South Africa

Africa: Governments Exploited Covid-19 to Crack Down on Human Rights - Report

Police dispersing opposition leaders in Senegal who tried to stage a sit-in at a government building.

Cape Town — Covid-19 and the emergency measures taken to combat it have affected the poor in Africa particularly badly, and some governments have exploited the pandemic to restrict human rights, says a leading rights expert on Africa.

Mausi Segun, executive director of the Africa division of Human Right Watch (HRW), reported recently on the state of human rights on the continent in 2020. She was presenting the findings of HRW's annual review of human rights around the world as they relate to Africa. She oversees the HRW's work in about 30 nations.

Several governments introduced severe restrictions on movement and freedom of assembly, she said. While these may have curbed the spread of the virus in some places, "they have also had a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty and economic deprivation". The impact of economic downturns which followed lockdowns "exacerbated the existing poverty and inequality across the continent."

There has been little transparency about how funds donated to fight the virus, she added, and the effects of the pandemic have reinforced the need for meaningful investment to improve access to quality health care and the provision of adequate water and sanitation across the continent.

"In places like Burundi, Guinea and Uganda, authorities have used Covid-19 emergency measures as a pretext to violently repress the opposition and restrict further civil and political rights," she said.

Commenting on human rights abuses not related to the pandemic, Segun said many of the elections held in 2020 were marred by violence and oppression, and the conflict in the Tigray province of Ethiopia is "only the latest of the dire humanitarian and human rights crises gripping Sub-Saharan Africa."

Armed conflict continued in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan, and there were abuses related to terrorist and counter-terrorist activity in places such as Burundi, Nigeria, the Sahel region, Somalia and Mozambique.

Election-related violence was directed at opposition politicians in a number of countries during 2020, Segun said. And the repression of civil protests and harassment of independent media, journalists and civil society groups remained at "disturbing levels" in Burundi, Cameroon, Guinea, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, as well as during the recent election campaign in Uganda.

Read HRW's detailed reports on selected countries >>

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