Nearly all governments in East Africa have enacted punitive laws targeting the civic space over the past decade, a squeezing people’s freedoms and curtailing human-rights in the region, a newly published report says.
Freedom House, the Washington-based democracy watchdog, says the measures, mostly targeting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that augment government services in most desperate situations, have systematically curtailed people’s freedoms and democracy in the region.
The report singles out Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia before the advent of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt as countries that have since 2010 passed legislation to curtail NGO activities with disastrous consequences on civic freedoms.
Kenya is listed among countries that unsuccessfully tried to curtail the activities of NGOs through legislation.
The Freedom House report reckons that restrictions on NGOs have significantly weakened the capacity of organised civil society and citizens to hold governments to account and to protect human rights, resulting in bad governance and poor quality of life for ordinary citizens.
“Most anti-NGO legislation and policies have not only curtailed the delivery of critical services in the civic space but also violated human-rights commitments these countries made as part of global treaties,” said Dr Godfrey Musila, who co-authored the report for Freedom House.
“Ultimately, these actions have increasingly squeezed the civic space, leaving in their wake little or no freedom of association, assembly and expression,” he said.
Freedom House however reckons that contrary to the claims by regimes in power, the anti-NGO measures have failed the limitations test because they single out certain NGOs and their leaders and because they lack proportionality in terms of the means deployed and ends sought.
Girmachew Kebede of the Voice of America in Addis Ababa, who co-authored the report, says that for many regimes in Africa, as in other regions of the world, restrictions that hamstring NGO activity form part of a broader strategy to narrow the democratic space and prevent challenges to the rule of strongmen and governing parties, ultimately undermining the growth of democracy and the rule of law.
Over the past 10 years, Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zambia, Tunisia, Algeria, South Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Burundi, and Tanzania have enacted laws to curtail the activities of NGOs, according to the Freedom House report.
Six countries — Rwanda, Zambia, Sudan, Malawi, Egypt, and Mozambique — have anti-NGO measures pending or may be moving to introduce them, while six — Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, and Zimbabwe — have introduced such measures only to abandon them, face a pushback from the legislature or suffer invalidation by the courts.
In Kenya, for example, the civil society fraternity has since the coming to power of President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013, faced major legal and administrative challenges that threaten their survival, including the blockage of funding from donors.
It all started with Security Laws (Amendment) Act, 2014, which took away fundamental civil liberties and restricted the freedom of the press in the guise of fighting Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabaab.
The passing of the laws during a chaotic parliamentary session forced the opposition to go to court where sections of the law that infringed on civil liberty were struck down.
The Kenyatta government was back at it again in the run-up to the 2017 election with raids on the offices of several NGOs on suspicion that they were working with the opposition.
Kenyan NGOs have also faced threats of deregistration for alleged funding of terrorism, misappropriation of donor funds or failure to submit tax returns.
Ndung’u Wainaina, the executive director of the International Centre for Policy and Conflict, said constant threats from East Africa’s undemocratic regimes have forced many civil society organisations to stop addressing hard political questions and to resort to “constructive engagement” with their tormentors for the sake of survival.
Mr Wainaina said that the civil society movement is facing an uncertain future in East Africa with widespread shrinkage of its space through constant harassment, physical violence and incarceration of activists.
Freedom House said some regimes have used the new laws to arbitrarily arrest, incarcerate and even kill activists leading to an overall squeeze on human freedoms.
In most countries covered in the report, measures have been or are being taken not only to starve the civil society of resources but also establish more effective government controls.
Egypt and Sierra Leone have become the latest to adopt anti-NGO legislation in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Ethiopia's opposite direction
Ethiopia is, however, emerging as an exception having recently started the journey to the opposite direction — releasing jailed activists and pulling back state machinery from the civic space.
The Ethiopian government, which has since 2009 imposed draconian restrictions on NGOs and barred rights groups from advocacy, has seen a major pullback since Dr Abiy took office in April 2018.
The country's Civil Society Proclamation, drafted with input from NGOs and the public, was adopted in February and has substantially infused some freedom in the civic space.
Still, Freedom House says efforts to impose controls over NGOs have taken a variety of forms across the region. Sudan’s Voluntary and Humanitarian (Organisation) Work Act of 2006 and Ethiopia’s CSP are examples of anti-NGO framework legislation that provides a comprehensive set of rules designed to rein in civil society activity.
Dr Musila said states often resort to overly broad national security measures, a category that encompasses counterterrorism laws, public order laws, finance-sector laws and cybersecurity laws to curtail civic freedoms.
A third and less common approach is the use of amendments to existing laws and policies, illustrated in Kenya and Malawi.
The report also draws parallels between anti-NGO measures adopted across the continent since 2006 and those adopted in Russia and China — two influential global actors that have forged close ties with African governments.
For example, Sudan’s anti-NGO law coincided with the first of several Russian laws, closely followed by Rwanda’s measure in 2008. Russia’s second wave of legal restrictions coincided with those of several African countries — notably Ethiopia, Zambia, and Mozambique — while China’s 2016 and 2018 regulations came alongside measures by several other African governments.
“It is difficult to establish specific links between the African laws and those adopted by the two global powers, but the close relationships built in Africa since 2000 — particularly with China — support a modelling hypothesis,” said Dr Musila.
In Congo-Brazzaville and Kenya, where legislative proposals have failed in the Senate and National Assembly, respectively, new attempts are expected to come with electoral cycles.
Freedom House notes that for NGOs in Africa to deal with threats of curtailment, they should challenge punitive measures in courts and seek the application of a quantitative limitations test.
This affords the groups the opportunity to propose less restrictive measures for achieving identifiable governmental objectives such as accountability in the sector.
The report also recommends that to complement foreign sources of funding without compromising the resource base and independence of NGOs, African governments should explore incentives that encourage donations from citizens and private entities.