Freedom is gone in East Africa, says group. I think it won’t return soon

Thursday January 28 2016

From left: Presidents Pierre Nkurunzinza (Burundi), Jakaya Kikwete (Tanzania), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya) Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) and Paul Kagame (Rwanda) at the Nairobi Heads of State summit on February 20, 2015. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

From left: Presidents Pierre Nkurunzinza (Burundi), Jakaya Kikwete (Tanzania), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya) Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) and Paul Kagame (Rwanda) at the Nairobi Heads of State summit on February 20, 2015. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

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On Tuesday Human Rights Watch released a report bemoaning the unhappy fact that governments in East Africa made little or no progress on human rights in 2015.

“Ethiopia and Burundi, and to some extent Uganda, experienced worsening restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and other rights in the lead up to or after elections.

“Other countries, such as Rwanda, maintained longstanding tight control on dissenting views. Kenya’s government failed to hold security forces to account for serious crimes and there were fresh horrific abuses in South Sudan, including attacks on civilians, repression, and a deepening humanitarian crisis in its second year of conflict. Across the region, governments failed to investigate and prosecute serious human rights violation,” HRW said.

As it happens, in most of the rest of Africa, and the world for that matter, it is the same picture.

But to keep it home, why is it that we are not seeing the kind of dramatic opening of democratic space that happened in the 1990s?

The obvious answer is an uncomfortable one — most of us don’t know what the next level of freedoms should look like.


When the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War happened, and removed the ideological roadblocks that  had hindered progress, the reforms were obvious: End one party rule; have competitive elections; bring in presidential term limits; fidget with having independent courts and Auditor Generals; relax foreign exchange controls; have anti-corruption institutions; open up public space for women; take more children to school, and things like that.

The outcomes have been poor in places, and we have seen reversals, but there is a sense that the basic things that need to be done have been done.

You can only remove foreign exchange controls once.

The second thing is that these reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s were not monolithic — they were about more than just one thing.

There was political reform, economic reform, social sector reform, and so on.

A big man could choose to introduce universal primary education, or raise representation of women in parliament, but refuse to have an independent electoral commission or a Chief Justice appointed on merit, instead of giving the job to his crony.


But even if he did that, there was still a sense of movement; that some things were improving.

That allowed democracy activists and other civil society to have something to work on, as they waited for the dictator to either die or have a change of heart.

By the time the Arab Spring came around at the start of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, we were down to one issue really — get rid of the long-ruling autocrat and his parasitic family.

It was noble, but it seemed it wasn’t broad enough to galvanise many of society’s sectors as happened in the 1990s, leaving the Spring revolutionaries to ally with the very instruments that the old regimes use for suppression, like the army.

Now, except perhaps in Tunisia, the Arab Spring has been defeated.

That has also made things worse for democracy all over the continent, because the big men are now emboldened.

So here is my prediction; over at least the next five years, HRW’s reports will paint the same unflattering picture of the state of freedom.

Change in Africa requires catastrophic or dramatic global events, not just regional or continental ones.

Thus, one of the most important  global catalysts for independence in Africa was World War II that left European colonialists broken, and forces that emerged strong like the US wanting them to move aside so there could be space for them to get in.

The end of the Cold War resulted in the disappearance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the re-emergence of old/new nations in Europe, and a rearrangement of power in the world.

We need something on that scale, in order to craft a new reform order in Africa.

There has been a lot of excitement that the internet and stuff like mobile phones will shake up politics.

Those technologies are radically altering the way we work, and do almost everything, but it’s doubtful they will usher in a different enlightened politics.

That would be too easy. Political change rarely comes without a lot of blood on the floors, bodies buried in the ground, ways of life and cities destroyed — unfortunately.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]