AU Should Respond to Africans’ Desire for Greater Democracy

The Freedom House has urged member states of the African Union (AU), as they met this week in Kumpala, Uganda, to make the deepening of democratic development in the African region a top priority.

Despite an overall increase in the number of elections occurring in Africa, the region suffered the largest setback in Freedom in the World 2010, Freedom House’s annual global analysis of political rights and civil liberties, with 16 countries registering declines and only 4 securing gains. In addition to seriously flawed elections in Sudan and Ethiopia, the region saw increased crackdowns on freedom of expression and association, and suppression of civil society and political opposition that often resulted in unlawful arrests, harassment, and torture.

“The increased demand for democratic elections by Africans throughout the continent has made it clear that consolidated democracy is what they envision for their countries,” said Paula Schriefer, advocacy director at Freedom House. “The African Union has the potential to serve as a force for furthering democracy and human rights in the region, but it is currently not living up to that challenge. We call on the AU to strengthen its mechanisms for promoting human rights and monitoring elections.”

A number of factors aside from elections that define a consolidated democracy have eluded much of the region. Some developments from 2009/2010 which reflect this are:

Civil society came under attack in several countries in 2009, including Zambia, where new legal restrictions on the activities of NGOs were instituted; The Gambia, where civil society groups faced threats of violence; and in Ethiopia and The Congo (Kinshasa), where human rights groups and other NGOs continued to face harassment.

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen the largest decline in press freedom with restrictive media legislation and attacks on journalists becoming more prevalent. In Madagascar, several opposition media outlets were closed, and heightened attacks on journalists occurred in Congo (Kinshasa), Rwanda, and Somalia. Additionally, increased restrictions on media, particularly surrounding elections, when governments are tempted to censor, intimidate, threaten and harass journalists as well as close media outlets, occurred in Ethiopia, and Gabon among others. Problematic legislation continues to be an obstacle and space for independent journalism and media continues to shrink.

Only 3 countries have access to information laws: South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia, despite the fact that Article 9 (1) of the African Charter on Human and People’s provides a right to seek, receive and impart information and the African Commission have made clear statements on the right to access information.

“There are a number of strong democratic performers in the region, including Cape Verde, Ghana, and Mauritius, and there are some such as Liberia and Malawi that have been moving strongly in the right direction of reform,” continued Schriefer. “Because we have seen that countries perform better when they are incentivized to practice good governance, the role of regional organizations is an even more powerful one.”

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.