Senior Program Associate, Africa
The stereotypical African regime consists of a dictator and his cronies who have clung to power through overt electoral violence, intimidation, and ballot-box stuffing. They arrest, disappear, or kill journalists, opposition leaders, and civil society activists who advocate for democracy and human rights. However, this image is increasingly outdated. Authoritarian leaders have learned that such behavior attracts negative attention, and have shifted their tactics accordingly. They now prefer to quietly manipulate their countries’ legal frameworks, silencing dissent and limiting civil liberties to ensure that they remain in office. Thisrule by law has supplanted rule of law in many African countries, with troubling consequences for democracy.
Practically speaking, rule by law manifests itself in legislation that may appear to serve the public interest, but is written and implemented in a way that targets dissent. The law of choice for many authoritarian leaders is a public order act. These laws theoretically serve an important purpose for democracy: to alert police of planned protests and demonstrations so that they can ensure public safety. However, laws like Uganda’s Public Order Management Act (POMA) are so broadly worded and frequently misused that they effectively deny or restrict the ability of citizens to demonstrate. When Ugandan opposition parties and activists inform police of their intention to protest as required by POMA, the police prohibit the demonstrations in areas that will garner attention and instead tell the organizers to hold their events outside the city limits of Kampala. Laws such as POMA muzzle the public displays of dissatisfaction that might have resulted in violent crackdowns under previous regimes. Public order acts are common across the continent, partly as a holdover from colonial rule, but the governments of Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland are modern pioneers of sorts, demonstrating to their peers how these laws can be adjusted and employed to limit the opposition’s ability to mobilize public support.
Using the law to curb freedom of assembly is not enough to ensure that a ruler can hold on to power, however. Following the lead of Ethiopia’s ruling party, authoritarian regimes in Africa have sought to restrict civil society groups’ access to funding and silence all advocacy for human rights and democracy. In 2009 the Ethiopian government introduced the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP), ostensibly aimed at ensuring that all civil society organizations were registered with and regulated by a central authority—just as a nonprofit organization in the United States registers with the Internal Revenue Service. But in practice, Ethiopian authorities have used the CSP to cut off human rights organizations from foreign donors, meaning few can survive and continue their important work. Compounding this repression is the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, also adopted in 2009, which criminalizes the publication of statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts.” The law leaves the authorities with broad discretion, and it is most often applied to human rights defenders—such as Zone Nine, a group of activist bloggers and journalists—rather than terrorist networks. Working within its own legal framework, the government of Ethiopia has successfully crippled the human rights and democracy movement in the country. Similar legislation is cropping up across Africa, preventing accountability for state abuses through a combination of restricted funding and restricted speech.
Even in more democratic countries, legislation regulating the media can be implemented in a way that undermines press freedom and transparency. In 2013, Liberia misused a libel law to imprison Rodney Sieh, an investigative journalist who had uncovered and reported on $6 million in public funds that the government could not account for, and to shut down his newspaper. Across the continent, journalists are being silenced through the abuse of libel, defamation, and insult laws when their reporting angers the authorities. While these laws exist in some form around the world to protect individuals against truly defamatory and libelous claims, undemocratic African rulers have seen the benefit of applying them widely to punish critical outlets, prevent transparency, and maintain power. The shift from violence against journalists to legal proceedings allows leaders to stand before the international community and say their countries enjoy freedom of the press.
The collective effect of these laws—and the phenomenon of rule by law—is to limit the human rights of citizens, silence dissent, and restrict the ability of civil society to operate. And these are only the overt, obvious results of such measures. As a secondary effect, rule by law also deters business and investment and thus economic development. The basic calculation for leaders should be this: When citizens are free to exercise their rights, they are also able to contribute meaningfully to the economy; and when companies are assured that the courts are just and that governance is transparent, they will be more likely to invest in a country.
Authoritarian solidarity is intensifying across the continent, as incumbent leaders share not only the language of these bills but also the best practices for implementing them to restrict fundamental rights and repress the opposition. The negative attention that brutal dictatorships once received has not yet transferred to this more subtle form of repression, meaning entrenched rulers can maintain their hold on power with little or no international criticism.
The firmest defenses against this trend are strong constitutions, independent judiciaries, positive peer pressure, and compliance with international norms and treaties. Independent judiciaries will ensure that all laws are in line with the constitution and are applied justly. Similarly, positive peer pressure from within the region will ensure that a country’s domestic laws are in line with international law and comply with the African Union treaties and protocols that have been created, signed, and ratified by the governments in question. The problem is not a lack of established standards, but rather a lack of accountability for failure to adhere to such standards. Democratic African leaders and activists must undertake a concerted effort—with the assistance of international organizations and donors—to expose and curb this new form of repression and allow all citizens to exercise their fundamental rights to expression, association, and assembly.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum