Each year on May 25 Africans around the globe celebrate Africa Day. The day commemorates the founding of the first union of African countries in 1963. Birgit Schwarz talks to Human Rights Watch’s Africa advocacy director, Carine Kaneza Nantulya, about what Africa Day means to her, how far the continent has come since the founding of the union, and what it will take to make this year’s theme of “creating conducive conditions for Africa's development” a reality in midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is the significance of Africa Day for Africans?
Africa Day is an opportunity for Africans to remember that on May 25, 1963, 32 African countries signed the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which later evolved into the African Union (AU). Only 30 of them were independent from colonial rule at the time. The charter called for greater unity among African countries. It supported the independence of African countries from colonialism and apartheid and promoted economic and political cooperation with a vision that all people on the continent would live freely and in prosperity.
But Africa Day is also an opportunity to reflect on the progress made by the African Union in achieving its goals, especially with regard to protecting the human rights and freedoms of Africans.
What is the union’s vision today?
For almost two decades after the creation of the OAU, the focus of the organization remained almost entirely on the decolonization of the continent and the eradication of apartheid. By the time South Africa, led by Nelson Mandela, joined the AU in 1994 after the end of apartheid and the genocide in Rwanda, there were calls for greater protection of political refugees and abandonment of the principle of state sovereignty, which disallowed interference in each country’s internal affairs. Eventually this led to the dissolution of the OAU and the establishment, in 2002, of the AU.
Peace and security and regional integration became central pillars of the new AU. The AU’s Constitutive Act specifically commits the AU to intervene in civil wars within member states, including when there are clear indications of grave human rights abuses or war crimes and to impose sanctions. Moreover, it aims to promote democracy and good governance. These were tremendous changes after a period of devastating civil wars and grave human rights violations in the 1990s.
The vision today remains the same as in 1963: for Africa to achieve inclusive and sustainable development and to unite to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of their peoples. However, one of the most strategic pillars to get there, the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is to raise millions of people out of poverty, is yet to be realized. The infrastructure is not there, and even if it was, the free movement of goods and people is going to be difficult to realize in an environment where many governments don’t respect the rights of their citizens, including freedom of movement, association, and expression.
What have been some of the key achievements?
In 1981 the OAU Heads of States and Government unanimously adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The charter provides for the establishment of an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) to implement the rights guaranteed in the charter. This acceptance of a limitation on sovereign national authority on human rights matters was a significant step by African states.
The African continent is the only region that has a charter on children’s rights. The ACHPR which sits in Banjul, Gambia and the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, which started its work in 2006, have taken on several African governments on human rights issues. In 2017, for example, the court ruled that the Kenyan government had violated the rights of the Ogiek people by repeatedly evicting them from their ancestral lands in the Rift Valley. This was one of the first times that an African court recognized the right of Indigenous people to their land and natural resources.
The continent-wide campaign against child marriage, championed by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, has seen notable results. The stronger commitment towards eradication of harmful practices against women and girls, such as female genital mutilation, is another major achievement. And the right to universal primary education has been adopted by a growing number of countries, with some countries moving ahead to offer universal secondary education.
How much progress has been made in terms of democratization?
Democratization is a process. Some African leaders try to push back against growing calls for greater accountability and political pluralism, claiming that development should come first, freedom and human rights second. Ironically, the same argument was put forward by Africa’s colonizers.
Today there is new momentum on the continent: Many young people feel empowered to protest in the streets, from Sudan to Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo to Nigeria. The youth is speaking up. People are refusing to be subjugated. This is a consequence of investment in education and advances in digital technologies. These are young people who are well-educated, self-confident, have greater access to critical information, and express their frustrations using all tools available, including digital activism. For me this is a sign of progress. Of course, that is usually followed by repressive responses of autocratic leaders wanting to hold on to power. But we also have positive examples like Malawi where a dubious election was annulled by the courts following weeks of street protests.
What are some of the reasons why Africa’s socio-economic development still lags behind?
Communal violence and conflict is one, abusive terrorism and counterterrorism operations, weak rule of law institutions, election-related abuses, mismanagement and corruption that fuel high unemployment rates especially among the youth, poverty, and inequality are others. Failure to recognize basic economic and social rights – like the rights to food or health – as legal rights is another. The result is conflict-driven migration, underfunded and underperforming education and health systems, and underbudgeted social security programs, to name just a few. The global Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.
What will it take to create better conditions for development, especially in view of the pandemic?
It’s going to take leadership and the institutionalization of human rights. In the 1960s people protested against colonialism, and in the 1990s against abusive military dictatorships. Today they want an enabling environment in which their leaders respect their rights, including to criticize and peacefully protest bad leadership. To achieve this we need ethical leadership, independent institutions, accountability, and transparency.
The pandemic has exacerbated Africa’s socio-economic inequalities and exposed gaps in its health care and social protection systems. But it has also galvanized some leaders into action. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, former chair of the AU, and President Tshisekedi, the current AU chairperson, have conveyed the need for urgency in tackling the pandemic and spearheaded the global call for solidarity around universal and equitable access to vaccines. And the South African government, together with India, has championed an important proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rules to expand global access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments. The pandemic has been a wake-up call when it comes to investments in health and welfare infrastructure, too. But of course, the costs of the pandemic and the rising rate of countries’ indebtedness are a major concern for the continent’s future.
Even before the pandemic, sovereign debt across the sub-Saharan Africa was high. Now the continent faces a near $300bn deficit by the end of 2023 while trying to recover from a global economic downturn. Many African countries are at risk of debt distress. And up to 40 million people on the continent could fall into extreme poverty this year alone, according to forecasts by the African Development Bank.
What kind of Africa do ordinary Africans want?
It’s important for African leaders to promote a free and prosperous Africa that belongs to all – the woman who sells tomatoes by the side of the road, the child that lives in a rural area, or the innovative entrepreneur who has just embarked on a venture-backed start-up company. An Africa that does not just benefit a tiny group of leaders and their entourage. An Africa where governments do not prevent a girl from finishing her education just because she falls pregnant. An Africa where leaders are not afraid of criticism, where freedom of expression is seen as an asset, not a threat, and where governments can be held to account. In short, an Africa that represents and caters for African aspirations for human rights and human dignity.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.