The State of Freedom in Africa - Freedom Speech

Address By Ismail Jussa Ladhu, Director of Foreign Affairs & International Relations of the Civic United Front, Tanzania
Friedrich Naumann

Africa is a continent with many scars that are marks of its long and bitter struggle for freedom though the course of our history. Slavery, Colonialism, One Party Dictatorships, Military Coups and Rule, and here in South Africa, a long period of Apartheid all survived through suppression of freedom: political, economic, social and cultural. But Africans like all human beings, born with human dignity whose core value is freedom, did not accept the humiliation and suppression of their humanity. They rose to fight and defeat each one of them, albeit with great sacrifice. But it was a sacrifice worth giving, for freedom is a precious value. It was Nelson Mandela who said in a famous quote during the Rivonia Trial in 1964 that: 

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Democratic and free society is what we all strive for, and of course Africa has made big strides towards realising that ideal. Slavery was abolished, Colonialism came to an end, One Party Systems were challenged and removed, and Military Juntas were forced to pave the way for civilian rule. As we speak today almost all African countries have embraced multi-party system. But the big question that we ought to ask ourselves is: Are we free? Has multi-party system ushered in freedom and democracy? I am afraid to say that, in my humble opinion, the answer is NO!

I have been asked to confine myself to the good governance aspects of the State of Freedom in Africa, good governance being the theme of this 199th Executive Committee of Liberal International, and I intend to do so.

When we look at the State of Freedom in Africa in relation to good governance we find that the continent is still a far cry from what its heroes who fought for independence and freedom with their sweat and blood had wished for.

But before I get into that, let me share with you what I see are the basic tenets of good governance. Good Governance to me essentially means the rule of law as opposed to the rule by law. It must comprise of, first and foremost, equality before the law and respect for, and upholding of, fundamental human rights and freedoms of individuals. Good governance must ensure a country is only governed by a constitutional government elected by the citizens in periodic, free, fair, credible, transparent and peaceful elections, and that such government upholds the constitution that is citizen based and that ensures accountability through checks and balances built on the strong foundation of a clear and unambiguous separation of powers between the three main branches of the state – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Equally important in good governance is free and independent media that informs the public and provides citizen with a forum to express themselves and exercise their right to freedom of speech and of information. On the other aspect, good governance should also means equal opportunities for all the citizens and that national resources are utilised in a way that guarantees fair and equitable enjoyment of the basic amenities of life, notably the essential public services.

To me these are the basic tenets of good governance, and I should say, by extension, the fulfilment of which I believe amounts to the enjoyment of freedom, or in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness.

With that in mind, let me now go back to my proposition that Africa is still a far cry from being a continent where freedom is cherished and good governance is observed; and explain myself as to why I paint such a gloomy picture. With the limited time that we have, I will have to confine myself to just a few aspects of good governance. 

I will start with free, fair, credible, transparent and peaceful elections. Actually, we don’t need to go far to see the state of affairs on this aspect. The region of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa has witnessed the worst forms of disregard for the people’s right to elect governments of their choice; hence undermining accountability. For if those at the helm of power have put a mechanism that do not need the consent of those they govern for them to remain in power why would they care to be accountable to them? We have witnessed how incumbents, be they the rulers or the ruling parties that sponsor them, install electoral commissions that they can manipulate and will never be able to declare them election losers. In Zanzibar where I come from, our party, the Civic United Front (CUF) have won all the five elections since 1995 when multi-party system was reintroduced but have always been prevented, through the misuse of the electoral commission, from taking over the government. It was most vivid in 2015 when we managed to collect all the result declaration forms from all the counting stations and therefore had evidence of our victory that we shared with all the election observers to an extent that the Chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission, Jecha Salim Jecha, acting under the instructions of the ruling CCM, realised that he had no other means but to nullify the entire election. Neither the Constitution of Zanzibar nor the Elections Act provides the Chairman or the electoral commission with such powers but we could not challenge the decision in the courts of law as both the Constitution and the Elections Act forbid that. 

Other countries in the region that have experienced worst forms of the misuse of the electoral commissions to keep the incumbent rulers or ruling parties in power include Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the DRC. But this is true of other parts of Africa as well, as it has been witnessed in countries like Angola and The Gambia (before the intervention of ECOWAS and the international community that saw to it that the will of the Gambian people is respected). 

The worst part of it is that the story does not end with the rigging of the elections and the ruling oligarchies imposing themselves in power. The big men of Africa (as they are referred to nowadays) then resort to persecution of their political opponents especially those that are seen as resolute and would not be silenced. The leader of opposition in Uganda, Kizza Besigye, has frequently been arrested, detained and prosecuted on politically motivated charges, the last one being just this month. Diane Rwigara, the leading critic who intended to challenge President Paul Kagame of Rwanda in the last election was disqualified by the electoral commission and since then has been arrested twice and now faces prosecution for what are also seen as politically motivated charges. Just last week in the DRC, thirty (30) opposition members, followers of opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, were arrested after they attended a political rally. Our own leader, Seif Sharif Hamad of Zanzibar, was threatened to be arrested last year and only after intervention by some liberal leaders through Liberal International and Africa Liberal Network that he was let free. This was after he was interrogated by the police for three hours. Hon. Hakainde Hichilema, President of the United Party for National Development (UPND) of Zambia, who will shortly and deservingly be presented with the Africa Freedom Award for 2017 here, spent four months in detention on trumped up charges of treason for standing up against President Edgar Lungu. And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Coupled with election rigging has been the change of the constitutions to remove term limits for the presidents. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who when he came to power in 1986 blasted African leaders for turning themselves life presidents and even referred to the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as “club of dictators” has himself changed the constitution to allow himself to remain in power beyond the two term limits. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has done the same where the presidential term is seven (7) years, and he has just gone for his third term which means he will remain in power for at least 21 years. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza has presided over worst form of brutality and killings of his opponents following his move to contest elections for a third term, contrary to the constitution and the Arusha Accord of August 2000 that he signed with the opposition parties. As we speak here, in Togo, citizens continue with street protests for over a month now that have costed lives of the demonstrators, in a move to demand constitutional reform that would see the end of the dynastic rule of President Faure Gnassingbe.

Disregard to the constitution also roared its ugly head in Egypt where the military junta overthrew the elected President Mohamed Morsi and since then President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has led a crackdown against leaders and members of the opposition, the civil society, the media and even students who have stood up to challenge his rule. Of course, President Morsi had himself committed blunders when he alienated himself from the liberals who backed his candidature during the second round of the presidential elections and started undermining the constitution and the judiciary by fielding it with judges loyal to him and his party.

Here in South Africa which has one of the best constitutions in Africa, we have recently heard of incidents where independent institutions such as the Office of the Public Protector has been threatened after the Office investigated corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma. In Kenya which also boasts of having another democratic constitution in the continent, the recent threats by President Uhuru Kenyatta against the Supreme Court judges following their nullification of the election results declared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) does not augur well for independence of the judiciary and the checks and balances provided for in that Constitution.

Media has also not been spared in Africa. In Tanzania, over the past four months four newspapers have been banned for publishing articles that are critical of President John Magufuli and his government. In South Cameroon, a whole section of the citizens in the country are having their right to free speech undermined through crackdown on the use of English in the media, including social media, in schools and in other public avenues.

Political freedom aside, Africa also has a huge problem of economic disparity amongst its people. The Borgen Project has put it that 48.5% of the population in Africa is living on less than $1.25 per day and 69.9% on less than $2.00 per day which places roughly 637 million Africans out of total 910 million below the poverty line. The DRC which is one of the richest countries in Africa in terms of natural resources is the poorest country in Africa. The average life expectancy at birth for someone born in Sub-Saharan Africa is 46. This tells a lot about a continent that is versed with vast natural resources. 

Let me end this part by giving you a good sign of the state of freedom and good governance in Africa, and that is The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has failed to find a suitable candidate for a third consecutive year to receive its Africa Leadership Award.

Is the story only negative when it comes to the State of Freedom in Africa?

I am sure you will be asking yourselves that with what I said does that mean Africa is doomed and has no future as far as freedom and democracy are concerned? Of course not! Some progress has been made and I believe it is the responsibility of those countries that have witnessed progress in freedom and democracy to stand up and assist those that are still struggling.

As I mentioned, we have models of some of the best democratic constitutions in the world in Africa with South Africa and Kenya showing the way. In so far as democratic elections and peaceful transfer of power are concerned, West Africa is progressing well. Ghana, Senegal, Guinea and Nigeria are some of the examples. We hope The Gambia will now also follow that path. Despite its democratic deficit, Rwanda is a good example of gender empowerment in politics with over 50% of its parliamentarians being women. The last decade has witnessed growth of the middle class in many African countries. The advance of science and technology especially in communication industry has meant a huge growth of the users of smartphones and other devices which mean more people in Africa, notably young ones, not only access information but also use the devices to express themselves. We have seen the emergence of vibrant media in many parts of Africa. They have been exposing mega corruption scandals and thus keeping citizens informed who in turn have been demanding accountability from their leaders.

What is more promising though is the fact that Africa has the youngest population in the world. Africa Development Bank (AfDB) has published a finding that says that Africa has the fastest-growing and most youthful population in the world with over 40% under the age of 15 and 20% between the ages of 15 and 24. These young people are the ones who are challenging the status quo. They are the ones who are demanding accountability from their leaders and cherish their freedom and democratic rights more than anything else. I believe even the surge in DA performance in the local elections last year was driven by the youth who wants more than just lessons of history about the liberation struggle. While the liberation struggle is important in teaching us where we come from, it cannot and should not be used by the liberation parties to shield themselves from accountability and respect for good governance. In the words of Mmusi Maimane, we now need to liberate ourselves from the ‘liberators’.

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In conclusion:

That being the State of Freedom in Africa, with serious challenges but also good signs for optimism, I would like to end my address by making the following appeals to my fellow liberals both in Africa and outside the continent especially those who have gathered here in Johannesburg for the 199th Executive Committee of Liberal International:

  1. That we must not lose hope and we must keep up the fight and move on with the struggle to ensure freedom and democracy strive and flourish in the continent. Africa and Africans deserve no less than the rest of the human family. We must challenge the notion that there is a peculiar form of democracy for Africa. Freedom and democracy are universal values.
  2. There is a need for national leaders of the democratic parties and movements in Africa, regardless of their ideologies, to create a continental forum through which they will be able to share information and also use it as a platform to advance the democratic cause in the continent.
  3. African democratic parties and especially those from the liberal group that are in government such as those in Ivory Coast and in Senegal should support their fellow democratic parties that face challenges in their countries. There is no reason why they shouldn’t do so when we witness the authoritarian regimes supporting, protecting and defending each other.
  4. Liberal friends outside Africa and especially those in countries with leverage towards African governments should continue to support the democratic forces in the continent by speaking out in their countries’ parliaments, in the European Parliament and in other available forums about violations of democratic and human rights and demand accountability from their governments against supporting African despotic rulers.

I understand it is a tough going for believers in democracy and freedom in Africa. However, we have no alternative but to continue with the struggle. As the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. And in so doing, we shall break free!

Thank you.