Skip to main content

African Union must address silencing of dissent in Southern Africa

13 February 2023, Johannesburg – In light of the commencement of the 42nd Ordinary Session of the Executive Council and the 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between 15 and 19 February 2023, SALC notes with grave concern the growing trend of attacks against human rights defenders, political activists and journalists in the region.

In Eswatini, prominent human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, was brutally assassinated on 21 January 2023, hours after the monarch made threats against critics of his autocratic rule. The assassination came less than 30 days after an attempt on the life of another human rights lawyer in Eswatini, Maxwell Nkambule, who remains in hiding, fearing for his safety. It has further been almost two years since two elected members of parliament were taken into custody on what seems to be politically motivated terrorism charges after voicing their constituents’ concerns about the country’s governance.

In September 2022, authors Tsitsi Dangarembga and Julie Barnes were found guilty of contravening the Zimbabwe Criminal Code for participating in a “public gathering with intent to incite violence” and were sentenced to a suspended 6-month jail term. Their crime, participating in a peaceful protest and holding placards with the words, “We want better, reform our institutions” and “Free our journalists.” More recently, the police used force on a gathering of opposition party members and arrested 25 of them as the country gears up for elections.

The clampdown on peaceful protests by citizens voicing concerns over corruption, bad governance and the deteriorating economic and political crisis in the region has worsened. There is an increase in the violations of the right to freedom of expression for citizens with dissenting views and the use of arbitrary arrests against activists, journalists, and protesters. The continued harassment, targeting, violence, kidnapping, persecution, killings, and incarceration of those critical of their respective States spell a dark time for human rights in Africa. The African Union must find solutions to this trend and institute meaningful reforms to prevent States from wilfully criminalising dissent and, in some instances, attempting to silence voices of critique under the cloak of terrorism.

SALC calls on the African Union, on its 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly, to –

  1. Address the deteriorating state of civil and political rights in the region by ensuring Zimbabwe and Eswatini, in particular, comply with their obligations under the African Charter;
  2. Engage the Eswatini and Zimbabwe governments in advance of their national elections this year to ensure that they are conducted freely and fairly;
  3. Condemn the harsh response by its member States against those peacefully protesting and for political reforms;
  4. Ensure that States adhere to the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression; and
  5. Ensure adequate adherence to the African Union Agenda 2063, which envisions a universal culture of good governance, democratic values, gender equality, and respect for human rights, dignity, justice, and the rule of law.