Mass protests, movements, and mobilization – often articulated and organized through social media – swept the continent in 2016. Protesters and human rights defenders repeatedly found inspiring ways to stand up against repression and campaigns such as the #oromoprotests and #amaharaprotests in Ethiopia, #EnforcedDisappearancesKE in Kenya, #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe, and #FeesMustFall in South Africa formed iconic images from the year.
Given the scale and long history of repression, some of the protests – as in Ethiopia and Gambia – would have been unthinkable only a year previously. Demands for change, inclusion and freedom were often spontaneous, viral and driven by ordinary citizens, in particular young people who bear the triple burden of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Although originally largely peaceful, some of the campaigns eventually had violent elements, frequently in reaction to heavy-handed suppression by the authorities and lack of space for people to express their views and organize.
This trend of gathering resilience and the withering of the politics of fear offered cause for hope. People went out to the streets in large numbers, ignoring threats and bans on protest, refusing to back down in the face of brutal clampdowns, and instead expressing opinions and reclaiming their rights through acts of solidarity, boycotts and extensive, creative use of social media.
Despite stories of courage and resilience, repression of peaceful protests reached new highs and there appeared to be little or no progress in addressing the underlying factors behind the mass public discontent.
Dissent was brutally repressed, as evidenced in widespread patterns of attacks on peaceful protests and the right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents continued to face persecution and assault.
Civilians continued to bear the brunt of armed conflicts, which were marked by persistent and large-scale violations of international law. Impunity for crimes under international
law and serious human rights violations remained largely unaddressed. And there was much to be done to address the discrimination and marginalization of the most vulnerable – including women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
Crackdown on peaceful protests
The year saw widespread patterns of violent and arbitrary crackdowns on gatherings and protests – hallmarked by protest bans, arbitrary arrests, detentions and beatings as well as killings – in a long list of countries including Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Togo and Zimbabwe.
Ethiopian security forces, for example, systematically used excessive force to disperse largely peaceful protests that began in Oromia in November 2015, which escalated and spread into other parts of the country including Amhara region.
The protests were brutally suppressed by security forces, including using live ammunition, which resulted in several hundred being killed and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of people.
Following the declaration of a state of emergency, the government banned all forms of protest, and blockage of access to internet and social media, which started during the protests, continued.
In Nigeria, military and other security forces embarked on a campaign of violence against peaceful pro-Biafra protesters – resulting in the deaths of at least 100 protesters during the year.
There was evidence that the military fired live ammunition with little or no warning to disperse crowds, and of mass extrajudicial executions – including at least 60 people shot dead in the space of two days in connection with protest events to mark Biafra Remembrance Day on 30 May.
This was similar in pattern to the attacks and excessive use of force in December 2015 on gatherings in which the military slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children in Zaria in Kaduna state during a confrontation with members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
In South Africa, student protests resumed in August at universities across the country under the banner of #FeesMustFall. The protests regularly ended in violence.
While there may have been some violence on the students’ side, Amnesty International documented many reports of police using excessive force, including firing rubber bullets at short range at students and supporters generally. One student leader was shot in the back 13 times with rubber bullets on 20 October in Johannesburg.
In Zimbabwe, police continued to clamp down on protest and strike action in Harare using excessive force. Hundreds of people were arrested for participating in peaceful protests in different parts of the country, including Pastor Evan Mawarire, leader of the #ThisFlag campaign, who was briefly arrested in an attempt to suppress growing dissent, and who eventually fled the country when he feared for his life.
In many of these protests and more, including in Chad, Republic of the Congo (Congo), DRC, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Lesotho and Uganda, there was an increasing crackdown. on social media and patterns of arbitrary restriction or shutting down of access to the internet.
Attacks on human rights defenders and journalists
Human rights defenders and journalists were frequently in the front line of human rights violations, with the right to freedom of expression suffering both steady erosions and new waves of threats.
Attempts to crush dissent and tighten the noose around freedom of expression manifested themselves across the continent, including in Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Kenya, Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia.
Some had to pay the ultimate price. A prominent human rights lawyer, his client and their taxi driver were subjected to forced disappearance and extrajudicial killing by police in Kenya.
They were among more than 177 cases of individuals extrajudicially executed at the hands of security agencies during the year. In Sudan, the murder of 18-year-old Sudanese university student Abubakar Hassan Mohamed Taha and 20-year-old Mohamad Al Sadiq Yoyo by intelligence agents came against a backdrop of intensified repression of student dissent.
Two journalists were killed in Somalia by unidentified assailants, in a climate in which journalists and media workers were harassed, intimidated and attacked.
Many others faced arbitrary arrests and continued to face prosecution and detention for their work. Despite some positive steps in Angola – including the acquittal of human rights defenders and release of prisoners of conscience – politically motivated trials, criminal defamation charges and national security laws continued to be used to suppress human rights defenders, dissent and other critical voices.
In DRC, youth movements were classified as insurrectional groups. Elsewhere, the whereabouts of politicians and journalists arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared in Eritrea since 2001 remained unknown, despite the government’s announcement that they were still alive.
In Mauritania, although the Supreme Court ordered the release of 12 anti-slavery activists, three remained in detention and anti-slavery organizations and activists continued to face persecution by the authorities.