The challenges facing the African continent are enormous. On every front: economic and industrial development; scientific and technological know how; electrification; agriculture; education; healthcare; housing; telecommunications; transport; peace and stability; institutional respect for social, economic, political and human rights, and all other indices of modern society the continent is yet to fulfil its potential. The reasons for this have been articulated extensively – four hundred years...read more
The challenges facing the African continent are enormous. On every front: economic and industrial development; scientific and technological know how; electrification; agriculture; education; healthcare; housing; telecommunications; transport; peace and stability; institutional respect for social, economic, political and human rights, and all other indices of modern society the continent is yet to fulfil its potential. The reasons for this have been articulated extensively – four hundred years of vicious slavery and colonisation including the murder of millions of Africans in their prime, decades of military coups and dictatorships of all sorts backed by both ‘eastern and western bloc’ countries in the cold war battle for strategic interests and resources etc. These are terrible events, which would have undermined the development of any continent
Nevertheless, present day African governments are still failing in their duty to break the shackles imposed on their countries by the injustices of the past and guide their countries into the 21st century.
On the 25th of May the African Union celebrated the 40th anniversary of Africa Liberation Day and the formation of the Organisation of African Unity. The 26th of May was also the second anniversary of the formal creation of the African Union. In his anniversary message, the current Chair of the Union President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa saluted “the distinguished leaders of the continental struggle such as Kwame Nkrumah, Gamel Abdel Nasser, Haille Selassie, Mmandi Azikiwe, Sekou Toure, Modibo Keita, Kenneth Kaunda, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Augostino Neto, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and many others” and their “Pan-Africanist vision of a Union of African States sharing common aims of multicultural unity, socio-economic and political co-operation and development, the promotion of human rights, the protection of human rights and freedoms, the promotion of peace and stability and the removal of the remaining yokes of colonialism and apartheid on the continent.”
He also acknowledged that “there are new issues on our agenda today such as democracy, peace and stability, human security, good economic governance as well as sustainable development, human rights, health, gender equality, information and computer technology, integrated regional development, cultural and heritage preservation and promotion.”
More importantly, he admitted that “The international community is eager to see whether we will be able to live up to the conditions that we have set ourselves in NEPAD and its African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) in which we have designed measures to assist states where capacity gaps exist and to set benchmarks of excellence for a vibrant and progressive Africa.” “We, in Africa,” he said “are optimistic that a new dawn is breaking and that prosperity, peace and human security will be a reality rather than a figment of our imagination.”
But rather disappointingly, the first tasks that African Union has set for itself do not take account of President Mbeki’s fine words. Instead, the Executive Council meeting of the AU attended by Foreign Ministers of all 53 member-states of the African Union met last week to “consider issues” relating to the implementation of decisions taken by Heads of State and Government during the launch of the African Union” regarding: “Common African Defence and Security Policy; the new structure of the Commission; progress report on the election of the AU Commissioners; scale of assessment for member-states; and the link between the AU and the African Diaspora.”
This distinguished gathering of Ministers did not think it necessary to respond to the urgent issues such as warnings by the World Food Programme of looming food shortages and famine in several African countries including Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where various estimates of between thirty million to forty million people are at risk of starvation.
By no coincidence, the governments of these countries have been identified by several international and African press freedom and freedom of expression organisations as suppressing press freedom and freedom of expression. In almost all cases, the rights to association, assembly and political participation have also been curtailed.
There also seems to be no collective awareness of other grim facts and statistics hanging like a sword of Damocles over of millions of Africans:
* Of the ten countries in the world spending the least on healthcare, only one [Tajikistan] is not African. Liberia, Burundi, Somalia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Central African Republic and Chad top this list.
* Of the ten most undernourished nations in the world only three Afghanistan, North Korea and Haiti are not African. The other seven are Somalia, Burundi, Eritrea, Dem Republic of Congo, Liberia and Niger.
* The ten countries in the world with the highest death rate, and lowest life expectancy are all African: Botswana; Mozambique;’ Zimbabwe; Swaziland; Angola; Namibia; Malawi; Niger; Zambia; and Rwanda make up the first list with Sierra Leone, Burundi, Djibouti, swapping places with Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe on the second list.
* Of the ten countries in the world with the youngest populations [normally characterised by high death rates and high birth rates] nine are African: Uganda; Dem Rep of Congo; Chad; Niger; Sao Tome and Principe; Ethiopia; Burkina Faso; Mali and Benin.
* Of the ten most corrupt countries in the world, five Nigeria, Uganda, Cameroon, Kenya and Tanzania, are African.
* The ten countries in the world that are worst for education are all African: Niger; Burkina Faso; sierra Leone; Guinea; Ethiopia; Angola; Mali; Mozambique; Senegal; Burundi and Guinea Bissau.
* Not surprisingly, eight of the ten countries on the planet with the highest rates of illiteracy are African: Niger, Burkina Faso; Gambia; Ethiopia; Senegal; Mali; Mauritania and Sierra Leone [the other two being Afghanistan and Haiti]
* Yet, Africa seems to be heading full steam towards a housing catastrophe with ten of the fastest growing countries in the world being African: Niger; Somalia; Angola; Uganda: Liberia; Burkina Faso; Mali; Ethiopia and Dem Republic of Congo.
It is therefore no surprise, that malaria, HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality are estimated to kill one million per year [or 2800 per day in Africa], an estimated two million per year, and forty percent of an estimated annual world total of 585,000 women year respectively. Add to these the numerous ongoing conflicts claiming hundreds of thousands of lives every year (estimnated at more than 3 million in DRC alone over the last three years) and it will be no exaggeration to say that Africa may well descend into a wasteland of conflict, disease and poverty if the trend is not revered over the next few decades. But 2020 or 2040 this is not so far away. It was only ‘yesterday’ that the 1970s and 1980s targets for ‘everything for all’ by the year 2000 were set without any clear arrangement to achieve these targets, and today it is 2003.
The ongoing SARS epidemic is yet to take a thousand lives globally but was placed at the fore of a recent meeting of Asian countries. The Canadian authorities were reported on the 29th of May to have decided to quarantine 5000 persons at risk from the SARS virus. Yet the AU does not think the healthcare crisis facing Africa deserves to be fast tracked to the fore of its Agenda. The right to life is after all the most important of all. To describe the African healthcare crisis as a result of criminal negligence will not be an exaggeration.
To anyone familiar with the political and economic history of Africa, the surprise is not that these statistics exist. The surprise is that there is no cohesive plan to reverse the trend.
The task to rebuild the continent must therefore begin immediately. Improved education, healthcare, dealing urgently with the tragedy of HIV/AIDS, agriculture, scientific and technological development, housing, conflict resolution, peace and stability, and so forth must be accelerated to the fore of the AU’s agenda. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to happen unless African civil society makes every effort to ensure it is done.
But before any of these can happen, freedom of expression and freedom of association needs to be institutionalised. Nothing can happen without these. Only last week we witnessed the absurdity of a Moroccan editor being sentenced to four years in jail for publishing a satirical weekly which ‘insulted the King of Morocco.’ Such absurdities belong in the feudal past of humanity and have no place in the modern world. Yet Morocco is not alone. Eritrea one of the first few countries to sign the constitutive Act of the African Union has imprisoned 18 editors and journalists and banned the entire private media. In July, 53 African heads of state will gather in Maputo for a meeting of the African Union. At least two thirds of them possess a plethora of anti media and anti freedom of expression laws in the armouries employed to stifle debate and alternative opinion.
Last week, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Africa Liberation Day, CREDO wrote to President Mbeki asking him to “call on fellow African leaders to release all incarcerated journalists, repeal all anti media and anti free-expression laws and legislation in their countries and end the persecution of journalists, civil society and peaceful democratic opposition.” The letter also urged him to “act speedily and decisively on these issues and to ensure they are firmly on the agenda of the 2nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union planned for Maputo, Mozambique in July 2003.” The letter stressed that “an end to the suppression of press freedom, freedom of expression and the rights to assembly, association and political participation will be a first and crucial step” towards solving the problems facing Africa.
In order to ensure that these issues are placed on the agenda of the AU, CREDO in collaboration with FAHAMU, is today launching a forty-day campaign in PAMBAZUKA NEWS aimed at presenting a petition to the African Union assembly of Heads of state in Maputo [see link below]. The petition calls for among other things, the release of all journalists incarcerated in all African countries and an end to the suppression of press freedom and freedom of expression. We urge you to support the campaign.
Rotimi Sankore is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights an NGO focussing on rights issues in Africa. He is Contributing Editor of Pambazuka News. Firoze Manji is Director of Fahamu.
Organisations and persons wishing to sign this petition should send their name, name of organisation and country to [email][email protected] and [email protected] with the title Africa Union Campaign to media freedom and freedom of expression. Please state clearly if you are signing in your personal capacity or on behalf of your organisation.
President Thabo Mbeki
President of Republic of South Africa,
Chair of African Union
Dear Mr President
Call for African leaders to release all incarcerated journalists and repeal anti media and anti freedom of expression legislation
We are writing to express our concern over the continued incarceration of and harassment of journalists in the majority of African journalists for no other reason than carrying out their legitimate duties. We are also very concerned about the persistent violation of freedom of expression in Africa, which denies Africans the opportunity to participate in democratic debate towards solving the many problems facing the continent.
The multitude of challenges facing Africa includes improving, education, healthcare, HIV/AIDs, agriculture, building centres for scientific and technological, provision of adequate housing, conflict resolution - peace and stability and so forth. These challenges cannot be met without the active participation of the citizens of African countries.
Active participation of citizens in shaping policy and decision making of their countries is however impossible if their own governments continue to deny them the rights necessary to ensure such participation. These include the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and political participation, as well as media freedom to facilitate a free exchange of information, ideas and opinion.
However these rights continue to be violated by numerous government despite the fact that virtually all African countries have signed up to or ratified the constitutive Act of the African union, the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other similar documents.
May 25th 2003 marked 40 years of the celebration of Africa liberation day and the formation of the Organisation of African Unity. Similarly May 26th 2003 marked the second anniversary of the formal establishment of the African Union
It saddens us greatly therefore to note that more media houses have been shut down, and more journalists have been imprisoned, killed and driven into exile in the last forty years of independence of African countries than in the same period during the anti-colonial struggles that proceeded independence. With the exception of very few African governments, most have retained pre independence anti-media and anti-freedom of expression legislation that the colonial governments used to legitimise their incarceration of journalists in that era which remains one of the most shameful for the human race. Some have even managed ‘improve’ on such repressive legislation.
It was with great hope and expectation that all Africans and friends of Africa welcomed the launch of the African Union and looked forward to a new future based on its constitutive Acts. However two years into this bold experiment, no significant progress has been made. Even worse, two of the first five countries to sign up i.e. Eritrea and Zimbabwe having been turned into living hells for the media by the governments of those countries.
We therefore lend our voice to the numerous calls that have been made by regional and international organisations to the concerned African leaders to without delay release all incarcerated journalists, re-open all closed media houses, repeal anti-media legislation and recognise the importance of a free press, freedom of expression and other associated rights as vital ingredients necessary to build free, democratic and prosperous societies.
Only when this is done will the NEPAD initiative and any future similar initiatives have any real meaning for the peoples of Africa.
Sign [List of signatories]
CC: Governments of the member countries of the African Union C/o African Union secretariat