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Between a Dream and a Nightmare
Hardly one year after being hailed for showing unprecedented progress toward turning itself around, Africa once again veered towards the precipice. The much-vaunted “African renaissance,” a three-way equation of a flowering of democracy, culture, and economic growth appeared to be in tatters. Instead, sagging economic performance, backsliding on democracy and other human rights reforms, and increased national and regional tensions menaced much of the continent. A new war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) drew in countries as far afield as Chad and Zimbabwe, and other conflicts threatened Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, and even tiny Lesotho. In some countries, however, the gains made in recent years were maintained: in South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Mauritius, Mali, and elsewhere progress towards respect for human rights and the rule of law stayed on course. The change of guard in Nigeria with the death of General Sani Abacha and the undertaking by new head of state General Abdulsalami Abubakar to return Nigeria to democratic rule also offered a major new hope during the year, at the same time diverting the threat of instability in Africa’s most populous country; but even in Nigeria nothing was guaranteed.

The slogan of “African solutions for African problems” had implied a new paradigm with multiple qualities: indigenousness, the involvement of local actors, and cost-effectiveness. But African leadership repeatedly stumbled in finding solutions to the continent’s grave political and human rights problems of 1998. Leaders from countries that could have played a greater role—such as Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa—seemed unable to initiate coordinated responses to the continent’s problems. Regional mechanisms, including the Organization of African Unity (OAU), were equally unable to muster the political will or financial resources to address these crises.

Yet, for good or ill, African governments did become more willing to mobilize military power to step in when strife broke out in a neighboring country. During 1998, West African peacekeeping troops, led primarily by Nigeria, restored civilian rule in Sierra Leone, while remaining—in reduced force—for the eighth year in Liberia. Senegalese and Guinean troops stepped in to stop violence in Guinea Bissau. Under the umbrella of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africa and Botswana dispatched troops into Lesotho to rescue a government that was on the verge of collapse. While interventions in these small countries were relatively self-contained, regional involvement in the DRC threatened to embroil much of central Africa in conflict: Ugandan and Rwandan troops fought alongside rebel forces in the DRC, while Angolan, Namibian, Zimbabwean, and even Chadian troops intervened on behalf of embattled President Kabila, who had himself only taken power—with the assistance of Rwandan soldiers—in 1997. With a rapid multiplication of unilateral or subregional interventions, Africa witnessed a slow, but evident, erosion of the concept of state sovereignty, enshrined in the charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and so jealously guarded in the past.

Although it became clear that the old rules might no longer apply, new rules providing a reasonable basis for regional stability had not been established. The result: the objectives of interventions remained distorted by each intervening government’s short-term view of its national self-interest. Meetings of African leaders were hastily convened to put out the fires, yet there was an absence of serious long term planning, matched by effective action, to address Africa’s problems at a continental level and to try to prevent another Congo-type crisis. The OAU’s Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution remained largely untried; the SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defense and Security was exposed as inoperative by divisions between South Africa and Zimbabwe over intervention in the DRC (a SADC member since 1997) and the botching of a South African-led intervention in Lesotho; and the discussions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for the establishment of a permanent regional peacekeeping capacity produced no action.

The turmoil in the DRC, as well as a border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea that broke out in July, illustrated three features of the African landscape in 1998. First was the abruptness with which the “new leaders” of Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the DRC, lost their gloss, raising questions about the capacity of any autocratic strongman to contribute in the long-term to an African renaissance. Despite the fact that all of these leaders had replaced brutal and corrupt regimes, and despite all the talk of solidarity, their interests clearly diverged, in some cases into open conflict between former colleagues-in-arms. Second was the wider regional nature of the conflicts, especially the imbroglio in the DRC. This war not only threatened a conflagration involving at least a half dozen countries in the heart of Africa, but also crystallized and brought into the open major rifts within the continent, pitting countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, two of the closest U.S. allies, against important countries in southern and central Africa, such as Zimbabwe and Angola. Third was the extent to which some of Africa’s “older” statesmen—including Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nujoma of Namibia, and Dos Santos of Angola, who had previously perceived themselves as the vanguard of “leftism” and “pan-Africanism”—felt threatened by the favor accorded to the “new leaders” by the international community in general and the U.S. in particular.

Overall, the Congo crisis appeared to have generated a major, though inchoate, shift in power from the bloc of “new leaders” in central and eastern Africa toward central and southern Africa leaders, who thus gained a new platform for diplomatic and military influce. The shift may lead to a situation very different from what western strategists had contemplated when they uncritically embraced the project of “African solutions for African problems.” The ascendancy of Zimbabwe and its allies in the Congo intervention in the long term could return Africa to a status quo of uncritical support of sovereign rights within state boundaries, but with states increasingly prepared to support political favorites of the day militarily whatever their records. This would entail dire consequences for regional and international efforts to defend human rights. Alternatively, because South Africa’s leaders created a more hospitable environment for human rights than the leaders of eastern Africa, the power shift might carry positive consequencesfor human rights. But it could rule out, at least in the short term, the forging of inclusive political and security alliances in the region that could benefit all Africa’s peoples.

The Benchmarks of Democracy
Assessments of democratization in Africa continued to be dominated by misleading benchmarks such as the holding of “multiparty elections” however restricted while underplaying substantive freedoms. Gross fraud, serious procedural irregularities, opposition party withdrawals, and boycotts persisted. Manipulated and flawed electoral processes that seemed designed to ensure victory for incumbents continued to be a profound source of tensions and crises. During 1998, election-related controversy led to crises in Lesotho, Togo, and Mali. Though the basic nuts and bolts of democracy were installed across the region—there were political parties, elections, parliaments, judiciaries, newspapers galore, and a growing number of electronic media—their ability to secure respect for human rights and the rule of law was another question.

In countries such as Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Niger, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where the political landscape had historically been dominated by single-party structures, de jure and de facto, a legacy of dominant political control, restrictions on entry and participation in political life and excessive regulation persisted, even when the one party system had been liberalized. Promises to treat political competitors on an equal basis with ruling parties were of limited practical value, and opposition parties remained at a substantial disadvantage. Countries with a long legacy of intrusive state control would require huge effort and goodwill to disentangle the cat’s cradle of laws and regulations that continued to enmesh the media and civil society and to hobble political opposition. Few, if any, governments appeared to relish such a prospect.

Government-controlled media continued to serve as propaganda tools. In most countries television and radio remained firmly under state control, and governments continued to threaten critical newspapers and independent radio stations that challenged government abuses. As a result, journalists were often constrained to practice self-censorship. Others were intimidated, assaulted, thrown into jail and numerous bannings of newspapers and closures of radio station occurred during 1998. Nigeria alone had the dubious honor of having arrested more than thirty journalists, though almost all were released by new head of state General Abubakar by October. In Ethiopia thirteen journalists continued to be imprisoned at the time of writing. Even in South Africa, deportation proceedings were commenced against Newton Kanhema, a leading journalist of Zimbabwean origin who had been critical of the government, amid a domestic and international outcry that immigration proceedings were being used to limit press freedom. Following a court challenge, the deportation was halted. In October, a South African court ruled in a landmark decision on constitutional protection for free expression that it was admissible as a defense to a libel action against a newspaper for journalists to show that they had acted reasonably and carefully in reporting.

In many countries, incumbent officials continued to harass and imprison opponents and choke off any attempts at public protest. In Sudan, a return to political parties banned since the 1989 coup that overthrew the elected government was thwarted when a key clause in the draft constitution was revised by National Islamic Front leader Hassan al Turabi. The newly elected government of Charles Taylor in Liberia showed an intolerance of losing factions in that country’s civil war. President Chiluba’s Zambia continued to betray the title of his party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, by detaining opponents. In Kenya, President Moi banned Islamic organizations from operating. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe’s intervention in the conflict in the DRC could not distract from an internal crisis brought on by his failure to listen to criticism from internal opposition led by the unions.

In other countries, the military continued to play a pivotal role in shaping public policy even after avowing to exit the political arena. Claiming to embody the good of the nation, the army continued to play a dual role that was often camouflaged by a facade of legality and constitutionalism. In Nigeria, despite promises from the new head of state to restore the country to civilian elected government, human rights and pro-democracy groups argued that the disgraced military establishment should not continue to wield power during a transition period, and that a civilian government of national unity should take office to arrange new elections.

There were exceptions to prove the rule. After four years, the process of democratic transition in South Africa remained on course. Though the government led by the African National Congress failed to act effectively in some areas, and remained inordinately sensitive to criticism, major reforms of the justice system and policing continued, as did efforts to improve respect for women’s and children’s rights, and to increase access to land and water, and (less successfully) to education. There were other success stories. Botswana’s and Mauritius’s stable democracies endured as islands amid turbulence in the region. Ketumile Masire of Botswana resigned the presidency before the end of his term—thus strengthening the country’s foundations of constitutional governance. In Senegal, a combination of political uncertainty, insurgency, and a controversial military intervention in Guinea Bissau took its toll and the country appeared to have somewhat lost its status as a regional leader. But it seemed unlikely that it would unravel and succumb to wide scale instability and rights abuses thanks to its relatively strong democratic foundations. Newly democratizing Benin, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, and Mozambique stayed the course, albeit sometimes on a bumpy road. Taken together all these success stories constituted the real beacons of hope that could show the way forward for the rest of Africa.

Open Markets, Closed Political Systems
Bowing to pressures from international and domestic forces and pinning hopes on an obsolete “Asian model,” almost all the region’s forty-eight countries continued to implement programs to liberalize financial and trading policies and adopt programs of macroeconomic adjustment supported by the World Bank and the IMF. Prominent implementors of economic liberalization included Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Benin, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Although many of these countries accomplished significant macroeconomic reforms, there were few signsthat governments were displaying similar commitment to the expansion of political freedoms. In many cases, economic progress was damaged precisely because of the lack of democratic accountability and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

With globalization and the increased power of market forces to propel change, financial and commodity volatility emerged as critical elements that African governments had to factor into political calculations. As political legitimacy was beginning to be tied directly to economic success, the fallout from Asia’s economic crisis appeared to translate into political fragility. With sagging economic performance, political leaders were confronted by a force beyond their control, a power more radically unyielding than the domestic political opponents they had grown used to controlling by a combination of brute force, favoritism, or political manipulation.

Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea continued to build an autocratic brand of capitalism. For this they had continued to be hailed as beacons of hope. Yet the dominance of ruling parties was unrelenting and opposition remained hobbled. Yoweri Museveni showed no shift from his so-called “no-party” system, while Ethiopia carried on detaining political challengers. None of the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Uganda showed any sign of early departure—apparently joining the “old” leaders in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Gabon and elsewhere in their attachment to power. Namibians, too, continued to contemplate a third-term reelection of Sam Nujoma, raising strong feelings: Ben Ulenga, Namibia’s High Commissioner to London and a senior member of the ruling party, resigned his post in August, citing his opposition to the proposed third term move as one of the reasons for quitting.

In the context of the global financial crisis precipitated by economic collapse in southeast Asia, liberalization and the opening of markets had significant costs. Market openings might have improved economic efficiency, but openness escalated the potential and actual impact of international influence on internal processes. Although the scale and impact of globalization in Africa was not comparable to the Asian meltdown, the impact of a fall in demand and price for basic commodities supplied from Africa, including oil, metals, timber, coffee, and cocoa was not inconsequential. For countries that depended heavily on selling raw materials globally to generate growth and to support their government budgets, the economic downturn contributed to cutbacks, radically lower currency values, shortfalls in revenue and ballooning trade deficits. In many countries, the results were profoundly unsettling as evidence of lasting social and political consequences mounted. Human rights problems were hard to solve at the best of times.

How this played out in domestic political processes varied from country to country. Even in South Africa, the perilous state of the economy posed a huge challenge to the sustainability of democratic reform. Though South Africa’s economy remained the largest in Africa, more than 30 percent of its almost forty million people were without work, and many continued to live in extreme poverty as a legacy of apartheid. Squeezed by astronomical interest rates and thwarted by turmoil in key export markets, the economy labored through a bad year. Growing xenophobia, including incidents of violence directed against foreigners were a direct manifestation of the detrimental effect economic problems could have on respect for human rights.

Elsewhere in Africa where a transition to democracy had hardly commenced, as was the case in Nigeria, or was only half complete, in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, or Zimbabwe, a retreat from democratic and human rights reforms and tolerance for civil society was threatened in the face of economic problems. In both Kenya and Zimbabwe the government was in the grip of a crisis of confidence regarding its ability to manage the economy, and both Mugabe and Moi appeared to have opted for a mixture of carrot and stick: conceding limited economic and political points while lashing out against some of their most virulent critics.

For some countries, rich in oil or precious minerals such as diamonds, wealth appeared rather to buttress dictatorial regimes characterized by a lack of respect for human rights than to promote development. Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria all fell in this category. The huge profits earned in royalties either reinforced autocratic governments, and sometimes rebel movements as well, or prevented the development of mechanisms for transparency and accountability, often with the connivance of foreign corporations. Wasted national wealth, hampered development, and massive abuse of human rights was the price local populations continued to pay for “economic success.”

Man-made Disasters
Civil strife, often spawned by longstanding and monumental human rights abuses, and fueled by weapons supplied from outside the continent, threatened many countries in Africa during the year, provoking large-scale forced migrations. As always, civilians—mostly women and children—bore the brunt of horrific abuses.

Some of the most alarming reports came from Sierra Leone, where civilians were subjected to mutilations, rape, and systematic killings by rebel forces. Children were victims of gross violations of human rights committed by both sides to the conflict, both prior to and following the restoration of the government of President Kabbah. Rebel forces fighting the government abducted an unknown number of children—probably in the thousands—for use as laborers, fighters, and in the case of girls, sexual prisoners. There were many child soldiers among fighters aligned with rebel forces, and despite promises by the government to demobilize all combatants under the age of eighteen, government allies continued to recruit children at least until July. Close to half a million Sierra Leoneans fled the fighting as refugees to neighboring Guinea and Liberia or to camps for the internally displaced. Refugees and the internally displaced suffered from a host of problems including a lack of protection, high malnutrition and disease rates, and attacks by rebel forces.

Following the outbreak of fighting in Guinea Bissau on June 7, when the army mutinied against President João “Nino” Vieira, after he had suspended and then sacked Ansumane Mane as chief-of-staff, virtually the entire population of 300,000 of the capital Bissau was forced to flee towards the western regions of the country where they continued to live in life-threatening conditions atyear end. Gross human rights abuses in Sudan’s fifteen year civil war persisted, causing or aggravating a severe famine in three separate regions: the southern Bahr El Ghazal, Western Upper Nile areas, and the central Nuba Mountains. Both sides to the conflict employed abusive military strategies such as targeting civilians and their cattle. Combatants stripped assets from civilians, repeatedly displaced them, and manipulated and diverted relief goods and other food belonging to civilian populations.

In Uganda, the anti-government Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continued its campaign of terror, brutalizing civilians, destroying property, and abducting children in northern Uganda. In June, the LRA attacked a school and abducted thirty-nine girls. The majority of the population in the North continued to live in “protected” camps, with inadequate access to housing, water, food, health care, and education. In western Uganda, the Allied Defense Forces (ADF), another guerrilla group, waged war against the Museveni government. The ADF was reportedly responsible for numerous abuses against civilians, including abductions of children. On June 9, the ADF attacked and reportedly burned a school, killing an estimated fifty to eighty students and abducting an estimated one hundred students and civilians.

Noncombatants also bore the brunt of the renewed fighting in the DRC. Both sides to the conflict resorted to extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions in appalling conditions. The conflict also forced thousands to seek refuge in neighboring countries. In Rwanda the government army and rebel forces each slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians as they struggled to control the northwestern part of the country. Rebel forces, including soldiers and militia responsible for the 1994 genocide, affirmed their intention of “completing” the slaughter of Rwandese Tutsi. In addition, government and military authorities took into custody a growing number of persons suspected of rebel ties who were never seen or heard from again.

In Burundi, a new constitutional arrangement between the government and the leading opposition party followed by a peace agreement and projected cease-fire led to hopes that the four-year-old civil war in that country might be brought to an end. Factions of some of the parties that signed the agreement disavowed it, however, and attacks by rebels and reprisals by the military continued, particularly in the western part of Burundi. As elsewhere on the continent, civilians bore the brunt of suffering in this conflict, through attacks by both sides and through deprivation of food, medical attention, and other services disrupted by the combat and economic decline.

The odds worsened for Angola’s peace process and the country seemed dangerously close to renewed war. As a result, the chances of any turnaround regarding the plight of refugees and the internally displaced faded fast. Some 300,000 refugees in neighboring countries remained unrepatriated. The renewed belligerence caused further flows of refugees into the DRC, Namibia, and Zambia. By September Angola had an approximated 1.3 million internally displaced people. During 1998 alone, 142,000 newly internally displaced people were registered.

Lesotho was plunged into what appeared to be its worst crisis in its troubled post-independence history when South Africa and Botswana troops intervened to restore order after a long simmering dispute concerning the elections in May. Lesotho’s capital Maseru and surrounding towns were seriously damaged by looting and arson, largely carried out by civilians. Up to one hundred soldiers and civilians died, and thousands of refugees were sent scurrying across the border into South Africa.

Political Islam continued to have a presence in Africa, not only in the self-described Islamic Republic of Sudan (installed after a military coup overthrew an elected government in 1989) but also in political-religious and sometimes armed movements in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere. The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea accused Sudan of supporting, arming and training Islamist rebel groups to oppose them; the Ugandans accused Sudan of supporting Ugandan rebels. Sudan, in turn, accused these three governments of supporting several Sudanese rebel groups. In late 1998 Sudan and Uganda were accusing each other of bombing the other and sending troops in to the other’s soil.

On August 7, bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In the Nairobi bombing alone, more than 200 were killed and thousands injured. The U.S. blamed dissident Saudi extremist Usama bin Laden for these outrages, but largely dissipated sympathy generated by the attacks by bombing in response a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan which the U.S. alleged was being used for the manufacture of chemical weapons and in which bin Laden, a resident of Sudan until 1996, was alleged to have a financial interest. On the same day, August 20, the U.S. also bombed what it alleged were Islamist training camps in Afghanistan sponsored by bin Ladin. It later emerged that the evidence that the factory had been used to make chemical weapons, and that bin Laden had an interest in the factory, was less certain than had originally been portrayed. On August 25, the “Planet Hollywood” restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa, was also bombed without warning, killing one and injuring over twenty-five. Responsibility for the blast was claimed in the name of a “Muslims Against Global Oppression.”




The Democratic Republic of Congo







Sierra Leone

South Africa





Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch