/ 14 December 2020

Pandemic of human rights abuses haunts governments in East and Southern Africa

Uganda Health Virus Security
Ugandan police officers and members of Local Defence Units (LDU), a paramilitary force composed of civilians, patrol during the curfew after 7pm in Kampala, Uganda, on April, 29, 2020. (Photo by Sumy Sadurni/AFP)


This year will be forever associated with one story that affected every single country in the world: the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, more than 68-million people had been infected with the virus and more than 1.5-million people have died of it, according to the World Health Organisation. As the virus continues to spread, these numbers will only increase with the second wave already underway in Europe, the United States and South Africa.

While the world’s attention has focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been another pandemic that has spread in its shadow — human rights violations. From Angola to Botswana, Uganda to Zimbabwe, people have suffered untold horrors, abuses and injustices in the past 12 months in East and Southern Africa. 

Conflict in Ethiopia

The African Union’s theme for the continent in 2020 was “silencing the guns”. But as 2020 draws to a close, the sound of gunfire tragically became a feature of life in Ethiopia where hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands more forced to flee into neighbouring Sudan to escape fighting, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which controls Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region

Amnesty International has established that the conflict has already resulted in a massacre of civilians, and calls for an immediate thorough, independent and impartial investigation that will identify perpetrators and hold them accountable for human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. All sides to the conflict must urgently prioritise the protection of civilians, allow access to human rights monitors, and give humanitarian organisations unfettered access.

Insurgency in Mozambique

More than three years after the fighting began in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, by an armed group calling itself “Al-Shabab”, victims of the conflict — which has killed more than 2 000 people and displaced more than 300 000 others — are no closer to justice, truth and reparation. Authorities have failed to bring to justice all those suspected of crimes and human rights violations under international law. Government forces have been accused of crimes under international law, as well as human rights violations in pursuit of those suspected of being involved with the armed group, including extrajudicial executions, torture and other ill treatment. 

Gender-based violence

Also underreported and unrelenting has been the neglected “war” being waged against women and girls, as reports of gender-based violence shot up during the first few months of the pandemic. In South Africa, the nationwide lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 23 March to control the spread of the virus, meant that many women and girls were unable to escape from abusive partners and family members. By mid-June, 21 women and children had been reported killed in the country. 

Elsewhere, increased incidents of violence against women were reported during lockdowns in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in a chilling reminder that many countries are still a dangerous place for women. Their shocking deaths reflect governments’ failures to prioritise the protection of women’s rights both in law and practice, and there have been many calls for urgent measures to be taken to correct this. 

Freedom of expression 

Freedom of expression was another casualty across the continent this year. In Uganda, authorities continued to clamp down on free speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including by indiscriminately using deadly force on protesters. National Unity Platform presidential candidate and musician Robert Kyagulanyi, commonly known as Bobi Wine, was regularly harassed and intimidated in a clear attempt to limit his political reach, a violation of his rights, ahead of elections next year. The Ugandan authorities’ targeting of Bobi Wine and his political activism through repeated arrests and detention is persecution, plain and simple. Recently, he started campaigning with bullet-proof gear as he has felt that his life is under considerable threat. 

In Tanzania, the country went to the polls on 28 October under a climate of heavy repression and suppression of opposition voices. An Amnesty International report found that President John Magufuli’s government had “weaponised” the law to silence opposition and critical voices in the run-up to the vote.  Opposition candidates were arrested on spurious charges that stripped them of their right to freedom of assembly, association and movement. At the same time, the government tightened censorship rules to exert significant control over what local and foreign media publish, violating the right to freedom of expression.

In Zimbabwe, it was a difficult year for journalists, opposition leaders and human rights activists. Those who demanded accountability, decried their declining socioeconomic status or exposed government corruption faced intimidation and harassment, including abductions or arrests. Investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested twice and held in lengthy pretrial detention for exposing corruption.

In many instances, the state of emergency introduced by African governments to take measures to contain Covid-19 was used as a cover for outrageous human rights violations. In Angola, an investigation by Amnesty International in August revealed that security forces tasked with enforcing Covid-19 measures to mitigate against the spread of virus, repeatedly used excessive and unlawful force and killed at least seven boys and young men between May and July. The youngest victim was just 14 years old. One teenage boy was shot in the face by security forces while he lay injured; another was killed when police fired on a group of friends at a sports field. Angolan authorities are also cracking down on dissent. Last month, peaceful demonstrations against the high cost of living in Luanda were disrupted by the security forces, with a number of activists arrested and later released.

As Covid-19 spread, millions of people across the region faced hunger as lockdowns meant that they were unable to work and access food. The vast majority of people in the region make their living in the informal economy, for example as street vendors or manual labourers. Under lockdown measures, these were considered “non-essential” roles and people in this sector were prohibited from working. Women and children were the most affected by hunger. It is not too late for governments to urgently put in place social protection measures to uphold the right to food.

But there is reason for optimism. Activists and human rights defenders are pushing back continuing to speak out and organise peaceful protests to claim their human rights.

In Namibia, youth-led protests have challenged longstanding gender-based violence and deep-seated patriarchy under the hashtag #ShutItAllDown, inspiring the region to take a stand against the scourge. The youth courageously demanded immediate political action to end the scourge.  

In Zambia, civic action and advocacy made sure that the Constitution Amendment Bill 2019, also known as Bill no 10, was defeated as it failed to garner the support of two-thirds of MPs. 

After street protests challenging last year’s vote, a fresh vote was held in Malawi after judges on Malawi’s Constitutional Court found that there had been widespread irregularities in last year’s election. The re-run election, ushered a smooth political transition from former president Peter Mutharika to President Lazarus Chakwera.

 In 2021, people must continue to stand up and defend their hard-won freedoms in the same way they fought against colonial oppression and apartheid. History has taught us that freedom will not be given easily to the people; it must be fought for —and we must fight very hard.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.