Capsized boats in the Mediterranean that were filled with distressed African families, corpses scattered along the hills of South America’s Darien Gap, and thousands of African refugees now stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border, are all consequences of the crackdown on civil society that is silently sweeping across much of Africa.
While pitiless politicians in the US, UK and other Western countries constantly exploit this migration crisis in their propaganda, not enough attention is being paid to the closing political space in Africa that is causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee in the first place.
In the continent’s largest country, Nigeria, Omoyele Sowore, a journalist, human rights advocate and recent presidential candidate, was arrested on 3 August and has been held without an official charge or trial ever since. His non-violent activism and his message that the ordinary Nigerians who constitute a majority cannot get their government to deliver security or economic development or social benefits because of corruption, has landed him in jail. There are dozens of other Nigerians being similarly detained in violation of African and international human rights laws.
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In Africa’s newest country, South Sudan, Peter Biar Ajak, one of the “lost boys” who came to the U.S. in 2001 as a refugee and went on to graduate from Harvard before heading to Cambridge University where he is a Ph.D. candidate, was falsely charged with treason, sabotage, insurgency and weapons possession over a year ago. Those charges were dropped only for him to be subsequently tried and convicted for “disturbing the peace” after a whole year in jail and has now been sentenced to two more years in prison. His crime? Giving an interview to foreign media. This is the same South Sudan that President Salva Kiir has banned anyone from singing the national anthem unless he is present.
Many stories of repression, political persecution, unlawful arrests and torture in Africa have mostly gone under the radar this year. The fact that the world was watching Sudan following the June 3rd massacre there is widely believed to have contributed to the Military Junta’s decision to accept a transitional government with civilian participation. Even military juntas are sensitive to the world’s scorn. This is why international pressure matters.
In one of Africa’s smallest countries, Burundi, upcoming elections next year pose a great risk of large-scale violence, yet the United Nations Security Council has considered dropping Burundi from its crowded agenda. Some UNSC members suggested that following a failed coup attempt in 2015, conflict has ended in the country. But ongoing human rights violations including the suppression of free speech, political intimidation, torture and the forced return of refugees are just some of the elements that have made Burundi a powder keg. Similarly, the lead up to elections in Mozambique later this month has resulted in attacks on activists and journalists.
And these are only a few of the countries suffering from an ongoing crackdown on civil society in Africa. In Uganda Stella Nyanzi, an academic and women’s rights advocate, has been jailed for poetry deemed offensive to the head of state in power for more than three decades. The extrajudicial killings of two dozen young men in Kenya last year demonstrated a deeply troubling trend in the breakdown of the rule of law in that country. The July arrest of Tanzanian journalist, Erick Kabendera, was yet another step by the country’s populist president turned autocrat to silence the media. Zimbabwe’s new President Emerson Mnangagwa’s has violently suppressed political opposition since his presidency was formalized via questionable elections following the overthrow of his predecessor Robert Mugabe two years ago. And the promising steps towards political reform taken by Ethiopia’s star prime minister Abiy Ahmed, have recently been followed by a rollback of some of that progress.
We should learn the names of these political prisoners and keep them present in our conversations and public advocacy, so governments don’t get away with harming or killing citizens who simply seek to exercise their democratic rights.
Those fleeing repression in their home countries do not want to leave, they are forced to. No one wants to risk the lives of their children, trek for hundreds of miles, pile onto small boats likely to capsize or be smuggled jammed into airless trucks. These are the measures desperate people take. The long-term solution is a safe and secure civil society space in African nations where citizens can write poetry or give an interview to the foreign press without the fear of being jailed following an unfair trial. This should be Washington’s main priority when seeking to address the African migrant crisis.