Statement by Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA) in conjunction with International Trade Union Conference-Africa Regional Organisation (ITUC-Africa)
State of human rights situations in Africa-Africa Trade Union Movement perspectives
Human and trade union rights situation in Africa continue to pose profound and trying challenges. This is more so as varying degrees of manifestations of abuses are being witnessed especially as the Arab Spring Revolutions continue to unfold. Manifestly, state and government paranoia has increased even as the resurgence of illegitimate and unconstitutional power grab by military adventurists is posing a worrisome development in West Africa. And from these developments, working families and communities have continued to be at the receiving end. Particularly, the rights to organise and associate, right to negotiate and dialogue, the right to assemble, right to gather, share and receive information have all come under serious and relentless threats and attacks. Human right defenders, trade unionists and journalists work and live in dangerous and trying times.
The right to Associate and organise
Workers across the continent continue to be denied the rights to freely and independently associate. There continued to be systemic and systematic state abuses, denial and erosion of workers’ right to freely, independently and democratically join and form trade unions of their choice. These infractions have and continue to take place in spite of constitutional and legal mechanisms provisions at the national, continental and international arenas. The continuous abuse of this particular right, which African working families consider critical, at the core of and the fulcrum for the defence, protection and promotion of other workplace rights is considered a serious threat to industrial stability, harmony and productivity.
Manifestations and instances of the infractions of the rights to organise and associate take various forms, most brazen and outright condemnable. Where state parties are not employing outright refusal to allow for workers to organise, they have made and continue to make attempts to amend certain aspects of national extant legislation to deny the employment of such rights. This is the case in Nigeria where workers in non-arm bearing employment have been denied the right to organise and where they have moved to assert and enjoyment of this right by forming trade union organisation of their choice, their employer- the Nigerian government, has refused to recognised them.
There have also been developments where the expansion of the definition of essential services has been extended beyond agreed and defined scope to deny workers right to belong to organised groups. In Ghana, Nigeria and Botswana over 6,000 workers engaged in parliamentary services; those in the diamond industry and vetinenary services; judicial services have been designated as essential services;
In Ethiopia, government through the Labour Proclamation Act has continued to prevent civil service workers from belonging to trade unions of their choice. Similarly, the Charities Foundation Proclamation Act enacted by the Ethiopian government seriously threatens the existence and efficiency of Non-Governmental Organisations. This Act closes the space to NGOs global cooperation, solidarity and interdependence.
And in some other cases, government have made direct and forceful attempts to cease and control trade union organisations with the intention to seek to determine who belong and should the union and also interfere in the internal democracy processes of the unions. This is the case in Guinea where the incumbent government have been reported to use security forces disrupt and destroy the activities and properties of the Central du Nationale Travaileux de Guinea (CNTG). As at this moment, the Secretary General of the CNTG is still under forced hiding for fear of state sponsored violent attacks on his person. Clearly, the physical and psychological integrity of the leadership of CNTG continue to pose serious worries for African trade union community.
There are also the instances in Ethiopia and Mavingo province in Zimbabwe where NGOs have been tacitly and directly barred from existence and operation. There are pieces of legislation in places in Ethiopia to prevent NGOs from getting financial support from abroad and also expose their operation to excessive government scrutiny.
The instances of the military putsch in Mali and Guinea Bissau saw the direct attacks of trade union officers and properties as they have spoken out loudly against the unconstitutional developments and insisted on the restoration of constitutionalism and democracy to their countries. Specifically, the Centrale du Travaileux de Mali (CTM) had its headquarters ransacked and vandalized by military personnel.
The latest and most disturbing case is playing out in Swaziland. A recently merged trade union organisation- Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) has been deregistered by the nation’s Labour Commissioner on the advise of the Attorney General. Swaziland is the continent’s is the last absolute monarchy where the monarchy live in stupendous luxury while over 60% of the country’s polulation live in abject poverty and are ravaged by HIV and AIDS. Political parties still remind banned and citizens’ rights to democratic choices appropriated by the undemocratic regime. Trade unions have vowed to resist this development and have committed more than ever before to demand and achieve the enthronement of popular multi party democracy. This legitimate resolve has been classified as a crime by the King’s government, who has moved to de-register the union.
Interestingly, the interpretation of the Industrial Labour Act by the Swaziland Attorney General also wittingly led to the de-registration of the Swaziland Employers’ Federation. This month alone, over 12 trade union leaders have been arrested, detained and given movement restrictions.
Right to assemble and collective bargain
The right to assemble and to protest as means to draw attention to and demand redress for their concerns have also come under repressive and fatal attacks. Last year, Botswana government sacked over 2000 public service workers who participated in a strike action. Government has since moved to selectively re-employ some of the workers on less-friendly conditions. In Nigeria, 15 protesters were killed in the national strike called by organised labour to protest the New Year’s hike in fuel pump prices.
Also in Swaziland, scores of trade union and students’ leaders as well political party officers have been arrested, detained and placed on different forms of movement restrictions. These were some of the state’s responses to the protests organised to mark the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Emergency decree that banned political parties. Other human rights defenders like journalists have not been spared. Two journalists from neighbouring South Africa were arrested, detained and deported on the claim by the state that they were agents bent on inciting and causing problem in Swaziland.
In Benin republic, the government has threatened to ban strikes. In March, teachers in that country went on strike after negotiation with government to press for better working conditions collapsed. In response, the state declared the strike illegal, threatened the workers and declared their jobs vacant. The government even enlisted military personnel to take up the responsibilities of the teacher in the class!
The right to assemble and protest is coming under new forms of attaché in Tunisia. Trade union activists and is assuming dangerous trend. Islamist militias linked to the Islamic ruling party (An-Nahdha) are ever present to physically assault and disrupt legitimate protest gathering.
In Zimbabwe, the state continues to use the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) to deny citizen and trade unions the right to publicly gather and conduct their activities freely. March this year during the commemoration of the International women’s Day, reminiscent of last’s assault, ZCTU activities were prevented by the Police from gathering even after they had obtained court permission to do so.
Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression
Information is essential and necessary to achieve change and progress. Democracy is sustained and deepened when citizens have free and unhindered access to information. Similarly, reliable piece of information help for decision-making, and in the mobilization of citizens for nation building. It is in the same logic that journalists and media practitioners have been considered as vanguards for democracy and good governance.
But the security and safety of journalists and media outfits and their properties have continued to be verbally and physically threatened and undermined. There is also the increase in the passing of obnoxious, vague and sometimes secretive terrorist, security and criminal laws, which have been employed to persecute media practitioners and citizens. For instance, in Zimbabwe, 6 activists were tried on treason charges and eventually commuted to serve several hours of community service and $500 fines for viewing video clips of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Specifically on attack, 5 journalists have been murdered in Somalia since December last year till date. At least 32 journalists are detained incommunicado in Eritrea, while 4 journalists were convicted and jailed for terrorism charges in Ethiopia. This is also the case in Burundi where 1 journalist is currently serving jail sentence from terrorism connection conviction. There is also the growing trend of terrorist groups targeting journalists as seen in the murders of journalists by the notorious Boko Haram sect in Nigeria. The sect killed one Nigerian journalist this year.
Work places rights are rights directly linked to economic, social and political rights that must be defended, protected and promoted. Sadly, attacks of and on working persons and human rights defenders have increased and growing at alarming proportions and dimensions. These attacks have increased the culture of impunity on the continent. This development is a silent, but worrying threat to stability, peace and productivity, which must be reined in. To do this will require that investigation, prosecution and sanctions are undertaken and applied effectively.
The plights of human right defenders continue to be precarious. Abuses have continued largely unabated and perpetrators have gone unprosecuted thereby deepening impunity. State actors must commit to donate and demonstrate genuine political will to respect and protect the rights of working families and human rights defenders. But importantly, accountability and justice should be genuinely pursued. The Commissioner for Human Rights Defenders is invited to further interrogate these cases.