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(Johannesburg) – Elections held throughout sub-Saharan Africa in 2011 signaled a growing formal commitment to democratic rule, but Africa’s leaders deployed violence and curtailed rights during election periods and beyond to hold on to power, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012.

During 2011, presidential elections were held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zambia, among other sub-Saharan African countries. State security forces in the DRC and Uganda used excessive force against opposition party supporters, and targeted journalists, opposition party candidates, and civil society activists, as well as ordinary citizens. At least 42 people were killed in the DRC in the days before and soon after the voting, in some cases as a result of soldiers shooting at groups of alleged opposition supporters. In some countries, the difficult aftermath of 2010 elections resounded throughout 2011.

“This past year demonstrated the desire of so many Africans to choose their own leaders peacefully and fairly,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Sadly, the votes were often marred by government intimidation, army and police abuses, and conflict incited by politicians. Unless these grave problems are remedied, Africans are likely to see more of the same in future elections.”

In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

In Africa, after Côte d’Ivoire held a presidential run-off in November 2010, former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down following his electoral loss to Alassane Ouattara. That sparked six months of violence in which at least 3,000 people were killed. Gbagbo is now awaiting trial in The Hague by the International Criminal Court (ICC), reflecting the extended reach of international justice. However, no effort has been made to punish serious crimes by forces loyal to President Ouattara either in Côte d’Ivoire or at the ICC.

Nigeria’s elections in April 2011 were heralded by many as the fairest in the nation’s history. Still, at least 165 people were killed in campaign violence, and the presidential election set off rioting and sectarian killings in northern Nigeria that left more than 800 dead. Nigeria has not brought to justice those responsible for these crimes.

Guinea and Burundi held elections in 2010, but developments in 2011 showed the need to strengthen their justice systems, rein in chronically abusive members of the security services, and resist the tendency to evolve into one-party states. In Rwanda, intolerance of political opposition was unchanged since the 2010 elections. Kenya, while formally cooperating with the ICC, undertook a series of legal and political maneuvers to prevent prosecutions of six political and opinion leaders accused of fomenting violence around its 2007 elections.

Sudan held a referendum for southern independence in January 2011, when southerners voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north after two decades of war under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement. South Sudan formally gained independence in July, making it Africa’s 54th country, one that faces enormous political and economic challenges. Although South Sudan seceded relatively peacefully, Sudanese government forces attacked civilians in the disputed border area of Abyei and in two volatile states – Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan – that lie north of the border with the South. Sudan’s government also carried out new attacks on civilians in Darfur. President Omar al-Bashir faces an outstanding arrest warrant from the ICC for atrocities in Darfur.

Throughout the year, armed conflict and humanitarian crises battered Somalia, northern and eastern DRC, and parts of Sudan, intensifying economic hardship and necessitating international peacekeeping by the United Nations and African Union. In South Sudan alone, more than 2,600 people were killed in the fighting. In Somalia, the media reported some 2,500 casualties; undoubtedly, there were more. Human Rights Watch called on these governments, international forces, and opposition armed groups to end abuses by their forces. Governments should investigate and hold accountable those responsible for war crimes. International forces in particular need to devote more energy to protecting civilians from violence and assisting the internally displaced, Human Rights Watch said.

The United States in 2011 sent 100 military advisers to assist regional forces engaged in military operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a highly abusive Ugandan rebel group now operating in northeastern DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Kenya and Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to quell al-Shabaab, an Islamist armed group that has imposed harsh rule on large swathes of the country.

“Africa’s armed conflicts are being fought by all sides with little regard for the civilian population,” Bekele said. “Inter-governmental bodies and influential countries should be devoting greater efforts to protecting civilians from the full range of wartime harms.”

The fulfillment of economic and social rights in sub-Saharan Africa remained a great challenge, Human Rights Watch said. Despite stated government commitments to maternal and child health, high rates of childbirth-related deaths and injuries persisted without remedy in countries like South Africa and Kenya, which have the resources to provide better care. Access to children’s health care services is insufficient across the continent, including in Kenya.

Other resource-rich countries like Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Nigeria, and Guinea invested little of their revenue in social welfare or to tackle corruption, at the expense of their residents’ social and economic rights. Rwanda and Ethiopia appeared to make progress on some development indicators. But in both countries, repressive governments cracked down on domestic human rights workers and jailed journalists, opposition party members, and other perceived critics.

A growing number of countries, particularly China and India, deepened their involvement on the continent. While these countries’ rising investment offered economic opportunities for African governments and people, it also raised concerns for particularly disadvantaged populations. In South Sudan and Ethiopia, for instance, land used by local farmers was being forcibly reallocated to investors for commercial agriculture, which could undermine food security.  

The mistreatment of workers in Chinese-owned copper mines in Zambia and the exposure of child laborers to mercury in Malian gold mines highlighted the need for more robust protection of workers from dire occupational hazards. African governments, notably, played a leading role in creating an international convention to regulate the treatment of domestic workers. The mistreatment of child domestic workers is an endemic problem on the continent.

The “Arab Spring” reverberated quietly in sub-Saharan Africa as people tried to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression. Without a great deal of international fanfare, protests against authoritarian rule, political injustice, and economic concerns were held in Angola, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, Sudan, Swaziland, and Uganda. All but the protests in Kenya were violently suppressed.

In Zimbabwe, where elections are slated for 2012, the authorities jailed activists for watching a film about the events in the Middle East; many Zimbabweans suffered harassment and arbitrary detention. In Senegal, also gearing up for an election in 2012, there were protests against proposed constitutional changes that would strengthen the president’s hold on power. The government cracked down on civil society leaders, a worrying sign in a country often held up as a model of stable democracy in Africa. In South Africa, another beacon on the continent, the parliament voted to enact the Protection of Information Bill, which threatens to curtail freedom of expression and public access to information if the measure enters into force.

“The Arab Spring showed the world how much the people of the Middle East and North Africa want to be treated with dignity and respect,” Bekele said. “Sub-Saharan Africans have the same aspirations. Governments there and elsewhere need to heed their concerns.” 

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