The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa: prosperity, peace and development co-operation Contents

Chapter 7: Human rights, democracy and governance in Sub-Saharan Africa

631.In this chapter we consider human rights, democracy and governance in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the relationship between them.

Human rights

632.Human Rights Watch (HRW) said there had been some human rights successes in Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, but these had happened “progressively and slowly”. They included: the 2016 conviction by the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese court system of former Chadian President Hissene Habré for torture; the 2019 conviction by the International Criminal Court of former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda; the adoption of more progressive human rights legislation in several countries; and The Gambia’s leading role in bringing a case against Myanmar to the International Court of Justice.944

633.It said the “drivers” of poverty and inequality in the region needed to be considered in the context of human rights. These included: “corruption and mismanagement … the increased privatisation of public services, weak regulation of natural resource exploration … [and] environmental and climate … vulnerability.”945

634.Dr Medie said “high levels of poverty” amongst women, “partly caused by conflict”, made “it difficult” for many women “to access basic needs, including food, shelter, and healthcare.” Such issues could not be “divorced from the social norms that support gender inequalities in most societies”.946

635.The AU’s Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol)947 came into effect in 2005. It “commits member states to adopt legislation on gender equality, including in the security sector”.948 HRW described the Protocol as a “progressive legal instrument” which had “pushed the frontiers of human rights”, in part for its “recognition” of the right of women and girls to “access safe abortion under specific conditions.”949 However, Dr Holmes said that, as of 2019, only 40 of 55 AU member states had signed the Protocol and fewer than 20 had ratified it.950

636.Witnesses considered human rights issues relating to women and the LGBTQ+ community. Dr Holmes said African women had “been the driving force in developing … initiatives to end structural gender inequalities and empower women.”951 Dr Johnstone said African perspectives on LGBTQ+ rights “were complex” but not “static”. Thanks to “the hard work and determination of local advocacy groups”, “societal attitudes and legal precedents” were changing.952

Governance and accountability

637.The Royal African Society said more countries in the region were “evolving stable, pluralist and accountable political systems.”953 Dr McSweeney said that in the last two decades public pressure had encouraged several African countries to move from authoritarian regimes to democracies.954

638.Dr Tchie, however, saw “a lack of democratisation coupled with weak state capacity”, which had aggravated other challenges, including the insecurity discussed in Chapter 6. There was “over reliance” by international actors on “elections as the ultimate solution to transition countries to democracy”. Too much focus on relatively quick elections neglected the “weak” states that existed in conflict-affected countries. A push for elections could “further erode weak institutions” and make “states prone to democratic regression.”955

639.HRW said “the rule of law and respect for human rights” were “important pillars of democracy”, and “weak institutional frameworks for protecting” both meant that democracy rested on “shaky foundations in many African countries”.956 The OSF said the “civic space” in Sub-Saharan Africa had “been shrinking for the last 15 years”, which was “fuelling democratic backsliding.”957

640.Andrew Mitchell MP said “humility” was needed: “the Westminster system of government” was not “necessarily the answer to all problems everywhere in the world”. Multiparty democracy was not a “panacea”.958


641.Search for Common Ground said there were “deep issues of corruption” in Sub-Saharan Africa959 (discussed in relation to the business environment in Chapter 4). Dr McSweeney said “endemic corruption” was a “violation of human rights”,960 and Dr Vines and Mr Dewar said “entrenched governance challenges and endemic corruption” undermined progress.961

642.The OSF cited “‘state capture’ by local and global corporate elites” as one of the most significant threats facing the continent. Some African political elites were both “the perpetrators of grand corruption” and the people “expected to support anti-corruption investigations and prosecutions.” Corruption and state capture were “fuelling grievance and the militarisation of politics”, which in turn was “opening the door to renewed authoritarianism in Africa.”962


643.Dr Westcott said that encouraging “transparency and accountability” in Sub-Saharan African governments should be a priority for the UK. It was better to use the word “accountability” than “democracy”, as “effective accountability … can come in a lot of different ways”.963 Andrew Mitchell MP said he believed “accountability” was “more important than democracy” in the region.964

644.The OSF said there had been a “worrying regression in electoral integrity and accountability processes” in the region. An “unaccountable state” was “unable to: guarantee human security; curb abuses of power; capably make and implement laws and policies that generate economic growth and advance livelihoods and incomes; or assure the effective and efficient management of public resources.”965

645.Dr Westcott said that African governments had “five to 10 years … in which to ensure that there is an accountable system of government and rapid economic growth”. If this did not happen, he thought there would be an “‘African Spring’ with fairly revolutionary change because the young people just will not wait.”966


646.Freedom Now said that Rwanda had “undergone a miraculous transformation in the past quarter century”. “Much of the credit” was “due foreign aid administered and managed under President Paul Kagame”.967 The “extent to which President Kagame” had “built an authoritarian cult of personality” and was “eliminating dissent and committing grave human rights abuses” often went “unnoticed”.968

647.Dr Westcott referred to this as a “dilemma”. President Kagame was an “autocrat” and there were “questions” regarding the country’s human rights record. On the other hand, the Rwandan government was “non-corrupt”, “spending aid money well” and “reducing poverty”.969

648.Andrew Mitchell MP said “the first human right” was the right to “to life, to safety, and to be able to live in your community and not to be in fear of what may happen to you and your family”. He said President Kagame had provided this to the people of Rwanda.970

Justice and the International Criminal Court

Box 27: The International Criminal Court and Africa

The International Criminal Court was established in 2002. It is based in The Hague. It has some similarities to national judicial institutions, and to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and ‘mixed-model tribunals’ in countries such as Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Cambodia, East Timor and Lebanon.971

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP)—the “investigative and prosecutorial engine of the ICC—has been criticised for being “preoccupied … with Africa”.972

There are 13 ‘situations’ under investigation by the OTP, of which ten are in Africa. The 10 African situations are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Sudan (Darfur), Kenya, Libya, Ivory Coast, Mali, Burundi and two in the Central African Republic. The three non-African situations are in Georgia, Bangladesh/Myanmar and Afghanistan.973 The OTP has decided either not to open investigations into other situations reported to it (including in Iraq, Venezuela, Palestine and Colombia) or to keep them under preliminary examination.974

649.Professor Murithi said there had been “a spate of confrontations” between the AU and the International Criminal Court (see Box 27). The decision in February 2020 by the new Sudanese government to agree to send former President Omar al-Bashir for trial at the ICC was “very welcome”. However, despite Sudan’s recent referral, the AU still had a “policy of non-cooperation with the ICC”.975

650.Professor Murithi said that a “balance between the restorative processes within countries” and “formal criminal justice processes”, including the ICC, was required to move “forward.”976

651.The AU had adopted a Transitional Justice Policy in 2019, the culmination of “a lot of hard work by a number of civil society organisations”.977 It had four dimensions:

(1)An appreciation of the need to recover “the truth about what happened”;

(2)A process of justice, “including punitive, criminal justice and restorative justice”;

(3)Processes of “reparation and restitution”; and

(4)The “institutional reform of constitutional and judicial systems” and other key sectors.978

652.Without transitional justice, “many African countries” would not be able to move forward”. Over the next five to 15 years, the “core business of the African Union” would be enabling countries that had “emerged from crisis and conflict to put in place processes, mechanisms and institutions to address historical grievances and injustices”.979

653.We recognise that some African countries have had a difficult relationship with the International Criminal Court. We believe that the court remains an important part of the rules-based international order. In this context, we welcome the agreement of the new Sudanese government to cooperate with the court regarding former President Omar al-Bashir.

The role of the UK and non-African partners

654.The OSF criticised the “self-interested policies and practices of external actors” which had helped to erode “the agency and voice of African citizens”.980

655.Dr Westcott said the UK had a role to play in helping to “build … transparent institutions of accountability.”981 Its influence was strengthened by “its strong tradition of a free press, free speech, democratic institutions and visible and effective accountability.”982

656.HRW said that “despite its significant influence on the governments of former British colonies”, the UK focused “more public engagement on the promotion of trade and culture rather than human rights values”. The Government preferred “private diplomacy” to “co-opt rather than coerce abusive regimes”.983 The APPG for Africa said there was “some concern” the Government might choose to “prioritise working with African governments and new security partners over human rights”.984

657.Ms Mathews did not “think that human rights, prosperity and business” were “mutually exclusive” or that “chasing deals” was “crowding out” human rights.985 While there was not a ‘shift’ on human rights as part of the Government’s ‘strategic approach’ to Africa (see Chapter 2), human rights were “a key part” of the Government’s work.986

658.Dr Westcott said that encouraging “the development of good human rights and good governance in Africa” was “tricky”; countries hated “being lectured”. There was a “high risk” of advocacy being “counterproductive” if it was seen to be “hectoring”.987 Ms Mathews said sometimes there was a need for “’megaphone diplomacy’” on these issues, but not always.988

659.Witnesses discussed the partners the UK could work with in this area. First, Dr Westcott said the UK needed to work with “European partners”—most of which had a similar approach to the UK—and the US—which was less aligned “at the moment”.989

660.Second, there could be engagement with civil society. HRW said the UK should “provide direct support to African human rights institutions, including through training, systems support and speaking out through bilateral channels to support their independence.”990 The OSF said the UK “must demonstrate political will by … listening to the continent’s citizens” and civil society organisations.991 Christian Aid said there had been a decrease in UK funding for local civil society organisations in the region.992

661.A third avenue was the Commonwealth (see Chapter 3). Dr Johnstone said that there were limits. During the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia, then Prime Minister, David Cameron “provoked ire when he suggested” that the UK’s official development assistance “should be linked to respect for LGBTQ+ rights in recipient countries”. His statement had “evoked homophonic responses from political and religious leaders” from Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda.993

662.The Government must continue to afford significant importance to human rights in its relationships in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time as the UK pursues new economic opportunities and seeks to tackle security challenges, human rights remain critical.

663.The Government should consider support for accountability, human rights, the rule of law and anti-corruption as a package that helps build the necessary conditions for democracy to function in Sub-Saharan Africa. Organisations such as the British Council, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and UK-based NGOs and charities make an important contribution to this agenda.

664.The Government should seek to use its participation in the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali to promote freedom of religion and belief, LGBTQ+ rights and issues relating to the human rights of women and girls.

944 Written evidence from Human Rights Watch (ZAF0050). HRW referred to The Gambia’s role in international proceedings against Myanmar as “a rare show of leadership from Africa on human rights issues”.

945 Written evidence from Human Rights Watch (ZAF0050)

946 Written evidence from Dr Peace A. Medie (ZAF0052)

947 UN, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa: [accessed 24 June 2020]

948 Written evidence from Dr Georgina Holmes (ZAF0046)

949 Written evidence from Human Rights Watch (ZAF0050)

950 Written evidence from Dr Georgina Holmes (ZAF0046)

951 Written evidence from Dr Georgina Holmes (ZAF0046)

952 Written evidence from Dr Lyn Johnstone (ZAF0041)

953 Written evidence from the Royal African Society (ZAF0002)

954 Written evidence from Dr Terence McSweeney (ZAF0013)

955 Written evidence from Dr Andrew Edward Yaw Tchie (ZAF0032)

956 Written evidence from Human Rights Watch (ZAF0050)

957 Written evidence from the OSF (ZAF0048)

958 Q 5

959 Written evidence from Search for Common Ground (ZAF0009)

960 Written evidence from Dr Terence McSweeney (ZAF0013)

961 Written evidence from Dr Alex Vines OBE and Bob Dewar CMG (ZAF0027)

962 Written evidence from the OSF (ZAF0048). Also see written evidence from Dr Andrew Edward Yaw Tchie (ZAF0032) and written evidence from the Remote Warfare Programme, Oxford Research Group (ZAF0045).

963 Q 29

964 Q 5

965 Written evidence from the OSF (ZAF0048)

966 Q 31

967 Written evidence from Freedom Now (ZAF0008)

968 Written evidence from Freedom Now (ZAF0008)

969 Q 31

970 Q 5

971 ICC Forum, ‘Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) targeting Africa inappropriately’ (March 2013): [accessed 24 June 2020]

972 Ibid.

973 International Criminal Court, ‘Situations under investigation’: [accessed 24 June 2020]

974 ICC Forum, ‘Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) targeting Africa inappropriately

975 Q 60

976 Q 60

977 Q 60

978 AU, Transitional Justice Policy (February 2019): [accessed 24 June 2020]

979 Q 60

980 Written evidence from the OSF (ZAF0048)

981 Q 30

982 Q 29

983 Written evidence from Human Rights Watch (ZAF0050)

984 Written evidence from the APPG for Africa (ZAF0007)

985 Q 16

986 Q 28

987 Q 31

988 Q 16

989 Q 29

990 Written evidence from Human Rights Watch (ZAF0050)

991 Written evidence the OSF (ZAF0048)

992 Written evidence from Christian Aid (ZAF0038)

993 Written evidence from Dr Lyn Johnstone (ZAF0041). Homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment in a number of African Commonwealth countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia. Amnesty International UK, ‘Mapping anti-gay laws in Africa’ (31 May 2018): [accessed 17 June 2020]. In some northern Nigerian states active homosexuality carries the death penalty. ‘Brunei stoning: Which places have the death penalty for gay sex?’, BBC News (3 April 2019): [accessed 17 June 2020]

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