August absurdity in Africa — suspensions, expulsions, shutdowns, coups and disputed reports
August 2023 in Africa: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Reyhana Masters, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
The recent coup in Niger, which saw the military depose President Bazoum, has divided the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The majority of West African nations led by regional powerhouse Nigeria have suspended relations, threatening military intervention if civilian rule is not restored. Along with the West African bloc of countries severing their ties with Niger, the European Union has suspended financial support and cooperation on security, France and the Netherlands have suspended aid, the United States has put a pause on assistance programmes, and the World Bank has suspended further payouts.
But the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso — which also rose through coups d’états — issued a joint statement in solidarity with Niger’s military rulers, threatening to counter any external military response.
In the latest incident of power moves, which seems set to further aggravate Niger’s deteriorating relationship with France, the military junta ordered police to expel France’s ambassador Sylvian Itte.
In this highly contested space, the country’s media is one of the sectors that has felt the strong impact of the political friction.
Niger’s post-coup media environment has become even more difficult “with almost daily attacks and intimidation against journalists,” reports the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).
Niger’s journalists’ union Maison de la Presse issued a statement condemning the siege against the media. As the assaults continued, the union issued a second, stronger statement. As MFWA reports, this progressively complicated and constricted atmosphere “prompted 18 press freedom organisations across Africa and 62 senior journalists in 24 African countries to issue a statement expressing their concern.”
In the statement, the ruling National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland is asked to respect citizens’ right to be informed, lift the suspension on media outlets and maintain an open internet. It also calls for the safeguarding of local and international journalists by ending attacks against the media.
An ironic plea for help
The irony of Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimbo’s online appeal, calling on friends from all over the world “to make noise, make noise”, was not lost on his detractors. Especially, as just a week prior to his house arrest, President Bongo shut down the internet, prohibited foreign media from covering elections, barred international observer teams, deported Cameroonian journalist Sainclair Mezing and suspended French broadcasting stations France 24, RFI and TV5Monde.
In what can only be described as an embarrassing turn of events, army officers seized power just minutes after President Ondimbo announced his election victory on 30 August. State institutions were dissolved, election results annulled as fraudulent, the country’s borders closed and General Brice Oligui Nguema was named as the West African state’s transitional leader, amidst joyful street celebrations. The military takeover disrupts 56 years of rule by the Bongo family of the oil rich, yet impoverished Central African nation.
Members of Gabon’s main opposition expressed their gratitude to the military and then called on it to resume the election process, conclude the counting process, and declare President Ondimbo’s main challenger, Albert Ondo Ossa, the winner.
Youth celebrate disruption of power
Just as it seemed that the region was settling into a period of relative political stability, the recent military take overs have exposed the discontent with grossly flawed civilian rule systems. With seven coups in five countries over the last two years, the celebration of these military overthrows by younger citizens is notable, and particularly evident in the latest ouster of Gabon’s political dynasty. The growing cynicism and disappointment of younger citizens on the continent may be paving the way for military officers in the inner circle of power to believe they have the leeway to take control.
As the BBC explains: “such disillusionment is fuelled by a raft of issues — a shortage of jobs and even informal economic opportunities for both graduates and those less educated, perceived high levels of corruption and privilege among the elite, as well as resentment at the persistent influence of France in the many countries where it is the former colonial power.”
France is blamed for, at the very least, turning a blind eye to the corruption and abuse by political elite in the former French colonies, and at most, being an active partner in the plundering of resources.
Zimbabwe’s ruling party disputes observer mission reports
The contentious build-up to Zimbabwe’s general election ended with incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa retaining his presidency. ZANU PF won a large number of parliamentary seats but fell short of a constitution-changing two-thirds majority.
Sporadic incidents of violence, delays in the opening of numerous polling stations across the country and a shortage of ballot papers marred the otherwise fairly peaceful election day. This occurred despite claims by the country’s electoral management body — the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) — to observers that: “the commission has procured all essential election material and has delivered 80 of them to the provinces under police escort.” Subsequently ZEC was compelled to extend voting in the constituencies that experienced challenges.
The preliminary report by the SADC Observer mission highlighted this and other anomalies, stating: “some aspects of Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.” ZANU PF took exception to the report, which acknowledged that the “rural vote may have been compromised by alleged intimidation attributed to a group called Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ).”
The ruling party immediately went to its default setting, attacking the head of the SADC observer mission — Zambia’s former vice president Dr. Nevers Mumba — accusing him of meddling in the internal issues of Zimbabwe and siding with the opposition. SADC responded by issuing a statement emphasising the collective observations of the team and voicing their concern at the personalised attacks.
The ruling party claims that their victory “shows that Zimbabweans are democratic” and that “a new confidence is being instilled” in the country, according to an Africa News report. Spokesperson of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party Promise Mkwananzi dismissed the election, emphatically stating: “we don’t recognise those results, our agents did not sign for them because they do not represent the will of the people.”
The opposition is demanding a fresh election. Aside from banners on social media in their signature bright yellow, the shape and form of their campaign remains unclear. Rumours circulating on social media indicate that opposition leader Nelson Chamisa will mount a legal challenge against the presidential result — a story that Zimfact’s analysis dismisses.
Zimbabwe is now preparing for President Mnangagwa’s second inauguration, which will take place the first week of September.
Following a meeting with Kenya’s President William Ruto on 24 August, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew announced his decision to set up an office in Kenya, which would focus on improving the platform’s operations in Africa and provide better contextual content moderation.
The announcement comes against a backdrop of threats by a few countries set on banning TikTok “over concerns it is being used to spread and promote hateful messages, explicit content, and politically malicious material,” reports Semafor.
A petition submitted to Kenya’s parliament and driven by Bob Ndolo, the executive officer of Bridget Connect Consultancy, cited several examples of harmful videos and argued that the social media platform “promotes violent imagery, hate speech, offensive language, and inappropriate behaviour that could incite unrest and conflict in the nation.”
Kenyan civil society organisations and Access Now issued a statement asking the Public Petitions Committee to reject the plea to ban TikTok and instead:
- Adopt a holistic and human rights-based approach in line with constitutional and international human rights standards to ensure the protection of citizens’ fundamental rights, while addressing the legitimate concerns surrounding social media use; and
- Engage in open and inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue to develop effective and evidence-based approaches to address concerns surrounding social media platforms.
Just a week later, neighbouring Somalia’s government issued an order banning access to TikTok, the messaging app Telegram, and the online betting site 1xBet, after claiming that “these platforms were being used by terrorists to spread propaganda.”
The government decision sparked anger amongst young consumers and content creators who took to social media to express their unhappiness.
In Mauritania, nineteen-year-old high school student Mariya Oubed faces the death penalty on charges of blasphemy, under Article 306 of the Mauritanian Penal Code, for allegedly disrespecting Prophet Muhammad in a written exam.
Six journalists from various Nigerian media outlets were brutally attacked by a group of armed men while covering a clash that erupted in the Opu Nembe community. Media Rights Agenda condemned the attack and called on the Nigeria Police Force to conduct a thorough investigation into the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The sentencing of activist and social media influencer, Rokia Doumbia, aka #Madame vie chère, to one year in prison and a fine of CFA francs (USD1,600) is reflective of the scale of repression in Mali. Doumbia was convicted for speaking out on the security situation in the country and the cost of living during a live TikTok video. “She joins a long list of activists including religious leaders, media organisations and journalists who have fallen victim to the hermetic closure of Mali’s civic space,” reports the MFWA.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has appealed to the Eritrean government to reveal “the whereabouts of journalist Dawit Isaak, to comment on his health conditions, and to release him immediately.” The demand was made following a complaint by a collective group of CSOs, human rights organisations, experts, advocates, and journalists led by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, calling for accountability by the Eritrean government for its gross human rights violations against Isaak and his colleagues.
The International Press Institute has launched a new toolkit — The Foundations of Press Freedom in Africa — which is a collection of the key international, regional, and subregional frameworks that promote access to information and the safety of journalists and protect media freedom. As IPI notes: “it is designed to be used as a tool for domestic and international advocacy groups and other stakeholders working to support and improve the environment for press freedom and journalists’ safety.”