Civil liberties and democratic norms are in sharp decline in francophone West Africa with ruling presidents circumventing term limits and muzzling pro-democracy activists and opponents, CIVICUS said, ahead of presidential elections in Guinea (October 18) and Côte d’Ivoire (October 31).
Over the next six months, a series of elections will be held in several French-speaking West African countries. Elections will begin in Guinea and Ivory Coast in October, followed by Burkina Faso (November), Niger (December-January) and Benin (April). Togo has already held a contested presidential election in February 2020.
In Togo, Guinea and Ivory Coast, violence and political tensions are fueled by the refusal of presidents not to step down at the end of their terms. In Benin, recent changes in eligibility requirements mean opposition members may not be able to run for the next presidential election, while Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Burkina Faso are currently facing or emerging from violent armed conflicts which are used to justify repressive laws and policies. In addition, the restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the advance of armed groups from the Sahel towards the Gulf of Guinea make the situation more unstable.
In this tense political climate, the new report “Civic Space in Retreat Ahead of Elections in Francophone West Africa” examines the tools of repression used to weaken opposition groups and undermine the work of advocates. rights, activists and journalists, with a focus on Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo.
This report documents recent Internet disruptions, the arrests of hundreds of journalists and pro-democracy activists, and the killings of dozens of peaceful protesters during protests over the past three years. Governments use restrictive laws, overly complex registration processes, judicial harassment and excessive use of force to suppress civil society, especially when the difference of opinion is expressed online or at protests.
“Rather than working with civil society to create an environment conducive to free and fair elections in West Africa, the authorities are cracking down on human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists. In the hope of eradicating all opposition, they have created a climate of fear that fuels political violence, erodes the rule of law and undermines regional stability, ”said François Patuel, senior researcher on Africa. West and author of the report.
In Guinea, where President Alpha Condé will run for a third term on October 18, 2020, more than fifty people have been killed since October 2019 during demonstrations organized by the political opposition and the pro-democracy group Front National de Défense de la Constitution (FNDC). In March 2020, the constitutional referendum that paved the way for Alpha Condé’s candidacy for a third term was marked by the closure of social networks as well as by intercommunal clashes in Forest Guinea which left more than 30 dead. Dozens of FNDC supporters and journalists have been arrested since the movement was created in April 2019.
In Côte d’Ivoire, at least 12 people have been killed during protests and clashes between political activists following President Alassane Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term in the presidential election scheduled for October 31, 2020 Public demonstrations have been banned since August 2020. Authorities have passed laws criminalizing fake news and used them to target journalists, bloggers and politicians expressing their difference of opinion, including parliamentarians like Alain Lobognon who is in detention since December 2019. In defiance of regional institutions, Côte d’Ivoire has ignored the orders of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights demanding the release of supporters of Guillaume Soro and asking the authorities to allow Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo to run for president.
“On paper, the right to freedom of expression is supposed to be protected. But in practice, journalists are intimidated when they write about sensitive topics such as land rights, police brutality and corruption. ”- Interview with a human rights defender, Lomé, May 14, 2020.With civil liberties receding across francophone West Africa, civil society organizations need the support of regional and international partners to stay safe, to ensure their voices are heard in international forums. and regional and to increase pressure on national authorities for positive change in human rights. ECOWAS and the African Union, in particular, must strengthen their response to the authorities ‘contempt for regional norms and instruments, including their efforts to weaken the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.