Violent crackdown on protesters and democracy in Africa

Emma Emeozor

Zimbabwean lawyers, last week, marched on the country’s apex judicial organ, the Constitutional Court. They were neither demanding improved working conditions nor protesting the harassment of members of the bar. Rather, they were protesting “the alleged denial of justice for hundreds of people arrested in a violent crackdown on protests that shut down the country.”

Zimbabwe is not alone in the violent crackdown on protesters demanding good governance in Africa. Since independence, it has been the norm for governments in the continent to silence the people through the use of brute force even as they claim to be practicing democracy.

Despite being members of the United Nations, African leaders are yet to show respect for the rights of the people as spelt out under the International Bill of Rights. Cases of utter disregard for the freedom of expression and association have been recorded recently in Sudan, DR Congo, Cameroon, Egypt to mention but a few.

The International Bill of Rights compels members of the United Nations to respect human rights. It spells out eight basic rights that must not be abused or denied the people. They are: the right to equality and freedom from discrimination; the right to life, liberty, and personal security; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; the right to equality before the law; right to a fair trial; the right to privacy; the freedom of belief and religion; and the freedom of opinion.

At the regional level, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights is an important organ of the African Union. According to the organisation, “The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) is an international human rights instrument that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms in the African continent.”

However, what obtains in Africa is a mockery of the UN and AU declaration on human rights. Oftentimes, governments choose to ignore the code of behaviour required of them. Democracy cannot thrive in an environment where leaders deliberately trample on the rights of the people to protect their positions. In countries of the world where democracy has succeeded, the leaders exercised legitimate and referent power and not coercive power. African leaders must cut with past and begin to encourage participatory democracy, allowing all and sundry the freedom to comment on public affairs without fear of a witch-hunt.

The judiciary is the last hope of the common man. It ought to be an unbiased arbiter. But in virtually all the countries of Africa, the judiciary is hamstrung. The separation of power is often jettisoned. Judges either willingly compromise their position or are compelled by the executive to denigrate the sanctity of the judiciary. 

The impotence of the judiciary has made the advancement of democracy difficult in the continent.  People are deliberately denied justice and thrown into jail for as long as it pleases the authorities. Because all (the leaders) are guilty, it has been extremely difficult for the relevant organs of the AU and the sub-regional bodies to act. 

The violent crackdown on protesters only draws the continent to its dark past. In a democracy, leaders must not detest protests. Protests are generally acceptable means for driving home the feelings of the people over the management of their affairs by the authorities. Protests provide opportunities for government and the people to dialogue on public matters that are likely to cause political strife. Dialogue deepens democracy.

Interestingly, the security forces that are used to violently crack down on protesters are paid with the taxpayers’ money. The role of the police and army in colonial Africa resonates even in the 21st century as the leaders forcefully silence the people. Security forces were ready tools in the hands of the colonial authorities.

The practice and sustenance of democracy also depend on the degree of the neutrality of security forces. Put differently, how security forces manage criss period, particularly public protests, would go a long way to douse tension and instill confidence in the people to always ask questions about governance.

While security agents have the responsibility of protecting government property in times of crisis, it is absurd for them to unleash mayhem on unarmed protesters. 

In Africa, ethnicity, nepotism, favouritism, selfishness and hunger for power are among the factors behind the violent crackdown on protesters by the authorities.

And worrisome is the fact that political leaders in Africa do not want to be accountable to the people who elected them, once they get to power. Rather, they are quick to adopt unconstitutional means to entrench themselves in power against the peoples’ will.

The cases of protests (in whatever shape they take) would be reduced to the minimum if political leaders are willing to abide by the provisions of the constitution of their country. Africans are likely to exercise restraint and wait for the tenure of a bad leader to expire and elect a new leader through fair, free and credible election than resort to violent protests.

This would, however, depend on the willingness of leaders to relinquish power in accordance with the constitution. Of course, what is regarded as political parties in Africa are mere assemblages of friends, relations and business partners who desire power.

Independence was supposed to bring joy to the African people and indeed mark a new epoch of development and growth. Today, there is a clear demarcation between the leaders and the people to the extent that the relationship between the two has been that of ‘master’ and ‘servant.’   

Aspiring political leaders and indeed the elite should have a rethink on leadership model and the state of human rights, if the continent must advance in all spheres of human endeavour. Leaders must not alienate the people they are leading. Citizens must be allowed to make their input in the process of governance. This can only be possible through established and unhindered communication channels. African leaders must be transparent and accountable to the people.

The current political conflicts in Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere would have been nipped in the bud without bloodshed but for the lack of a listening ear on the part of the authorities. The yearnings and aspirations of the people have been undermined for too long. It would seem that some of the politicians in the corridors of power are not prepared for leadership.

In Zimbabwe, for example, dozens of people have been killed since President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over power. The expectation was that the exit of former President Robert Mugabe would usher in a new political environment devoid of killings. But this has not been the case. Rather, protesters are either killed or hurled into prison without trial.

Lawyers who marched on the Constitutional Court alleged that “many are languishing in jail after being denied bail, while others have been forced into unfair hearings across the country.”

A prominent pastor and activist charged with subversion and accused of inciting the protests, Evan Mawarire, was reportedly granted bail after more than a week in detention. He “could face 20 years in prison. His lawyer rejects the allegations against him,” reports said.

Japhet Moyo, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, was charged with subversion too. He has remained in detention ever since, the reports added. Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa reportedly described the judiciary’s actions as “well-coordinated” to punish suspects.

The protesting lawyers displayed placards with the inscriptions: “Liberate the courts from the army,” “No to command justice.” This is just as “some lawyers gagged their mouths with pieces of paper inscribed with the word “injustice.”

In a petition submitted to the country’s chief justice, Luke Malaba, the lawyers said: “it has become commonplace to hear of denial of basic fundamental rights and freedoms of those arrested and suspected of having participated in the protests.”

According to the lawyers, “abuses by the military and police include abductions of suspects or close relatives, the assault and torture of suspects to induce confessions, the denial of treatment for tortured suspects.”

The response of government to the accusations of rights violation raises concern. Denying the allegations, the authorities said “it is not military and police carrying out any violence but bogus elements in stolen uniforms who aim to tarnish the image of the country’s security forces.”

But the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) has said it has  “received credible reports that the police, government security forces and members of the ZANU-PF have been using live ammunition against its (Zimbabwe’s) own citizens who have been peacefully protesting in exercise of their rights under the Constitution.”

In Sudan, since protesters took to the streets to forcefully express their anger and demand the resignation of Omar al-Bashir, the president has continued to act as if the presidency is his ‘garden.’ Bashir chose to use despicable language to describe protesters who were calling for a change of government following the failure of his government to revamp the economy. In his warning, he asked the “rats to go back to their holes.”

Also, he told the people that “changing the government or presidents cannot be done through WhatsApp or Facebook. It can be done only through elections.” But Sudanese know too well that Bashir would rig the electoral process to garner victory. Already, MPs loyal to him are allegedly in a desperate move to amend the constitution to allow him to contest the presidency yet again in 2023. Currently, the constitution allows only two terms for the president and Bashir is serving his second term in office.

No fewer than 40 people have been killed since the protests started in Sudan. Apparently, as part of measures to cow the opposition, Mariam, the daughter of the opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, was arrested without any reason.

Considering the perseverance of the people in the face of a harsh economy, the government should have adopted pacification as a measure to persuade the organisers to call off the protests.

Bashir had forgotten that “the trigger for the wave of protests was a government attempt to introduce unsubsidised bread, allowing bakeries to sell at a higher price. That came on top of the crippling, drawn-out crisis that had led to fuel and banknote shortages.”

In Cameroon, President Paul Biya hesitated for too long before he decided to reach out to the agitators for Ambazonia Republic. The final spark for what has become guerrilla warfare in the country was the illogical and forceful introduction of the French language in the English-speaking provinces when the people were already expressing anger over the socio-economic neglect of the two provinces. Perhaps, the thinking was that once the outspoken leaders are cleared from the way, the common man in the street would fall in line and obey government’s orders. The government’s arm-twisting tactics have since failed and today the country is in a deep political conflict. The lesson from the current political conflicts across the continent is that Africans have come to embrace democracy and their rights can no longer be denied without serious consequences.

The post Violent crackdown on protesters and democracy in Africa appeared first on The Sun Nigeria.

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