Democracy on a decline in East Africa - report

Wednesday January 17 2018

Ugandan opposition lawmakers fight with plain-clothes security personnel over presidential age limit debate in September 2017. Freedom House says the political environment remains tightly restricted under the regime of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni. PHOTO | AFP


Civil and political liberties of East African citizens are repressed, notes a new survey on the status of global freedom.

The Freedom in the World 2018 report by Freedom House, a US-based watchdog, states that democracy has been on a downward trend across the region.  

Though in Uganda there was notable jump in civil liberties, the “political environment remained tightly restricted under the regime of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni”.

President Museveni, 73, in power since 1986, sought to extend his rule by pushing for the removal of the presidential age limit of 75 which would allow him to run again in 2021, the report notes. This is even as his re-election in 2016 was marked by police brutality, internet shutdowns and treason charges against his main challenger, Kizza Besigye.

But the “resilience of the media sector and the willingness of journalists, bloggers, and citizens to voice their opinions” saw Uganda improve its status from “Not Free” to “Partly Free”, the report says.

In Kenya, a deeply flawed electoral process led to political violence, Freedom House says, adding that, while the Supreme Court annulment of the presidential results won praise, the period before the repeat election it ordered was “marred by a lack of substantive reforms, incidents of political violence, and a boycott by the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga.”


“These factors undermined the credibility of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory, in which he claimed 98 per cent of the vote amid low turnout.”

Repression of dissent

Tanzania, which has long been credit with relatively good governance in East Africa, has experienced a reversal in democratic gains. 

“The government of President John Magufuli — who took office in 2015 as a member of the only ruling party the country has ever known — stepped up repression of dissent, detaining opposition politicians, shuttering media outlets, and arresting citizens for posting critical views on social media,” the report notes.

Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are among 58 countries with a "Partly Free" status in the global freedom survey having scored 37, 48 and 52 respectively out of a possible 100. A zero (0) score denotes the least free while a 100 score the most free.

Political rights and civil liberties in Rwanda and Burundi remain subdued — scoring 23 and 18 respectively — and are considered as "Not Free".

While President Paul Kagame is commended for rebuilding Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, critics say he rules with an iron fist and suppresses political dissents.

Mr Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda since 1994, was re-elected in the August 2017 poll with 98.79 per cent of the vote.

According to Freedom House, President Pierre Nkurunziza's use of violence to flout term limits resulted in generating refugees.

He was re-elected in 2015 in a controversial election amid political violence and condemnation by the international community.

The Burundi government now plans to amend the Constitution to enable Mr Nkurunziza to run in the 2020 elections.

READ: Burundi’s opposition to fight law review

South Sudan

The worst performers in East Africa are Somalia, 7, and South Sudan, 2.

But the self-declared autonomous region of Somaliland scored 44 with a partly free status "due to the holding of a long-delayed presidential election."

In mid-December, Somaliland swore in its fifth president since breaking away from the larger Somalia in 1991 after an election reputed to be the first incident-free poll.

Somalia under constant threats from Al Shabaab militants and challenging clan-based politics showed democratic progress in 2017 after its parliament voted for a new president in what observers termed a vote for reforms and anti-corruption. Its freedom score has improved from five to seven.

South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, has been ravaged by a four-year civil war. A peace deal signed between the government and several rebel groups collapsed and numerous human rights abuses have been documented against civilians.

"South Sudan’s leaders chose to press on with a bloody civil war rather than make peace and face a long-overdue reckoning with voters," Freedom House says.

The four East African countries are among 49 nations worldwide deemed not free.

Rest of Africa

Gambia was singled out as the most improved in democratic gains in sub-Saharan Africa.

For more than two decades, the country had suffered under the oppressive rule of President Yahya Jammeh, who first took power in a military coup. Under his regime, government opponents, independent journalists, and rights activists faced intimidation, arbitrary arrest, torture, and forced disappearance, the report notes.

Mr Jammeh was defeated in an election in 2016 by Adama Barrow but refused to concede until the regional West African bloc, Ecowas, sent troops to Banjul in January 2017.

With a 21-point gain, Gambia is now deemed partly free from previous not free status.

"Much-needed institutional reforms still lie ahead, but fundamental freedoms have improved under Barrow’s government, and successful legislative elections were held in April. Among other positive developments, exiled journalists and activists returned, political prisoners were released, ministers declared their assets to an ombudsman, and the press union began work on media-sector reform."

Freedom House has also noted that Angola and Zimbabwe, where longtime incumbents have been replaced, as approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory.

“But their background in the ruling elite raises doubts about their promises of change,” the report adds.

Global freedom

The report notes that democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades as it came under attack not only in Africa but around the world.

In 2017, 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains, the survey showed.

Freedom House said this marked the 12the consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

Developments in the United States are partly driving this worldwide backsliding, the report suggested.

“The Obama administration continued to defend democratic ideals in its foreign policy statements, but its actions often fell short, reflecting a reduced estimation of the United States’ ability to influence world events and of the American public’s willingness to back such efforts,” the study says.

“In 2017, however, the Trump administration made explicit — in both words and actions — its intention to cast off principles that have guided US policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades.”

The US is still ranked among the freest countries in the world, with an aggregate score of 86 out of 100. However, it was declined from 89 points.

Finland, Norway and Sweden are most free with perfect scores of 100.

Freedom House surveyed 195 countries on political rights and civil liberties.