A marked disjuncture between the consolidation of democratic forms and the affirmation of civil liberties is one of the many paradoxes of Africa’s democratic evolution. On the whole, the sphere of individual liberty has shrunk in tandem with undeniable progress in formal institutionalization. The more regular elections have become, for instance, the less free the average individual. Recent cases involving journalists, whistle blowers, and human rights defenders in four African countries exemplify both the continued challenge of making civil liberties a philosophical cornerstone of the democratic venture in the region, and the dangers faced by those committed to defending and upholding them.
In Rwanda, the death in an automobile accident on January 18, 2023, of forty-three-year-old journalist and human rights advocate, John Williams Ntwali, has renewed apprehension about the hazards faced by investigative journalists and opposition figures under a regime which has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses and a campaign of assassination against exiled critics. While there is currently no evidence linking the government of President Paul Kagame to Mr. Ntwali’s death, nonetheless, the New York-based Human Rights Foundation deems it “suspicious” given that the deceased journalist was always “in the regime’s crosshairs for his journalistic work.” Similarly, citing “the frequent and grave threats” that Mr. Ntwali had faced while he was alive, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) insists that “Rwanda has a duty to provide a credible explanation for his death.”
Rwanda is far from the only African country where civil liberties and fiscal transparency advocates face mortal peril. In Cameroon, press freedom groups have called for a speedy and impartial investigation following the death of prominent journalist Martinez Zogo, whose heavily mutilated corpse was found near the capital city of Yaounde on January 17, five days after he was kidnapped by unidentified assailants. Significantly, Mr. Zogo, fifty at the time of his capture and eventual murder, had “discussed a case of embezzlement involving a media outlet with government connections” on Amplitude FM, a radio station on which he was a director. The authorities have opened an investigation, while insisting that Cameroon remains “a state of law, where liberty is guaranteed, including the freedom of the press.”
The authorities in Eswatini are also promising “a full investigation” following the gruesome murder on January 21 of fifty-two-year-old pro-democracy activist, Thulani Rudolf Maseko. Reportedly assassinated in his living room in the presence of his family, Mr. Maseko was leader of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), a coalition of civil society groups and political parties, and at the time of his murder representing some of those facing trial in connection with the anti-monarchy protests which rocked the landlocked southern African country in 2021. Several western governments and prodemocracy groups across the region have condemned the murder.
The case of Senegalese journalist and human rights campaigner Pape Ale Niang, currently on hunger strike following his detention since last December on charges of “revealing confidential government information likely to harm national defence” rounds out a grim series. African media organizations and United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders have called for Mr. Niang’s “immediate release and access to medical care.”
While these cases understandably have their local particularities, a bitter intolerance of opposition and an ensuing climate of fear amid an attempt to consolidate state power is a unifying thread. In Rwanda and Cameroon, civil liberties (and in the latter pretty much everything else) have suffered as Paul Kagame and Paul Biya have monopolized power. Paul Biya, as the oldest head of government in the world at eighty-nine, has held office since 1982. Kagame, president since 2000, is widely expected to seek an unprecedented fourth term of office in 2024, a fact he has hardly concealed: “I would consider running for another 20 years. I have no problem with that. Elections are about people choosing.”
Centralized authority, this time of the monarchical kind, is also at stake in Eswatini as King Mswati III attempts to suppress growing opposition to monarchical rule and persistent calls for democratization.
In Senegal, sixty-one-year-old President Macky Sall, first elected in 2012 and reelected for a second seven-year term in 2019, has been under fire from local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and political activists who believe that he is secretly plotting to “reset the clock” for an unconstitutional third term of office. The president has refused to comment on the rumors.
For the most account, and especially since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the continuing aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine conflict when the region’s economic outlook has darkened, conversations around African development have focused on remedies for its economic situation. At the same time, and particularly over the past decade, legitimate concern with religious extremism and the activities of sundry Islamist groups has led to a heightened focus on religious freedoms. Lastly, and as China and Russia’s influence in the region has grown, a section of the policymaking community has urged the United States and other Western governments to imitate Beijing and Moscow’s antiseptic trade-first, rights-later (if ever) approach.
Against this backdrop, political freedoms have, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken a back seat.
Privileging trade over political freedoms is a serious misjudgment for many reasons.
In the first place, a trade-first (no different from a rights-last) policy is a tacit endorsement of the specious argument—favored, as is to be expected, by authoritarians—that human rights are a western import, hence culturally alien to Africa. Second, it is a needless concession of moral advantage to China and Russia at the precise moment when the United States and the West should be striving to put ideological daylight between themselves and the strategic competition. Furthermore, the relegation of political freedoms rests on the easily discredited assumption that one could feasibly separate economic from religious or political freedoms. Not only are all inextricably conjoined, civil liberties, those freedoms which accrue to citizens on the basis of their common humanity, are the inalienable foundation of all freedoms. Contra the counsel to play the “realpolitik” game in the region and launch what would effectively amount to a Western equivalent of a Belt and Road initiative, the United States and other Western governments should double down on making financial assistance to African governments contingent on respect for the civil liberties of their citizens. As well, they should continue to provide technical and financial support to national and regional prodemocracy and human civil liberties advocacy groups, all with the long-term aim of making African societies secure for the rule of law.
American resolve to “foster openness and open societies” and “deliver democratic and security dividends,” part of its new four-pronged strategy towards sub-Saharan African, will remain at the level of rhetoric if it is not backed up by a firm and unabashed support for fundamental political freedoms in Africa.
Washington has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.