also a challenge that there is a growing apathy amongst young people who are very well aware of their constitutional rights, resulting in an overreliance on individual activists.

    3. What is being done in response to this?

    What needs to be done is put together and disseminate a compelling counter-narrative. We know this is difficult because the problem has deep roots. So, the first thing we need to do is understand why it is so easy for governments to target civil society, in Kenya and elsewhere.

    We first heard about ‘fake news’ a couple of years ago, and it was all happening far away, in the USA. But the trend has progressed very fast, and in the context of presidential elections last year we suffered an epidemic of fake news. It was all over social media, which is a major source of information for Kenyan citizens, and it distorted the political conversation, and maybe the outcomes of the elections as well. Young people, the group that most uses social media, were particularly misled by fake news stories aimed at stirring conflict and dividing civil society.

    The abundance of fake news can be very disconcerting for young people that have little experience with interpreting data and are ill-equipped to tell the difference between legitimate and fake information. How do you sustain online movements while avoiding the infiltration of narratives based on fake news? How do you manage to bring online movements offline and keep them going in a context in which the political discussion is distorted to such extent?

    Young people are also particularly vulnerable to empty electoral promises of jobs and other benefits. Lots of promises are made at election times but no policies are ever enacted to fulfil them afterward. And people keep believing every time. The problem is that we have a whole generation of people who form their opinions based on headlines, and also build their activism on the basis of headlines – and under the headlines, there is usually no real content.

    The government is aware that evidence-based activism is lacking, and they do have smart and better prepared people, so they sometimes invite civil society to the table and pair them with a government technician, even on live television. Civil society activists are not always in a position to prepare adequately to respond. So it is difficult to connect and sustain civil society struggles, and instead it is so easy for the government to co-opt civil society actors.

    This is why we work to empower people, and young people in particular, to seek facts, to interpret them and understand their implications, to make decisions based on them, and to use them to monitor the government, hold it accountable and ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. We believe that arts, pop culture and media remain a viable tool to engage with the youth and are keen to continue investing in them.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with PAWA254 through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@Pawa254 and@LynnetteMicheni on Twitter.

     

  • ‘There are signs of hope, but we are not waiting with our arms crossed but pushing for reforms that improve our lives’

    Angola saw a change at the top in 2017, when President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a staggering 38 years in power, to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco. His rule was characterised by close control of the nation’s oil wealth, to the benefit of his family and the ruling elite, which necessitated a tight grip on civil society to prevent it exposing corruption and demanding a fairer distribution of wealth. As part of the state’s repression of civil society, in 2015, 15 young activists were arrested and detained for taking part in a group that discussed a book on liberation. The group were held in poor conditions, mistreated and, after an unfair trial, found guilty of rebellion. One of that group, activist and rapper Luaty Beirão, speaks to CIVICUS about what changes may be underway in Angola, and how civil society is trying to engage constructively to seek reform under the new president.

    1. What changed for Angolan civil society in 2017?

    2017 was a very interesting year for us. After six years of struggle aimed at our President, José Eduardo dos Santos - who when we started had been in power for 32 years, and in 2017 marked 38 years in power - he finally did not run for the presidency again. So we have a new president for the first time. I was born under dos Santos, and finally I have a second president.

    It’s the same regime and the same party that has been in power for 42 years, so we were not expecting the new president to act against his predecessors. What dos Santos did towards the end of his term was put his family, especially his children, in very sensitive positions in our economy. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was chair of the national oil company, Sonangol - oil is our main resource - and his son José Filomeno dos Santos managed the US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund. We did not expect the new president to move so swiftly, but in under 90 days he’d sacked Isabel dos Santos and got José Filomeno dos Santos under control: he should not last much longer because he’s recently been implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Two other children - Welwitschia and José Paulinos dos Santos - were in charge of two private companies, Westside and Semba Comunicações, which had a US$30 million contract with the state to run public TV service Channel 2. But now they have lost the contract and Semba Comunicações has closed.

    The new president is also giving some space for judicial and state investigators to track how public money was used. Some cases are starting to arise, including some that affect the former president’s family interests. Isobel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, is also being sued abroad. Things are starting to catch up on them really quickly. It is interesting to see the new president allowing this to happen, although it might come back to bite him: it is impossible for him be clean because he has been in government for so many years.

    One of the main reasons why we thought the new president would not do anything is that under the Angolan electoral system we vote for a party, not a candidate for president, and dos Santos remains the president of the ruling party. We expected him to tell party members what to do. We knew there was disruption within the ruling party, but the level of disruption is only now becoming apparent.

    2. How is civil society reacting to these changes and the new opportunities that may open?

    For us, there are signs of hope. The new president’s intentions appear to be good, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

    In 2011, we decided that confrontation was the only way to go, because if we tried to do small projects on the side, they would only come and shut us down. We decided that to get our ideas working, we first needed to liberate ourselves from totalitarian rule.

    Now the old president is gone and the new president is showing some openness, so we want to explore the situation and find out how far this openness reaches. Instead of looking for confrontation, as we had to do in the past, we have started to propose ideas, especially on social media. This is because to cast an image of himself as more democratic and open to modern society, the new president has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as do the Minister of Communication and the Governor of the capital city, Luanda. So we know they are reading our comments and they know we are there not just to be critical, but that we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are things we want to propose and see how they react to them, so we are testing them. I hope this interesting phase we're now in will shift us away from the need that we had before to be confrontational.

    Even huge opponents of the old regime are applauding some of the new president’s initiatives. Hope is rising in Angola. We hope he is wise enough to keep it going longer. I hope he takes in all this positive energy and he finds it contagious and carries on going.

    But we are not just waiting with our arms crossed. We are pushing for reform initiatives and showing the government that we are ready to back its actions if they are going to have positive repercussions in improving our lives and lifting the limitations we suffered from 1975 to 2017.

    3. What changes should take place to show that the new president is serious in seeking reform?

    There are many simple things that can be done, and small steps can keep hope alive. We want to carry on believing. We don't want to be disillusioned.

    The new president should acknowledge the need for a strong civil society, rather than try to co-opt it into government. It would help if civil society actors saw their points of view taken into consideration when major decisions are made. The government should show more openness, for instance by being more present on social media and making live broadcasts of meetings.

    There should be a constitutional reform. The 2010 constitution was designed to suit dos Santos. It gives too many powers to a president that is not even directly elected by the people. The president appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Military Court, and these judges report directly to the president, so there is no separation of powers. This needs to change. If the president wants to effect real change, he should reduce his own powers.

    Regarding corruption, the new president should open a public debate and the public should accept that it is useful to know who were guilty of stealing public money and where the money went. But rather than focusing on sending those people to prison, we need to find a way to recover the money and have it invested in Angola.

    We don’t expect the new president to transform the country in two days, but we do want him to show he is willing to listen and put into practice other people’s ideas, to experiment and open up.

    We want to not have to be constantly fighting and confronting the powers that be. It’s exhausting, especially when you get beaten up, you get stitches in your head and you have to spend a year in prison. I would really love to shift my activism. I just want to feel like an active citizen. I want to carry on sharing my thoughts and ideas without being involved in conflict the whole time.

    4. Apart from corruption, what are the major challenges that the new president faces?

    There is urgent need to invest in education and health. Although theoretically we have free access to these public services, in practice that is not the case, and people in the ministries that are supposed to make these services work have stolen money, so we lack basic equipment and supplies. There is need for serious investment, starting with education, which will also help with public health knowledge. We need educated Angolans to manage the country. We are still very reliant on foreign capacities and foreign consultants, who charge huge amounts of money. We should also be developing tourism, but for the time being it is very hard to get visas for Angola.

    Long-term investment is needed. Our national budget for the last 15 years has had double the amount going to security than to education and health. We are not at war and face no military threat. The only explanation for this is that the military control society. In fact, there are three different secret services operating in Angola.

    Holding local elections is another important task for the new president. Local elections have been delayed for over seven years so far, with excuses such as lack of money or the need for a new law that has not been drafted. Of course, the ruling party doesn’t want elections because it risks losing constituencies.

    There are good things going on in this part of the continent. Why can’t we follow the good examples instead of always comparing ourselves to the worst cases?

    5. What role should the international community and civil society play? Do we need to change our approach to Angola?

    When we started our movement in Angola, we were not thinking about finding supporters. We just did it out of urgency. But when you act following your heart and convictions, you draw international attention. Luckily for us, when we landed in prison a worldwide civil society movement advocated on our behalf.

    There are always more things that can be done. But the situation on the ground is so dynamic that it's hard for big structures to follow through and adapt quickly. One of the things big structures need to do is acknowledge their difficulty to adapt and recognise that civil society movements worldwide are becoming increasingly less formalised. On the other hand, for informal groups it is also hard to adjust to the formal ways of access to international civil society organisations. We don't even know the jargon or terminology. We don’t know how a letter to the UN should be structured. There may be a need for capacity building in that regard. It might help if we were shown how to identify and reach out to the right people in the right places, and if we had help in building networks and identifying similarities and parallels that could serve as a basis for dialogue.

    • Civic space in Angola is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
    • Get in touch with Luaty Beirão through his Facebook page, or follow @LuatyBeirao on Twitter.

     

  • Activism and the state: How African civil society responds to repression

    By David Kode and Mouna Ben Garga

    In most African countries, freedom of expression, assembly and association are stifled by state and non-state actors through the use of restrictive legislation, policies, and judicial persecution as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists. While these restrictions generally occur when civil society groups speak out in direct opposition to public policy, there is strong evidence that restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders. African citizens, activists and organisations are finding new and innovative ways to resist, organise and mobilise in the face of mounting restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

    Read on: Pambazuka 

     

  • Adjournment of Civil Society Activists’ Trial in Cameroon Shows State Has No Case

    JOHANNESBURG – Three civil society leaders in Cameroon remain imprisoned in solitary confinement and on trial for leading peaceful protests, following their court appearance on 27 July.

    The trial of Felix Balla Nkongho, Fontem Neba and Mancho Bibixy in a military court in the capital, Yaoundé, was adjourned for the third time since it began over six months ago. The activists face various spurious charges, some which, like treason and terrorism, carry the death penalty. A fourth activist, Justice Ayah Paul Abine is being held incommunicado at the Secretariat for Defense while hundreds of others remain detained at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé. 

    The activists were arrested in January 2017 after publicly raising concerns against the marginalisation of Cameroonians in the country’s Anglophone North West and South West regions, by the Francophone regime of President Paul Biya. They had called for the reforms in the legal and education system. Their organisation, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), has been banned. 

     “We strongly condemn the ongoing arbitrary arrests and unjustified prosecution of individuals opposing the atrocities in defiance of human rights standards. The international community has a responsibility to help end the cycle of persecution in Cameroon.”  Said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS:

    The trial itself has been marked by irregularities and a lack of due process. In the latest proceedings, the judge began by kicking one of the defence attorneys out of court. The defence team’s representations in English were also mistranslated into French by the court interpreter.  In addition, the judge claimed that the state was not aware of the trial of the activists. 

    CIVICUS also expresses growing concern at the deepening human rights crisis. Reports of human rights violations in the Anglophone regions include the shooting and killing of unarmed protesters; arbitrary arrests; detention without trial; torture; legal harassment and unjust prosecutions; the targeting of journalists and media outlets; and the shutdown of the internet for months. 

    We call on the Cameroonian authorities to release all detained protesters and ensure that democratic rights to freedom of expression and assembly are respected. 

    We further call on the international community to increase efforts to engage the Biya regime to find lasting solutions to the conflict. We particularly urge the United Nations to intervene on behalf of barrister Nkongho, who has served the UN as a human rights and legal advisor to the UN Mission in Afghanistan, and the other activist leaders on trial. 

    Note: Civic space in Cameroon is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global tracking tool of violations against the freedom of expression, association and assembly.

    Ends.

    For more information, contact:

    Grant Clark

    CIVICUS Media Advisor

     

  • Africa to Address Post- 2015 Disaster Resilience Agenda

    Governments from over 50 countries in Africa will meet in Arusha, Tanzania from 13-15 February for the Fourth Africa Regional Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction (ARP) to address the challenges of building a disaster resilient society.


    The Africa region is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is projecting economic growth of 5.25% for sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, a rate that places the region second only to Asia's booming economies and well above a world forecast of 3.6%.


    As the countries in this blossoming region continue to develop, this impressive growth could be undermined by exposure to disaster risks and a changing climate. A recent statement "Raising the African Voice" at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the African Science Academies, claims that climate change will impact Africa more severely than any other region in the world and that severe weather events such as droughts and floods are on the increase.

     

    Read more at reliefweb

     

     

     

  • African Union Makes Moves to Neutralise Africa’s Main Human Rights Body

    By David Kode, CIVICUS Advocacy and Campaigns lead

    For many African activists based on the continent, getting to a major human rights summit just underway in The Gambia is likely to have been a challenging exercise. The journey by air from many African countries to the capital, Banjul, for the 63rd Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), could have been prohibitively expensive, involved transiting through multiple cities and taken days.u

    Read On: South South News and  Inter Press Services News Agency

     

  • Algeria: Arbitrary detention of journalist Khaled Drareni another blow to democratic transition

    العربية

    The undersigned civil society groups are alarmed at the continued and escalating attacks on civic space in Algeria and call on the government to end their crackdown on journalistic and other public freedoms. Despite President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announcing his desire to break with previous repressive practices, freedom of expression especially has come under severe attack since March 2020, with several journalists facing arbitrary arrest and prosecution for conducting their work in the country.

    Illustrative of this intensifying crackdown, journalist Khaled Drareni was arrested on 29 March 2020 for filming a protest and was sentenced to two years in prison on appeal on 15 September. We strongly condemn the harsh and arbitrary sentencing of Drareni, and call for his immediate release and for charges against him to be dropped.

    Restrictions on free assembly have also intensified following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the decision taken by the Hirak grassroots pro-democracy movement to suspend its weekly protests that had started in February 2019. Included in these restrictions is the arbitrary detention and prosecution of individuals associated with the protest movement and those who express support for it in multiple forums.

    Article 50 of the Algerian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the legal framework still infringes on this right. Law 12-05 of 2012 (or the Law on Information) requires publishing houses to seek prior approval from the media regulatory authority for publications and violations can include fines of up to 500,000 dinars (roughly US$3900.00). On 23 April 2020, the Algerian parliament further reinforced this repressive legal environment by adopting amendments to the Penal Code that include harsh prison sentences for the dissemination of false information during a public health crisis, or for accessing funding (whether local or international) that the state deems “likely to undermine state security, stability, or normal functioning of [state] institutions,” or to undermine “the fundamental interests of Algeria” or “public security and order.” Algeria is rated “repressed” on the CIVICUS Monitor and is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019 and 27 places lower than in 2015.

    In this context, activists, artists and journalists have been increasingly detained for their journalist work and social media posts under the false and vague accusations of threatening national unity and inciting protests. The National Union of Magistrates (SNM) has also denounced the abusive recourse to pre-trial detention.

    Under these worsening civic space conditions, and taking into consideration the health risks posed to detainees by COVID-19, the undersigned are notably concerned for:

    • Algerian journalists, activists, and lawyers, including Said Boudour (a journalist facing charges of ‘defamation’ and ‘insulting the regime’, Amel Hadjadj (a woman human rights defender facing ongoing intimidation, including an arbitrary arrest on 21 November 2019 where she was physically abused), and Halim Feddal (founder of the Algerian National Association Against Corruption sentenced to six month’s imprisonment on 3 March 2020). 
    • Reporter Abdelkrim Zeghileche, who was sentenced to two years in prison on 24 August 2020 after he called for the creation of a new political party and criticized President Tebboune, and
    • Activist Abdullah Benaoum, detained since December 2019, whose health is in very critical condition, and whose latest petition for pretrial release was rejected on 2 September 
    • Khaled Drareni, who was arrested alongside two protestors and activists, Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche, and sentenced on appeal to two years’ imprisonment. 

    Drareni, who is editor of the Casbah Tribune news site and correspondent for TV5 Monde and Reporters without Borders, has been arbitrarily detained since 29 March 2020 solely for doing his job as a journalist. According to Amnesty International, Drareni was arrested while filming police approach protestors on 27 March 2020. On 10 August 2020, he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity” for his work covering the Hirak protests over the past year. Drareni was also charged a fine of 50,000 Dinars (roughly, US$390). During the appeal hearing on 8 September, the prosecution had requested four years in prison and a 50,000 DA fine against Drareni.

    Following his initial sentencing on 10 August, solidarity protests calling for his release have erupted across the country, beginning in Algiers. Drareni attended his appeal on 8 September and appeared thin and weak, which prompted the national and international Khaled Drareni Support Committees to call for his immediate release on urgent health grounds

    In a joint statement issued on 16 September, UN Special Procedures condemned the jail sentence against the Algerian journalist and called for his release. The experts also called on Algeria to “halt the arrest and detention of political activists, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders, as well as any person who expresses dissent or criticism of the government,”, and affirmed that “Drareni, and all the others currently in prison, or awaiting trial simply for doing their job and defending human rights must be immediately released and protected.”

    Given the current threats facing Drareni and all detained prisoners of conscience, urgent action is needed from the international community to ensure his release and call for an end to restrictions facing journalists, protestors and activists in Algeria. The undersigned specifically call on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Special Procedures; UN Member States; and the European Union, including Parliament, EEAS and Member States; to urge Algerian authorities to:

    1. Immediately and unconditionally release Khaled Drareni, dropping all charges against him;
    2. Immediately and unconditionally release all protestors, activists and journalists arbitrarily detained for their peaceful protests, activities and reporting, notably on the Hirak movement; 
    3. Revise the legal framework, including the Penal Code, the 2012 Law on Information and the Law No. 09-04 of August 5, 2009, in line with international best practice to protect the right to freedom of expression in the country;
    4. Devise a plan to roll back the April amendment designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, are time-limited, in line with international human rights standards, to ensure that these do not unduly curtail civic freedoms; and
    5. Cease all judicial harassment and intimidation against all protestors, activists and journalists and those facing restrictions for expressing their opinions online.

    The undersigned,

    Article19
    Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    CIVICUS
    Collectif des Familles de Disparus en Algérie
    Freedom House
    Freedom Initiative
    Humena for Human Rights and Civic Engagement
    MENA Rights Group
    Reporters without Borders (RSF)

     

  • Algeria: Critically-ill activist Abdallah Benaoum must be immediately released

    بالعربية

    The Algerian authorities have accelerated the arbitrary detention and prosecution of activists and journalists amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, most recently refusing requests to provisionally release and provide adequate medical care for Algerian activist Abdallah Benaoum, imprisoned solely for his critical views of the authorities' crackdown on Hirak protests, ten national, regional and international groups said today, ahead of his trial scheduled on 27 October. Lawyers and family members fear for Benaoum’s life. 

    Abdallah Benaoum has been in pre-trial detention for eleven months for Facebook posts he published criticizing the authorities and opposing the holding of presidential elections. He is in urgent need of a heart surgery that authorities are denying by his continuous unlawful detention and their refusal to grant him access to the medical care he requires. 

    On 28 May 2019, human rights defender Kamel Eddine Fekhar died in custody at the age of 55 after a 50-day hunger strike to protest his unlawful detention for expressing views critical of the government and his prison conditions. On 11 December 2016, British-Algerian freelance journalist Mohamed Tamalt, 41, died in custody in a hospital in Algiers, following a hunger strike to protest his ill-treatment during his imprisonment for Facebook posts "offending" then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

    To avoid a similar fate for Abdullah Benaoum, the undersigned organisations call on Algeria to abide by its commitments under international human rights law, release Benaoum immediately and unconditionally, and allow him to undergo his heart surgery in accordance with his wishes. 

    Police in Oued Rhiou, a town in Relizane province, arrested Benaoum and another activist, Khaldi Ali, on 9 December 2019, three days before contentious presidential elections. A prosecutor in the Relizane First Instance Tribunal charged both men with "insulting state institutions," "undermining the integrity of the national territory," "harming national interest," “undermining army morale,” “attempting to pressure judges on pending cases” and "incitement to an unarmed gathering" under Articles 146, 79, 97, 75, 147 and 100 of the Penal Code. 

    None of these charges are legitimate offences under international human rights law since they impose undue restrictions to the right to freedom of expression. The case file indicates that the prosecutor presented as evidence videos and publications found on Benaoum's personal Facebook account, in which he called for the boycott of presidential elections, writing "no to military elections," "Hirak students in all governorates are faced with the harshest repression." In the posts he also criticized the light sentencing of a police officer for the killing of a young man in Oued Rhiou. The prosecutor submitted this as evidence that Benaoum was inciting disobedience and undermining state security.

    On the day of his trial on 16 July, Benaoum was unable to stand on his feet and talk, according to his lawyer. The judge eventually agreed to call a doctor three hours after the opening of the trial. The doctor concluded that Benaoum was unfit to stand trial. However, despite this, the judge refused his lawyer's request for provisional release. On 2 September, the judge again rejected another petition for his provisional release. The hearing is now scheduled for 27 October. 

    Benaoum suffers from a heart condition – atherosclerosis - which can lead to a heart attack and requires urgent medical intervention. He underwent a first heart surgery in 2018, but his health condition started to deteriorate after an incarceration later that year and deteriorated further after his latest arrest in December 2019. Doctors established that he needed a second surgery. 

    In a hand-written letter submitted to his lawyers on 4 September 2020, the activist complained of poor medical care and ill-treatment in detention.

    The authorities have denied multiple requests for provisional release on the motive that the allegations against him constitute serious crimes.  Authorities have been transferring Benaoum back and forth between a prison in Relizane near his hometown and two prisons in the Oran province, at 160 km from his place of residence, which has further deteriorated his health. He is currently detained in the Oran central prison.

    Denying a prisoner much-needed medical care violates the rights to health and to life and may amount to torture and other ill-treatment in certain circumstances. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, require states to ensure that people in detention can enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, adequate or appropriate and timely medical care must be provided to all detainees as part of state duties. Similarly, according to Algerian law, “the right to medical care is guaranteed for all categories of detainees. Medical services are provided to inmates, in the establishment's infirmary or, if necessary, in any other health structures.”

    Pre-trial detention must be an exceptional measure and based on an individualised determination that it is reasonable and necessary, specified in law and without vague and expansive standards. The Algerian authorities have failed to justify the need for the imposition of this measure, notably against a prisoner of conscience whose health and life are at risk. The decision to hold Benaoum in pre-trial detention despite the circumstances contravenes article 123 of the Algerian Code of Criminal Procedure as well as Algeria’s obligations under international human rights law

    The National Union of Magistrates has denounced the pervasive and abusive recourse to pre-trial detention as well as the lack of independence of the justice system from executive authorities, in a country where members of the judiciary have been sanctioned professionally for working independently or calling for judicial independence. 

    The authorities’ refusal to release him also runs counter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recommendation to release detainees to contain the spread of COVID-19, notably those who have underlying medical conditions and those held simply for expressing dissenting views. The  recent death of two detainees and the infection of at least eight others illustrates the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in in Algeria’s prisons. 

    Benaoum’s lawyers and his mother were not able to visit him on 1st and 2nd October 2020. Prison authorities claimed to his family that Benaoum himself had refused visits and claim he is refusing medical care. According to his lawyers, however, this is inconsistent with Benaoum’s request not to stop visiting him, which he wrote in a hand-written letter on 4 September, and the activist only requested for his doctor, who did his first surgery in 2018, to be able to supervise the second surgery. In July, in another letter, Benaoum complained of isolation from the outside world and difficult prison conditions. The activist had not been able to receive any family visits from March to September 2020 due to restrictions related to COVID-19. 

    Benaoum had only been free for five months before his new arrest in December 2019. The activist was incarcerated between April 2018 and June 2019 on charges of "offending the President of the republic" and "reviving the wounds of the national tragedy" under article 46 of the Law on Peace and National Reconciliation of 2006, which prohibits publications about the Algerian civil war. He was conditionally released following a request from his lawyers, 10 months before the end of his sentence. In 2013, Benaoum had also been the subject of two communications from UN Special Procedures in relation to arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force.  

    Signatories

    • Amnesty International
    • Article 19 
    • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
    • CGATA (General Autonomous Confederation of Workers in Algeria)
    • CIVICUS
    • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    • Riposte Internationale
    • SNAPAP (Autonomous Union of Public Administration Personnel)
    • SESS (Solidarity Union of Higher Education Teachers)
    • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

     

  • Algeria: Free Amazigh and Hirak activist in prison for exercising his freedom of opinion

    بالعربية

    On 11 November, the court of Khenchela (eastern Algeria) is expected to hear activist Yacine Mebarki's appeal, following his sentencing on 8 October to 10 years in prison and a heavy fine of 10 million dinars (about 77,611.55 USD) – the most severe sentence ever handed to an activist for his online speech. 

    Algerian authorities should release Yacine Mebarki and drop unfounded charges related to his online publications and other charges that stem from the legitimate exercise of his freedom of speech and conscience, said the undersigned organisations. Authorities should put an end to criminal investigations and prosecutions against individuals for peacefully expressing their views, including views which may be critical of religious teachings and state officials. 

    Yacine Mebarki is a farmer from the town of Khenchela, known for his participation in the Hirak popular protest movement demanding radical political change in Algeria, and his engagement in the defense of Amazigh rights. 

    Police in Khenchela arrested Yacine Mebarki on 30 September, after a search of his home during which they discovered an old Quran belonging to Mebarki’s grand-father, which had a torn page, as well as two empty bullets. According to the activist’s lawyer, the bullets are the remains of old traditional celebrations involving gun-firing, prevalent in the Khenchela region and which are now used for decorative purposes. 

    The prosecutor of the Khenchela First Instance Court prosecuted Mebarki on the basis of social media publications, including a Facebook post from 17 February in which he appears to criticize Egyptian Salafi scholar Abu Ishaq al-Heweny for calling for “jihad” against countries to take their “money, their children and their women”, as well as for the torn Quran and the bullets found in his house. During the trial, the judge also mentioned a Facebook post from 12 September in which Mebarki appeared to mock Algerian Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati.

    Mebarki was sentenced on 8 October to ten years in prison for "offense against the precepts of Islam" (Article 144bis 2 of the Penal Code); “profanation of the Sacred Book” (Article 160 of the Penal Code); “inciting to discrimination” (Article 295bis); “inciting a Muslim to convert to another religion” and “distribution of documents intended to undermine the faith of a Muslim” (Article 11 par. 1 and 2 of ordinance 06-03 setting the conditions and rules for the exercise of religions other than Islam). In addition, he was sentenced for “possession of war material without authorization” (Article 31 of ordinance 97-06 relating to war material, arms and ammunition), based on the discovery of the two bullets. 

    The above charges related to the activist’s freedom of speech and conscience are in violation of Algeria’s Constitution (article 42) and international human rights law, notably Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Algeria. In an authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR from 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that “the prohibition of displays of disrespect for a religion or any other belief system, including anti-blasphemy laws, is not compatible with the Covenant”. In October 2017, UN Experts also urged States “that still have blasphemy laws to repeal them because of their stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion”. 

    This development is especially worrying as in recent months, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities have accelerated the arbitrary prosecution of peaceful activists for expressing their opinion and journalists. As of 9 November and according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), a local group monitoring Hirak trials, there are 87 prisoners of conscience in Algeria. 

    Signatories

    • Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights
    • Amnesty International
    • Article 19
    • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    • CGATA (General Autonomous Confederation of Workers in Algeria)
    • CIVICUS
    • SNAPAP (Autonomous Union of Public Administration Personnel)

     

  • Alpha Condé wants a third term in Guinea. The AU must stop him

    By David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead 

    President Ramaphosa and the AU have a crucial role in aiding the continuation of Guinea's democracy. Guinea’s nascent democracy hangs in the balance as current President Alpha Condé’s resolve to defy the constitution and stand for a third term in office threatens to plunge the country into violence. Under the current constitution, President Conde is only allowed to serve two five-year terms. The only way he can change the presidential limit is through a new constitution, which requires a referendum.

    Read on: The Africa Report 

     

  • Angola: Restrictions on fundamental freedoms continue ahead of elections

    Portuguese 

    The arraignment of two journalists in Angola on spurious charges is the latest assault on fundamental freedoms as the government increases restrictions on civic space ahead of crucial elections scheduled for 23 August 2017.  Global civil society alliance CIVICUS urges the government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of journalists, and calls on international observers to ensure freedom of expression is respected in the run up to the elections.

    On 20 June 2017, journalists Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras Lourenço were indicted by the Office of the Attorney General and charged with “outrage to a body sovereignty” and “insult against public authority” under the Law on Crimes Against the State and Penal Code respectively.

    The charges stem from an article published by Rafael Marques on 26 October 2016 on his website Maka Angola, in which he exposed details of the dubious circumstances in which the Attorney General Joao Mana Moreira de Sousa purchased a piece of land in 2011. Mariano Bras Lourenço, Director of the O Crimenewspaper, was charged after he re-published Rafael’s article. Both journalists could face up to six years in jail.

    “The judicial persecution of journalists is one of several strategies used by the Angolan government to silence critical voices in the lead -up to elections next month,” says Ine Van Severen,

    Policy and Research Analyst at CIVICUS. “Angola is one of the most repressive states in the Southern Africa region as the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos has shown complete disregard towards human rights norms.”

    Marques has been a victim of judicial persecution in the past. In 2015, he was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence after he was found guilty of defamation for publishing a book titled Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, in 2011. In the book, he revealed details of hundreds of killings by security guards and soldiers and human rights violations in the diamond fields of the Lundas region. 

    The Angolan authorities continue to use violence to disperse peaceful protests.  On 24 June 2017, protests led by the Movimento do Protectorado Lunda Tchokwe (MPL-T) in the provinces of Moxico, Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul, were violently repressed by security forces.  One person died, at least 13 were wounded, and over 78 protesters were detained.   MPL-T has been demanding for autonomy for the Lundas region.  More protests are planned for 29 July 2017.

    In February 2017, security forces again used brute force to disperse peaceful protests in Luanda and Benguela. Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of the Minister for Territorial Administration because of a perceived conflict of interest in his position as a candidate for the ruling party in the August elections and his responsibilities to oversee the voter registration process.

    Even though President José Eduardo dos Santos has agreed to step down after 38 years in power, his government is doing everything possible to ensure that the ruling party, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), maintains its grip on power. 

    CIVICUS calls on the Government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of media and respect the rights of all citizens to peacefully assemble. 

    Angola is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform tracking track civic rights violations around the world.

    ENDS

    For more information, please contact:

    Ine Van Severen

    Policy and Research Analyst

    CIVICUS

     

    Grant Clark

    Media Advisor

    CIVICUS

     

  • Angolan elections: Different name, same game for civil society?

    By David Kode

    Over the last 38 years, particularly since the end of the civil war in 2002, President Dos Santos has ruled Angola through securitisation of the society, repressing all dissent and restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly. Will space for civil participation open up after one of Africa’s longest serving rulers leaves power following elections this week?

    Read on: Pambazuka

     

  • Another puzzling break-in prompts Uganda CSO to move operations to police station

    CIVICUS speaks to Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF) executive directorAdrian Jjuuko (pictured) after their offices were broken into recently. He also speaks on the situation of human rights defenders and civil society in general in Uganda.

     

  • As reprisals continue in Zimbabwe, CIVICUS calls on international bodies to intervene

    (Johannesburg 7 August 2020) CIVICUS calls on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union (AU) to denounce ongoing human rights violations in Zimbabwe and act decisively against the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Increasing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, together with the silence of the international community, have prompted an online campaign #ZimbabweanLivesMatter. There have been more than 700,000 tweets in the last few days as people from across the world express their solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.

     

  • Attacks On Citizen Rights In SA: Five Trends And Countrywide Threats

    By Kgalalelo Gaebee 

    From the large city centres to the rural townships, South Africans are witnessing a nationwide crackdown on their civic rights. Citizens’ ability to speak out, organise and take action on social issues in South Africa is becoming increasingly restricted. For those critical of business and government elites, there are much higher rates of harassment and detention by security forces. Social activist Kgalalelo Gaebee lists five threats to our basic freedoms that we should be concerned about.

    Read on:The Daily Vox

     

  • BOTSWANA: ‘Anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains’

    Dumiso GatshaAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Dumiso Gatsha, a young LGBT rights activist and founder of Success Capital Organisation, a youth-led civil society organisation (CSO) that supports civic action and promotes the rights of LGBTQI people.

    How significant was the June 2019court decision that decriminalised homosexuality in Botswana?

    The High Court ruled that colonial-era laws criminalising same-sex relations are unconstitutional. The judges said penalising people for who they are is disrespectful, and the law should not regulate private acts between consenting adults. One of the contested sections of the penal code, Section 164, is about ‘unnatural offences’, defined as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which essentially applied to gay sex, although it was up to the courts to define what unnatural acts meant, and it could theoretically also apply to heterosexual activities seen as ‘unnatural’.

    This ruling is very significant on two fronts. The first is that this decision eliminates the risk of persecution altogether. Although the prohibition was not necessarily implemented by law enforcement agencies, it could have been, as it added elements of uncertainty and arbitrary treatment. The second is that it essentially provides an avenue for building protections and safeguards in health, employment, business, governance, service delivery and, more importantly, eliminating systemic stigma and discrimination.

    Was civil society in Botswana instrumental in bringing about this decision?

    Yes. Civil society, and LGBT civil society more specifically, has been very active since the 1990s. But when I started out there were still few activists that were well known. I came to Botswana in 2012 and there were only one or two notable activists, while now, only seven years later, there are five new LGBT-led organisations. A lot of them work on HIV/AIDS response, because a lot of funding goes to this kind of work.

    Litigation for decriminalisation was led by civil society, on behalf of a young gay man. Procedurally, only an individual can bring such a challenge to the courts, not an organisation. The most progressive of recent court cases, in terms of gender marker changes, were led by people. Civil society partnerships helped ensure financial and technical assistance.

    However, it is very difficult to bring the rest of the community along with these advances: yes, you achieve decriminalisation, but decriminalisation does not mean protection or mean it will be any easier for people to navigate difficult conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with family members or educators, or in the workplace.

    Has the court decision prompted any backlash against LGBT rights?

    I think society is divided, and attitudes may take longer than laws to change. In this context, a new opposition populist party has used this issue as a populist tool. The ruling political party initially said that it would abide by the court decision and it backed non-discrimination. The current president had previously released a statement commemorating 16 days against gender-based violence and spoke about discrimination experienced by people in same-sex relationships. This was the first time a sitting head of state publicly recognised and acknowledged the gay community affirmatively in an African country that criminalised same-sex intercourse. Previous administrations had maintained a position of not persecuting people. In that sense, the state was always perceived as being a bit more progressive than the social majority or the rest of Africa. I think the state has long resorted to silent diplomacy on issues considered ‘progressive’.

    What changed after the High Court ruling, and lead to the state deciding to appeal, was that the new opposition party saw an opportunity to use the ruling to seek votes. They blamed the current president for singlehandedly decriminalising same-sex intercourse. Given the intolerance in public opinion, it was an opportunity to appeal to the majority. This turned into a political issue rather than one of rights, particularly because this new political party is backed by a former president. This was the first time ever in Botswana’s living history that LGBT issues were used within an intentionally populist narrative.

    This did not happen in isolation. Since the court ruling, religious institutions, mostly evangelical groups, became more vocal in their intolerance of LGBT people. It was surprising to us. We didn’t quite expect this. Public statements were released, including some stating that they would be appealing against the court ruling. They perceived this court ruling as an avenue for same-sex marriage and adoption of children by LGBT people.

    Why did this take you by surprise? Weren’t anti-rights groups present in the public sphere before?

    Regarding the court case, which took almost two years, evangelical groups and other religious actors remained silent for the most part. They wouldn’t really talk about it. It didn’t seem to be an issue for them at all. They didn’t bother building a whole narrative around or against it. That is why it was surprising that when the court decision was made public, all this opposition materialised. Some churches that had never released public statements on anything are now doing so. It isn’t just evangelical churches, although they have been probably the ones taking the lead. Catholic and Methodist churches have become quite intolerant, and vocally intolerant, as well.

    While some civil society actors, including human rights groups, that we thought would be supportive, remained quite passive, anti-human rights groups have been increasingly active, using LGBT rights as a populist tool, by taking advantage of the dynamics regarding ‘immorality’ that prevail among the public – in other words, of the fact that many people are simply anti-LGBT by default, with no critical thinking.

    I think that populist anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains. This is the Trump era, with its atmosphere of nationalism and regressive thinking. Regarding women’s sexual and reproductive rights and LGBT rights, US right-wing organisations are exporting their ideas to other parts of the world, including Africa. Fortunately, however, Botswana has historically been a peaceful society where it has not been easy for populist discourse to grow, and we are not seeing the growth of the same political populist narrative that has gained ground in other African countries or, for instance, in Eastern Europe. Botswana’s political landscape does not include extremist parties, either on the left or right. Major parties are all in support of LGBT rights and their leaders are quite progressive. There was an assumption that the negative political use of LGBT issues would work, but it is not clear that it has. However, society itself isn’t very accepting, and religious institutions are indeed perpetuating homophobia and intolerance.

    What’s next for LGBT civil society in Botswana, after achieving decriminalisation?

    Even if the High Court ruling survives the appeals and any other further legal challenges, a gap will remain. There have been some fragments of civic action aimed at educating people on LGBT issues. There is an urgent need to work on changing the hearts and minds of people. More importantly, there is a lot of work needed in moving LGBT people from surviving to thriving, especially in issues of efficacy, agency and having an influence within their communities. We focus on the individual and their access to rights, because rights are not really effective if they cannot be exercised at key touch points of service delivery, such as in a police station or a clinic. The community needs healing, at individual and collective levels. There has been a lot of pain and harm, even within activism.

    What challenges do LGBT civil society face in doing this work, and what kind of support does it need?

    A lot of advocacy strategies and narratives are pre-determined and attached to funding. There is a lot of gatekeeping in terms of the narratives that are considered relevant and valid, and therefore granted access to funding and to policy-makers. The main narrative currently appears to be around public health, and it is very difficult for new organisations to establish new narratives and still gain access to funding. If you are not operating under the umbrella of a much larger body, it is difficult to scale up advocacy work. This structure of opportunities has a strong impact on how creative and collaborative civil society can be while remaining sustainable.

    I think this has to stop. We need to move towards a community-led narrative. This is how we will get the best results in terms of transforming people’s hearts and minds. In that regard, there is a need to strengthen the intellectual body of knowledge of LGBT communities and decolonise our institutions, because a lot of our conversations are in fact based on Western narratives. We also need to rethink the narratives used for campaigning. The narratives that have been used so far are based on the assumption that the human rights-based approach works, without any reflection on the need to adapt the language in a way that resonates with people and makes issues easier for people to digest.

    In sum, I would say it is very important to diversify both the forms of advocacy that are undertaken and the ways that they are being supported.

    Civic space in Botswana is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Success Capital Organisation through theirwebpage andFacebook profile.

     

  • Burundi referendum a blatant violation of its Constitution

    Ahead of the controversial referendum scheduled to take place in Burundi on 17 May 2018, CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and civil society activist Janvier Bigirimana about the referendum’s implications for democracy. Janvier has represented victims of human rights violations in Burundi, East and Central Africa. He currently lives in exile because of the political crisis and human rights violations in Burundi.

     

  • BURUNDI: ‘Elegir nuevos líderes no es sinónimo de democracia’

    CIVICUS conversa sobre las recientes elecciones en Burundi con un activista de la sociedad civil que por razones de seguridad ha preferido conservar el anonimato.

    El 20 de mayo de 2020, en el contexto de la pandemia del COVID-19, se celebraron en Burundi elecciones presidenciales, parlamentarias y municipales. En marzo, dos meses antes de las elecciones, la Comisión de Investigación de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) sobre Burundi lanzó un llamamiento a la comunidad internacional, incluido el Consejo de Seguridad de las Naciones Unidas y las instituciones regionales, para que unieran fuerzas para alentar al gobierno de Burundi a reabrir los espacios democráticos, civiles y políticos. El día de las elecciones, el presidente de la Comisión de Investigación afirmó que no estaban dadas las condiciones para realizar elecciones libres y creíbles. Segúninformó el CIVICUS Monitor, miembros de la oposición recibieron amenazas de muerte y sufrieron agresiones físicas, además de enfrentar obstáculos administrativos, ya que varias candidaturas fueron rechazadas. El líder de un partido opositor fue asesinado y otros candidatos fueron arrestados bajo acusaciones falsas. El periodismo independiente enfrentó obstáculos sistemáticos, tales como el arresto de periodistas y el bloqueo de las plataformas de redes sociales.

    Burundi Elections

    Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    ¿Se han introducido mayores restricciones al espacio de la sociedad civil como resultado de la respuesta del gobierno de Burundi a la pandemia del COVID-19?

    El espacio cívico en Burundi se ha mantenido cerrado desde abril de 2015, tras los disturbios políticos provocados por la decisión del recientemente fallecido expresidente Pierre Nkurunziza de postularse para un controvertido tercer mandato. Esto provocó una violencia generalizada que dejó al menos 1.200 muertos y obligó a 400.000 personas a huir del país. Sorprendentemente, en marzo de 2020, mientras la pandemia del COVID-19 se propagaba en casi todos los países africanos, las autoridades de Burundi abrieron un espacio para que se llevaran a cabo campañas para las elecciones presidenciales, parlamentarias y municipales de mayo. Pero cabe concluir que el espacio cívico continúa estando cerrado en términos de las posibilidades de expresión de toda crítica abierta al modo en que se maneja políticamente el país, lo cual incluye las críticas a la forma en que el gobierno ha manejado la pandemia durante el período electoral.

    ¿Qué posición mantuvo la sociedad civil respecto de la decisión de celebrar elecciones durante la pandemia?

    La decisión de las autoridades de Burundi de habilitar la continuidad de las campañas electorales en un período en que muchos otros países africanos estaban tomando medidas de confinamiento para detener la propagación del COVID-19 fue interpretada como una negación de la realidad de la pandemia orientada a salvar los intereses políticos del partido gobernante, el CNDD-FDD (Consejo Nacional de Defensa de la Democracia-Fuerzas para la Defensa de la Democracia), en detrimento de la salud de la población.

    A pesar de los temores de un contagio masivo de COVID-19, una de las razones por las cuales el gobierno se apuró a realizar las elecciones fue la oportunidad de realizar un proceso electoral en ausencia de un número considerable de observadores independientes e internacionales que pudieran denunciar cualquier irregularidad. Dado que la Comisión Electoral Nacional Independiente estaba compuesta principalmente por miembros del partido gobernante, esta decisión puso al gobierno en posición de manipular los resultados de las elecciones tanto como lo quisiera.

    ¿Fue el resultado de las elecciones aceptado por la mayoría de la ciudadanía?

    El 20 de mayo de 2020 el candidato del CNDD-FDD, Évariste Ndayishimiye, fue elegido presidente con el 71% de los votos. El partido gobernante también ganó 72 de los 100 escaños en juego en la Asamblea Nacional.

    Tan pronto como la Comisión Electoral anunció estos resultados, partidos de oposición como el Consejo Nacional para la Liberación, que quedó en un distante segundo lugar, declararon a medios extranjeros que las cifras oficiales no eran creíbles y eran el resultado de un fraude masivo. Lo cierto es que las elecciones se realizaron en un contexto de permanente represión de la oposición política, los medios independientes y la sociedad civil. No hubo observadores internacionales porque el gobierno les había advertido que, a causa de la pandemia, quienes vinieran tendrían que permanecer en cuarentena durante 14 días a partir de su llegada.

    Algunos, como la Iglesia Católica, hicieron algunas críticas discretas en relación con los incidentes que marcaron el proceso electoral. Otros susurraron -ya que en Burundi no es fácil hacer críticas abiertas- que los resultados de las elecciones habían sido manipulados. Pero eso fue todo. Miembros poderosos de la comunidad internacional, como los gobiernos de Bélgica y los Estados Unidos, se apresuraron a saludar al presidente electo, y la Comunidad de África Oriental felicitó a Burundi por haber celebrado unas elecciones “pacíficas y exitosas”.

    En mi opinión, los resultados de las elecciones fueron finalmente aceptados porque se temió que habría derramamiento de sangre si el rechazo abierto de los resultados de las elecciones por parte de la oposición fuera seguido de protestas callejeras.

    ¿Qué posibilidades hay de que el resultado de las elecciones conduzca a un mejoramiento de la democracia y el espacio cívico?

    Hay quienes dicen creer que elegir nuevos líderes es sinónimo de democracia. El resultado de las elecciones de mayo de 2020 ayudó a Burundi a cambiar los rostros de los principales líderes y a mostrar que el dictador que nos había gobernado durante 15 años ya no dirige al país. Sin embargo, las violaciones de derechos humanos que tuvieron lugar durante la campaña electoral, el nombramiento de funcionarios bajo sanciones económicas europeas o estadounidenses por haber cometido abusos de derechos humanos y la retórica política utilizada para retratar a algunos países y a sus líderes como colonialistas muestran que la democracia en Burundi todavía tiene un largo camino por recorrer.

    Sin embargo, algunas medidas de lucha contra la corrupción y otros abusos que ha tomado el presidente Ndayishimiye desde que asumió el cargo nos llevan a creer que la impunidad de que gozaron algunas autoridades locales bajo el gobierno de Nkurunziza podría llegar a su fin.

    Muchos creían que el plan era que el expresidente Nkurunziza siguiera detentando el poder entre bastidores. ¿Han cambiado las perspectivas como resultado de su muerte?

    El expresidente Nkurunziza murió inesperadamente en junio, antes de que asumiera su sucesor. Como ya había un presidente electo, el Tribunal Constitucional decidió que éste debía prestar juramento con dos meses de anticipación.

    Muchos creyeron que la muerte de Nkurunziza permitiría al presidente Ndayishimiye gobernar con total independencia, y así pareció confirmarlo en su discurso inaugural, donde prometió entablar un diálogo amplio sobre todos los temas. Es demasiado pronto para asegurar que el hecho de que Nkurunziza haya quedado fuera de la ecuación permitirá que el nuevo gobierno abra el espacio cívico y para saber si el nuevo presidente aprovechará esta oportunidad. Sin embargo, resulta alentador ver que el nuevo presidente ya se ha reunido con los líderes de otros partidos políticos, con expresidentes de Burundi y con obispos de las iglesias católica y anglicana, y ha prometido promover el diálogo. Estamos ansiosos por corroborar si sus palabras se convertirán en acciones.

    Al mismo tiempo, sin embargo, recientemente el ministro del Interior ha emitido una resolución para suspender hasta nueva orden el registro de nuevas organizaciones de la sociedad civil e iglesias y el reconocimiento de las nuevas autoridades de las organizaciones. Esta decisión es inconsistente con el cambio que se busca. Si se mantiene, impedirá que la sociedad civil crezca y se convierta en un interlocutor legítimo y públicamente reconocido.

    ¿Qué debería hacer la comunidad internacional para contribuir a mejorar el espacio cívico en Burundi?

    Es difícil establecer unas pocas prioridades, ya que son muchas las cosas que es necesario poner en marcha para que Burundi se convierta en una tierra de libertades. Sin embargo, sería vital involucrar al gobierno de Burundi en un diálogo multidimensional. Es necesario relanzar la cooperación internacional de manera que ésta ayude al gobierno de Burundi a poner fin a la pobreza endémica. La comunidad internacional debe abogar por la repatriación de todas las personas refugiadas, incluidas las que tienen órdenes de arresto del gobierno de Burundi, y garantizar su protección. Y también debe ofrecer su mediación para resolver el conflicto entre Burundi y sus países vecinos, especialmente Ruanda, a fin de facilitar la circulación de personas y bienes y el restablecimiento de relaciones diplomáticas.

    Si se persiguen las prioridades sugeridas, las autoridades de Burundi podrían llegar a darse cuenta de que Burundi no está aislado y que la comunidad internacional no está actuando para sabotear sus intereses, sino en cambio para fortalecer los aspectos positivos de la globalización en todos los ámbitos.

    El espacio cívico en Burundi es calificado de “cerrado” por elCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • BURUNDI: ‘The election of new leaders is not synonymous with democracy’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in Burundi with a civil society activist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

    Presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in Burundi on 20 May 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, two months before the elections, the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi launched an appeal to the international community, including the UN Security Council and regional institutions, to join forces to encourage the government of Burundi to reopen democratic, civil and political space. On the day of the elections, the president of the Commission of Inquiry stated that the conditions to perform credible and free elections were not met. Asreported by the CIVICUS Monitor, opposition members faced death threats and physical attacks, as well as administrative hurdles, as several candidacy applications were rejected. The leader of an opposition party was murdered and other candidates were arrested on bogus charges. Independent reporting was systematically impeded through the arrest of journalists and the blockage of social media platforms.

    Burundi Elections

     Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    Has the government of Burundi’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic further restricted the space for civil society?

    Civic space in Burundi has been closed since April 2015, due to the political unrest caused by the decision of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, recently deceased, to run for a controversial third term. This led to widespread violence that left at least 1,200 people dead and forced 400,000 to flee the country. Surprisingly, in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in almost all African countries, the Burundian authorities opened space for political campaigns to be held ahead of the May presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. But one can conclude that civic space is still closed in terms of being able to express any open criticism about how the country is politically run, including criticism regarding the way the government handled the pandemic during the electoral period.

    What were the views of civil society about holding elections during the pandemic?

    The decision of the Burundian authorities to allow election campaigns to proceed during a period in which many other African countries were taking measures of confinement to stop the spread of COVID-19 was viewed as denial of the reality of the pandemic to save the political interests of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy), to the detriment of the public’s health.

    Despite fears of mass COVID-19 contamination, the elections were rushed, at least in part, due to the opportunity to hold an electoral process in the absence of a sizeable number of independent and international observers who could denounce any irregularities. By doing so, given that the National Independent Electoral Commission was mostly composed of members of the ruling party, the government ensured that it could manipulate the election results as much as it wanted.

    Was the outcome of the election accepted by majority of Burundians?

    On 20 May 2020, CNDD-FDD candidate Évariste Ndayishimiye was elected president with 71 per cent of the vote. The ruling party also won 72 of the 100 seats at stake in the National Assembly.

    As soon as the Electoral Commission announced the results, opposition parties such as the National Council for Liberation, which came a distant second, stated in foreign media that the official numbers were not credible and were the result of massive fraud. The truth is that the elections were held in a context of continuing repression of the political opposition, independent media and civil society. No international observers were present because the government had warned that due to the pandemic they would have to be quarantined for 14 days after their arrival.

    Low-key criticisms were made by others, including the Catholic Church, regarding incidents that marked the election processes. Others whispered, as it’s not easy to make open criticisms, that election results were rigged. But that was it. Powerful members of the international community such as the governments of Belgium and the USA were fast to congratulate the elected president, and the East African Community congratulated Burundi for holding a “peaceful and successful” election.

    In my personal view, the outcomes of the elections were eventually accepted because many feared that bloodshed could follow if an open rejection of the election results by the opposition was followed by street protests.

    How likely is that the elections result will lead to an improvement of democracy and civic space?

    Some pretend to believe that the election of new leaders is synonymous with democracy. The outcome of the May 2020 elections helped Burundi change the faces of top leaders and show that the dictator who ruled us for 15 years is no longer leading the country. However, the human rights violations that took place during the electoral campaign, the appointment of officials under European or US economic sanctions for the human rights abuses they had committed and the political rhetoric describing some countries and their leaders as colonialists all show that democracy in Burundi still has a long way to go.

    However, some measures to fight against corruption and others abuses that President Ndayishimiye has taken since assuming office have allowed us to believe that the impunity that some local authorities enjoyed during Nkurunziza’s administration might come to an end.

    Many had argued that the plan was for former President Nkurunziza to remain the power behind the scenes. Have prospects changed as a result of his death?

    Former President Nkurunziza died unexpectedly in June, before his successor had even been inaugurated. As a new president had already been elected, the Constitutional Court decided that he should be sworn in two months early.

    Many believed that Nkurunziza’s passing would allow President Ndayishimiye to rule with total independence, and his inaugural speech seemed to confirm it, as he vowed to enter into dialogue with anyone, on any issue. It is too soon to say whether the fact that Nkurunziza is out of the equation will allow the new administration to open up civic space and whether the new president will seize this opportunity. However, it is encouraging to see that the new president has already met with the leaders of other political parties, former Burundi presidents and Anglican and Catholic bishops, and has promised to promote dialogue. We are expectant to find out whether his words will turn into actions.

    At the same time, however, the Minister of Home Affairs has recently issued a note to halt the registration of all new civil society organisations and churches and the recognition of newly elected authorities of organisations, pending a new order. Such decisions are inconsistent with the change that is being sought. If maintained, they will hinder civil society from growing and becoming a legitimate and publicly recognised sphere.

    What should the international community do to help improve civic space in Burundi?

    It is hard to set just a few priorities, as many things need to be put in place for Burundi to become a place of freedoms. However, it would be vital to engage the government of Burundi in multidimensional dialogue. International cooperation needs to be relaunched in a way that helps the Burundian government to end endemic poverty. The international community should advocate the repatriation of all refugees, including those who are under an arrest warrant from the Burundian government, and ensure their protection. And it also should offer its mediation to solve conflict between Burundi and its neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda, in order to facilitate the movement of people and goods and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

    If the suggested priorities are pursued, the Burundian authorities might come to realise that Burundi is not isolated and that the international community is not acting to sabotage its interests, but rather to strengthen the positive aspects of globalisation in all domains.

    Civic space in Burundi is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

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