Cynical African leaders whose motive is not to protect their people but themselves say the concept of human rights is a non-African concept

Cynical African leaders whose motive is not to protect their people
Artwork by ACM cartoonist Mark Wiggett. See www.wiggett.co.za.

By James Hall

Africans have few means to protect themselves against human rights abuses, many of which are perpetrated by their own leaders. Autocratic governments reject international prosecutors seeking justice for human rights victims, and African governments continent-wide are cracking down on NGOs who hold governments accountable.

Just as the domestic policies and actions of highest priority for many African leaders is the preservation of their power, the foreign policy imperative of African leadership expressed in the African Union (AU) is to ensure the survival of their fellow leaders. There is a quid pro quo to this arrangement, an understanding that one African leader will support another when threatened by domestic and international pressure and in return such buttressing is expected to be reciprocated. The arrangement is cynically cloaked in pious pledges to not interfere in the domestic affairs of another country.

The culture of human rights that was rooted in the universal acceptance of the UN, which was founded in 1945 on the principal of human rights, interferes with African leaders’ circle of self-protection by introducing international law as a means to protect individual Africans. Often, these individuals are victimised by their own leaders, and other African leaders have been put in the position of seeming to favour fellow Big Men over the people of the countries oppressed by said Big Men.

The solution for African leadership has been to condemn the concept of human rights. Such an ideology, they argue, is foreign to African culture, disrespectful of African values and a blatant attempt of Western imperialist neo-colonial powers to re-colonise Africa by imposing laws. The cynicism of this charge is apparent by those who do the advocating. Anti-human rights arguments are being raised almost exclusively by undemocratic leaders and their support groups, from minions to political parties and those who have benefitted from despotic rule. Confusion is sewn when nationalism and residual anti-colonial sentiments find some outlet in attacks on anything seen to originate from the West.

Against the strong anti-human rights tide that keeps afloat the ships of state of many a tyrant are champions of human rights who are African themselves. The legions of African NGOs, lawyers’ societies, journalists, clergymen, business groups, academics and intellectuals are seeking human rights for the African masses. They argue that such rights are for all humans and are inherent in all humanity, as proposed by the UN Charter. There are no African human rights, they point out, although no African leader condemning the concept of human rights as a foreign intrusion has proposed a localised alternative. They are not buying the self-serving condemnation of NGOs by governments who do not wish to be held accountable by those NGOs.

Human rights is parcel to all conflicts faced by Africans, from government corruption that drains resources away from meeting the needs of the African people to the horrific atrocities of warfare that will continue if perpetrators are not brought to book. As a backdrop to all forms of conflict in Africa, a battle about human rights continues. In the balance hangs the welfare of the African people.

This article is extracted from the June 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/- 85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

When human rights are linked to personal welfare, African lives improve

Against the wrath of governments’ propaganda machinery, sporadically located and perpetually underfunded local NGOs have a difficult task establishing their legitimacy in the eyes of Africans told by their leaders that foreign powers seek to undermine their cultures through human rights. Amnesty International is based in London, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists both have their headquarters in New York, and Transparency International in Berlin. Their African counterparts are far less funded and known and thus, less influential. All African nations belong to the UN, and are signatories to a variety of UN human rights accords. Cynically, many country leaders sign on as a means to acquire UN aid. UN agencies operating in nations have a mandate to monitor human rights and an obligation to criticise the abuse of these. However, these agencies are in a bind – because the nations in which they serve are UN members, they are also in a sense their bosses. No UN agency when faced with even the vilest abuses responds with the verbal forcefulness of non-UN human rights watchdog groups.

UN agencies, like all NGOs, are also weighed with the difficult task of abetting dictatorships. By providing essential services that would normally be the responsibility of a central government, these agencies and NGOs are freeing up money and resources that authoritarian governments can fritter away through corruption, use to boost security forces as bulwarks against pro-democracy groups and otherwise reinforce their power. NGOs argue that dictators will not suddenly ensure food, health and water security to the masses if NGO projects were to cease in protest of dictatorships. The people would simply starve, get sick and die.

Thus, there is an irony to Uganda’s anti-NGO law that long-reigning President Yoweri Museveni is championing against organisations that challenge him on his poor human rights record. Some 11,000 NGOs registered in Uganda provide vital services to the Ugandan people. Government is suspicious of them all. They are subversive, Museveni’s administration believes. In the introduction to the NGO Regulation Bill 2015 over which parliamentary debate began in September, Minister of Internal Affairs General Aronda Nyakairima wrote, “the rapid growth of non-governmental organisations has led to subversive methods of work and activities, which in turn undermine accountability and transparency in the sector.”

The law would create an NGO board that issues permits without which any non-complying NGO director faced four to eight years in prison. With intentionally vague language, the bill allows NGOs to be denied permits if “in the opinion of the board it is in the public interest to do so.” No definition of the public interest is provided. Nor is there an explanation to clarify the ominous way in which the board reserves the right to revoke permits should an NGO engage “in any act which is prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda.”

In this sense, the NGO bill is similar to anti-terrorism legislation in some African countries that is aimed at stifling political opposition to ruling governments rather than ensuring the security of the country’s people. With the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab carrying out atrocities in Kenya to the extent that the Kenyan economy is damaged, there is no denying the terror threat Kenya faces. However, government clearly overreached when it accused a handful of NGOs of raising money for terrorist activities but then executing a mass shut down of 500 NGOs since 2014 for non-compliance with NGO regulations. Those regulations were inspired by Ethiopia’s draconian NGO control law of 2009. The authoritarian government in Addis Ababa is deeply suspicious of liberal-minded NGOs dedicated to human rights causes.

Knowing that funding is the mother’s milk of NGO operations, the law targets NGO financing. Just as the affluent West is the only global source of sufficiently deep pockets to keep many African charitable organisations functioning, so too does Western largesse support African NGOs. Knowing this, Ethiopia’s government ignored that an NGO’s headquarters were located in Ethiopia, their directors and staffs were Ethiopian and their activities were of local origin and focus, and instead used financing as a litmus test of whether said NGO was domestic or ‘foreign’. Any NGO that receives more than 10% of its funding from foreign sources is defined as a ‘foreign NGO’. The onus of such a branding is that the law forbids foreign NGOs from engaging in key human rights activities, including conflict resolution, criminal justice, human rights and pro-democracy undertakings.

First Kenya, then Uganda followed suit with laws tightening the screws on NGOs in an effort to wean the organisations from activities involving human rights, justice and political rights. In May, South Sudan’s parliament passed a law restricting NGOs to no more than 20% foreign staffers.

In Mauritania, draft legislation introduced in July 2015 for the registration of NGOs will restrict their freedom to operate, according to the Global Development Professionals Network, an initiative of London’s Guardian newspaper. The law is designed as a means to control NGO activities. The last African country to outlaw slavery, which it somewhat grudgingly did only in 2007; Mauritania has a government not yet comfortable with the concept of human rights espoused by NGOs operating within the borders of the large Western African nation.

African leaders against international law

Human rights abuses are on the main perpetrated by the leaders of Africa against the African people; leaders who may head insurgencies or state autocrats who secured electoral office and use state institutions to achieve perpetual power. Human rights abuses are conducted daily by ordinary individuals, from housewives whose domestic worker is enslaved to human traffickers and spousal and child abuses. However, human rights abuses carried out on a national scale are achieved by the Big Men with guns, either via the arms of militants, the armies of autocrats or the bombs of terrorists.

Insurgents and terrorists are pursued by international coalitions throughout Africa, tracking the future defeat of al-Shabaab or Boko Haram and these groups’ leaderships who will be held accountable for atrocities carries out under their command. National leaders of Africa, on the other hand, are using the tools of state that they have usurped for their own aggrandisement to avoid accountability. The policy of the African Union (AU) is to obstruct the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold African leaders accountable. Although most African countries are signatories to the treaty that set up the ICC, these treaties are ignored so that a gentleman’s agreement between leaders can be honoured. It is honour amongst thieves, for tomorrow’s leader under investigation or indictment will require the backing of the African continent to keep him from answering for his crimes at The Hague. Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir escaped ICC justice with the assistance of South Africa. The ICC has written to the South African government for an explanation as to why the country abrogated its treaty obligations by not arresting Bashir while he was in Johannesburg to attend an AU Summit and, more, why the country actively conspired to ensure his safe passage home. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party of South Africa’ President Zuma, one of the co-conspirators in the matter, hurriedly promulgated a law designed to protect Bashir and then claimed domestic law trumped international obligations. Of course, South Africa was motivated by international obligations, not to the ICC but the AU. The South African Supreme Court ruled against government, to no practical effect, and an attempt by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party to impeach Zuma in September was quashed by the superior numbers of ANC MPs.

Claiming that Africa should have its own court and not be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC, which African leaders condemn as racist as well as staffed by anti-African imperialists, the AU has done nothing to create such a court. On the contrary, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) dissolved its political monitoring body that was Southern Africans’ only regional defence against human rights abuses carried out by their leaders. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), launched in 2003 by then presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa to boost good governance has been allowed to wither away by African governments uninterested in or hostile to the notion of having their human rights records exposed by an investigative team. Altogether 19 African countries never signed on to the APRM, and of the 35 countries that did sign on only 17 have been reviewed, the last of which happened in January 2013. Lack of funding has rendered the APRM moribund.

This article is extracted from the June 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/- 85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Africans have limited defences against their rulers’ human rights breaches

Although under attack from the AU, the ICC is still a potent force against which African human rights abusers must contend. In September, Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda pleaded not-guilty to a host of atrocities as his long-gesticulating trial began in The Hague. The global publicity that the trial generated showed an international will to end such human rights horrors carried out by Ntaganda as murder, rape, pillaging and sexual slavery.

African despots might despise Western values on principle, but are dependent on foreign aid and even the NGOs they seek to suppress. As long as this need exists, the elimination of progressive human rights advocacy by NGOs, the UN and other groups will continue in Africa. Foreign aid that is tied to the unfettered operations of legitimate NGOs is one means to promote human rights advocacy.

James Hall, Founding Editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) and critically acclaimed author, columnist and filmmaker, pioneered insider coverage and analysis of Africa, in Africa, with six books and thousands of articles and news stories for publications worldwide.