Human rights and wrongs

Judge a country by the company it keeps

By Richard Lee | February 20th, 2014

Most people hear little about Zambia and so assume that all is well. But it’s not.  Things are very far from well. And they’re getting worse.

And to understand this all you need to do is glance at the 2013 Risk List produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which groups Zambia alongside the likes of Egypt, Liberia, Syria, Russia and Vietnam. It is not an enviable set of bedfellows.

It shows how far Zambia has fallen in the last year because this is not a list of the worst violators of press freedom but rather countries that have registered the most significant deterioration in the media environment over the past year. And there is no doubt that the CPJ’s conclusion that the space in Zambia for ‘free expression and independent newsgathering is rapidly shrinking’.

As is the space for democratic debate and civil society activism and dissenting voices.

But the narrowing of the media space in Zambia is particularly worrying since the Patriotic Front (PF) government promised a new era of freedom of expression. Indeed, both President Michael Sata and Vice-President Guy Scott had successfully used the press to boost their campaign to run the country – and most people (naively as it turned out) believed that they would give others the same opportunity.

Instead, as the CPJ makes clear, Zambia in 2013 was ‘marked by the continuous and public vilification of the press by authorities, and the systematic muzzling of journalists through the courts’.

And CPJ lists the main concerns from pressurising the state-owned press to self-censor more than ever, closing the small space that had opened open for independent journalists, and invoking repressive criminal defamation laws to intimidate journalists.

In particular, the government has ‘pursued independent journalists with a series of vague and spurious charges’, which are clearly intended to silence alternative voices and intimidate investigate reporters. And launched a concerted attack on the independent news website Zambia Reports. All of which illustrate that the authorities are prepared to use the full force of the law and the police to ensure that Zambians only get a diet of pro-PF news.

Obviously, the aim is to strengthen Sata’s grip on power and to help secure him a second term in office. But if his plan fails and the PF is defeated – you can bet your bottom kwacha that he and Guy Scott (and the rest of the PF leadership) will be the first to cry violation of their right to free expression when they find that they can no longer air their views so easily in the media.

It will, of course, serve them right. But it will not be only them who suffer. Every Zambian will lose out if this onslaught on press freedom in the country is not reversed.

African Commission must leave Banjul

By Richard Lee | February 19th, 2014

Enough is enough! There are no more excuses left. It is time for the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights to pack its bags and leave Banjul – promising to return to its original home when President Yahya Jammeh is eventually removed from office.

Jammeh has given the ACHPR numerous reasons to leave in the past – since his dictatorial regime has trampled on every single human right that the Commission is sworn to uphold, including executing a group of prisoners in 2012. Staying in the Gambia gives the impression, year after year, that the commission – and indeed the continent – is not genuinely committed to protecting and promoting human rights, whatever rulings it makes.

But Jammeh’s latest outburst is surely a step too far? During a speech on state TV, Jammeh ranted – once again about homosexuals – but this time he took his usual homophobic hate speech to a whole new level with a clear public incitement to murder.

“We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” said Jammeh.

It might sound ludicrous – even funny in an utterly absurd way. But remember this is the president of a country essentially calling for people to be killed. Totally innocent people. People with the same rights as everyone else. People who simply happen to love someone of the same sex.

“As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence,” he added.

It is crystal clear that Jammeh is far more detrimental to human existence in the Gambia than anyone else, let alone gays and lesbians. It is also clear that leaving the ACHPR in the country has not contributed in any way to promoting or protecting human rights. So it should move - sending a signal that Jammeh’s violations of human rights have gone too far.

It is not a signal that Jammeh will take much notice of. Indeed, he will probably smile as he has been doing his utmost to get rid of the ACHRP for years. But it will at least give the Commission a credibility boost (which it sorely needs, especially as its next session is being hosted in Angola).

And maybe it will make the European Union think twice about its plans to double aid to the Gambia over the next seven years - and that is something that Jammeh would certainly notice.

Silence works wonders in Angola

By Richard Lee | February 06th, 2014

So it’s over. There will be no Swiss investigation into the hugely corrupt Russia-Angola debt deal, which saw over US$750 million looted from Angola’s coffers - money that ended up in the pockets of senior Angolan officials (including the president) and the bank accounts of dodgy middlemen. And no further investigation in Switzerland of a deal that was facilitated by Swiss banks.

Sadly, the bravery of the Angolan activists who publicly filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland will not be rewarded with an in-depth examination of the scandal despite the wealth of new evidence outlined in last year’s excellent report by Corruption Watch UK – Deception in High Places: The Corrupt Russia-Angola debt deal.

Instead, it’s the tactics employed by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos that have proven successful.

And his tactics were so simple – say nothing, respond with total silence. You would think that a president accused of siphoning off over US$30 million from his own country’s treasury would angrily and loudly and publicly profess his innocence. But dos Santos has not said a thing since the report was launched in April last year. Not even when 4 of his fellow Angolans filed a criminal complaint related to the looting.

In most countries, silence like this would not work wonders since it would encourage journalists to keep digging, opposition politicians to cry foul and civil society activists to demand a public enquiry. But this is Angola. Dos Santos knew that he just had to keep his mouth shut and the issue would fade away – as long as the Swiss did not actively pursue the case.

And perhaps he already knew they wouldn’t. They certainly did not provide the most persuasive grounds for refusing to proceed with a full-scale investigation. Neither he nor the other senior officials implicated in the deal ever expressed any fear or concern. They knew that they were immune – so why bother defending themselves?

Of monarchs and monopolies

By Richard Lee | February 03rd, 2014

You’d think that Swazi King Mswati III would be happy enough with the powers – and wealth – that comes with being Africa’s last absolute monarch. Along with being politically, legally and culturally untouchable, Forbes has estimated his wealth at US$200 million, which is a pretty fortune wherever you happen to live – let alone in Swaziland where the majority of people live on less than US$2 per day.

And yet – greed and corruption (and abuse) are at the heart of any absolute system of government. And so, King Mswati and his cronies are always looking for new ways to make more money, whether these harm the country’s economy or make it even harder for ordinary Swazis to survive.

The latest example – the decision by the Supreme Court (aka the king's judicial lapdog) to overturn an earlier ruling by the High Court and ban the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC) from operating its wireless network services. Not only did this leave SPTC’s many customers cut off from the World Wide Web, but it also created a new monopoly for MTN.

And guess who stands to benefit from this latest monopoly – and who also benefited when SPTC’s One Mobile service was closed down leaving MTN with a monopoly over mobile phone services – none other than King Mswati who has a substantial shareholding in MTN. But ordinary Swazis will, of course, lose out since MTN will now be able – as the sole, absolute provider – to charge whatever it sees fit for its services.

The Swazi authorities often talk about how the country is ‘ready for business’ but this shows just how ‘un-ready’ it is. Or rather how ‘un-ready’ it is for genuine, competitive business. And how unlikely it is that the country will be able to lure the foreign direct investment it needs to bolster the economy and help kick-start development.

But the king and his gang don’t care. After all, whatever SPTC’s former clients do, Mswati will win. Either they will remain cut off from the internet – and therefore have even less idea of what is going on inside their country – or they will switch to MTN and help to recharge the king’s coffers.

Zambia sacrifices National Park on the copper mining altar

By Richard Lee | January 28th, 2014

The Zambian government’s decision to overrule the serious objections of its own Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA) and approve the controversial Kangaluwi copper mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park highlights three sad realties – multinational mining companies continue to exercise vast power in Zambia despite their chequered history, coalitions of civil society and community groups can rant and rave but their rage doesn’t seem to matter, and the boundaries of protected areas are not even worth the maps they are drawn on.

And it’s particularly sad because the shocking decision by the Minister of Lands and Environmental Protection to permit the open-cast copper mine to go ahead comes after a concerted campaign to prevent the project and protect one of the country’s most fragile and precious environments – a campaign that many of those involved thought they were winning.

But there is clearly no way to beat the power and the promises – and the deep pockets – of the mining industry.

Even when the government’s own environmental agency has rejected a project because of grave concerns about its long-term impact. Even when local community groups have rejected it and urged the government to promote sustainable economic development through tourism instead. Even when civil society groups across the country have rejected it, pointing out that mining never produces the jobs it promises – while always damaging the environment despite its promises.

And even when the project entails digging a massive open-cast mine – and building all the roads and other infrastructure that comes with it – inside one of the country’s most important, biodiversity-rich, and highly protected areas.

There is no way that this project should have been given the green light. It will pave the way for the destruction of a large chunk of the Lower Zambezi National Park – sacrificing its sustainable wildlife wealth for a few years (decades maybe) of cash from copper.

And the Minister’s justifications are woefully thin.

"Firstly, the project should go ahead because it will eventually create employment for ordinary people in the area” – except mining is highly mechanised and skilled these days and few locals ever secure decent, full-time employment.

“Secondly, there are currently available cost effective technologies and methods to adequately address all the identified negative impacts that may arise from this project” – except that ZEMA’s objections have not been answered and mining companies’ pre-project promises to protect and preserve the environment have invariably been broken.

“And lastly, wildlife management in the area will be enhanced and conserved by the proposed managed scheme contained in [the mining company’s] submissions” – except that the park’s wildlife can never benefit from mining, from all the infrastructure and pollution that comes with it.

Once again, a government in southern Africa has ridden roughshod over the concerns of local communities and civil society organisations, even though Zambian laws, international best practice and the African Mining Vision call on them to take the voices of these groups into consideration.

The question now is – where next? The government has already granted gas concessions to large tracts of land, including North Luangwa National Park. Will it be the next priceless natural resource to be sacrificed on the mining altar?

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