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African Leaders and Repression Seem Inseparable

Barring a few exceptions, the African continent is littered with despots whose insatiable thirst for power knows no decency or respect for human rights.

Ugandans and indeed the international community watch on as nearly two months of tension-stoked drama gets a brief interlude with the adjournment of the treason case brought against the music star and opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi. Popularly known by his stage name Bobi Wine, Kyagulanyi has made headlines after being court martialed for having allegedly pelted stones at President Yoweri Museveni’s convoy during a by-election campaign in the town of Arua.

While in military custody, his lawyers reported he had been tortured, a claim that seems supported by Wine’s appearance in court on crutches, visibly in pain. In brazen disregard for the rule of law, he was cleared by the military court on weapons charges, but almost immediately rearrested and transferred to a civilian court to face treason charges. He had since been released on bail and allowed to travel to the US for treatment, but the treason charge carries a death penalty, and Wine has vowed not to back down in his quest for justice and freedom.

His arrest triggered widespread protests, with civil society organizations, opposition politicians and international organizations calling for his immediate release. As a result, Wine’s rising popularity, especially among young people, is increasingly becoming a headache for the Museveni administration.

Autocratic Democracy

Wine’s case is the latest example of a ravenous scourge that has bedeviled the African continent: high-handed tyrants masquerading under the pretext of commitment to democratic values while pursuing their hegemonic agenda. Dissenting voices are often meted the same treatment as Wine, most of whom are speaking up for press freedom, anti-absolutism, anti-corruption, transparency and government accountability. While some leaders use this as a tactic to cow the opposition into silence, others have gained a reputation in making it an official state policy, sometimes with open support from Western governments.

Wine is not alone in this ordeal. In the south of the African continent, Zambian security forces are gearing up to rearrest opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema before 2019. He had been first arrested in April 2017 for plotting to overthrow the government simply because his convoy failed to make way for President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade. However, Hichilema’s actual crime was his refusal to recognize Lungu as president, alleging irregularities in and the rigging of the 2016 elections that extended his rule. Even Amnesty International described him (and the five others accused) as “victims of longstanding persecution” by authorities who face charges designed to “harass and intimidate.”

Across North Africa, varying degrees of repression exist, but one country has taken it to alarmingly high levels — Egypt. Deposing the duly-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in a brute military coup and taking over in sham elections were a child’s play in President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s long list of abominable credentials. Six weeks after the overthrow of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood government, he supervised the most brutal massacre in Egypt’s recent political history, killing over 800 people near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo.

What followed is even more bizarre. Over 700 people are currently standing trial on charges ranging from murder to incitement to violence, all in connection with the massacre. Morsi is also serving a 20-year jail term, having been convicted for the killing of protesters during demonstrations in 2012. On top of this, he has bagged another 25 years for spying for Qatar in a separate case, and has had a death sentence overturned (for retrial) in yet another case.

Ironically, Sisi’s administration seems to get pats on the back from Western governments, which has emboldened it to do more. Of course, discarding human rights advocacy for regional interests has long been a trademark of the West. Not a word of condemnation came from the US and major European governments over the initial coup he effected and benefited from. It only took the arrest and sentencing of three prominent journalists working for the Qatari-based international news channel Al Jazeera — Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed — to evoke some reaction, apparently due to the former two being Australian and Canadian respectively. As you read this, another Al Jazeera journalist, Mahmoud Hussein, has spent over 20 months in Egyptian detention facilities without charge on grounds of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos.”

The same can be said of the Western part of the continent where former military dictator-turned-democrat Muhammadu Buhari is now the president of Nigeria. Early last year, the Nigerian police raided a popular online news outlet, Premium Times, and arrested its editor-in-chief and a reporter. The raid came a day after the website rebuffed requests by the army to retract stories published about its operations. Expectedly, the official police explanation was that they were acting on a complaint filed by the military’s most senior officer, the chief of army staff. It is noteworthy that this same army went on a killing spree in December 2015, murdering more than 300 people in cold blood for blocking the convoy of the said army chief, Lieutenant-General Tukur Yusuf Buratai.

In Nigeria’s south, journalist Jones Abiri recently gained freedom after spending two years in detention without trial for links to armed militancy in the Niger Delta region, an allegation he denies.

Holding Tyrants Accountable

The list is inexhaustible. Barring a few exceptions, the entire continent is littered with despots whose insatiable thirst for power knows no decency or respect for human rights and dignity.

Museveni’s quest to consolidate power is the very foundation of Bobi Wine’s travails. Uganda’s constitutional court had in July validated a law scrapping the presidential age limit of 75 years, a ruling potentially allowing Museveni to extend his three-decade hold on power, with Wine the staunchest opposition and most vocal critic. Aside from that, the by-election in Arua was eventually won by an independent candidate, Kassiano Wadri, whom Wine supported. In fact, it was the third parliamentary by-election Museveni’s party had lost to the opposition in which Bobi Wine played a key role.

Ironically, the United States backs Museveni as the bastion of stability in East Africa just as it supports Sisi in the north. This invidious duplicitousness from the West calls to question its commitment to upholding freedom and civil liberties across the African continent.

But while diplomatic condemnations have worked in mitigating this anomaly — such as the successful campaign by Australia and Canada to free the Al Aljazeera journalists — citizen engagement, free press and pressure from activists has proven to be just as effective. Wine and Abiri both secured freedom after public outcry by citizens and the local media in both countries, with the international media and human rights organizations also playing a strong part. But until the West sorts out its double-faced disposition, the African citizenry and media should hold its tyrants accountable.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.