The contexts, challenges and prospects for human rights in Africa have changed quite considerably in recent years. Human rights discourses find favour in both political and popular circles, among the ideologues of the state and the interlocutors of civil society, a tribute to the enduring and unfulfilled yearnings for more humane societies deeply rooted in African collective memories and social psyches, and to the remarkable changes that have already taken place in Africa’s human rights landscapes. Contemporary Africa is a complex tapestry of contrasts in which human rights, as rhetoric and reality, has never been more pronounced and yet remains precarious as claims for and contestations over these rights persist and take new forms.
Today, more people enjoy more rights than ever before, but more people are also more aware of the limitations of Africa’s human rights regimes. Indeed, as the promoters of human rights have proliferated so have the perpetrators of abuses among state and civil society actors. The state no longer has a monopoly on vice, if it ever did, no more than civil society has a monopoly on virtue in the protection of human rights; both are as likely to undermine human rights as to uphold them. Similarly, the international arena is as much a source of inspiration and support as of much sorrow and grief. And the prospects for human rights in Africa remain firmly latched to the wobbly ox-cart of development.
In this article I to explore the recent changes that have occurred in Africa’s perennial struggle for human rights, i.e. the changing contexts of human rights regimes that have structured African political economies since the 1990s. Contemporary African politics is marked by many complex and contradictory dynamics, four of which can be singled out for particular attention, namely, democratisation, globalisation, regionalisation, and militarisation, whose impact on human rights is equally complex and contradictory. Singly and collectively these factors have simultaneously facilitated and forestalled the growth and pursuit of human rights and development in Africa.
For the purposes of this article democratisation can be examined from three dimensions, the empirical, legal, and theoretical. There is ample evidence that since the turn of the 1990s the number of states following and abiding by features of democratic governance—principally elections and multi-party politics—has increased, notwithstanding reversals, blockages, and manipulations by Africa’s wily dictators, many of whom have learned to manoeuvre democratic politics to their advantage, and despite the fact that in many countries the new democracies amount to little more than the recycling of fractions of the same bankrupt political class, and elections are often marred by harassment and intimidation of the opposition, violence, vote rigging and human rights abuses, not to mention third term campaigns to allow incumbent presidents to stay beyond the constitutional limits of two terms.
The growth of democratically elected governments and governance has been accompanied by the expansion of legality as more domains of public life are governed by the rule of law established by democratic procedures. The tentacles of authoritarianism and arbitrariness have been withering as new rules are set establishing term limits for presidential office and stricter separation of powers between the various branches of government, and as demands for accountability are translated into public policies and popular opprobrium against corruption. To be sure, corruption remains endemic in many countries and the rule of law is still observed more in the breach than in compliance, but the political costs of doing so have risen.
More difficult to decipher and quite contentious in the literature is the impact of democratisation on human rights. It is generally agreed that democracies are less repressive than autocracies. The positive correlation between democracy and respect for human rights is based on the assumption that democratic leaders are more accountable to their citizens and that coercive agents within democratic states not only wield less power than other competitive groups, but the availability of less coercive means of conflict regulation (such as elections) provides both a constraining factor and a preferable option. But the effects of democratisation (the moment of transition from autocracy to democracy) on political repression are more complex. It has been demonstrated in many instances that repression may actually increase in new democracies because of lagging repressive tendencies from the past and the propensity for protest behaviour to increase at such times. Some call this the “more murder in the middle hypothesis.”
Many of these analyses tend to focus on the state as the progenitor of human rights terror and repression. The role of civil society in engendering human rights violations is quite critical and even more so during democratic transitions when centrifugal pressures can intensify as long suppressed group conflicts and identities find release in the newly opened political spaces where they sometimes proceed to produce and perform their chauvinisms and antagonisms, both real and imagined. Keen to shore up its power and authority the state often becomes embroiled in the volatile vortex of conflicting group claims and struggles, in the process of which repression can increase that, may ultimately abort the democratization process itself or threaten the very integrity of the nation-state.
Africa offers numerous examples of escalating conflicts and human rights violations since the recent wave of democratic transitions began in the 1990s. Ethnicity has proven particularly salient as the most lethal social cleavage engendering conflict and repression. Since colonial times, ethnicity has embodied both moral and political imperatives; moral ethnicity constitutes a complex web of social obligations, loyalties and belonging, whereas political ethnicity is manifested in the mobilisation of ethnicity—the proverbial “tribalism”—in intra-elite struggles for state power. In the formulations of Peter Ekeh and Mahmood Mamdani ethnicity is integral to Africa’s bifurcated civil society; it serves as a primordial public for the masses estranged from the civic public of the elites, a sanctuary that extends its comforts and protective tentacles to the victims of political disenfranchisement, economic impoverishment, state terror and group rivalry.
As the suffocating lid of state tyranny is lifted during moments of democratic transition the suppressed voices and expectations of civil society surge, but the stresses and strains arising from the competitive grind of democracy often find articulation in the entrenched identities, idioms, and institutions of ethnic solidarity. The case of Nigeria is quite illustrative in this regard. The democratic opening of 1999 has been accompanied by the resurgence of ethnic identities and proliferation of regional and local struggles over the entitlements of citizenship expressed in the language of “indigenes” and “settlers.” These struggles have increasingly spilled into the formation of ethnic militias that have wrought havoc on Nigeria’s civil society, unleashing periodic convulsions of inter-communal violence. Long a country with a militarised state, the militias are militarizing society and helping to expand the culture of violence that is inimical to human rights and development. Religious conflicts have also periodically erupted into communal violence.
Democratisation seems to have given a new lease on life for renewed regional integration, which has had largely positive effects on human rights in so far as the new institutions have incorporated principles and protocols to advance human rights. Also, many new human rights bodies have been established at the continental, regional and sub-regional level. No less critical are global forces and movements including those among the African Diaspora that have emerged and are supportive of human rights struggles and agendas on the continent.
The African Union (AU), launched in July 2002, which supplanted the Organization of African Unity, is perhaps the most significant regional integration initiative in decades. The Constitutive Act of the AU clearly stipulates that one of the objectives of the Union shall be to “promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.” A series of principles related to human rights are stated in Article 4: “promotion of gender equality ; respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance; promotion of social justice to ensure balanced economic development; respect for the sanctity of human life, condemnation and rejection of impunity and political assassinations, acts of terrorism and subversive acts.”
Specifically the AU has created a number of organs that are critical for the human rights, principally the Pan-African Parliament, the African Court of Justice (ACJ), the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSCC), and the Peace and Security Council. Another critical organ of the AU that is fundamental to its ambitions to promote development and human rights is the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and its African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Adopted in July 2001, NEPAD is an ambitious strategy and program for Africa’s renewal. It focuses on four key objectives: democracy and good political governance; economic and corporate governance; socio-economic development; and the implementation of the African Peer Review Mechanism. Human rights are supposed to feature prominently in the pursuance of the first objective. While few would quibble with NEPAD’s objectives or many of its plans, some regard its expectations of massive international donor support as unrealistic. Critics have also accused it of pandering to and sanctifying the same neo-liberal prescriptions of the international financial institutions that have done so much to wreck African economies. The lack of civil society involvement in the drafting of NEPAD has been another bone of contention for many scholars and activists.
In addition to NEPAD and APRM there are numerous other human rights organizations that have emerged recently. The proliferation of African human rights instruments is a sign of the growing importance of human rights on the continent, but also a source of concern, contends Shadrack Gutto, in that many share the same mandate and “the multiplicity of mechanisms leaves ordinary victims and survivors lost and sometimes without effective and appropriate remedy,” which is itself a recognized form of human right abuse. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) adopted in 1981 and entered into force in 1986 remains the continent’s premier human rights body, whose work is in need of urgent reform and improvement. Among the new bodies are the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (its protocol was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in 2004), not to mention the truth and reconciliation commissions and special courts that have been established in some countries.
At the international level, there are the two international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and Sierra Leone prosecuting genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the two countries. The establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, in the teeth of U.S. resistance, has rightly been hailed as a milestone in international human rights law and enforcement. The African Diaspora, both the historic and contemporary, has also become increasingly vocal in protesting against human rights abuses in Africa. TransAfrica’s campaign against Sani Abacha’s dictatorship in Nigeria shows this clearly. In recognition of the progressive role that people in the Diaspora can play, Diaspora representation and participation will be included in ECOSOCC.
The challenges of expanding and deepening human rights cultures in Africa are as multifaceted as the contexts that shape them. While considerable improvements have been made in many parts of the continent in terms of democratisation, which has improved the prospects for human rights in general, the constraints against human rights remain daunting.