Beyond Apartheid: What About Human Rights Abuses in the Rest of Africa?

The collapse of communist dictatorships and the triumph of democratic currents against the forces of repression were greeted with jubilation in much of the world. The historic events in Eastern Europe was particularly significant for Africa. After gaining their independence, virtually all the African states adopted the Eastern European model. Most of the African nationalist leaders, irrespective of their particular ideological rhetoric, chose the same model of one-party state, life-president, state controls, state enterprises, and state censorship that was characterized by brutal suppression.

Last December in Kenya, Reverend Dr. Timothy Njoya suggested in a sermon that African leaders should reconsider the one-party state system in the light of the recent events in Eastern Europe where, he indicated, the one-party system originated. He said, “Such parties have completely failed to be democratic in the Eastern European countries of Romania, Hungary, and Poland, where they were manufactured and imported by [pioneer African nationalists like] Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Modipo Keita into Africa.”

Not surprisingly, the reaction of senior officials of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) was swift and vitriolic. “Absolute madness and folly!” cried Peter Ollo, the national chairman of KANU. Mr. Elijah Mwangale, Minister for Livestock, called for the arrest and detention of Rev. Njoya.

The response by other African leaders to popular discontent and demands for democracy was the same stony resistance. At its annual general meeting this January, the Ghana Bar Association said it was committed to the “principle that Ghana should be governed in a democratic constitutional manner” and called on the government to “initiate immediately a referendum which will permit the Ghanaian people to determine openly and freely the form of constitutional government it wishes itself.” Yet President Rawlings and the military in Ghana assert that Ghana has solved its political problems and therefore there is no talk in government circles of extending parliamentary democracy.

Around the same time in the Ivory Coast, workers and students went on demonstrations in Abidjan to vent their anger at the government which has demanded austerity but done nothing to punish an increasingly corrupt ruling elite. The protests were met with tear gas, stun grenades, and truncheons. About 28 teachers were arrested. President Houphouet-Boigny, who has ruled since independence in 1960, rejected protesters’ demands for multi-party democracy. He now blames his troubles on a “multinational-led conspiracy.”

The opposition has charged that Houphouet-Boigny and some of his powerful government ministers, past and present, have stashed away in Europe sums said to exceed the foreign aid that Western donors have poured into the Ivory Coast.

This February in Niger, students demonstrated to protest austerity measures that reduced scholarships and other subsidies for university education. Security forces opened fire and killed at least 11 demonstrators. President Ali Saibou promised a new constitution but said it would allow only one political party—his own.

“Zaire has no need for a perestroika. Its one-party state system is the most elaborate form of democracy,” declared an arrogant President Mobutu Sese Seko. Yet, a number of Zairian refugees in neighboring African countries have been kidnapped by agents of the Zairian Agence Nationale de Documentation. In mid-April 1989, Zairian refugee Anselme Kabongo was kidnapped by Mobutu’s agents in Bujumbura (Burundi) and is now in Makala prison in Kinshasa. Earlier that same year, Zairian agents tried to kidnap a Mobutu opponent in Arua (Uganda) but instead found his pregnant wife, Fatuma, who was taken, raped, and her 3 million Ugandan shillings stolen by the security agents. She suffered a miscarriage and is now in Makala Prison. Meanwhile, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi remains under house arrest, and 20 members of his party, Union for Democracy and Social Progress, are in jail.

Zambia is also a one-party state where President Kenneth Kaunda has ruled since independence in 1964. Talk of power-sharing is a crime. At the annual convention of the ruling party in March, a motion was introduced for a multi-party system. President Kaunda, with characteristic alacrity and vitriol, denounced the measure as “Stone-age barbarism.”

President Kaunda, it may be noted, has been one of the most strident critics of oppression of blacks in South Africa. He has been indefatigable in demanding the release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) as well as power-sharing with blacks by the white minority government. Ironically, Nelson Mandela, after spending 27 years in prison, has been released, and over 30 political and anti-apartheid organizations have been unbanned in South Africa. But in Zambia, no such progress has been made.

Blacks in South Africa can now speak freely and organize political rallies. As the Wall Street Journal observed:

Today, the people of this Soweto township can call for toppling the government with little fear of persecution…. They chant “Viva Mandela! Viva ANC” and they are not arrested. The brave few who once defied authorities by wearing the black, green and gold colors of the ANC now have been joined by many. T-shirts with Mr. Mandela’s picture on them are everywhere. Nearly everyone who spoke to this reporter in 1986 requested anonymity; this time, no one did.

The painful irony is that the black South African, on whose behalf we Africans marched to free from racist oppression, now has more freedoms than we do in our own black African countries! Out of the 51 African countries, just six (Algeria, Botswana, Egypt, Gambia, Mauritius, and Senegal) allow their people the right to vote and choose their leaders. Freedom of expression and association is anathema to the leaders of a continent who pontificate about freedom to the world. Even Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, though involved in his own crusade against apartheid, could not fail but notice the hideous political repression that is rampant across Africa. In a speech on March 26, 1990, at Nairobi’s All Saints Cathedral, he lamented:

I long for the day when Africa will truly be free… when people can say anything without being hauled into jail. It is true God’s children in Africa suffer because there is less freedom in their countries than during the colonial times. African leaders need to be reminded that there is totalitarianism and despotism nearly everywhere in Africa. When your people are free, you can also walk freely and you will not need huge security to protect you

Bloody Legacy

In the 1950s and ’60s, Africans struggled arduously for their freedom from colonial rule. But true freedom never came. Since independence, there has been a systematic erosion of basic civil liberties, flagrant violations of human rights, the institution of heinous tyranny, and frequent wanton slaughter of the African people by military barbarians.

The era of Idi Amin in Uganda will forever live in infamy. By the time he was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia, more than 400,000 Ugandans had been butchered. One of the victims was Archbishop Janan Luwum. Peter Ojok Dacan, who witnessed the brutal murder of the archbishop, provides this chilling account:

I was arrested on February 10, 1977, and taken to Nakasero State Research Center, which was really just a torture center of Amin’s thugs. I was terrified as I was investigated by the Director of Operations, Alie Hassan. I was tortured for three hours so that my brain could not work.

…then came the terrible day of the 16th of February, 1977, when I was taken outside the cell to do some work…. At about 6 pm we saw an army Land Rover moving towards the guards at a terrific speed, with its indicator lights flashing. The vehicle passed the mess, braked and stopped. Then it reversed, stopped again and three men in commando uniforms jumped out with their guns. They then started to drag three terrified men out of the Land Rover.

The three seemed to have been told to lie down in the vehicle. The soldiers drew their guns and shot bullets into them. Two of them who died instantly turned out to be the ministers Lt. Colonel Erinayo Oreyima, the Minister of Lands and Water Resources and Charles Oboth Ofumbi, the Minister of Internal Affairs. The last man to be pulled out, whom everyone could see wearing a gown, was Archbishop Janan Luwum. He got three bullets but did not die on the spot. He remained screaming throughout the night.

It was from that day that I started believing strongly in God.

After being mistaken for an Alur from Idi Amin’s tribe, Dacan was later released. He subsequently fled into exile in Botswana.

About the same time and across the equatorial belt in Equatorial Guinea, the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Marcias Nguema was running amok. Equatorial Guinea is 95 percent Catholic with a population of only 336,000. Following independence from Spain in 1968, the country’s first president, Nguema, declared himself president for life in 1972. Until his overthrow in 1979 by his brother, he had unleashed a reign of terror that saw the liquidation of an estimated 50,000. Political dissidents, journalists, and prominent Catholics were singled out for extermination.

Nguema ordered his portrait placed on every church altar and had himself declared as the only god and the “Miracle and Strength” of the country. When the Catholic Church refused, churches were closed and Mass banned. Many people were literally crucified because of their Catholic faith. Archbishop Nze Abuy, in Europe for medical treatment at the time, was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. He returned from exile in 1980 to find that numerous members of his family had been arrested and tortured.

In one African country after another, the cause of freedom was perfidiously betrayed. The nationalists who became presidents at independence subsequently failed their people. Most were booted out or assassinated in military coups, but tragically, the soldiers who replaced them were no better. They ruined one African economy after another with savage efficiency and looted one treasury after another with military discipline. All the African countries described as economic basket cases are now ruled by military dictatorships: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Zaire, and others.

Military vandalism and barbarism now ravage much of Africa. The 1980s were the worst. Beginning in Ghana, in June 1980, a 22-year old peasant, Geze Rose Adzo, was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment with hard labor for allegedly attempting to export a basketful of cocoa. In the same year, Kporkporvie Dada, a peasant woman, was beaten to death by Ghana’s border guards for attempting to take a gallon of kerosene to a relative in neighboring Togoland. By contrast, when the elites ran afoul of the law, they were treated with impudent leniency.

What’s Yours We Share

In 1988 when several cabinet ministers in Zimbabwe were convicted of corruption, President Mugabe pardoned four of them. Asked what he understood by socialism, one of Mugabe’s cabinet ministers replied: “In Zimbabwe, socialism means what is mine is mine. But what’s yours we share!”

Elsewhere in Africa, “Swiss bank” socialists plunder the wealth of poor peasants with predatory indifference. In Togoland, Security Chief Colonel Senyi, Minister of State Kawo Ehe, and the ex-Minister of Commerce and Transport Nanbog Barnabo, were only compelled to regurgitate part of their loot kept in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Kenya’s vampire elites have hoarded over $5 billion abroad, an amount which exceeds Kenya’s foreign debt of $4 billion.

Under the pretext of enforcing price controls, Ghanaian authorities have meted out savage atrocities to peasants. One farmer, Abena Amponsah, was sentenced to jail for three years with hard labor for making an illegal profit of $1.50 on six bars of soap. In another case the police mercilessly beat up a group of peasant cocoa farmers who had queued in front of a bank to cash their government checks. The reason? They were being too disorderly in the queue. Throughout much of 1983, markets in Ghana were burned down and destroyed when peasant traders refused to sell their wares at government-dictated prices.

Back in 1980, peasants in Tanzania were forcibly settled in a program code-named “Operation Dodoma.” To prevent a return to their old villages, the Tanzanian government bulldozed their homesteads. Indeed, peasants have suffered the most at the hands of Africa’s military dictators and troops who use them as targets for practice shooting. In Benin, Burundi, Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia, Zaire, and many other African countries, military rule has degenerated into savage barbarism.

In Liberia, on August 22, 1984, a detachment of 200 soldiers, acting on direct orders from President Doe, stormed the University of Liberia to quell a student demonstration. As the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights wrote:

The soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd of unarmed demonstrators, stripped students naked, flogged them with rattans, beat them with rifle butts, extorted money from them, and finally, in an as yet undetermined number of instances, dragged female students and raped them. The soldiers then looted dormitories and classrooms… According to these witnesses, the soldiers sprayed automatic rifle fire into the backs of scattering students, grabbed them, beat them, and embarked on a spree of looting and sexual abuse…. Several women told the Lawyers Committee about a friend whom they said was gang-raped by soldiers who thrust the barrel of a rifle into her vagina.

In October 1988, students and lecturers at Zaire’s University of Kinshasa demonstrated to demand better conditions. Dormitories were crowded, classrooms filthy, and there was a lack of transportation service to and from the university. Troops rained bullets on them, killing 27 students and injuring over 300.

In 1986, an Issaq peasant living in a village between Berbera and Hargeisa was arrested by Somali security agents for not informing the government of the presence of Somali National Movement troops (freedom fighters) in his area. He did not know the difference between government soldiers and freedom fighter troops, he protested. For that ignorance, part of his tongue was cut off by the Security Service.

Africa Watch, a U.S.-based human rights group, charges the regime of President Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia with responsibility for the deaths of 50,000 to 60,000 civilians since hostilities broke out between the government and the rebels in May 1988. Another 400,000 people have been displaced within Somalia, while half a million have fled to neighboring countries.

According to Africa Watch, “Entire regions have been devastated by a military engaged in combat against its own people, resembling a foreign occupation force that recognizes no constraints on its power to kill, rape, or loot.”

Across the border in Ethiopia, another military lunatic, Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam, wreaks wanton destruction and savage carnage upon his own people. In February 1988, Ethiopian troops opened fire on a group of peasant farmers at the northern town of Korem when the peasants refused to participate in a government resettlement program.

In Uganda, Major Okello Kolo, a former member of President Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) charges that “incidents of rape, looting, slashing of food crops, razing of homes and food stores, theft of livestock have been going on unabated at the hands of the troops of the NRA.” Already, 150,000 peasants in the north and east have perished at the hands of the NRA, he added.

In Sudan, the military regime of Major-General Bashir is well on its way to besting the idiotic savagery of Idi Amin. Barely a year old, Bashir’s junta—which overthrew Mr. Sadiq el Mandi’s elected civilian government in June 1989—has vowed to reimpose the 8haria (Islamic Law). Under this law, theft is punishable by amputation of the right hand or, if there are more than three people or weapons involved, cross amputation: right hand, left foot. Defamation and drinking alcohol are punishable by flogging, as is adultery or, if the couple are both married, by stoning to death. “Apostasy,” defined as “the renunciation of Islam,” is punishable by public execution with the body left on public display. Between 1983 and 1985, several hundred men had their limbs chopped off as punishment for theft. Major-General Bashir shows no signs of relenting. Instead, he declared his junta will “destroy anyone who stands in the way… and amputate those who betray the nation.”

Accordingly in Sudan, Dr. Mamoun Hussein, who “stood in Bashir’s way,” was condemned to death by a military tribunal. A prosperous merchant was hanged, despite diplomatic protests, for illegal possession of a small amount of foreign currency. Widespread torture and killings of civilians have been reported by Amnesty International.

Unfree Speech

Today, the situation has not changed. Out of the 51 African countries, only a few (Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius, Senegal, Tunisia, and arguably Algeria) have a free press and tolerate criticism of arrant government policies.

In most of Africa, write or say something critical in Africa and you are dead or in jail. It is this intellectual barbarism on the part of “modern and educated” African leaders that has held the region back economically. Even the so-called “backward and illiterate” chiefs of Africa tolerated and even solicited dissenting opinion since by custom they had to rule by consensus.

Most of Africa’s great writers, poets, and journalists are either dead, in jail, or in exile. One would have difficulty naming even ten great African writers still living on the continent. Naturally, African leaders do not notice the scarcity of writers. Instead, they lament “a book famine.” Of course there is a book famine when African leaders only reward writers with arrests, detentions, and murder.

To Africans, these iniquities against the writing profession and atrocities against Africa’s peasants are more than flagrant violations of human rights. They constitute a despicable betrayal of the freedom fought for in the 1950s.

Even during that much-maligned colonial period, there was relatively far more freedom of expression than there is today. Nkrumah, Azikiwe, and many African nationalists wrote and published freely. In West Africa, newspapers such as Nigerian Daily Telegraph (1931), African Morning Post (1936), Lagos Weekly (1890), Sierra Leone Weekly News (1884), L’Eclaire de la Cote d’Ivoire (1935), The Gold Coast Independent (1895), and Le Guide du Dahome (1920) published with relative freedom. Today, this freedom has vanished in much of Africa.

Western Assistance

Only intellectual freedom can establish the free marketplace of ideas from which political and economic reform can be crafted. One Romanian, Dinu Buhaina, expressed it succinctly: “We didn’t start a revolution for more pork—we did it for freedom. We have waited 24 years under Ceausescu. If the economic revolution takes a little longer, well, I think we can wait.” Africans have waited too long. The sequence of events in Romania was instructive: first Ceausescu was booed, then overthrown, then elections were held, and finally economic restructuring was begun.

Furthermore, the two great revolutions of the West (American and French) were inspired by ideas freely espoused and exchanged across the Atlantic by such intellectual giants as Lafayette, Washington, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, to name a few. By insisting upon economic reform first, many Western governments and aid agencies not only seek to rewrite their own history but also put the cart before the horse. Intellectual freedom was the key of the revolutionary events in Eastern Europe.

Sadly, there is no such glasnost in Africa. The media are still controlled and owned by the state. Newsprint in much of Africa is regulated by import licensing. A private newspaper or magazine which does not toe the government line is either denied an import license for newsprint or banned.

The print media are particularly important in the democratization process. They expose human rights abuses, corruption, repression, economic mismanagement, and a host of other ailments of a dictatorship. It is also in the print media that solutions to problems and ideas are published and exchanged. In fact, it can be said that nations that develop or advance are those that permit a free exchange of ideas and guarantee freedom of expression. What is urgently needed in Africa at this stage is an information revolution that would break the government’s monopoly over the media.

Experience shows that reform can only be lasting if it is internally generated. There is only so much Americans or foreigners can do without being accused of meddling in the affairs of sovereign African nations. Internal agents of reform need to be identified and supported, but they can only survive in a general atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

Western governments could accelerate the process of total reform by providing direct aid and credit to private individuals for the importation of newsprint and the establishment of newspapers, radio stations, and telecommunications in Africa. Any African government that shuts them down would forfeit its own Western aid. Afericans (African-Americans) can also play a historic role in this “blacknost revolution” by publicly demanding the removal of black “Ceausescus” and “Noriegas.”

The newly-emancipated peoples of Eastern Europe can also be of especial strategic assistance. Their embassies in Africa could make available to the African people magazine articles, news clips, TV clips, and radio commentaries of the momentous events in their former socialist countries. Such news was heavily censored and relegated to small corners of back pages in many African countries. Better yet, such clips should be placed in all public and university libraries in Africa as “gifts” from, say, the people of Poland or East Germany.

Finally, it must also be suggested that one indirect way of improving Africa’s deplorable human rights record is by reforming the United Nations. The U.N. should enforce Article 19 of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Nations that violate that charter should be expelled from that world body.

  • George B.N. Ayittey

    George Ayittey (born 1945) is a Ghanaian economist, author and president of the Free Africa Foundation in Washington DC. He is a professor at American University, and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...