Former child soldiers who were embroiled in the Central African Republic’s civil war have now become frontline aid workers in the country’s fight against COVID-19. As part of UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) relief program, which began in 2015, the former soldiers are hired to provide safe drinking water by manually drilling wells and laying pipes. So far, they have installed wells for about 25,000 people, a critical service, especially during the pandemic.
The program offers a path to rehabilitation
Years of civil war devastated the Central African Republic’s already fragile healthcare system and left about half of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. For the child soldiers, the WASH program offers a path to rehabilitation; it has given them the opportunity to learn valuable skills and to earn a living. It helps to minimize the chances of them relapsing into fighting by joining one of about a dozen armed groups operating in the country.
It also encourages communities to accept these former child soldiers back into their communities. Rejection is another motivating factor for recidivism, even though the country’s militias agreed in 2015 to free all child soldiers and end child recruitment.
Morocco, which maintained one of the strictest border lockdowns in response to COVID-19, will begin to reopen its borders in phases starting next week. Moroccan citizens and expatriates will be allowed to return in the first phase beginning July 14, but only after presenting results from both a PCR (polymerize chain reaction) test and an antibody test. Foreign citizens stuck in Morocco will now finally be able to return home as well.
The severe border closures imposed on March 15 left many Moroccans stuck in foreign countries, including 500 in Spain, some without resources to support themselves during this forced exile.
A resumption of travel may help Royal Air Maroc, Morocco’s state-owned national airline, alleviate some of the major losses it sustained after cancelling all routes due to the pandemic, though it is unlikely to return to its former fleet size as the pandemic persists.
In the Republic of the Congo, concerns persist over the health of Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, a former military chief and opposition politician who has been in prison since 2016, when he was arrested with others after refusing to accept the re-election of Denis Sassou Nguesso as president. In 2018, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison for undermining state security.
His health has suddenly deteriorated. He tested negative for COVID-19, and according to the latest press release he has acute malaria, aggravated by hypertension. Several NGOs and Congolese civil society organizations have called for Mokoko to be placed under house arrest so he could be treated by his family doctor. The authorities have not yet responded to these repeated calls, despite condemnation from other African heads of state and the United Nations.
A video resurfaced showing him purportedly discussing a coup
Prior to his imprisonment, Mokoko served as adviser for peace and security to President Denis Sassou Nguesso, before quitting his position in February 2016 to run against Nguesso in the March presidential election. A few days after Mokoko had announced his candidacy, a 2007 video resurfaced showing him purportedly discussing a coup to overthrow Nguesso with a French intelligence agent.
The polemic around Mokoko’s imprisonment reflect a broader discussion occurring across Africa as the continent grapples with the dangers involved in keeping prisoners behind bars, where cramped and often unsanitary conditions increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
The murder of George Floyd, an African American man, by police officer Derek Chauvin for the alleged crime of spending a $20 counterfeit note has resulted in widespread anti-racism protests under the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement across the United States and the globe. One aspect of this movement has been the reconsideration of public monuments to historical figures connected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In Bristol, England, BLM protesters brought down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the nearby harbor. In Oxford, calls to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes have gained renewed interest, reviving a 2015 campaign modeled on the #RhodesMustFall student movement in South Africa.
Newer memorials dedicated to Kenyans include a monument in honor of Tom Mboya
Similar sentiments have bubbled over in Kenya, which is dotted with its own assortment of statues, hotels, parks, and street names honoring former colonial figures such as Queen Victoria and Hugh Cholmondeley, an influential British settler and landowner in then British East Africa Protectorate, now Kenya.
Newer memorials dedicated to Kenyans include a monument in honor of Tom Mboya, one of the founding fathers of the independent Republic of Kenya, in the Nairobi CBD; a UK-funded memorial to Kenyans killed by British forces during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s in Uhuru Park in Nairobi; and a recently unveiled statue of Dedan Kimathi, the spiritual leader of the Mau Mau Uprising, in Nyeri.
On Sunday, June 14, thirty-year-old queer feminist Sarah Hegazi took her own life in exile in Canada.
A short letter attributed to Sarah, written in Arabic, circulated on social media days after her death. The letter read: “To my siblings—I tried to survive and I failed, forgive me. To my friends—the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world—you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”
Three years ago, Sarah had attended a concert in Cairo featuring a Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Filled with joy at the event, Sarah waved the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride used by LGBTQ movements around the world.
Little did she know that it would forever change the course of her life.
About a week after the concert, Egyptian authorities arrested and imprisoned Sarah on charges of “being part of a banned group that aims to interfere with the constitution.” They also arrested several other concertgoers based on their real or perceived sexual orientation. Sarah was released on bail after being imprisoned for three months.
Sarah, an Egyptian national, was a self-proclaimed lesbian and feminist. She was an activist for both causes long before the Mashrou’ Leila concert.
Sarah also identified as a communist and became involved with the Spring Socialist Network once in Canada. In Egypt, she was fired from her job for her political views. In her articles, Sarah openly discussed her opposition to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military general, who took over the Arab world’s most populous country in 2013.
In prison, Sarah was tortured by members of the Egyptian police and subjected to solitary confinement during detention. Authorities also encouraged female inmates to torment her.
“I have not forgotten the injustice which dug a black hole into the soul and left it bleeding, a hole which the doctors have not yet been able to heal,” Sarah said in an article published in 2018 with independent online newspaper Mada Masr.
“I became afraid of everyone. Even after my release, I was still afraid of everyone, of my family and of friends and of the street. Fear took the lead,” Sarah wrote.
Sarah’s story has ignited an awareness that cannot be stopped around the world. She has brought focus to the maltreatment and abuse of the LGBTQ community in Egypt and the Middle East.
The trauma that minority communities face is often reflected in higher death and suicide rates resulting from both mental and physical illnesses. Many people underestimate the harmful impact of bullying and hate speech. Such hate is even more detrimental when supported and endorsed by the state, which is the case of Egypt and many countries across the Arab world.
In her 2018 article for Mada Masr, Sarah openly discussed that she was struck with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after the persecution that she faced for simply waving a symbol of queer pride.
She developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. Eventually, she was forced to leave Egypt out of fear of being arrested again. While in exile, Sarah’s mother passed away in Egypt, adding to her grief and trauma.
To face such persecution is one thing, but to live with painful memories that haunt you is another. Sarah wrote that she lived in terror, stuttered when she spoke, and even had trouble being around people or speaking in the media. She had also attempted suicide twice.
“We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.” — Hamed Sinno
Her death has opened the door to a much larger discussion on Egypt and across the Middle East. For far too long, Egyptian authorities have stifled and threatened the lives of minorities, vibrant and creative youth, women, and members of the LGBTQ community.
“The thought that someone can leave a society that keeps trying to kill them, and still carry that society inside them, still be moved to taking their own lives, chills me to the bone, as I reflect on my own exile, and the exile of the people I love,” the New York-based singer-songwriter wrote. “We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.”
The band also paid tribute to Sarah on their official Twitter account.
In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in jurisprudence, but detention and charges are still made on the basis of laws combatting “debauchery” and prostitution.
Some of the kindest souls and brightest minds of Egypt and the Arab world have been sent into self-imposed exile due to such vague interpretations of the law that allow for oppression, violence, and intimidation.
Sarah’s tragic death has shed light once again on these repressive crackdowns and the persecution of women and the LGBTQ community in Egypt. It is also another reminder that “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” as Pope Shenouda III once said.
Reem Abdellatif is an Egyptian international freelance journalist and editor. She writes about women’s economic empowerment, environmental awareness, energy, business news, travel, and geopolitics.
Reports started to circulate on June 3 that Cameroonian television presenter Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, better known by his screen name Samuel Wazizi, had died while in military detention. Lawyer Christopher Ndong said he had died in a military hospital in Yaoundé of wounds inflicted during brutal torture, but no one knew when this had happened, and there was no immediate comment from the authorities.
It had been ten months since police took Wazizi in for questioning and handed him to the military a few days later. He worked for Chillen Muzic Television (CMTV) as a presenter of a popular pidgin English news program Halla Ya Matta (Shout Out Your Problem) in Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region.
Both the Southwest and Northwest English-speaking regions have been in the grip of violence since the Anglophone separatist revolt began in October 2017. Reporters Without Borders said Wazizi was accused of criticizing the authorities’ handling of the conflict on air and for allegedly supporting the separatists. Since then, his family and lawyers had had no news of him. Journalists who tried to see him in late September were told he had been transferred to Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé.
The first official acknowledgement of Wazizi’s death came on June 5, when the defense ministry issued a statement saying he had died of “severe sepsis” shortly after his arrest in August 2019, but denying he had been tortured.
“We need those who were responsible for his death to be held accountable”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement in response. “The Cameroonian government’s cruel treatment of journalist Samuel Wazizi is truly shocking,” said Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator for the CPJ. “It is unbelievable that authorities covered up his death in custody for ten months despite repeated inquiries from press freedom advocates and his family, colleagues, friends, and lawyers. An independent autopsy should be conducted immediately, and Cameroon must also launch an independent commission of inquiry so that those responsible for Wazizi’s death are held accountable.”
“We need those who were responsible for his death to be held accountable,” Quintal told New Africa Daily. “We cannot have another case of impunity in the death of a journalist in Cameroon, as we saw with Bibi Ngota’s death in Kondengui Prison over ten years ago.”
Indeed, Wazizi’s death marks the second death of a Cameroonian journalist in detention since the CPJ began keeping records in 1992. Ngota had been investigating corruption involving a politician when he was detained.
“We repeat our call for the remaining seven journalists in jail to be released,” Quintal says. “Several have been in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods—Wawa Jackson Nfor for more than two years and Paul Chouta for more than a year.”
The Anglophone Crisis
Wazizi’s death has attracted international attention to a conflict that has raged largely in the shadows. Known as the Anglophone Crisis, it is rooted in the perception that the English-speaking minority—about 20 percent of the population—are marginalized by the Francophone-dominated government in the political, cultural and economic spheres.
On October 1, 2017, separatists in the anglophone Southwest and Northwest regions declared the independence of Ambazonia. The government of President Paul Biya responded to initial peaceful protests with excessive force, arbitrary arrests, and torture, sparking radicalization. Rather than an organized front, the struggle is being waged largely by semi-independent guerrilla groups that the government likens to bandits. About 3,000 people have been killed in the fighting and more than half a million have been displaced.
The imprisonment of journalists is a potential death sentence
Journalists have suffered abuse at the hands of not only government forces but also rebels, who have kidnapped and tortured people accused of insufficiently supporting the separatist cause. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries.
Quintal says in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the imprisonment of journalists is a potential death sentence. Crowded detention centers are at particular risk of outbreaks, now that the official tally of cases has reached 8,000. In April, Biya announced steps to release thousands of prisoners, but those would not include separatists, political opponents, and journalists critical of his rule.
One separatist group has heeded the appeal to declare a ceasefire to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but none of the other groups—estimated to number fifteen—have done so, nor has the government.
Somali women are slowly claiming their space in the formal labor force. A women’s cooperative with seventy members is now involved in the traditionally male-dominated fishing sector in Kismayo, a port city in Lower Juba province.
The cooperative has received vital support from KIMS Microfinance, Somalia’s first and only privately owned microfinance institution. With funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, KIMS provides sharia-compliant financial support to people on a low income. Women make up 50 percent of its beneficiaries.
“Women in the fishing sector have proven to be competitive”
“We have supported 25,000 female-owned businesses since we began operating in 2014,” says Khalif Yusuf, KIMS regional manager in Kismayo. “We particularly prioritize women in the fishing sector, since they have proven to be competitive and created employment opportunities for other women.”
A New Constitution
This year, Somalis are set to adopt a permanent constitution through a referendum. The provisional constitution, adopted in 2012, is currently being reviewed.
Public consultation meetings have been held as part of the review process, which have provided an opportunity for women to ask for increased female representation in elected office and public service.
During Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday celebrated by Muslims at the end of the month-long Ramadan, the Algerian popular protest movement Hirak took to the streets again despite the ban on large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Photos and videos were shared on social media of protesters marching in the city of Sétif on Sunday in support of political prisoners, several dozen of whom are still held in detention despite the aggravated risk of contracting the virus in prison.
Hirak activists and supporters have accused the Algerian government of using the COVID-19 lockdown to suppress the movement, stifle speech critical of the government, and subject organizers to arbitrary arrests.
Returning to Where It Started
On Monday, a protest march was held in Kherrata, the northern town where the first Hirak march took place on February 16, 2019, against the candidacy for a fifth term of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. This kicked off a wave of protests that led to his resignation. Abdelmadjid Tebboune won the presidential election and assumed office in December.
The movement has continued, calling for an end to corruption, the removal of the political old guard, and a complete overhaul of the political system.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), an international coalition of human rights organizations, warns that Guinean authorities are using the country’s state of emergency to suppress opposition political groups and human rights activists. Opponents of the controversial referendum to amend the national constitution enacted on April 7 have faced arrests, arbitrary detainment, judicial harassment, and acts of intimidation.
Collectively, these political opponents refer to themselves as the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), whose leadership has been held without due process for more than two months now. The FNDC rejected the legitimacy of Guinea’s newly elected national assembly and opposed the constitutional referendum for fears it would allow Presiden Alpha Condé to run again for a third term. Although the Guinean constitution limits presidents to two terms, the ratification of a new constitution effectively resets the clock, which would allow Condé to run again in 2026.
The arrests of dissidents is especially concerning given the crowded conditions in prisons.
The FIDH has also raised concerns over several deaths last week linked to protests over roadblocks set up by security forces to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The pandemic’s presence in Guinea coupled with escalating arrests of political dissidents is especially concerning given the crowded conditions in Guinean prisons, which have already reported infections.
Public resistance to countrywide lockdown orders put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 has given rise to numerous protests and public displays of frustration, but in Sierra Leone these tensions have become much more violent, leaving more than a dozen people dead. Responding to the violence, President Julius Maada Bio delivered a stern national address affirming he had diverted security resources to capture and punish those involved in the riots.
Bio promised to prioritize investigations into corruption by his predecessor.
Various civil society groups in Sierra Leone viewed the speech as rather aggressive, and have called upon the government to more clearly spell out restrictions linked to pandemic management. Most troubling is that Bio accused the political opposition of deliberately funding and encouraging the demonstrations. Not only does this threaten national unity during the pandemic, but it also accentuates the recent arrests of former ministers of the APC opposition. In his campaign for the presidency in 2018, Bio promised to prioritize investigations into corruption by his predecessor, Ernest Bai Koroma.
Bio’s transition team uncovered evidence that top APC officials and Koroma had sold off profitable shares of the Sierra Rutile mining company at an artificially low value while also taking bribes from the company’s former CEO in exchange for mining licenses. Several high-ranking members of Komora’s cabinet were recommended for investigation, yet the names of the former defense minister, his wife, and minister of social welfare currently detained without due process were not on that list.