The tragic events of September 11 2001 represent different things to different people. The victims, the terrorists, western, Arab and Muslim governments, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Muslims and non Muslims, people of different political persuasions and leanings, the media, all perceive September 11 differently and all have no homogenous positions on the events of that day and its fall outs. It will therefore be incredulous to pretend that any single individual or group of individuals can spe...read more
The tragic events of September 11 2001 represent different things to different people. The victims, the terrorists, western, Arab and Muslim governments, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Muslims and non Muslims, people of different political persuasions and leanings, the media, all perceive September 11 differently and all have no homogenous positions on the events of that day and its fall outs. It will therefore be incredulous to pretend that any single individual or group of individuals can speak for Africa or all Africans in relation to September 11.
The one thing that we can be sure of, is that the events of 9-11 as it is now fashionably described, have altered the trajectory of and interaction between international politics, foreign policy, international economic relations, religion, ideology, democracy, human rights and international law. To go a step further, many more people than previously now see how these issues are connected and interact to shape the perception and future of different societies and the world as a whole. In Africa, where slavery, colonialism the cold war, dictatorships and the inequitable nature of north - south economic relations have deepened the problems of poverty, lack of democracy and human rights, it is even more important to reflect on September 11 and its implications for Africa.
No one in his or her right mind will deny that the key problems facing Africa today are those of economic underdevelopment, poverty, lack of democracy and human rights. The proportions are different in all countries but the problems are the same. Without democracy and human rights, the problems of economic underdevelopment and poverty in Africa will never be fully addressed. The question therefore, is how has September 11 impacted on the development of democracy and human rights in Africa.
To a large extent, the reactions to and fallouts of September 11 have been driven by policies of the United States Bush administration and its allies. This is perfectly understandable for reasons that are self-evident. It is important however that in formulating and implementing policy, all governments have a moral obligation to consider its implication for others especially where such policy could negatively impact on democracy and human rights around the world. The available evidence suggests that this is not the case.
Prior to September 11, the rhetoric from a significant number of African governments suggested that even if not fully committed to good governance, human rights and democracy, many of them at least recognised the need to be seen to walking in that direction. After September 11, such rhetoric did not necessarily diminish but became qualified with “recognising the need to fight terrorism”. Many governments which for years have resisted the pressure from civil society to enact legislation, or adopt good practice upholding freedom of expression, assembly, association and other key rights, have suddenly began rushing through “anti-terrorism legislation” curtailing those same rights. In many of cases, the provisions of the laws are so broad that even peaceful and legitimate democratic opposition can be targeted as “terrorists”.
In Uganda for instance the Suppression of Terrorism Bill 2001 imposes a mandatory death sentence for “Terrorists and any person who aids, abets, finances or supports terrorism”. In addition Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mauritius and Egypt have adopted or are at advanced stages of adopting similar legislation that restricts freedom of expression, association and assembly, could define certain peaceful activity as abetting terrorism, erodes the right to a fair and open trial, legitimises arbitrary and prolonged detention, and increases powers of surveillance. Many more African countries are openly considering similar legislation. This in itself is a problem, but the problem is further compounded by the fact that major countries around the world have adopted similar legislation. Several Amnesty International reports document similar laws adopted by the United States, and key countries of the European Union. This in turn has created the international cover for less democratic countries. In many cases, some of these laws adopted in Africa could have been borrowed almost directly from US or UK laws.
The direct implication of this is an “unholy and unlikely” alliance of a variety of governments against civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. This creates a fundamental contradiction for instance within the United Nations system where the hitherto champions of civil liberties are now championing the restriction of these same liberties. The US government has also under the USA Patriot Act enabled the Secretary of State to declare as inadmissible into the US persons that may have undertaken activities including advocacy that undermines the Bush administrations approach to the war on terrorism. Considering that the United Nations is situated in New York, and that thousands of human rights activists visit the US in order to invoke United Nations documents in their struggle to uphold human rights, the Bush Administration could end up undermining the UN system in relation to human rights without necessarily meaning to do so.
Add to this the contradiction of key EU governments and the US administration turning a blind eye to “allied” undemocratic governments while condemning others. In the UK Guardian of August 22 2002, US Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kainstener outlined the Bush administrations plans for regime change in Zimbabwe on the basis that the government is undemocratic. The day before, the Pakistani military government headed by General Musharaff a US government ally amended his country’s constitution to give him powers to dissolve future elected parliaments and extend his rule for another five years. The Guardian and other papers also reported this with virtually no complaint from the allies in the war against terrorism. To date the US has not called for the removal of Musharaff [it is worth noting that the alienation of Pakistani civil society can in turn only help Al Queda hide in Pakistan]. Significantly, Pakistan’s earlier suspension from the Commonwealth for Musharaff's coup against an elected government has been conveniently forgotten.
It is an absurdity for major powers to create monsters or facilitate circumstances that create them and then embark on policy u-turns that can only worsen the situation. Without going into the complications of the legitimacy of the land problem in Zimbabwe while condemning Mugabe's methods, such contradictions can only strengthen the likes of Mugabe and undermine democracy in Africa. The International Federation of Journalists in its publication on “Journalism and the War on Terrorism” by Aidan White quotes a Mugabe Spokesperson “As for the correspondents, we would like them to know that we agree with US President Bush that anyone who finances, harbours or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist. We too will not make any difference between terrorists and their friends and supporters ” If Mugabe were to suddenly find himself in the unique position of facilitating a US attack on a neighbouring country harbouring terrorists it is easy to see how such rhetoric would suddenly endear him to the Bush Administration.
If we are to take only one example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world can see how cold war politics, the assassination of the country’s democratically elected leader Patrice Lumumba and support for the dictatorship of Mobutu Seseseko by Western governments plunged the country into a crisis from which it is yet to recover after several decades. There is something deeply unsettling about sacrificing the future of millions of people for the convenience of foreign policy. African countries do not need any more of this.
The war on terrorism should not and cannot be fought outside an ethical framework. Any policies that sacrifice human rights for this war will only succeed in fuelling the conditions in which terrorists thrive. The fact that Islam is used as an ideological tool to recruit so called warriors should not obscure the fact that the Middle East is country for country one of the most undemocratic regions in the world. Elections have never been held in Saudi Arabia and will not be held for the foreseeable future. That the majority of the 9-11 hijackers are of Saudi origin cannot be a coincidence. If the same conditions are created in Africa, terrorism, which is by nature a clandestine activity, may well be provided with a popular base that will in turn appear to justify the suppression of democracy in the name of fighting terrorism.
African civil society needs to make it clear in policy and advocacy that they are one hundred percent opposed to terrorism, but also one hundred percent committed to democracy. There is no contradiction in this. There is nothing anti-American about upholding democratic rights. There should be absolutely no doubt that any laws that curtail freedom of expression, association, assembly, and so forth in Africa will be used against democratic opposition and human rights activists. One year after September 11, and, dozens of anti-democratic laws later, no one knows where Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and at least five thousand to ten thousand “graduates” of the Al Queda training camps are. It is therefore important to begin now to call for the immediate repeal of all provisions of anti-terrorism legislation that promotes the suppression of human rights and for a halt to such legislation in Africa. Not to do so may plunge Africa into strife and conflict from which it may never emerge.
Participants at the 10th International Freedom of Exchange (IFEX) general meeting in Dakar have led the way by adopting a declaration on September 11 2002 by condemning “acts of terror and crimes against humanity such as the attacks on the United States one year ago” but also criticising “anti terrorism laws passed in many countries in the aftermath of September 11 attacks” that “include provisions that undermine civil liberties and in some cases severely restrict the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information”. It is important that all national, regional and international human rights and freedom of expression organisations around the world follow this lead.
Sankore is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights.