Pendulum swinging towards insidious restrictions across Africa


Guest Column: Peter Penar & Carolyn Logan

In recent months, persistent protesters in Algeria and Sudan have faced government repression to lay down long-standing political leaders. Unfortunately, these two countries are the exception rather than the norm. More often than not, political opposition in mainland countries has found a different fate as governments use a variety of tactics to restrict freedoms and dissent. These include the closure of the Internet (Cameroon, Zimbabwe), the imposition of taxes on social media (Uganda) and the imposition of licenses for bloggers (Tanzania). Governments have also resorted to violence, as in Burundi, Senegal, Togo and Zambia.

Freedom House's 2019 World Freedom Report suggests that political liberalization in countries like Ethiopia and The Gambia denies "creeping restrictions" and a general trend toward authoritarian behavior. This trend is confirmed in the latest survey conducted by Afrobarometer, an independent African research network. It was carried out between the end of 2016 and the end of 2018 in 34 countries. On average, in all countries surveyed, citizens seemed to confirm that civic and political space was closing. Many also expressed a willingness to accept restrictions on their liberties in the name of security.

Shrinking political space

Two-thirds (67%) of respondents said they were at least "a little" free to say what they thought. This represents a decrease of seven percentage points in 31 countries followed since 2011/2013.

When it came to freedom to discuss politics, the picture was more disturbing: 68% thought they needed to be careful about what they said. In a sample of 20 countries followed in the last decade, expressions of caution increased by nine percentage points.

If freedom is weakening, popular demand is weakened. Six out of ten respondents (62%) believed that citizens should be able to join any political organization of their choice. However, popular insistence on freedom of association has fallen by at least three percentage points in 21 of the countries surveyed. It has grown in only seven countries. Figure 1: Changes in support for freedom to join any organization (percentage points) – 33 countries – 2008-2018 Note: The Gambia is not displayed because it was first surveyed in 2018.

In Gabon and Togo, more than 80% of citizens rejected the idea that the government should have the right to ban organizations that were against its policies. In both countries, growing popular discontent with political processes was faced by government efforts to suppress discontent.

In contrast, in Tanzania, only 39% of citizens favored full freedom of association. The Tanzanian government has recently taken steps to close the political space. Similarly, there was some underlying support in Kenya to increase efforts for social control. Only 47% of respondents supported freedom of association. Individual freedoms versus security? A second worrying trend was the considerable willingness to accept government restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of public safety.

For example, a small majority (53%) of the respondents defended the right of individuals to private communication. But a substantial minority (43 percent) were willing to accept that governments should monitor private communications to ensure that people were not planning violence. This included monitoring their cell phones. More than two-thirds have supported the right to private communication in Zimbabwe, Gabon and Sudan, all countries where civil liberties are still being contested. But only about a third or less of citizens in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Senegal, and Mali opted for security freedom when it came to private communication. Forty-nine percent of respondents advocated full freedom of religious expression, while 47% felt that the government should be able to regulate what was said in places of worship. The lowest levels of support for religious freedom came from Tunisia (21%), Mali (23%) and Senegal (31%). (Both Mali and Tunisia have suffered major incidents of extremist violence). Support for freedom of movement is even less robust. Only about one in three Africans (35%) said that even when the country faces security threats, people should be free to move around the country at any time of the day or night.

Political liberalization

As these demand and supply trends for freedom vary considerably from country to country, a more detailed analysis at the country level would be instructive. Looking particularly at countries that have experienced significant political liberalization in recent years, we have found that Gambians generally embrace the freedoms of association, communication, and discourse in religious contexts. But they supported the idea that the government should be able to impose curfews and roadblocks.

In contrast, in Burkina Faso and Tunisia, most people supported government monitoring of private communications, regulation of religious discourse, and restrictions on free movement, with medium support for freedom of association.

These levels of support for government restrictions in Burkina Faso and Tunisia are worrying, since political liberalization in both countries is relatively recent and still vulnerable.

In Zimbabwe, where the new government has argued that a "new dispensation" has been underway since the deposition of former President Robert Mugabe, citizens have generally adopted basic freedoms and have seen no change in the level of freedom of expression in the last decade. But Zimbabweans expressed high levels of caution over the exercise of basic freedoms, suggesting skepticism about government gestures toward political liberalization.

 Peter Penar is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University

 Carolyn Logan is deputy director of the Afrobarometer and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the MSU African Studies Center, Michigan State University, USA.


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