How governments are ‘weaponising’ surveillance

Surveillance technology: used and abused

African states have been deploying surveillance capabilities to spy on and intimidate youth movements and activists

Egyptian army officers monitor local and
international TV stations and websites at the
military press office department in Cairo in
June 2012. Egyptians were voting in a run-off
presidential election, pitting an Islamist against
Hosni Mubarak, amid political chaos, highlighted
by uncertainty over the future role of the army.
Photo: AFP PHOTO/STR

On 20 August, 2016, a group of mostly young social media activists gathered at a property in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, to discuss national political affairs. The political climate was tense in the central African country following brief, intense protests against the continued rule of long-time strongman Pierre Nkurunziza, politically motivated killings, repression of the media and an attempted coup the year before, in May 2015. As the gathering got under way, police swooped in and 46 of the activists, who had organised the meeting via the messaging app WhatsApp, were arrested. Eight of them were kept in jail for a while. “Police accused them of tarnishing the image of Burundi by spreading defamatory information against public authorities,” said a civil society activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Before the arrest of those WhatsApp group members, the minister in charge of public security had issued a threatening statement against social media activists,” the activist told Africa in Fact.

“On 17 May, 2016, he said that those using social media tools to spread rumours should not feel safe; that security services have now acquired the capacity to monitor them, to locate them and arrest them.” The Burundian activist said that in the wake of the incident suspicions grew that the regime had acquired sophisticated digital surveillance capabilities to monitor and intercept the communications of citizens. As a result, with the traditional media sector, especially broadcasting, effectively captured or destroyed by the Nkurunziza regime, and with many journalists having fled the country and now operating from exile, a heavy culture of self-censorship enveloped the country, even on social media platforms. Since the youth-led uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring of 2011 that toppled authoritarian regimes across North Africa, indications are that many African governments have sharpened their communications and digital surveillance capabilities, especially seeking to clamp down on political expression on popular social media platforms that are primarily used by the youth.

In September 2019, the Uganda-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Institute released its ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report, which found: “The continued surveillance of the public, with limited oversight, in addition to the increased surveillance capacity of governments, and the interception of communication, including that of critics and human rights activists, threatens internet freedom. These measures have been coupled with regulatory control of the internet, including now widespread and restrictive measures such as censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns evident in several countries.” The report mentions that while most of the repressive surveillance practices uncovered were primarily perpetrated by authoritarian regimes – of which there are apparently 23 among the 55 African governments – even those countries classified as “flawed democracies”, such as South Africa, engaged in highly questionable surveillance activities.

Since 2011, countries such as Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the list goes on, have “weaponised” the internet and social media platforms through surveillance and repressive computer misuse, social media tax, and cyber security and terrorism laws. This has been especially noticeable following similar youthful outspokenness online like that which preceded and fuelled the Arab Spring. And some states have even gone as far as deploying troll armies and state sponsored disinformation campaigns – what the Oxford Internet Institute calls “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – to counter narratives on social media platforms that are perceived to be anti-government. In its September 2019 report, ‘The Global Disinformation Order’, the institute identified 10 African governments involved in or running “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – specifically, Angola, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.

The growing spectre of harm and alarm represented by such tactics, and the increasingly pervasive nature of state surveillance practices, along with the very real threat of surveillance overreach and abuse – as well as the ease with which surveillance and hacking technologies can be acquired internationally – have given rise to a global climate of widespread repression before expression. This was flagged as a burgeoning global human rights concern by United Nations special rapporteur David Kaye in June 2019. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in a report submitted before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), stated: “We live in an age of readily available, easy to abuse and difficult to detect tools of digital surveillance. In his groundbreaking surveillance report in 2013, the previous mandate holder, Frank La Rue, noted that weak regulatory environments had provided fertile ground for arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.”

Many of the examples of abuse and infringements that Kaye was referring to undoubtedly emanated from the African continent, where some of the more repressive and authoritarian, as well as some seemingly democratic, states have been active over the past decade or so in global digital surveillance technology markets and have been caught out engaging in murky and unlawful surveillance activities. One such country is South Africa. “There’s plenty of evidence that South Africa’s security agencies have put resources into monitoring and interfering with democratic formations, particularly during the Zuma administration,” says Murray Hunter, a surveillance researcher who formerly headed the influential Right2Know (R2K) campaign’s state surveillance monitoring project. “This includes civil society groups, student protest movements, dissident unions, and media organisations. “A few years ago, there was also reporting on a leaked SSA [State Security Agency] document that revealed the agency’s official national security estimates, i.e. what it perceives to be the biggest genuine threats to state security,” Hunter explains.

“As this report shows, the state was frankly and seriously anticipating an Arab-spring style uprising in the lead up to the 2014 elections. In other words, the state had reframed what many would consider to be legitimate and unrelated social protest as a potential existential threat.” South African civil society and the media have exposed such practices over the years and even taken the state to court. In September 2019, the investigative journalism initiative, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by R2K and others, won a high court judgment that effectively scrapped the primary law enabling communications surveillance and interception, the notorious Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) of 2002. With SSA expected to appeal the high court decision, and the South African Police Service (SAPS) already having lodged an appeal, it’s unclear how the case will eventually end. But the decision reverberated around the world and has emboldened international calls for reform of state surveillance practices globally.

One country in particular need of reform is Zimbabwe, just north of South Africa, which has a long history of repression of legitimate dissent and political expression. While invasive state surveillance was already an uncomfortable fact of life for political activists and journalists up until then, since 2016 the situation has become much worse, according to political activist Henry Munangatire. He was one of the core organisers and strategists of the July 2016 #thisflag pro-democracy protest movement – run primarily via various social media platforms on mobile phones – spearheaded by young Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, who attracted a large youth following and international attention, as well as state harassment, intimidation and repression. Munangatire said that at the height of the #thisflag movement, which called on people to stay home in protest at the state of the country, state security operatives used the state’s communications surveillance capabilities to hunt down and imprison youth movement leaders, many of whom managed to evade capture and had to be smuggled out of the country.

“All of a sudden you had young people using this hashtag to talk about their economic and social situations, which at that point were a result of 36 years of corruption and mismanagement of the country by Zanu-PF,” he says. “The success of this movement culminated in building social media activism and on-the- ground activism, which, of course, led to the creation of other hashtags, such as #Mugabemustgo, which were created online and led to civil disobedience and people expressing discontent at the system. “So it was at that point that the Zanu-PF government realised it didn’t know what to do with the internet and they started crafting a cyber security Bill. And that Bill basically sought to criminalise the use of social media in politics and social activism, even if it is peaceful activism,” Munangatire says. He added that while the cyber security Bill had moved onto the back-burner since the 2017 military coup that removed long-time Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe from office, it has since been revived by the Mnangagwa regime, which has pushed for its urgent enactment into law.

The Zimbabwe Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill was approved by the Mnangagwa cabinet at the beginning of October 2019 and has been sent to parliament for enactment into law. The Bill has already attracted criticism for its provisions that enable a clampdown on social media. The 34-year-old Munangatire said he lives under constant and invasive state surveillance and has been arrested twice for his political activities over the years. His experiences are unfortunately not isolated ones on the African continent. The warning signs for Africa are clear and everywhere, as articulated in the CIPESA ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report: “While digital authoritarianism has been in existence for decades, it is clear that its use by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations is a tool of state control over their rights. If left unchecked, democracy and internet freedom will continue to regress.”

However, according to Hunter, the situation was not all doom and gloom. “While pervasive surveillance may be a fact, we should not assume that it’s an inevitable fact,” he says. “As societies, we need to raise the political and social cost of security-statist thinking. That means helping raise public awareness of the issues and the threats and the costs of surveillance. We can march for privacy, and vote for privacy, and debate and discuss for privacy, and pay for privacy and donate for privacy and design for privacy and litigate for privacy and legislate for privacy – and we should.”

Frederico Links is a Namibian journalist, editor, researcher, trainer and activist. Research associate of Namibia’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). He is primarily concerned with democracy and governance, particularly corruption and maladministration. He is chairperson of the Access to Information in Namibia (ACTION) Coalition of civil society, media and social activists.

The facts are stubborn

Rwanda: the genocide archives

Amid mounting calls for an honest investigation into the Rwandan genocide, the UN and certain governments appear to be opposing full disclosure

A group of Rwandan refugees walk past a pile of machetes and axes confiscated by the Zairean army on July 16, 1994 in the border city of Goma. (Photo by PASCAL GUYOT / AFP FILES / AFP)

“Everyday we learn to forgive,” President Paul Kagame told a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in Kigali in April this year, “but we do not want to forget.” Yet, 25 years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, full disclosure and recognition of responsibility for what happened, particularly as regards members of the international community, are still outstanding. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR), established in 1994 and dissolved 2015, dealt with the planners and the architects of the genocide. Almost two million people accused of helping to perpetrate the genocide were tried before the traditional Gacaca courts between 2001 and 2012. But questions of international responsibility remain unaddressed. Moreover, investigators, researchers and historians face obstacles in the way of establishing the truth. In June 2014, the Rwandan government established the Rwanda Archives and Library Services Authority (RALSA).

Yet despite pledges by international leaders to fully investigate what happened, members of the public elsewhere in the world still have only limited access to evidence about the genocide. UN Security Council deliberations on Rwanda, the Clinton White House papers and French and Belgian government documents remain classified. Apparently, this applies even to international court decisions. This year, the executive secretary of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide, Jean-Damascène Bizimana, asked for, but was not granted, access to the ICTR archives. Olivier Nduhungirehe, to everybody, including survivors of the genocide, students and researchers,” he told Africa in Fact. What is clear is that the UN and certain governments are opposing full disclosure. During his speech earlier this year, Kagame paid a special tribute to the Czech ambassador, Karel Kovanda, who, he said, “joined colleagues from New Zealand and Nigeria to call for action to stop the genocide despite the indifference of more powerful states.”

He was probably referring to some of the five permanent members of the Security Council. While the massacres were occurring, three of the Big Five – France, the UK and the US – resisted the use of the word “genocide”, says British journalist Linda Melvern, author of the book A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide, first published in 2000 and updated in 2009. To be sure, the UN is in a delicate position. Its inability to deal effectively with the genocide is still very much resented, and not only by Rwandans. No UN flag was flown at an homage ceremony in Kigali on 8 April, 2019 for 10 Belgian peacekeepers who were brutally beaten and shot to death by Rwandan government soldiers on 7 April, 1994. This despite the fact that the Belgian soldiers were members of the UN mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). Their former comrades were outraged at their government’s order to the peacekeepers to surrender.

“Many of the Belgian soldiers had wanted to stay in Rwanda to prevent even greater slaughter and were humiliated by the government’s decision to withdraw them,” according to an OAU report of 7 July, 2000 by an international panel of eminent personalities. The former soldiers were also critical of the UN, which, they said, systematically underestimated the threats the Belgian blue helmets faced from Hutu extremists. “The withdrawal meant that they were viewed as cowards, and morally irresponsible ones as well,” reads the report. “It is not surprising that many of them threw down their blue berets in disgust upon their return to Belgium. Others, in full view of the television cameras, pulled out their knives and slashed the berets into ribbons.” According to Melvern, the New Zealand ambassador, Colin Keating, told her that “non-permanent members of the [Security] Council were kept in the dark about what was happening”. Cables sent to the UN secretary-general’s office by UNAMIR’s field commander, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, did not reach the council.

They stayed in the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York, she says. For whatever reason, Boutros Boutros-Ghali kept those cables to himself. Yet these cables included essential information. One was a fax General Dallaire sent to his superior, General Maurice Baril, at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York, on 11 January, 1994. According to the OAU report, Dallaire warned that a militia commander who he had met “has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1,000 Tutsis”. Despite this, Kofi Annan, then chief of peacekeeping operations, denied Dallaire permission to seize arms caches revealed by the informant. Moreover, Boutros-Ghali changed existing procedures regarding the transmission of information to the Security Council, determining that officials could brief the council only with his express permission, Linda Melvern discovered.

“All the information that went to the council came through Boutros-Ghali,” she says. In a report dated 21 April, the then secretary general did not mention mass killings, preferring to describe Rwanda as being in “a civil war”. Why did Boutros-Ghali restrict the information that went to the council? According to Melvern, it might have been because he was beholden to the French president, Francois Mitterrand, who had supported his election. To settle the question, she says that access to documents and the telephone records from Boutros- Ghali’s office will be necessary. According to Melvern, the permanent members of the UN Security Council refused for weeks to admit that a genocide was taking place. The British ambassador to the UN told the council that it would become “a laughing stock” if it described the events in Rwanda as a genocide, she says. And France also resisted the use of the word “genocide”. Some see France as bearing more responsibility for the international failure to act because of its direct involvement in the region.

Accordingly, access to the French archives has been a sensitive point for years. In 2015, the French president, François Hollande, declassified documents related to the genocide, including minutes from secret defence meetings and files of advisers to the president at the time, François Mitterrand. Researchers and historians would be granted access to the documents on request. Yet gaining access to those archives has proved extremely difficult. A former Belgian senator, Alain Destexhe, who published an essay on the genocide, told Africa in Fact that he was denied access to both Mitterrand’s archives and those of the defence ministry – supposedly because his “profile did not meet requirements”. Researchers also complain that only a fraction of the classified documents have surfaced so far. That might change. In April this year, President Emmanuel Macron appointed a commission of academics to carry out a two year investigation into the role of the French army in the genocide.

The commission will have access to presidential, diplomatic, military and intelligence archives. Kigali’s reaction was rather positive. But the problem, Alice Urusaro Karekezi, a researcher at the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management, told the Kigali-based daily newspaper The New Times is that the commission does not include a single recognised expert on Rwanda. Moreover, access to Mitterrand’s archives was to be granted at the discretion of their custodian, Dominique Bertinotti, who told news agency Agence France-Presse in April this year that her approval is not “automatic”. Independent or inexperienced researchers will be confronted by staunch opposition from the French military establishment and officials who were in office in 1994, who deny that France holds any responsibility for the tragedy. The issue is so sensitive that it caused a controversy during the European elections campaign in May this year.

A claim by Raphaël Glucksmann – director of a documentary on the genocide and head of the Socialist Party list in the election – that Mitterrand had been an “accomplice” in the genocide triggered a letter of protest signed by 23 former ministers. Yet “the facts are stubborn”, as Kagame says. Prior to the genocide, France had been an important supporter of the Hutu regime in Kigali. According to a January 1994 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), France was one of the regime’s main arms suppliers, along with Egypt and South Africa, before and after the war began between the Hutu-dominated government and Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in October 1990. France’s contribution included mortars, artillery, armoured cars and helicopters – in addition to providing military advisors to the Rwandan Gendarmerie and armed forces, according to HRW. According to Melvern, French military training extended to the presidential guard, which is thought to have initiated the genocide.

Moreover, France did not suspend its supplies of arms to the government after the imposition of a UN embargo on 17 May, 1994. Five shipments of artillery, machine guns, assault rifles and ammunition provided by the French government were sent to government forces based in Goma (in then-Zaire) in May and June of that year, according to a May 1995 report by HRW. Meanwhile, a French military operation between June and August in 1994, codenamed “Turquoise”, nominally under the UN, is another controversial issue. France portrayed Turquoise as a humanitarian mission to hide its support of the genocidaires, claimed Captain Guillaume Ancel, a French army veteran who served in the operation, in a 2018 memoir. Any declassification of US documents would also likely result in embarrassing revelations – in particular, as regards responsibility for the downsizing of the UN force that General Dallaire outlined in his book on the genocide, Shake Hands With the Devil (2003), and its tragic consequences.

“The United States almost single-handedly blocked international action in Rwanda [for] six weeks prior to the genocide, which might have prevented the bloodbath altogether,” says the above-mentioned OAU report. The US State Department even refused to scramble the broadcast of RTLM Radio, a Hutu extremist media outlet that incited killing during the genocide, according to Melvern. Half a million lives could have been saved if UNAMIR had had sufficient air support and logistical and communication capabilities, concluded Scott Feil, a former US army career officer, in a 1998 report to the Carnegie Commission on preventing deadly conflict. In April this year, more than 300 French academics, historians and citizens signed an open letter questioning Macron’s refusal to appoint suitably qualified experts – including Hélène Dumas, the only French researcher who speaks Kinyarwanda, and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, a prominent historian of the first world war and author of a book titled Une initiation Rwanda (2017) – to the commission that is to investigate France’s role in the genocide.

In April this year, lawyers representing relatives of victims killed at Biserero in Rwanda between 27 and 30 June, 1994 by Hutu militias after the French army abandoned them there, called for access to the French Ministry of Defence archives for the French judges who were to investigate this tragic event. During a meeting with President Macron, another group, the Ibuka association of survivors, whose name means “remember” in Kinyarwanda, also called for the declassification of official French archives concerning the genocide. Former French military members who served in Rwanda during the 1990- 1994 period are claiming that the French government of the time worked closely with the Rwandan Hutu regime. Ancel, the former French army officer mentioned earlier in this article, claims that Turquoise, a French-led UN operation supposedly aimed at ending the massacres, was in fact intended to prevent the RPF from capturing Kigali. The aim was to return control of the capital city to the government, the former officer claims in his recent book, Rwanda, la fin du silence (Rwanda: the end of silence).

In another book, General Jean Varret, who headed the French military mission in Rwanda between October 1990 and April 1993, says that both Rwanda’s president at the time, Juvénal Habyarimana, and the French embassy ignored his warnings that the Rwandan military was planning to massacre Tutsis. The commission of inquiry will find it difficult to ignore these claims. The quest for the truth about the Rwanda genocide has been long, but the pressure is mounting. Researchers of the Rwandan genocide – academics, journalists, survivors, and French activists fighting for the decolonisation of France’s relationship with Africa and with the Rwandan government – are calling for open access to the genocide archives. The full truth of what happened then has yet to be established, they say. This includes vital information concerning the accountability of members of the international community.

Reply from the Spokesman of the Secretary-General of the United Nations

The United Nations has tried to ensure that there is justice for the crimes committed in Rwanda during the genocide, and it has looked at its own actions during that period, mostly notably through the Carlsson Commission, which issued its own report on the UN’s responsibilities in 1999. The UN has followed up on those recommendations in our effort to ensure that what went wrong in Rwanda will never be repeated. The statement from the article that “investigators, researchers and historians face obstacles when attempting to establish the truth” with respect to access to the archives of the ICTR is not supported by the facts. The Arusha branch of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals manages the archives of the ICTR. Its access policy is guided by the basic principles of openness and transparency, balanced with the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of classified information, including classified judicial records. The International Residual Mechanism cannot provide members of the public with access to the confidential records of the ICTR. The Judicial Records and Archives Database is accessible through a website (https://jrad.irmct.org/search. htm) containing approximately 850,000 pages of judicial records and 22,000 hours of audiovisual recordings of judicial proceedings. The physical location of the archives therefore does not impose an impediment to accessibility with respect to users in Rwanda. On average, each month, over 3,600 records are accessed, 10.5 access requests are responded to, and approximately 80 visitors are accommodated by the Archives and Records Section in Arusha. The claim in the article that access to the ICTR archives was denied to Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide and to personnel of the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the United Nations is also unfounded. The International Residual Mechanism in Arusha has not received any request from Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide. One request was received from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Rwanda to the United Nations, and it was responded to on the same day that it was received.

François Misser is a Brussels-based journalist. He has covered central Africa since 1981 and European-African relations since 1984 for the BBC, Afrique Asie magazine, African Energy, the Italian monthly magazine Nigrizia, and Germany’s Die Tageszeitung newspaper. He has written books on Rwanda and the DRC. His last book, on the Congo River dams, is La Saga d’Inga.

Troubled and ambiguous

Heritage: the long shadows of past and present

Commemorating heritage in Africa is no longer the exclusive province of governments

People dressed in traditional
costume welcome guests to the opening ceremony and inauguration of the new museum of black civilisations in Dakar, Senegal, on 6 December, 2018. Photo: SEYLLOU / AFP

There was an interesting exchange between Thabo Mbeki and Constand Viljoen in the late 1990s. The former was an aristocrat of an African liberation movement who would become South Africa’s president, and the latter was the chief of the country’s apartheid-era defence force, a soldier’s soldier and politician. Both had a keen sense of the manner in which the past echoes into the present. Responding to a rancorous debate on white settlement in the country, Viljoen objected that his forebears had come to South Africa “because we wanted to be free burghers, not to colonise”. Mbeki responded: “Phew! We have a long way to go. There is a different understanding of the history of the country, a different understanding of the realities of the country.” That sentiment is still relevant to South Africa’s politics, and possibly even more acutely now two decades after this conversation took place.

And while South Africa may at times be a somewhat hyperbolic example, it is far from a unique one. For in Africa the past looms large over the present – probably more than anywhere else on earth. Heritage is the memorialisation and veneration of that past, and of the culture that has grown up within it. It is a society’s memories, its rituals, its artefacts, statues and architecture, its sense of history. For many, it justifies their claim on belonging to a society. Africa’s history is perhaps unique for the degree to which it has been mediated through external lenses, often denying the role of Africans as originators of their stories. “There was a refusal to see Africans as the creators of original cultures, which flowered and survived over the centuries in patterns of their own making,” wrote Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, former director general of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, in the General History of Africa in 1993. Indeed, the colonial experience not only intruded into memory, but commandeered much of its tangible heritage.

A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron found that “over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent”. Among these were the magnificent Benin bronzes, seized in 1897 when Benin City was sacked and torched by a British expeditionary force. Some of these were auctioned to defray the costs of the invasion. A treasure of African art – and an inspiration for the modernist movement – they reside for the most part in museums outside Africa. The colonial powers liked to leave memorials of their presence in Africa. In southern Africa, this meant memorials of a heritage that celebrated the European offshoot societies that remained. They were part of the African story, but for African nationalists celebrating this has represented an uncomfortable reminder of past subjugation. Post-liberation, there was a powerful impulse to remove these tokens of memory. “We want to wipe the slate clean and present our image of independent Zimbabwe without these vestiges of colonialism,” said former president Robert Mugabe in 1984, four years after the country’s independence.

By that time, Zimbabwe had replaced Rhodesia, the colonial capital Salisbury had become Harare, and street names that had once proudly declaimed a connection to British empire were replaced with ones saluting African nationalism. Zimbabwe was but one example. Colonial Gold Coast became independent Ghana in 1957 – the new name harking backing to an eponymous medieval empire. Most recently, Swaziland was renamed eSwatini, in 2018. Africa’s past intrudes directly into its present-day and speaks to the brand of politics that holds sway in many countries, says Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “History is ever present in African politics,” he said in an interview with Africa in Fact. “Some parties are decades, or [even] a century old, and [they] hark back to what they see as glorious, heroic histories. In states where liberation wars were fought, such as in southern Africa, this past is frequently evoked and glorified.” This is the politics that both Mugabe and Mbeki, in different ways, represented.

Society could and would be remade along the lines of a new narrative. A revisioned heritage would underwrite a new moral order. Yet, in practice, the concept of “heritage” is troubled and ambiguous. Whatever the dreams of nationalist politicians, the impact of the colonial era has proved virtually impossible to expunge. Most African states owe their borders to their colonial experiences, and they conduct much of their business in English, French and Portuguese. Governance systems draw heavily on this connection, too. The physical remnants of colonialism linger. Some potentially portable signifiers of that history have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. Architecture predating independence, which was often meant to convey dominance and permanence, remains visible in many African cityscapes. Despite Zimbabwe’s determination to reinvent itself, and its later turn to outright racial nationalism, a statue of the Scots explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone remains prominently in place at the Victoria Falls (now known, too, as Mosioa- Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”).

“What is clear is that Zimbabwe has a conflicted relationship with its colonial past and relics,” the Zimbabwean journalist Farai Mudzingwa comments, speaking for much of the continent. Elsewhere, reminders of the colonial past have slipped by ignored, or have been commandeered to provide energy for the tourist trade. Ironically, when Zimbabwe suggested removing the statue of Dr Livingstone, neighbouring Zambia asked to take possession of it, seeing it as a tourist drawcard. Tours of Kenya cash in on its colonial past as showcased in movies such as Out of Africa. In Nigeria, the city of Lokoja, a colonial-era state capital, tries to do likewise, attracting magazine headlines such as “Lokoja: Colonial Town, Rich History”. Excising the past may not be as simple as the liberationist narrative would have it. In a society such as South Africa vocal constituencies have championed retaining the country’s colonial heritage. These have involved both court challenges and physical stand-offs.

An Afrikaans singer, Sunette Bridges, chained herself to the Kruger memorial in Church Square in Pretoria (or Tshwane) in 2015 after calls for its removal. Cultural activists saw the call not just as a threat to physical artefacts but to the legitimacy of a cultural minority’s presence. Some heritage is difficult to pigeonhole. Large numbers of Africans fought in colonial armies in the second world war. They were subject people forced into supporting colonial overlords, certainly; yet theirs was also a contribution to a moral conflict against unspeakable evil. Numerous video clips celebrating this now circulate on social media. In collaboration with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Nigeria has recently repurposed preexisting monuments by incorporating them into a new memorial in Abuja. The memorial records the names of Nigerians killed in both world wars and is surmounted by a pair of bronze sculptures depicting a Hausa rifleman and an Igbo porter made in the 1930s by the British artist James Alexander Stevenson.

Dealing with Africa’s colonial heritage is challenging. Memorialising what has transpired in the generations since independence may prove even more so. Stevenson’s depiction of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic contribution to the first world war might uncannily have presaged its later politics. Nigeria’s nascent nationhood was nearly destroyed in the brutal war that accompanied the attempted secession of the Republic of Biafra in the 1960s. It was a trauma from which the country has never entirely recovered. For decades, it was official policy to downplay the conflict in the interests of a new Nigerianism, with the result that there are few public memorials to it; even displays about the conflict at the country’s National War Museum are controversial. This is a Whiggish interpretation of history – that is, an interpretation of history in the service of the present, says Nigerian museum curator Iheanyichukwu Onwuegbucha in a recent paper, “The National War Museum Umuahia: Representation of the Biafra War History”.

The fact the Biafran war occurred, and the continuing silence about it, can be seen as expressions of ongoing ethnopolitics. For people with memories of Biafra, the official narrative indicates that the Nigerian state has never attempted an appropriate historical reckoning of its own conduct. Rwanda’s 1994 genocide is powerfully remembered in monuments and social rituals, and – perhaps more importantly – in the country’s political culture. But there, remembering, rather than forgetting, is just as much a two-edged sword. Resisting “genocide ideology” has become a catch-all justification for measures that hurt civil liberties and restrict political opposition. Even without traumas such as these, an unsettled post-colonial past challenges the present. Post-colonial African states embodied aspirations for development and nation building.

Some of them have produced near-messianic figures to deliver on these goals – resulting in profound frustration when these all too often proved to be a disappointment. Post-colonial monuments rise and fall according to political fashion, says Martin Plaut of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Perhaps the most glaring example of this accompanied the deposition of Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah. An outsized figure in his time, a sculpture of the former leader stood prominently before the presidential mansion, but the statue was decapitated after Nkrumah was ousted in 1966. Even more symbolically, parts of the statue have been preserved separately, perhaps in memory both of the former leader and of the coup that toppled him. Another example is the African Union’s controversial erection of a stature of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie at its Addis Ababa headquarters.

“Emperor Haile Selassie is an example of how leaders have gone in and out of fashion,” says Plaut. “The movements they led wax and wane — and with them go the reputations of those who led them.” Haile Selassie’s statue is recognition of his role as a champion of African freedom against colonial intervention, Plaut adds. Yet the emperor is also remembered as the last representative of a feudal order, and for his personal aloofness. A report by Human Rights Watch in 1991 described the “official indifference” to famine during his reign, for example. Across the continent, the reputations of some of Africa’s post-colonial icons – such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – have come under critical scrutiny. The University of Ghana removed a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, another towering personality of the anti-colonial movement, citing the “racist attitudes” he expressed in his younger days.

Rather astoundingly, the reputation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (CAR) – and self-proclaimed emperor of the short-lived Central African Empire – has enjoyed something of a recovery. He was long remembered as a man of sinister brutality and farcical pomp, but some today see his rule as a time of progress and development that his successors have failed to match. In 2010, then CAR President François Bozizé issued a decree formally “rehabilitating” him. In Kenya, the country’s political elite once decried the memory of the Mau Mau uprising as “hooliganism”. This has been reassessed and at least partially accepted as an honourable part of the struggle for independence. A museum has now been established to relay this narrative. In recent years, the importance of preserving Africa’s heritage has gained growing recognition. The opening in 2018 of the enormous, multi-storey Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar was emblematic of this.

Intended as a record of Africa and its offshoot societies, its design and facilities are impressive and its ideological messaging fitting. Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was an exponent of Negritude, a philosophical movement celebrating blackness and Africanism. Hopes have been expressed that the museum will play a role in securing the repatriation of items carted off during the colonial era. Yet this may not be Africa’s most difficult challenge. African societies will need to navigate the meaning of the continent’s heritage for the present. A good starting point is to acknowledge the obvious: heritage is not intrinsically a force for unity, since it remembers factious and divided pasts. “All history is the story of conflict, humiliation and division,” says Plaut. “As one historian put it, imperialism is the natural order of human history.”

Conflicting claims about the past are an intrinsic part of a plural society, and as such they are not altogether negative. Commemorating heritage is also no longer the exclusive province of governments. Africans are today experimenting successfully with alternative models of commemoration, such as localised community museums or online memorials. New layers are inexorably being added to the continent’s memories. The ambiguity of Africa’s heritage must be acknowledged. And in this sense, Thabo Mbeki was profoundly mistaken. A common understanding of the past is not possible. The challenge for South Africa – and the continent as a whole – is not to find a single set of memories and understanding, but to accept their multiplicity.

Terence Corrigan is an independent researcher, writer, editor and illustrator. He is currently a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in its Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme and a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Time for change

African leadership: the golden age

The continent’s current crop of leaders is more acquiescent than their post-colonial predecessors in dealing with external attempts at unwarranted interference

Former Nigerian military leader Yakubu Gowon had a telling exchange with US President Richard Nixon in 1971. Invited for a state visit, Gowon, according to a recently declassified American diplomatic cable, said he was too busy administering his country. The army general promised Nixon he would consider a possible future visit – but never did. Gowon never visited the US during his nine-year tenure and is the only Nigerian leader not to have done so. When, shortly after his election in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari flew out to meet President Barack Obama even before he had named a cabinet, the Nigerian media did not miss the opportunity to draw a contrast. The Lagos-based newspaper Premium Times lamented the country’s foregone “golden era” of diplomacy. It supported this position with another revelation from declassified US cables.

This time the revelations concerned how, in an effort to protect farmers, Nigeria’s President Shehu Shagari resisted President Jimmy Carter’s bid to sell American rice in Nigeria. The idea of an African leader rebuffing a superpower in defence of his compatriots excites advocates of truly independent African leadership. If nothing else, it is strikingly at variance with the more acquiescent mood of the continent’s current leaders, who these days may require a US or EU visit to validate their mandates. At a time of a renewed scramble for Africa, such diplomatic encounters have triggered questions about Africa’s continued ability to check unwarranted external influence. More importantly, they have led some to ask whether Africa’s era of people-oriented leadership ended shortly after the colonial period. Both questions arise in the context of celebrated leadership figures such as Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Nelson Mandela, and Thomas Sankara.

“African leadership has changed over the years,” says John Magbadelo, lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for African and Asian Studies. “African leaders [who] emerged from the independence struggles through which they wrenched power from colonial administrations were different in several respects from their military and civilian successors.” In 1969, Africa had just three leaders whose power was based on multiparty elections; by 2018 that number had grown to 43. Within the same period, the number of those who gained power in single-party systems fell from 11 to zero. The number of leaders who came to power through coups d’état also dropped from eight to zero, according to the Brookings Institution’s African Leadership Transitions Tracker. Despite apparent democratic advances, the continent remains beset by leadership problems, mirrored by conflicts, corruption and woeful performance on all key economic and life indicators.

Former lead member of the African Union High-
Level Advisory Group Mehari Maru

Africa’s foreign policy has also become less assertive. Acknowledging the leadership problem, the organisers of the $5 million annual Mo Ibrahim Prize – the continent’s most prestigious award for former heads of state – said they had found no worthy recipient for six years between 2007 and 2017. Many analysts argue that Africa’s leadership problem has lingered for decades, since the pre- and earlier post-independence era, which they see as the continent’s golden age of people-oriented leadership. That period saw leaders confront colonialists, win independence and lead their fledgling nations to early political and economic progress. “The current [generation of] democratic African leaders are spineless because the situation in much of the continent has gone from bad to worse over the years,” Magbadelo told Africa in Fact. “African youths are braving the Mediterranean Sea [each year] in a futile search for greener pastures in Europe because they cannot see any hope for survival in their countries.”

So, how much has African leadership changed over the decades, and how were past leaders able to do better, while warding off unwarranted external influence? Historically, Africa’s leadership problem almost certainly predates the colonial era. In a 2016 paper, “Traditional Leadership and Corruption in Pre-Colonial Africa: How the Past Affects the Present”, Benson Igboin describes corruption during a time when African kings reigned with unlimited powers, and were regarded as God’s representatives. The lack of accountability allowed bad governance to fester, and chiefs were seldom called to account for their stewardship of their kingdoms’ resources. In recent history, the first factor that enabled a more assertive leadership was political. Mehari Maru, a scholar on African governance and former lead member of the African Union High-Level Advisory Group, traces three political phases since the independence era.

These are: the pan-African solidarity era, during which leaders mainly mobilised for the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle; the confusion and division era, when the cold war between the US and USSR led to ideological struggle between supporters of the west and the east; and the period of intervention and integration. The first era, which produced heavyweights like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), was also the most people-oriented. Many leaders in this category asserted the foreign policies of their newly liberated countries in defence of their people. According to Maru, the next era, signposted by the cold war, saw the rise of undemocratic political groups, dictatorial governance styles and bloody political changes through military coups.

It produced dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Houari Boumédienne, Said Barre and Mobutu Sese Seko, who were feared at home and also proved tough for the western world and the eastern bloc. “In a sense, the courage that the military rulers projected onto the global stage was a defence mechanism to assuage their feelings of guilt for displacing democratically elected administrations,” Magbadelo told Africa in Fact. That “courage” faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the US becoming the world leader. The third leadership era was born under US pressure for political and economic reforms in Africa, which resulted in the rise of civilian leaders. Africa also ceased to be a proxy for either the West or the East, but that neutrality cost Africa its influence. There were signs of deference to the US for the role it had played in the implementation of governance reforms in Africa.

Moreover, most African countries came under structural adjustment programmes facilitated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – western-inspired institutions that shaped the global economy in the second half of the 20th century. “Africa lost its voice,” says Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history at Harvard University’s Centre for African Studies. “With only one game in town, African political parties no longer fought over ideology or foreign policy, but over who could better implement structural adjustment and be more loyal to the United States.” It was Africa’s initial lack of relationship with these economic institutions that was the second factor – besides politics – that enabled independence-era leaders to be more assertive and people-centred. The Bretton Woods Institutions – including what would later become the World Trade Organization – were all new organisations in the 1950s and 1960s.

This allowed African leaders, in the first two decades of independence, more autonomy in defining their paths of economic development and governance, according to Akyeampong. But everything changed after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today’s African leaders are not necessarily weaker than their post-independence predecessors, says Yolanda Spies, a senior research fellow of African diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg. The open defiance of western powers in particular shown by some past leaders was not always an indication of their diplomatic strength, because the cold war afforded many of them opportunities to double-deal with both east and west. Even so, the US cables also show that some African leaders snubbed the imperialist west because they were loyal to the opposite side of the ideological divide.

Another factor in perceptions of these former leaders, Spies argues, was the limited media scrutiny that existed in those decades. This may also have been an advantage, since very little was known about leaders’ public and private lives. “We live in an era of unprecedented media scrutiny. If we had had the kind of 24/7 scrutiny of leaders then, as we have now, we would not romanticise them as much,” Spies told Africa in Fact. Yet, while the political and economic contexts of each of the leadership eras may differ, Akyeampong argues that few leaders in modern Africa have the integrity of their predecessors. To put it another way, if a country’s corruption index reflects the integrity level of its leaders, the results today are not impressive. On average, half of the 20 countries in the world with the highest perceived levels of corruption in the past decade are in Africa, according to Transparency International. “Integrity has become a rare quality in African politics today,” Akyeampong says.

“The first generation of African leaders was patriotic: shaped in the crucible of colonial rule, they wanted better for their new nation states.” Akyeampong recalls a 2018 visit to the widow of Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first head of state from 1958 to 1984: she was living in the only home she and her husband ever had in the capital, Conakry. It was also the house where Nkrumah, Ghana’s first head of state, had lived after he was deposed in 1966, until his death in 1972. Touré was notable for leading Guinea to vote “no” in a continent-wide 1958 referendum on whether former French colonies should join the new Francophone community that was being proposed at the time. He demanded outright independence. “The leaders of the first generation were of a different ilk,” says Akyeampong. Former US President John F Kennedy rejected the “socialist” and “communist” labels that were commonly attached to African leaders like Touré, he adds.

“He decided that they were ‘patriotic nationalists’, and what the United States needed to do was to assist them with economic development, [because] these leaders valued the prosperity of their countries over ideology.” With new powers like China challenging the US for dominance in Africa, there are still bright spots of good leadership on the continent, notes Spies. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame continues to be a reference point, as is Botswana’s former president, Ian Khama. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, helped to end the 20-year war with his country’s neighbour, Eritrea, shortly after taking office, and recently helped to end the standoff between Sudanese security forces and pro-democracy protesters. Meanwhile, more African countries are becoming democratic, and the number of opposition wins is growing and more incumbents are conceding defeat. “That is leadership,” Spies says.

“We saw very little of that in Africa until very recently. It sends a powerful diplomatic message – that leaders value their people, and that they value their institutions.” But more needs to be done with regard to Africa’s foreign policy, says Maru. Kagame is making some effort to assert African autonomy, but his stance is not usual among contemporary African leaders. Perhaps this is because there are considerable challenges in developing a coherent continental approach to foreign relations. In Maru’s view, what is needed is “a pan-African level leadership that could withstand unwarranted interferences from external forces, including the US, China, Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.” But there are considerable challenges in developing a coherent continental approach to foreign relations. The African Union (AU), formed in 1999 with the goal of forging a common front in global affairs while pushing for Africa’s development, has yet to provide such a coherent approach.

First, the AU has no clear foreign policy guiding its dealings with other continents and big countries – unlike the US, China and the EU, which have policies on Africa. Its structure is also seen as too centralised and weak to support effective policy implementation internally to Africa, let alone as regards foreign policy. The regional histories of north, Francophone and Anglophone Africa bring with them different ties with different parts of the world. Also, Africa’s underwhelming economic position, despite its vast natural resources, continues to make it vulnerable in external negotiations. Then there is the complex problem of how ties – in some cases, cultural and religious – between AU member nations and foreign countries sometimes hinder efforts at achieving joint decisions. A recent example is Sudan where military rulers relying on support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, held onto power despite the AU’s warnings and its suspension of the north-east African country.

After the removal of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir on 11 April this year, the AU initially demanded the restoration of civilian rule within 15 days. Sudan’s military leaders later received a 60-day extension, thanks to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, as the AU’s current president, rallied a few leaders to support the effort. The AU finally suspended Sudan after 3 June, when the security forces killed scores of protesters and wounded many more. Sisi reportedly tried to block the decision. Sudan has for years relied on its Arab allies for support, especially since losing most of its oil revenues to newly independent South Sudan in 2011. This year, amid the political turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in half a billion dollars in aid and promised another $2.5 billion, handing a critical lifeline to the country’s military rulers. Africa requires partnerships, not subservience, to succeed, says Magbadelo.

Ultimately, its development will depend on quality leadership and on Africans. “Africa’s vision to attain development does not need the concurrence of any superpower, but the determination of its leadership to implement policies that would institutionalise structures that harmonise and utilise the creativity and productivity of African people for the overall development of the continent,” he says.

Lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for African and Asian Studies John Magbadelo.

Ini Ekott is the Assistant Managing Editor (News) at Premium Times, an online newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria. Prior to this, he reported for Next, an investigative newspaper in Lagos. He has written for IPS Africa and other publications and is a former Wole Soyinka investigative journalist of the year.

Contested, but difficult to ignore

African history: quo vadis?

Newly emerging African histories in the 1950s and 60s served as an antidote to the views of imperial and colonial historiography

Undated picture showing a school in Bingerville, former French Ivory Coast. In 2006, then French President Jacques Chirac sent a hotly-disputed comment on the “positive role” played by France’s colonial history to the country’s constitutional council, its highest judicial body. The article was inserted into legislation which said that school curriculae should “recognise the positive role of the French presence overseas”, particularly in north Africa. Photo: AFP FILES / AFP

African history has gone through many incarnations as an academic discipline. Most recently, there’s been a global turn in African historiography. This shift has been prompted by a greater awareness of the powerful forces of globalisation and the need to provide an African historical perspective on this phenomenon. This has helped to place the continent at the centre of global – and human – history. It’s important to explain the role of Africa in the world’s global past. This helps assert its position in the gradual making of global affairs. As an approach, it’s a radical departure from colonial views of Africa; it also complements the radical post-colonial histories that appeared from the 1950s and 1960s. And it may offer another framework for thinking through the curriculum reform and decolonisation debate that’s emerged in South African universities over the past few years. Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the 1950s and 1960s, in tandem with Africa’s emergence from colonial rule.

Newly emerging histories served as an antidote to the pernicious views of imperial and colonial historiography. These had dismissed Africa as a dark continent without history. But demonstrating that Africa has a long, complex history was only one step in an intellectual journey with many successes, frustrations and failures. The 20th century ended and a new one beckoned. The 21st century brought new sets of challenges. South Africa euphorically defeated apartheid, and the decolonisation project that started during the 1950s in west and north Africa was completed. These achievements were overshadowed by a horrific post-colonial genocide in Rwanda. Another genocide loomed in the Sudan. Coups, civil wars and human rights abuses stained the canvas on which a new Africa was gradually being painted. Africa’s woes were deepened by the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic.

State driven, pro-poor policies and programmes founded during the early post-colonial period atrophied. This decay was driven by hegemonic global neo-liberal economic policies, and the study of history on the continent took a knock. Student numbers declined as post-colonial governments shifted their priorities. Global funding bodies focused their attention on applied social sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Nearly two decades into the new century there’s been another shift. The subject of history, alongside other humanities disciplines, is attracting growing attention aimed at averting their further decline. This can be explained in part by the subject’s own residual internal resilience and innovative research in newer areas of historical curiosity. There’s an emerging interest in history as a complementary discipline. Students of law, education, and political science are taking history as an additional option.

In South Africa in particular, history cannot be easily ignored, although it is contested. The country is still redefining itself and charting its new course after decades of apartheid and colonialism. However, a great deal of newer interest in history as a subject can be ascribed to university student movements. These movements have garnered greater public attention for ongoing debates about decoloniality and decolonised curricula. Decoloniality is a radical concept. Its main aim is to degrade the coloniality of knowledge. In South Africa, the decolonisation movement has been tied to bread and butter issues: tuition fees and access to higher education. Decoloniality affords both the language and the reason for seeking to dismantle what are regarded as western and colonial systems and structures of knowledge production and dissemination. But while decolonisation is riding a wave of academic interest, the histories of pre-colonial Africa are receding as an area of primary research focus.

A police officer looks on as Congress of South Africa Students (COSAS) demonstrate in support of the Fees Must Fall movement in Sandton, South Africa, in September 2016. Student protests spread around the country, with police firing rubber bullets at demonstrators on campuses in Johannesburg and Grahamstown as unrest over tuition fees roiled universities across the country. The wave of protests was triggered by a government announcement that universities would set their own fee increases. Photo: MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP

The histories of resistance to colonialism continue to resonate with current struggles for transformation and decolonisation. They have long been popular among historians in and of Africa. Indeed, several social and political movements have used decolonial interpretations of African history as their currency. However, questions continue to be asked about the kind of history curriculum that should be studied at university level at this moment. And what are the purposes of such curricula? Is an African history module a necessarily transformed one? What new conceptual and methodological tools should be deployed to describe and explain colonial encounters from a decolonial lens? What modes of ethics should inform such approaches? The challenges go beyond the conceptual aspects of decolonisation in the domain of African history.

There are historical structural formations, hierarchies and tendencies within academia that are rooted in coloniality. These make it a huge challenge to articulate newer forms of knowledge. At the same time, decoloniality should operate through other forms and frameworks. This will allow it to find application beyond its own self-defined frames. In addition, new approaches should challenge received wisdom and develop new kinds of curiosity. Newer curricula should, for instance, grapple with the fact that there is no single Africa. A unitary model of Africa is a colonial invention. Ordinary people’s identities form and evolve via multiple networks and knowledge forms. An Africa approached from its diverse histories and identities could help forge new, purposeful solidarities and futures.

A student holds a placard reading “Fees must fall” in Cape Town, October 2015, during nation-wide protests against fee hikes at tertiary education institutions. Similar protests were held at other universities around South Africa at the time. Many students said higher fees would further prevent poorer black youths from accessing a university education. Photo: RODGER BOSCH / AFP