Report Reveals Dreadful Human Rights Abuses in West Africa

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Flashback: Nigerian Defenders at the Virtual Conference to Validate the Baseline Assessment Report

“Oh God, my land has been forcibly taken from me! What will happen to me and my family at the moment”? A struggling man in lower Margibi County, Liberia cries out at the seizure of his land by a foreign rubber company. This story resonates with a mother who declared in a similar tone, “my heart also bled as I helplessly stared at my 6-year-old daughter as she slowly lost her life at the government hospital in Margibi after being gruesomely raped by a local government official in the county.” Who will believe a poor woman like me?

These familiar lamentations are heard mostly by ordinary people living on the margins of the society across West Africa. The accounts explicitly display how all too frequently, poor people suffer from a range of human rights violations including denial of livelihood, and destruction of property among others as contained in a baseline assessment report conducted on the plights of frontline grassroots defenders in the region. It is ironic how the West African subregion is rich in natural resources, yet the people and countries in the region are among some of the poorest and least developed in the world.

The Killings

Every day, everywhere, people in the subregion experience various human rights violations and abuses which require the intervention of Human Rights Defenders (lawyers, activists). Those HRDs put their lives on the line daily to ensure perpetrators of those human rights abuses are brought to justice. For instance, 212 individuals who are classified as environmental or land defenders by Global Witness were murdered in 2019 alone. This number does not include the lethal killings of tens of thousands of individuals, some of whom may be environmental and human rights defenders in West Africa, especially within the Sahel regions of Northern Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, where  Defenders, Indigenous Peoples  and activists described a phenomenon referred to as “The Death of the Sahara”  wherein communities and villagers facing the agony of the Climate Crisis, are held captives in a pentagonal death trap and a web of killings between competing actors: including government forces, paramilitary militias, criminal gangs and bandits, and extremist organizations.”

Ironically, the question that we normally fail to ask ourselves is, who defends the defenders? Essentially, human rights defenders are also human beings whose rights can be violated and abused as well. Their critical stance on rights issues across the region and elsewhere, particularly in defense of the minority, expose them to threats and danger, as the baseline assessment discovered. Who then comes to the rescue of the Defenders during these difficult times? How often do we highlight issues and challenges faced by defenders in the subregion and the world at large?

Labeling Defenders

The labeling of human rights defenders is only a fraction of what they must endure. Anti-development, anti-country and anti-investment among others names are assigned defenders, especially by state actors, who are the main perpetrators of violence against frontline defenders across West Africa.

“You are an enemy of the state, you are anti-development, you are an angry opposition, you are a hater to national growth and development, you are a terrorist and a saboteur” are some of the labels given to defenders by various governments for being critical of national issues. Advocates and activists are always blamed for scaring away investors and creating a bad image for the country internationally.

For instance, the former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in her annual message to the Liberian Legislature in January 2014, stated that NGOs are a “superstate structure undermining the sovereignty of Liberia.” As for the current administration, of President George Weah, journalists, activists and citizens who criticize the government, are branded as “enemies of the state.”

Investment or Enslavement?

One may ask, does foreign investment which is a key priority for many African governments really benefit the majority of the people or few individuals in government? Well, the latter may be true based on various reports. Most African governments cling to the cliche that direct foreign investment boosts their economies and creates jobs for ordinary people. The real truth is that those investments are mostly in the pockets of the elites.

However, there is little evidence that multinationals are positively contributing to the development of countries according to the baseline report. Rather than improving the lives of the ordinary people, multinationals and some officials of government are busy making profits, while the communities where such industries operate are becoming more disenfranchised and poorer. Several reports have shown how some foreign companies with the backing of the host government violate local community rights with impunity.

Protocols Guarantee no Deterrence

It is important to note that there are protocols and policies designed to protect HRDs worldwide. These policies include the United Nations Declaration on HRDs, the OEIGWG treaty, the Cotonou declaration, and the Table Mountain declaration among others. Despite these policies being put in place, there has been no significant improvement in the challenges confronting defenders, especially in West Africa, according to the baseline report.

The report reveals troubling trends in West Africa which show that Defenders are being killed, threatened, stigmatized, and harassed. As though that isn’t enough, HRDs are placed under surveillance both on and offline by governments. Arbitrary arrest and detention, frivolous criminal charges and unfair trials of defenders are the order of the day. Unlike Asia and Latin America, most of the abuses against defenders in the West African subregion do not have much media coverage and international civil society interest.

Repressive Legislations

The baseline report captures a dire account of some of the harsh legal regimes and difficult situations frontline grassroots defenders are faced with around the subregion:

In Senegal, there is a law that prohibits protests from taking place in the capital which limits the ability of civil society to express themselves directly to the government.

Just when you thought you have seen the worst from Senegal, the case of Cote d’Ivoire is not any less alarming. Strangely, in Côte d’Ivoire, a new criminal code makes offending the head of state a crime, ultimately threatening to further undermine the right to freedom of expression. 

Nigeria is one of the most legally repressive states in the region. In this modern and digital age, online freedom of expression is still restricted by a 2015 cyber-crime law that is widely used to arrest and prosecute journalists and bloggers in an arbitrary manner.

Bizarrely, in Mauritania, as the assessment report shows, the law against racial discrimination is such that if someone claims discrimination, they could be arrested for speaking out against national unity. A defender considers such a law as a “double-edged sword.” The severity of the situation in Mauritania makes the environment detrimental to the well-being and safety of rights advocates.

Still, in The Gambia, there are a growing number of arrests and detentions without charge of opposition members, and those going contrary to government actions. For example, a member of the former ruling party in the Gambia was arrested and detained for five (5) days without being charged and sent to court in January 2020. A frontline grassroots defender was picked up and detained for leading a community initiative to protest the acquisition of a football field by a private company in June 2017.

Sadly, some are not just illegally arrested and detained but killed. In Guinea, between January 2015 and October 2019, at least 70 protesters were killed due to rising political tensions related to the threat to presidential powers. At the same time, journalists and defenders in Mali are being harassed, detained, charged spurious fines, threatened, and branded as terrorists by the national government. Also, residents and protesting miners were reportedly shot leaving five dead in Yagha Village, Burkina Faso in 2014. 

Defense Mechanism

These cases are just a few of the many chilling accounts of the trouble HRDs are confronted with on a daily basis in West Africa. This is why the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform; Green Advocates International and other partners have embarked upon a mission to call attention to the wanton abuses land and environmental defenders are subjected to by governments and multinational investment corporations in the region.

As a result of the Baseline Assessment, a documentation system, the “West African Frontline Grassroots Defenders Directory” has since been put into motion and tested, and is expected to be launched at a separate event in July this year, with support from Global Witness. The Directory is being piloted in eight West African countries to track, document, and report attacks, reprisals and killings of defenders as part of a defense mechanism. They too must be defended.

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This article is written by Media Assistant, Fahnie S. Kollie and approved by the Secretariat of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU SCO Platform) The Platform is a network of land, environmental and human rights defenders; indigenous frontline communities affected by the operations of multinational corporations in West Africa. The full report can be found here.

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