Repression and resistance: how a new generation challenges African autocrats and their international allies
A transnational investigation by Ngina Kirori, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa, Chief Bisong Etahoben, Elizabeth BanyiTabi, Theophilus Abbah and Brezh Malaba
‘It’s your man who did this!’ shouts a woman at a village meeting in Nakuru County, Kenya. She is filmed by Kenyan journalists as she points at another woman, a supporter of a powerful local politician known for associating with gangsters. In the run-up to the Kenyan elections of August 2022, five women in this area were raped and murdered and their bodies set alight. According to the Kenyan documentary Ganglands, for which this meeting was filmed, the villagers suspect an intimidation campaign by criminals to ‘force the public to either vote for specific candidates or not to leave their home altogether’, as a former gang member interviewed in the documentary puts it.
Violent intimidation during elections has been rife for years in Kenya, where political office means joining a ruling elite with access to significant wealth and power and ambitious politicians need to get their votes in one way or another. In 2022, however, the scare tactics seem to have been less successful than before. Though a staunch establishment figure still won the presidency, a record number of independent candidates were also elected; among them was a newcomer from Nakuru County, who was elected despite the gangsters’ tactics by voters who decided they’d had enough.
Resistance against autocratic leaders and the parties they head, as well as a rejection of the oppression of political opposition, is growing not just in Kenya. A new investigation covering Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria and Zimbabwe found that in each of these countries an overwhelmingly young population who are urbanised, aware and social media savvy, are staking a claim to their futures. They’re vocally fed up with the lack of development and freedom, as well as the patronage systems that only benefit a political elite. They are also increasingly demanding that their leaders’ foreign development partners look more critically at who and what they’re actually supporting.
In Cameroon, for example, where a small clique centred around 89-year-old dictator Paul Biya’s clan has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of COVID-19 relief funds into cronies’ pockets, civil society has formally requested the International Monetary Fund not to grant new loans until previous cash is accounted for. Such international solidarity, they say, is needed because demands for accountability within the country itself are usually met with harsh action by the security forces and the state itself. Not only are outspoken opponents and critics subject to mass arrests, abduction and torture, but even state officials who try to flag corruption and protect health budgets find themselves blocked or punished.
The doctors were transferred for ‘sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong’
ZAM’s Cameroon team spoke to two doctors working in the state health department who both described being removed from audits and transferred away as revenge for ‘sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong’. One of the doctors, Albert Ze, experienced multiple threats and break-ins before finally being transferred to a remote office in a conflict zone where armed separatist rebels are known to attack civil servants of the central state. Despite being forced to live apart from his wife and children for their safety, ‘Dr Ze’ continues to use his Twitter account to demand accountability from Cameroon’s leaders. This is more than can be said for the IMF, which turned a deaf ear to protestors and granted Cameroon another loan.
The thugs were ‘acting on instruction’
Similar demands come from Nigeria, where anti-corruption activist Olarenwu Suraj and his wife were both badly beaten during a targeted attack on their home. The attackers told their victims that they were ‘acting on instruction’, a sign of political motivation. Suraj later told reporter Theophilus Abbah that ‘the international community should do more in terms of ex-communicating those with poor human rights records from the comity of nations.’
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has recorded close to two thousand cases of intimidation and assault by groups of governing party supporters countrywide in 2022 alone. There, opposition and civil society also continue to appeal to the international community for support, while the state continues to try to choke off all funding and support to their organisations and activities. ‘I have spoken to other journalists, young ones, who are afraid of touching corruption stories because you can get harassed, or your camera can be taken away. It would be good if someone could say, 'No, this is wrong, we're going to give them another camera. […] Just to step in whenever they lose something or their constitutional rights are not respected,’ says journalist Hopewell Chin’ono to ZAM’s reporter Brezh Malaba.
The arsenal of oppressive laws used to jail outspoken critics in Zimbabwe now includes everything from ‘public incitement’ and ‘disturbing the peace’ to ‘communicating false statements’, ‘undermining or insulting the President’ and a ‘cyber crimes’ bill that allows digital surveillance of, and possible charges against, internet users. Such ‘cybercrime’ laws have proliferated in all five investigated countries in the past decade, possibly as a response to an increasingly online population which finds its information, its voice and its community on the internet.
This development has made the internet a whole new terrain of struggle. Nigeria and Uganda joined other African countries including Mozambique and Senegal in shutting down the internet completely to snuff out protests. All five countries in this investigation also acquired digital surveillance technology that enables the monitoring of smartphones and laptops. In all cases the snooping software was purchased from Israeli companies. In Nigeria, journalists now even face possible ‘cyberstalking’ charges if they carry out background research on powerful politicians and their business associates via the internet.
‘Stop paying our oppressors’ is the battle cry
Frustrated by their states’ willingness to ignore or punish protest domestically, civil society activists in all five of the countries in the investigation have found themselves increasingly directing their appeals towards international bodies like the IMF, the United Nations and development partners. ‘Stop paying our oppressor’, is the battle cry of Ugandan opposition leader and Afrobeat musician Bobi Wine. An audience of hundreds recently attended the screening of a documentary about his life at the Carré Theatre in Amsterdam, cheering his protest songs about politics and the plight of the ‘ghetto’.
'Stop giving money’ may be rather too simple as a slogan, however, since there is good reason to fear that the few services available to the Ugandan public would be the first to disappear if donors pulled out; the same goes for the other countries in this investigation. Nevertheless, civil society activists in all five countries have all sincerely asked western development partners to take a long hard look at what their money is really doing. Echoing similar demands made in Cameroon, five Ugandan opposition leaders recently asked for aid to the country to be suspended ‘in all but the most basic humanitarian sectors’.
In Kenya, many in civil society worry that the Western appetite for lucrative infrastructure and mineral contracts may result in a hesitancy for donor nations to fund organisations that agitate for democracy, good governance and an end to human rights abuses. ‘Priorities seem to have changed’, says the leader of one civil society organisation, who asked to remain anonymous. ‘Several reports we compiled on misuse of public funds have been met with silence, very little action and reduced funding.’ Asked why he thinks this is so, he replies that Western partner countries ‘are more concerned about doing business with the Kenyan government’ nowadays, especially ‘with regard to contracts that might otherwise go to China and the East’.
Certain NGOs have been flagged as ‘terrorists’
Donor support for grassroots organisations is furthermore in danger because of a crop of new money-laundering laws recently been passed across the continent, including in the five countries covered by this investigation. These laws are designed to stem the flow of funds that might in the past have found their way to terrorist organisations, which is why the G-20’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF) backed them. But several African governments have discovered that these same laws are remarkably well-suited for blocking foreign financial support from reaching local NGOs. In 2021 in Uganda, for example, lawyer and human rights defender Nicholas Opiyo found himself arrested along with four of his colleagues after his legal charity, Chapter Four, received money from an external source.
In Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF Information Secretary Christopher Mutsvangwa unexpectedly admitted that the real purpose of his ruling party’s proposed new Private Voluntary Organisations billwas to ‘protect Zimbabwe’s sovereignty against NGOs that have been at the forefront of subversive activities.’
An exodus of skilled professionals
These pressures are taking a toll not just on activists but also on young people, who find themselves shut out of the job market by corrupt hiring practices and moribund economies. This has led many to choose to emigrate in search of freedom, employment or safety. In Uganda, celebrated Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, famous for his books, ’Banana Republic’ and ‘The Greedy Barbarian’ recently went into exile. He was detained and severely tortured in 2020 after mocking President Museveni’s son and anointed successor, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Rukirabashaija. He has taken up residence in Germany, where he joins prominent Ugandan academic and poet Stella Nyanzi, who left after being jailed for insulting the president.
‘I never wanted to emigrate but maybe I’ll have to’
‘It’s maybe just not worth it’, says Zimbabwean human rights activist Makomborero Haruzivishe, who recently spent 11 months in pre-trial detention without bail for whistling during a police round-up of unlicensed street vendors at a bus terminal in the capital Harare. According to the police who arrested him on 17 February 2021, the whistling was intended to ‘incite’ the vendors to ‘commit public violence and resist arrest’. The effect of the jail term was profound for Haruzivishe. ’You cannot afford to spend 11 months in jail without income when you have to feed your family. I never was one of those who wanted to emigrate. But maybe I’ll have to.’ Months after our interview, we received the message that Haruzivishe had left Zimbabwe.
Back in Nigeria, Olarenwu Suraj really doesn’t want to leave his home country either, but feels that the upcoming 2023 elections might be the last chance for a new government to recognise the importance of ‘anti-corruption and human rights activists as partners in the development of the country.’ Like many other Nigerian progressives, Suraj has pinned his hopes on new presidential candidate Peter Obi, who has a relatively clean governance record as the governor of Anambra State and who, in October last year, released a manifesto containing seven pragmatic priorities in a plan for better Nigerian governance.
Obi and his Labour Party are however also not immune to attacks from powers who would like the status quo in Nigeria to remain. A month after the release of the manifesto, on 28 November 2022, Victoria Chintex, the leader of the women’s wing of Obi’s Labour Party in Kaura, Kaduna State, was killed by gunmen in what is widely suspected to have been a political assassination.
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