Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map HRW/Africa



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Africa Overview Reassuring Omens, Bold Visions

On May 13, 2000, the Economist, the venerable and influential magazine of the global English-speaking political classes, dubbed the continent "Hopeless Africa." Yet beyond the ubiquitous images of mayhem, positive, though less "newsworthy," changes were evolving at the societal level. Thanks to discernible changes in public attitudes and less willingness to accept the inevitability of authoritarian rule, it was at the grassroots that the most promising battles were being waged for a more humane Africa. Human rights groups, churches, academics, and other civil society activists demonstrated an uncommon resolve, courage and willingness to put their lives on the line to resist repression and lead the push among nongovernmental actors for transparency, participation, and accountability.

The indignant demand for more democracy came against a backdrop of deterioration and decay in the quality and performance of public institutions, in their ability to produce the results that people demanded and would respect. Demands for change resonated with the public at large, including sectors of society that were only tenuously tied to the system, with little access to employment, food, health care, education, or other benefits that government was supposed to bring. But their aspirations bumped up against governments that had been unable to provide political and social progress. As the pressure built up during the year, governments in a number of countries began to pay more attention as concepts of transparency and accountability took hold.

The phenomenal transition in Zimbabwe was the most dramatic illustration of a yearning for democracy and human rights, and of the dogged determination of civil society actors to engineer and orchestrate reform. Not so long ago the prospect of Zimbabwe's ruling party losing a referendum vote and coming close to losing control of parliament would have bordered on the surreal. But that was precisely what happened. First, the Zimbabwean electorate voted down a government-sponsored constitution at a referendum in April, and two months later the ruling party-that had been thought unassailable-came close to losing its parliamentary majority. The June elections came in the wake of a period of unprecedented violence in which supporters of the ruling party reportedly killed nineteen people, including white farmers and opposition politicians, beat up hundreds more, raped dozens of women, and occupied more than one thousand commercial farms. At the vanguard of pressure for change was a coalition of nongovernmental forces that confronted the powers that be, questioning not only their efficacy but also their legitimacy. This was an insurrection of courageous academics, high school teachers, priests, students, lawyers, judges, citizens, all seeking to move their country closer to the ideals of democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law. They rose to that task very effectively and pulled off a people-power revolution that achieved astonishing gains in a short span of time.

The organizational effectiveness of the Zimbabwe groups was considerably helped by two factors: a popular backlash, especially among the urban electorate, against persistently high levels of unemployment, poverty, corruption; and an infusion of talent and organizing capabilities that rapidly professionalized the ranks of the civil society coalition and later the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Sophisticated and adroit, the opposition became highly effective media operators, ensuring a forceful projection of their message both at home and abroad. It did not lead to a change in government, but it marked a big step along the way.

As developments in Zimbabwe heralded bolder, increasingly courageous grassroots movements, the Ivory Coast too saw changes towards greater empowerment of nongovernmental forces, and renewed engagement of the Ivorian people. In massive demonstrations sparked by a controversial presidential election, thousands of Ivorians spilled onto the streets of Abidjan to force the Ivorian president General Guei from power. Moreover, in the general uprising, voters in the northern power base of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara largely boycotted the elections. Despite harsh repression under General Guei since his coup, and even in the face of intense gunfire, protesters demonstrated across Abidjan, storming state radio and television stations in what appeared to be a spontaneous popular revolution. This "people power revolution" was set off by mass dissatisfaction with Guei's attempts to rig and steal the elections, and also with an earlier court ruling that excluded two major political opposition figures from the presidential election.

Equally undaunted were civil society and human rights groups in the rebel-held eastern provinces of North and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Although the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) authorities sought to limit the many and vigorous actors, civil society groups struggled to maintain their rights to free expression and association, serving as a channel for criticizing the RCD and its Rwandan allies. In addition to dozens of human rights associations, there were uncounted development and humanitarian nongovernmental groups, activist churches, and independent journalists. Although the rebel authorities and their Rwandan allies resorted to such tactics as physical assault, arbitrary arrest, and detention, activists courageously persevered to maintain the only line of defense against glaring human rights abuses by self-styled liberators.

In DRC's southern neighbor Zambia, a less dramatic but nonetheless crucial development took place during the country's World Bank Consultative Group (CG) meeting. For the first time in Africa, a transparent CG meeting where all deliberations were open to independent human rights and civil society activists was convened in Lusaka in July. Building upon the experience of a previous CG meeting in Malawi when a select number of NGOs were invited to a session on human rights and governance, the Bank and a number of bilateral donors used it as a precedent to persuade the Zambian authorities of the benefits of opening up the discussions. After strenuous objections to the participation of human rights and civil society activists, Zambia's Minister of Finance Katele Kalumba relented and agreed to have the entire meeting opened to civil society groups, both local and international, including traditionally tightly closed sessions. The human rights performance of the government was openly discussed during the meeting in the presence of NGOs. This was a significant opening given the strategic importance of a World Bank Consultative meeting to an aid-dependent government like Zambia. Seemingly, the success of the Lusaka meeting was due to good teamwork between Zambia's bilateral donors, and a new, more open team at the World Bank-reflecting a softening of the World Bank's compartmentalization of poverty reduction versus human rights, and some risk-taking by the Zambian government.

War-torn Angola also showed signs of pressure for change. With an eye to forthcoming elections, seventeen minor opposition parties met in May to fashion an alliance to foster opposition to the war, and advocate free and fair elections. Concurrently, Angola's churches-known to command the largest base of support in the country-formed a joint body to champion peace and national reconciliation. In Sudan too, in the face of overwhelming security obstacles, the New Sudan Council of Churches' "People-to-People" reconciliation process held a meeting in May in conflict-ridden southern Sudan, of people on the east bank of the Nile, despite overwhelming ethnic and military impediments. The May meeting sought to build upon the positive results of the west bank March 1999 meeting.

There were other interesting trends in Senegal, Eritrea, and Somalia. In Senegal, the electorate rejected President Abdou Diouf in his quest for a fourth consecutive term. Following a highly competitive March election, Diouf peacefully conceded defeat to veteran opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade who took almost 60 percent of the votes cast. Diouf, head of the party that had governed Senegal since independence fromFrance in 1960, became only the third elected African head of government to leave office following an election. Prior to the elections, Senegal set another precedent in February 2000, when a Senegalese court indicted Chad's exiled former dictator, Hissein Habré, on torture charges and placed him under house arrest. It was the first time that an African had been charged with atrocities in his own country by the court of another African country and represented a major step toward promoting the rule of law and breaking the cycle of impunity in Africa. But Senegal somewhat tarnished its reputation when its judiciary dropped charges against Habré under what seemed to be questionable circumstances. An appeal by Chad's torture victims was still pending at this writing.

In Eritrea, although decision-making remained tightly controlled within the governing People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the sole party operating in the country since the country became formally independent in 1993, there were signs of possible openings. The constitution guaranteed freedom of expression and the press, but the government severely restricted those rights. The government owned all the broadcasting media, and the only printing press in the country. But following military setbacks in the war with Ethiopia during the first half of 2000, and the catastrophic displacement of almost a third of the Eritrean population as a result of that war, the pressure mounted for a genuine implementation of the constitution. An intense debate was reportedly taking place in Eritrean elite circles, behind closed doors, on how and why the country went to war in the first place. Questions were reportedly also being raised on the conduct of Eritrean diplomacy during several unsuccessful rounds of negotiations to end the war. Probably in a concession to the mounting tide for change, the Eritrean National Assembly concluded its thirteenth session on October 2 by announcing that multiparty elections would be held in December 2001. The assembly formed a committee to draft regulations to govern political parties. Also in the aftermath of the war, about a dozen private newspapers and magazines started publication. The Eritrean government also softened the severe restrictions it had imposed in 1998 on foreign NGOs that had denied them any operational role, and limited their contribution to the health and education sectors, through government channels and approved programs. Facing a complex disaster resulting from war and drought, the government invited back several international NGOs that had left the country to protest the policy. The government even ended its decade-long feud with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by inviting it to establish a delegation in Asmara soon after the war broke out. In midyear, the Eritrean government ratified the Geneva Conventions.

Even the sickest man of Africa, Somalia, showed prospects of renewal. After descending into a maelstrom of warring regions and factions since the 1991 ouster of the late ex-President Barre, Somalia had been without a national government. But following the Intergovernmental Authority (IGAD)-backed national reconciliation conference in August to discuss a peace plan put forward by Djibouti's President Ismael Omar Guelleh, a new transitional government was put in place. Shedding past fears, tens of thousands of Somalis staged demonstrations in the capital, Mogadishu, and other cities in support of President Guellah's peace proposals. President Salad Hassan subsequently reclaimed Somalia's U.N. seat and addressed the U.N. Millennium Conference in New York.

The most important question for Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia, or Somalia-and by association, for Africa-was whether the changes would prove more than cyclical upturns. To the degree that developments mirrored a change in the public's state of mind, and a perception that they could influence the composition of a government and its policies, it appeared that the human rights advances would endure. These developments were driven by a combination of greater pressures on government and the gathering force of globalization, with Internet communications playing a growing role. As communications became close to instantaneous across international boundaries, African electorates, with nongovernmental forces at the vanguard as in Zimbabwe, became increasingly well informed and able to demand higher standards of governance. These developments would hardly change the face of Africa overnight. But they showed what could be done by ordinary people despite massive repression. The information revolution could in time accelerate political transformation and alter the political and human rights landscape in Africa and beyond.

Such challenges to the power base of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a longtime and controversial strongman, the warlords in Somalia, or the rebel forces in the DRC, could help sway many who would otherwise have felt that the task was too daunting. But the durability of the courage and determination of civil society to bring change would remain in doubt in the absence of substantial financial and diplomatic support from abroad. Under the best of circumstances, civil society and other advocates of change would have a hard time challenging wrongs that had gone on for decades, presided over by entrenched regimes often with substantial foreign support. The lesson for the international donor community was that institutions and policy decisions that led to human rights abuses were not intractable and inevitable. Investments in civil society initiatives would help ensure that the momentum generated by the events of 2000 was sustained and would embolden those seeking to influence and change institutions and policies-though progress would quite likely be painfully slow. The international community should be generous.

Staying the Course in a Tempest-Tossed Climate

Other good news from Africa was that two sub-Saharan giants-Nigeria and South Africa-continued to make the transition to democracy, albeit on somewhat bumpy courses. Botswana, Ghana, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Namibia also maintained steady growth. In particular, Mozambique's record was remarkable. Despite being pummeled by cyclone-driven floods, the worst in living memory, and severe tensions spawned by the 1999 December presidential and parliamentary elections, Mozambique was once again on its feet with the fastest growing economy in the world.

Still, the premier case for Africa remained decidedly focused on South Africa. The country continued to benefit from a holdover of political virtue derived from its political and constitutional transformation from apartheid to a constitutional democracy-despite the stormy political climate engendered by the crisis in Zimbabwe that threatened to engulf the entire sub-region. South Africa's rebound continued to be driven by responsible governmental actions in most areas of public policy. The constitutional framework was strengthened by passage of major legislation mandated under the 1996 constitution: the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Promotion of Access to Information Act, the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, and Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act. The National Assembly also passed legislation giving protection to "whistle blowers" disclosing information in the public interest. In a landmark September judgment on economic and social rights, the Constitutional Court found that the government had an obligation under the constitution to provide short-term housing for several hundred people evicted from their homes and in desperate need.

But though its achievements remained impressive, South Africa was not out of the woods. The growth, employment, and redistribution (GEAR) program implemented in previous years still failed to bring economic growth to some sectors of society, which had barely benefitedor had even fallen further behind since 1994, leading to disagreement between the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies in the labor movement. In particular, joblessness remained intractably above 30 percent. There were other major problems: crime rates remained shockingly high; "taxi violence" between competing operators of minibus taxis remained a crime control riddle; violence against women, including sexual violence, remained alarmingly uncontrolled, with very high numbers of reported rapes; reports of police corruption and brutality were common during the year; and, despite over-congested prisons, the criminal justice system seemed unable to cope. Despite policies and laws designed to bring transformation to all sectors, implementation sometimes seemed a distant dream. The government's credibility and effective leadership also risked being undermined by conflict between health professionals and President Mbeki, who had controversially expressed doubt as to the link between HIV and AIDS, and the government's decision not to supply anti-retroviral drugs to HIV positive pregnant women to prevent transmission of the virus to their babies. Nonetheless, the ANC-led government continued to hold extraordinary political capital and the transformation program seemed broadly on course.

In Nigeria, Africa's most populous state and the economic heartland of the subregion, the military remained in the barracks. Viewed from the perspective of President Bill Clinton's two-day August visit, it seemed that Nigeria had much to celebrate. But after what some saw as a year of waffling by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a number of political worries tempered any optimism. Yes, things had changed, but the question was whether enough had changed. Little had been done to address serious and deep-rooted problems such as the unrest in the Niger Delta, secessionist demands from the southwest, high unemployment, the collapse of social services, and school closures. With worsening economic conditions and government failures to deliver any benefit from democracy, popular fatigue provided fuel for communal violence at flashpoints throughout the country. The declaration by several northern states that Islamic Sharia law would be extended to criminal law sparked deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians. The uncertainty caused by all these problems seriously damaged the country's prospects for desperately needed economic rejuvenation and for sustaining and deepening its democracy. Many ascribed much of the blame to Obasanjo-though the challenges he faced were more institutional than personal. He was accused of being reluctant and incapable of dealing firmly with important issues, including the bickering between the president and the legislature that seemed to have distracted attention from the need to make real progress.

Nonetheless, the good news was that none of those factors seemed likely to blunt the fundamental forces that had driven the switch from military rule to civilian government. The passage to democracy would be rough but would stay the course. A crucial element was that the major international actors kept their faith in Nigeria's democracy experiment. Would the armed forces risk making a bad situation worse by staging a coup? Given Nigeria's status as a bellwether for the region as a whole, the international response would be far from sanguine. The military would risk sharp international censure. The chances were that the military would probably not wish to turn the clock back. In the long term, nothing could do more to secure Nigeria's democracy than a decisive break with its past: constitutional reform to provide an agreed framework for the representation of Nigeria's disparate communities, the overhauling of a ramshackle legal and governmental structure, and human rights reforms to underpin the rule of law, accountability, and transparency.

Emblems of Bad Old Habits

While democracy was strengthened in select African countries, parts of the continent remained mired in authoritarianism, brutalized politics, and violent conflicts. At least thirteen nations in the region were engaged either in open conflict or heated disputes, some with internal groups and some with neighboring states, spawning large-scale forced migration and abuses of civilians either directly targeted or caught in crossfire. Ethnically inspired violence spread in Senegal's Casamance, the Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and other regions, proving that self-serving political elites continued to play the ethnic or nationalist card in an effort to consolidate their power at the expense of civilian casualties. Even in countries such as Nigeria, where the government has worked to counter the negative use of ethnicity and religion by forces outside of the government, ethnic strife remained a concern. Several countries that had benefited from the wave of democratization with the promise of more participation, transparence, and accountability in the early 1990s saw tightening control and shrinking political space.

One electoral process after another stumbled into difficulty. Electoral manipulation, government spending to support its own candidates, and the pervasive pro-government bias of most local media left electoral landscapes badly tilted in favor of incumbents-despite the now ubiquitous presence of election observers and their ritualized post-election reports. Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia saw stagnation or regression.

In Ivory Coast, sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest economy, soldiers launched a coup that brought to power a strongman, General Robert Guei, on December 24, 1999, and clobbered Ivory Coast's standing as a stable financial and political power. The new military regime was expected to come under pressure to make good on its pledge to move quickly toward democracy and demonstrate more openness than the previously entrenched regime of ex-President Henri Konan Bedie. But such expectations were quickly dashed as General Guei deliberately sought to disqualify his key rivals for the presidency in the October 22 elections. As widely expected, President of the Supreme Court Tia Kone announced on October 6 the disqualification of twelve presidential hopefuls-including Alassane Dramane Ouattara, leader of the Rassemblement des Republicains (RDR), the main opposition party-and the approval of only five-including Guei himself-ahead of the vote.

In another key country, the Kenyan state seemed to have run out of both money and ideas. The constitutional reform process which could have brought greater democratization remained unsettled. And yet the government of President Daniel arap Moi continued to block progress on promised reform. The political crisis was paralleled by a marked deterioration in the economic situation, caused by state fumbling and corruption. The standard of living for the average Kenyan continued to drop, and the year was typified by unprecedented electricity rationing and water shortages in the capital Nairobi and other cities. At the end of July, President Moi signed on to exceptionally exacting conditions in return for renewed International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending. Moi nominally committed himself to doing something desperately difficult: to change an immeasurably corrupt and authoritarian country.

Elsewhere in the sub-region, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won a victory in May's tightly controlled elections, two days after Ethiopia launched its largest military offensive against Eritrea. Allegations of fraud and violence marred these elections, particularly in rural areas. In Uganda, just four days after Zimbabwean voters defied massive intimidation to rebuke the de facto single party rule of President Mugabe, President Yoweri Museveni's de facto one-party system was extended in a referendum marked by poorvoter turnout. The choice in the referendum was whether to return to a multiparty system or to continue Museveni's favored so-called no-party system. Having called for a boycott of the referendum poll, the traditional opposition parties declared a moral victory, saying that the turnout of roughly 40 percent was too low for a mandate on a key constitutional and human rights issue. In the long term, the outcome could be that the no-party system might undermine the efforts to develop what was needed to sustain several of the positive changes that Museveni's Movement system had introduced. Of greatest concern was that behind the illusion of inclusion under the no-party system was a concentration of power in the ruling elite, high-level corruption, and mismanagement of resources.

In Rwanda, General Paul Kagame was selected by the National Assembly as president following the sudden resignations of the speaker of the national assembly, the prime minister, and the president within the first three months of the year. Two of the those of who had resigned their posts left the country, saying they feared for their lives. As Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, consolidated its power, it announced communal-level elections for late 2000, in which political parties could play no role. Zambia's poor performance on the democratization front undermined President Chiluba's credibility as a broker for peace and democracy in the DRC. Political parties, NGOs and other civic interest groups were regularly denied permission to assemble by the government's political and security apparatus or had their meetings violently broken up by police on public security grounds.

After a year-long lull in fighting, Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war again. On May 12, Ethiopia launched a massive attack against Eritrea and successfully recaptured disputed territories that Eritrea had occupied. The two-year conflict was estimated to have killed and wounded tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and uprooted nearly a million people. Displaced Eritreans fleeing the fighting credibly reported the involvement of the Ethiopian army in large-scale destruction and looting of civilian property, the harassment of civilians, particularly men of military age, and a high incidence of rape. On the home front, the Ethiopian government continued to face internal armed insurgencies in the Oromia and Somali regional states and other remote regions, and to hold without charge or trial thousands of people it suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents. By early 2000, Ethiopian authorities, citing broad threats to national security, had arbitrarily and harshly returned some seventy thousand Ethiopians of Eritrean parentage to Eritrea. For its part, the Eritrean government forced an estimated forty thousand Ethiopians back to Ethiopia in the months that followed the outbreak of hostilities. Eritrean authorities also interned thousands of Ethiopian residents under harsh conditions in the wake of Ethiopia's offensive in May, citing unspecified threats to national security.

Destructive wars persisted in Angola, DRC, Burundi, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and on the border between Liberia and Guinea. Noncombatants continued to bear the brunt of the interminable fighting. In the DRC it was 1999 redux: tangled webs of allies facing off in a devastating war with no end in sight. The conflict pitted the government of President Kabila, and allied troops from Zimbabwe, Angola and, Namibia, against the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), as a proxy for forces fielded by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. The RCD had split into two competing groups in May 1999, with the mainstream faction supported by Rwanda, and the other backed by Uganda. In the northern province Equateur, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) obtained military support from Uganda. Apparently fighting on the side of President Kabila's government were rural militia, known locally as the Mai-Mai; and predominantly Hutu fighters commonly known as Interahamwe. Human rights and humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the country as both government and rebel forces and their backers were reported involved in patterns of civilian killings and widespread rape of women, while government forces carried out indiscriminate shelling in Equateur. There was no improvement between 1999 and 2000. And yet there was no tangible progress in efforts to stop the ruinous war and its associated senseless killings: peace talks aimed at reviving the moribund peace deal signed in Lusaka in 1999 crumbled without an agreement on peace enforcement mechanisms amid mutual accusations of cease-fire violations.

The war in the Congo was increasingly closely linked to the seven-year civil war in Burundi as Kabila reportedly supplied more and more weapons for the Burundian rebel movement, Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), in return for its help in defending Lubumbashi. A Burundian peace agreement, promoted by former South African President Nelson Mandela and U.S. President Clinton, had no effect on the combat, which grew considerably in the months after its August signing. Although parties to the war increasingly fought a classic war, they also continued to target civilians, with more than a thousand killed by October. An estimated one hundred and fifty thousand persons have been killed since the start of the war. The FDD and a rival rebel movement talked of new peace negotiation in early November but set conditions which made an agreement appear unlikely.

In Angola, a series of major victories by the government that pushed the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) out of its strongholds in the central highlands of Angola in late 1999 raised expectations that the war might be nearing a decisive phase. At this writing, fierce fighting was raging, particularly in the areas close to the Zambian border, resulting in significant refugee inflows into Zambia. Human rights violations, a hallmark of the Angolan war, remained widespread and systematic. Disoriented and smarting from setbacks suffered at the hands of government forces, UNITA resorted to guerrilla attacks and indiscriminate killings.

As the country's ravaging seventeen-year war raged on, Sudan remained a blatant human rights abuser, while rebel groups committed their share of violations. The Khartoum government intensified its bombing of civilian targets in the war in the south and its efforts to hamper relief food operations to needy civilians. For its part, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the principal rebel movement in the country, continued to foster glaring abuses including looting of food and other provisions from the population, sometimes with civilian casualties; recruitment of underage boys; and rape. In the meantime, the government's war machine was poised to benefit substantially from new oil revenue. According to a government announcement, 20 percent of its 2000 revenue would be spent on defense, including an arms factory near Khartoum. It was estimated that following the first export of oil in August 1998, defense spending in dollars had increased 96 percent in two years.

In Sierra Leone, despite the Lomé Peace Accord signed on July 7, 1999 that committed the rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for representation in a new government, the war and its associated abuses continued, though at a lower intensity and with a reduction in the rebels' signature abuses, the amputation of limbs, for the first few months of the year. The May collapse of the peace process after the capture of some five hundred United Nations peacekeepers, reversed this trend and ushered in an increase of all classes of human rights abuses by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and other militias, including limb amputation, and a disturbing intensification of abuses by pro-government forces, against whom previous allegations had been few. Women were particularly targeted for sexual violence. In thousands of cases, rape and other forms of sexual violence were followed by the abduction of women and girls who were forced into bondage to male combatants in slavery-like conditions. If that was not enough, the war became increasingly regionalized, sucking Guinea and Liberia into a tangled web of cross-border attacks with devastating consequences for noncombatants and refugees living in border areas.

The Private Press: Beaten Back
But Not Cowed

The rapid growth of independent media endured, although the degree of media freedom differed widely. For the most part, levels of freedom corresponded with levels of democratic development. The Internet also dramatically enhanced the access and distribution capabilities of the independent press, fostering freer flows of information in general. Eroding governments' ability to control the press and manipulate facts, the Internet also relieved the financial stresses that many African news agencies faced. South Africa, Nigeria, Botswana, Mauritius, Mali, Senegal and some others generally continued to register high levels of media freedom. But in several countries, severe levels of intolerance persisted. Many a government seemed all too alert to the danger that a free flow of information in society could undermine their grip on power. During the year, there was a rampant use of intimidation, assaults and detention, banning and radio closures, prolonged prosecutions and libel suits, or economic coercion to silence independent media.

Despite an improved climate for freedom of expression in Angola, a campaign of harassment against journalists continued. The privately owned media was targeted, apparently because it had increased its investigative and critical posture. Since November 1999 at least six journalists had been convicted of libel or defamation by government officials. On December 10, the directors of Folha 8, and the privately owned weekly newspapers, Agora and Actual, were ordered by police to retract stories that concerned a report by the U.K.-based NGO Global Witness, saying the government had corruptly used oil revenues. For its part, the official media published detailed refutations of the Global Witness report. On July 27, the Angolan government signaled its intention to tighten further controls on the media when it published a draconian new draft media bill that guaranteed presidential immunity to criticism and would send journalists to prison for criticizing or questioning government officials. The bill would allow the government the right to decide on who could practice journalism, seize and ban publications, and to detain journalists for thirty days before charges were filed.

The independent media also continued to come under legal pressure in Zambia, where the trial of six journalists from the Post who were detained in March 1999 for publishing a story that criticized Zambia's military capability and preparedness in the face of a possible military attack from Angola dragged on. All the reporters, including editor-in-chief Fred M'membe, were charged with "espionage." All twelve pleaded not guilty to the charge, and on August 18, after repeated trial adjournment, the state dropped its charges against all except M'membe. An unexplained fire on September 3 at the Post offices damaged some U.S.$500,000 worth of equipment.

In South Africa, eyebrows were raised when more than thirty editors and writers were subpoenaed to appear before the South African Human Rights Commission to answer charges of racism. They were ordered to produce documents related to their editorial decisions, and the commission had the power to search their offices. The journalists could face fines or up to six months in jail if they failed to comply. The journalists stood their ground but offered to give evidence voluntarily if the subpoenas were withdrawn. Following a public outcry, the commission relented and withdrew the subpoenas. The hearings followed the release of an interim report commissioned by the Human Rights Commission and much criticized on methodological grounds, which found that the South African media was riddled with racism and racial stereotyping. The final report, which included material from the hearings, received a much more favorable reception, and included constructive recommendations to address these problems.

In Liberia, the year witnessed numerous incidents of detention and ill-treatment of journalists, a community under heavy attack since President Taylor took power in 1997. In March, Suah Dede, head of the Liberian Press Union, was briefly detained without charge after giving a radio interview condemning the closure of two radio stations. In April, Isaac Redd, radio broadcaster on the state radio station, was detained and held without charge for several days by the police. He was later accused of speaking against the president and charged with "criminal malfeasance." In August, four members of a foreign news film team, in Liberia to film a documentary, were arrested, charged with espionage, and detained for a week. The team had been given official permission to film in Liberia, but were accused of filming in restricted areas and seeking to damage the country's image by falsely linking President Charles Taylor to diamond smuggling. They were released following international pressure.

For its part, the Ethiopian government continued to abuse freedom of speech and of the press. At least twenty-seven journalists lived in exile at this writing, having fled their homeland due to repeated arrests, ill-treatment in detention, and the threat of extraordinarily high bail amounts. Eight reporters remained behind bars. In mid-August, sudden increases in printing costs, by more than a third, put additional pressures on some thirty-six private publications as well as the government press in Ethiopia. The private newspapers went on strike in September, and warned that the high production costs could eventually force them out of business. They urged the government to reduce taxation on imported paper and other print inputs.

In April, several journalists were assaulted in Zimbabwe. On April 22, a bomb shook the premises of privately owned Zimbabwean Daily News. On 6 April, Nyasha Nyakunu and Tsvangirai Mukwazhi, respectively editor and a photographer with the Daily News, were held for two hours by youths from the ZANU-PF armed with iron bars. A week earlier a photographer and a journalist with Agence France-Presse, and a cameraman from the British news agency Reuters had been threatened by about fifty men armed with machetes and iron bars.

In the DRC, scores of journalists were imprisoned apparently without legal justification. President Kabila's government had detained over 110 journalists and harassed many others since it took power in 1997. Private newspapers and radio and television stations were often shut down or banned from coverage of news deemed sensitive by the government. A special military court in mid-September sentenced two journalists to two years in prison for defying such directives. There were also numerous accounts of torture and other inhumane treatment. In Bukavu, the capital of rebel-held south Kivu province, photographer Jean Pierre Tanganyika, also known as Dudjo, was arrested after a grenade explosion on August 26 for having taken pictures of the injured victims at the scene. He was detained without formal charge at the local army barracks, briefly released on September 16, and rearrested again on the same day. His whereabouts remained unknown.

Aware that a large proportion of the population relied on radio for news, governments sought to silence independent radio broadcasting. The government-owned radio station provided the only news broadcasts heard by most Liberians. Two independent radio stations came under attack in March 2000: Star Radio and Radio Veritas, the radio station of the Catholic Church. Star Radio was forcibly closed, and remained so at this writing. At the beginning of October, the Zimbabwe police shut down Capital Radio, an independent radio station, and seized its equipment. The station began broadcasting after the Supreme Court ruled that Zimbabwe's broadcast monopoly was inconsistent with the country's constitutional provisions regarding the fundamental right to freedom of expression. President Mugabe's government then promulgateda presidential order outlawing private broadcasting without state approval. According to the police, Capital Radio had breached that order. At this writing, the station's legal action disputing the legality of the government's actions was still pending. In Kenya, however, several independent television and FM radio stations began broadcasting in 2000, obtaining licences after applications made several years earlier, some as far back as 1992. The growth of the independent broadcast sector resulted in a notable expansion in the airing of differing opinions, particularly on radio. These licences were, however, restricted principally to urban areas.

More Human Fallout

The massive numbers of displaced persons in Africa remained a major human rights catastrophe. As of January 2000, there were 6.3 million Africans of concern to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), from an estimated 22.3 million worldwide. Of the top twenty countries from which people fled from around the world, eight were in Africa. Eleven African states hosted refugee populations of 100,000 or more. The figures were equally striking in terms of internally displaced populations (IDPs): eight African countries were among the twenty countries with the largest internally displaced populations. Indeed, in several African countries, as in Sierra Leone, armed groups purposefully uprooted civilians, creating massive populations of refugees and IDPs in order to forward political or military objectives with little or no regard for human suffering.

Sudan alone had approximately four million IDPs-the largest IDP population in the world. Angola's growing IDP population stood at some 2.5 million. The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resulted in massive internal displacement, particularly in Eritrea where 1.5 million people were uprooted, including 90,000 who sought refuge in neighboring Sudan. Hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo resulted in the displacement of 1.6 million people, one million of whom had little or no access to humanitarian assistance with dire consequences. The U.N. reported that infant mortality among the displaced was the highest in the region, and that maternal mortality was the highest in the world. Some of the longest and most forgotten refugee crises were on the African continent, with recurring refugee movements caused by conflicts spilling over into neighboring countries. Refugee crises in Africa invariably affected a whole subregion-and sometimes beyond.

The Horn of Africa countries continued to be producers and receivers of refugees simultaneously. And in West Africa, the interlocking conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea affected populations in all three nations. Balancing national security concerns with the obligation to provide safe asylum and protection to refugees was one of the most challenging issues for host governments in Africa. Internal conflicts alarmingly spilled across borders into neighboring countries, resulting in greater militarization of refugee settlements by armed elements, weapons flows, cross-border attacks, forced recruitment of refugee children, and rape and other physical attacks on refugee women and children in camps. The security risk increasingly associated with hosting refugees from intractable regional conflicts resulted in a growing unwillingness by host governments to provide asylum and protection. Xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment continued to grow, even in countries with a generous history of hosting those fleeing conflict. The failure by African governments and the international community to separate out combatants from refugees in the camps exacerbated the problem and made refugee camps more likely targets for attack.

For example, in September, tensions rose between Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, each accusing the other of supporting rebel activity. Guinea, one of the largest refugee hosts in Africa, intermittently closed its border with Sierra Leone, fearful of incursions by Sierra Leonean rebels. In September, an inflammatory public statement by the president of Guinea provoked widespread rapes and other attacks by Guinean police, soldiers, and civil militias against Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

Current Events

The Latest News - Archive




Democratic Republic of Congo

Federal Republic of Ethiopia






Sierra Leone

South Africa





Copyright © 2001
Human RIghts Watch