Human Rights and Democracy Trends in Africa

WASHINGTON D.C., United States of America, December 10, 2015/APO (African Press Organization)/ — Remarks 

Steven Feldstein
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

New York City Bar Association

New York City

December 7, 2015

I’m pleased to be here, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Barad and the New York Bar for inviting me to deliver remarks and answer some of your questions.

I’m here tonight to talk about human rights and democracy trends in Africa. What I can say with certainty is that in the 20 months I have been on the job, no day has been the same, and every week has been unpredictable. Consider the following:

Early in the year in Burkina Faso, we saw a popular uprising in response to a longstanding leader – Blaise Compaore – who felt that 27 years as head of state wasn’t sufficient. He sought to change the constitution so that he could run for president yet again. In this instance, Burkinabes of all ages, professions and affiliations stood up in defense of their country’s democratic institutions and said enough. A year later, they had to thwart a subsequent coup by Compaore loyalists who couldn’t stomach that the old days were truly over. Finally, two weeks ago, Burkina Faso held peaceful, free and fair elections, with a clear winner accepted by the other candidates.

In Burundi, the opposite story has taken hold. President Nkuruziza also made a bid to alter his country’s constitution for personal gain. After failing, he pressured Burundi’s high court to falsely declare his third term candidacy constitutional, a clear violation of the Arusha peace agreement, which has guided Burundi since the end of its bloody civil war. Nkurunziza’s power grab has split the country and brought significant violence and bloodshed. In response, on November 23, President Obama signed an Executive Order sanctioning individuals that have contributed to the turmoil. We hope that peace will one day soon return to Burundi.

Meanwhile, the heads of state of Rwanda, the Republic of the Congo – or Congo-Brazzaville, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are closely watching how these events unfold, with an eye towards extending their own respective presidencies, despite term limit prohibitions.

In Congo-Brazzaville, President Sassou-Nguesso, whose own reign extends 31 years, has already orchestrated a constitutional referendum to extend term limits, which the opposition has deemed a “constitutional coup.” Amidst a climate of fear and intimidation, we expect Sassou to call general elections in early 2016, and try yet again to extend his rule.

President Kagame in Rwanda is also maneuvering to change the constitution and run for a third term. The Rwandan parliament just approved amendments that would make an exception for Kagame, and allow him to potentially serve up to 17 more years. Rwandans will likely vote to affirm these amendments before the end of the year. Opposition to Kagame’s machinations has been more muted as all credible dissenting voices have been effectively exiled, imprisoned or suppressed.

In the DRC, President Kabila’s attempts to modify the constitution for additional terms have so far been forestalled. But his strategy is still devious. Using an approach known as “glissement,” he is attempting to gum up the works of an incredibly complicated national election scheduled for next year, so that it will be postponed for an indefinite period of time, enabling him to stay in power.

But there are positive democratic trends that deserve recognition as well. Perhaps the most significant achievement this year was historic elections in Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy. For the first time, an opposition party won the Presidency in generally clean and transparent elections. Widespread violence did not break out, as was feared. Where there were instances of electoral violence or allegations of fraud, we expect Nigerian authorities to continue investigations and take appropriate measures. A strong election observation effort provided real-time verification of results and ensured election authorities would be more accountable than in the past. The electoral commission’s efforts to increase transparency and curb irregularities through live announcements of voting results on radio, television and social media, prevented wide-scale fraud and disenfranchisement. And when the commission declared Muhammadu Buhari the winner of the presidential election, rather than fight the result, the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan gracefully congratulated his opponent and bowed out.

One of the benefits to covering such a wide portfolio – overseeing human rights and democracy issues for the 49 countries comprising the African sub-continent – is the tremendous diversity of policy matters that arise. Everyday we grapple with issues that range from how to preserve civil society space in Kenya, to speaking out against criminalization of LGBTI members in Uganda, or fighting repressive restrictions in Ethiopia and Sudan against opposition parties and human rights activists. I am convinced that U.S.diplomatic engagements on these issues have contributed to positive change.

For example, in February I became the first senior U.S. human rights official to visit Sudan in four years. I approached the trip with some trepidation. We have a very challenging relationship with the government, including comprehensive sanctions due to gross human rights violations committed in Darfur and the Two Areas. But it was precisely because we have such significant concerns that I felt traveling to Sudan and talking directly with Sudanese government officials was the right thing to do. The trip represented an opportunity to initiate a frank conversation with the government on a range of human rights concerns – aerial bombardments of civilians, lack of humanitarian access, restrictions on civil society and religious freedom, and ongoing detention and harassment of opposition members. It also provided a chance to emphasize to my Sudanese counterparts that any improvement in U.S.-Sudan relations must be premised on real and substantive improvements on key human rights issues. And just as importantly, I was also able to schedule an extensive set of meetings with those fighting for change in the country – independent NGOs, opposition members, student activists, and religious and women leaders.

So after multiple trips to the continent, countless policy meetings, public statements, panel events, op-eds, tweets, and roundtables, I’d like to present a few thoughts about trends and developments shaping human rights and democracy in Africa.

To begin, many are questioning whether democracy and human rights are on the retreat in favor of authoritarians and dictators. The latest analysis from organizations like Freedom House reveals a stark picture — nine straight years of global decline in measures of freedom. But I believe the situation is more nuanced. It is not that Africa has suddenly turned undemocratic. Instead, many countries have yet to fully resolve the transition from post-liberation movements and leaders, to genuine multi-party democracies. A phrase I often hear in meetings with government counterparts is that “we’re still a young country.” Sometimes this is used to explain why institutions remain weak, why corruption is endemic, and why the government cannot provide access to basic services. Other times, it is applied in a more sinister fashion – to justify rampant detentions of political opponents or mass imprisonments of civil society activists – under the guise of protecting stability and preserving public order for a “young nation.” And often, the pretext that the country is still young is used to justify why the current head of state – who may have already served 25 or 30 years – needs to stay in power just a little longer. Until the population can be trusted to freely elect their own leader.

This practice undercuts meaningful political competition, and allows heads of states like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or Cameroon’s Paul Biya, to perpetuate their rule year after year. Yet polling data suggests African citizens reject the notion that their countries are “too young” for democracy. Afrobarometer polling across a wide swath of African countries suggests that 75% of people support a two-term limit on the presidency. Paradoxically, the percentage is even higher in African countries that lack term limit provisions.

There is a lot of discussion about why political institutions in Africa remain weak and under-capacity despite substantial effort and investment. Much of this weakness is deliberate. Strong political institutions do not serve the self-interest of dictators and autocrats. Independent judiciaries and courts, vigorous legislatures, and vibrant media outlets enable political competition and serve as key points of accountability. They diminish the impunity, power and discretion of the strongman’s inner circle. When rulers successfully muzzle and suppress these institutions, they create an alternate set of perverse incentives. Where access to lucrative contracts, secure jobs, gated mansions and luxury cars is wholly contingent on loyalty to the president and ruling party. The correlation between weak institutions, token political competition and meager oversight – and systemic corruption – is all too obvious.

And this explains why genuinely tackling corruption is such a tough proposition. While it is easy for outside actors to condemn bribe-taking and graft, these practices are often a necessary means of survival. As such, they are completely interwoven into the fabric of political systems that govern African countries. Fighting corruption is not just a matter of prosecuting a few offenders at the top. Really making a dent in corruption requires a fundamental overhaul of how politics is pursued, and how power and resources are allocated and distributed. Every flawed election, every politicized firing of an honest administrator, every jailing of a civil society advocate or an investigative journalist asking too many uncomfortable questions, every military abuse that continues unchecked, they all contribute to a system of corruption that is deeply entrenched and dreadfully difficult to root out.

In spite of these challenges, I do believe the tide can turn. For example, enhanced political competition and citizen engagement have brought increased transparency in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, which have respectively instituted freedom of information laws and greater budget transparency.

Another issue that I often encounter is the uneasy balance between human rights and national sovereignty. Too often, one country’s leader will propagate human rights atrocities, and regional leaders will turn a blind eye. Calling out fellow African leaders for committing human rights abuses is extremely uncomfortable and goes against the well-worn tradition of “non-interference.” Recently, we have started to see more willingness to publicly condemn and respond to the worst violations. The African Union in particular has rallied its membership in several instances – including most recently the Burundi crisis – to call for accountability and an end to politically orchestrated assassinations. This is a welcome start, but much more is needed. Public statements must be linked to concrete actions. And stronger political will is needed to get bad actors to the negotiating table – and ultimately out of power.

I have found that one of the biggest obstacles to advancing human rights in Africa is the underlying sentiment that human rights principles are western constructs that do not fully relate to the African experience. I have received significant pushback – from regular citizens as well as government officials – when I have called for the release of jailed dissidents or advocated for the fair treatment of minority groups. Sometimes they will argue that X country in Africa is not the United States, and that I have to appreciate their special circumstances. Other times, the message will be even blunter – that the U.S. is imposing unrealistic human rights standards, while tolerating significant abuse at home. The events of Ferguson and our sharp domestic debates about race and the police have not gone unnoticed. My answer is consistent from conversation to conversation: human rights principles are universal principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As such, all countries have an obligation to uphold these principles. And this certainly includes the United States.

Increasingly, my human rights conversations include discussion of LGBTI issues. Even if I receive pushback when I raise concerns about torture or intolerable prison conditions, there usually is some shared understanding that these actions are not appropriate. But when I raise issues of equality and fairness for members of the LGBTI community, the response can be quite negative and extremely tense, with even stronger accusations that I lack an understanding of the particular values of that country. It is a conversation that harkens back several decades to our own polarizing arguments about sexual orientation – a long and agonizing process that only recently has led to more widespread tolerance.

A final issue I’d like to highlight is the complicated relationship between providing security and protecting human rights. Our policy on engaging with foreign militaries is guided by the Leahy Law, which stipulates that any military credibly found to have engaged in gross violations of human rights is ineligible for U.S. military assistance until the host government takes effective steps to bring those responsible to justice. My bureau – the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau – is directly responsible for implementing this law. It will come as no surprise to this audience that the history of military conduct in Africa is riddled with abuses and violations.

But an unexpected trend has started to take root – militaries are increasingly recognizing that committing gross human rights violations is not a smart way to win a war, and not a great way to build support among civilian populations and affected communities. If communities don’t trust the military, then they will refuse to cooperate. They won’t provide vital information about the enemy, and they may offer safe haven and resources to insurgents. This ultimately makes restoring peace and stability impossible.

The Boko Haram threat is a good example. Boko Haram started out as a small, localized outfit with a particular set of grievances. But the Nigerian security force’s heavy-handed tactics and abuses of civilians did little to bolster public support. As a result, government actions contributed to the mutation of Boko Haram into an insurgency that threatens peace and stability throughout northeastern Nigeria, as well as in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The Nigerian government now recognizes that it will not defeat Boko Haram as long as civilians feel threatened by security forces. It has started to institute real reforms to ensure the military adheres to international human right standards and builds trust with civilian populations. But this is a long process that will not bring results overnight.

Last year, I had an illuminating conversation with a high-ranking Kenyan police official on security sector reform. He pointed out that the Kenyan police were a British creation, created to help colonial administrators efficiently extract resources from the indigenous population, and to guard against local challenges to their rule. The police never had a mandate to protect civilians or local communities. Consequently, even after the British departed, the original idea that security forces should protect and serve whomever is in power – as opposed to safeguarding local communities – has not changed. It is not surprising that Kenyan police forces today, as in many other African countries, continue to grapple with rampant corruption, ineffectiveness in protecting communities from ordinary crime, and human rights violations. It will take dramatic shifts in philosophy, policy and tactics, and of course, better connections to the communities they serve, before real reform happens.

So much of the contemporary human rights struggle in Africa revolves around competition for power. As the strongman’s power begins to diffuse, the authority of the state is directly challenged and threatened. This is why dictators around the continent view civil society as such threats, and why these organizations are the first targets for repression in authoritarian states. It is precisely because they give voice to different ideas, different ways of doing things, and different methods of governing, that they are harassed, detained, intimidated and often killed. And this is precisely why it is so vital and critical for us to support their efforts. Civil society represents the frontlines of human rights and change, and the hopes of a new generation that seeks better, freer, more productive and more prosperous lives. These groups and their movements represent the future of Africa, and they must be supported with all the power, energy and resources we can muster.

Thank you and I would be happy to take your questions.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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