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A decade on, Tunisia's shaky democratic success could inspire the region.
A decade on, Tunisia's shaky democratic success could inspire the region.

Tunisia has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its revolution on January 14 that marked the end of 23 years of Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime and the beginning of a firm commitment to a process of democratization. The 2011 popular uprising was not doomed to stay as an isolated event as it sparked a series of wide range protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa. While these countries undergone a different process and outcomes, it is undeniable that the act of a young Tunisian vendor of fruits who lit himself aflame as a protest to repression and marginalization had an irreversible impact on the whole regional geopolitical dynamics. 

Being the epicenter of the Arab spring, The Tunisian experience has been hailed internationally thanks to the democratic steps it has taken throughout this decade that made of it a regional exception. Freedom House’s annual report, assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world indicates in its 2020 report that Tunisia is the only “free” country in the Arab world[1].  Several elections at the national and local level were marked by a peaceful transfer of power and judged free and fair at the national and international level. The rise of a vibrant and functioning civil society has played a significantly positive role in influencing the strength, transparency and functionality of nascent political institutions and process. These efforts were crowned by Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet’s winning the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The Quartet made of a group of civil society groups had a decisive contribution in establishing a roadmap for peaceful political transition at the time when the country was on the brink of civil war[2].

The transitional justice process launched with the hope to deal with a past of political repression, human rights violations and abuse of public funds constitutes another brighter spot. The Truth and Dignity Commission has completed its work: with 62 thousand complaints for reparation and national reconciliation, it documented and archived numerous cases, and according to the Commission’s own reports, has secured TND 700 million for the state budget and referred 72 cases to the judiciary. While this marks a milestone in Tunisia’s transition, the country still needs to find the best approach to implement a comprehensive national reconciliation strategy while ensuring accountability[3].

Certainly the steps that been undertaken in the direction of protection and promotion of women’s rights over the last decade were embraced with an equally if not more enthusiasm by international actors. Tunisia has always been way ahead of the other Arab countries when it comes to progressive laws in favor of women rights and the 2014 Constitution came only to maintain the country’s regional status in that regard[4]. The electoral law that has been framing legislative elections ensured the vertical parity on candidates lists. The 2018 Local elections was framed by an even more progressive election law that included a provision for horizontal party added to the vertical one to ensure equal representation of men and women as head of lists. This led to nearly half of elected local officials being women[5]. The holistic law on the eradication of all forms of violence against women adopted in 2017 came also to reflect the constitution’s progressive spirit. For the first time, moral, psychological, economic and even political gender-based violence has been criminalized. The proper implementation of all mechanisms presented by the law especially providing state support to violence survivals remains a challenge[6].

The notable progress achieved for democracy building and human rights over a decade is nevertheless neither a source of content nor optimism among most Tunisians. According to the International Republican Institute’s national wide survey conducted in the last 2020 trimester, 87 percent believe that Tunisia is heading in the wrong direction[7].  The negative outlook Tunisians seem to have when it comes to the present and the future is fueled mostly by economic woes as Growth faltered after 2011.  A combination of high youth unemployment rate, regional socio economic disparities, the erosion of the welfare state and rampant corruption draws a bleak economic reality. Persisting labor strikes and terrorist attacks have affected the production and export of gas, oil and phosphates[8]. It has also damaged the tourism sector, and have led to the rise of military and security spending. Libya’s crisis have also largely contributed to the slowing of the economic activity being the number two trading partner after the European Union.

While there is broad agreement on the need for reforms to surpass stagnation and instability that have prevented progress, political fragmentation has left the parliaments almost deadlocked and have led to more than 12 cabinet reshuffles making the adoption and the proper implementation of reforms a real challenge[9]. Consensus built on “Islamist-secularist rapprochement” has been a defining feature of Tunisia’s post revolution political dynamics and many would consider it as the main reason behind the country’s success to remain on a democratic path while its neighbors fell into military dictatorship or civil war. Yet the formation of coalition and national unity governments was at the detriment of structural and bold social and economic reforms and the rise of a strong opposition. The consensus displayed on the proportional list electoral system that favors small parties has prevented the emergence of a consistent and harmonious majority able to support the government in its reforms and easily pass its bills[10]. The Constitutional Court, a pillar of a healthy functioning democratic system, which was supposed to be created in 2015 according to the constitution, has still not been set up as the four Court members to be appointed by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) being still blocked.

This political deadlock continues to periodically fuel mobilizations of protest against the government[11] and has particularly deepened the confidence gap between citizens and Institutions. IRI’s 2020 national wide survey shows that 85 % believe the government (and 88 percent for the parliament) are doing little or nothing to address the needs of ordinary citizens[12]

The failure of all succeeding governments to respond to the socio-economic demands that were the revolution’s “raison d'être” has fostered nostalgia for the old regime. Political parties who defend the legacy of the past (whether under Ben Ali or Bouguiba ) have been given more political and electoral weight as the expense of parties who were in the opposition in the pre revolution era. The most extreme of these parties is the Destoruian Free Party (PDL) that presents its self as being counter revolution, openly praising the old regime, and proposing to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential system.

The party has successfully secured 17 seats at the parliament and its woman leader and current MP, Abir Moussi, has been on the top of polls[13]. The party’s particular antagonism towards Ennahdha has contributed to the dysfunction of the newly elected Tunisian parliament since it was sworn in on November 2019. As Moussi’s party considers Ennahdha to be last bastion of the Muslim Brotherhood and needs to be eradicated, tensions and disputes aired live on National TV between her and Rached Ghannouhi, Ennahdha’s leader and Parliament’s Speaker has fed the negative perception towards the parliament. The state of affairs that has marked the legislative body, the symbol “par excellence” of the Tunisian democratic sovereignty has led to more discreditation of the democratic process.

The aggravating economic situation due to Covid-19 pandemic will certainly make reforms even more challenging, fueling thus more democratic disillusionment, which calls for more national unity and international support. Actually, the fear of Europe on the presence of Islamism in the government even if moderate, and on the other side the fear from the Gulf countries of similar revolutions inside their regimes, made the Tunisian transition being left mostly on its own. 

Transitions can take generations. While Tunisia’s relatively successful model still challenges and defies theories and skepticism around democracy and Islam, its democratic exceptional trajectory is shaky. Still because of its proximity to Libya, the Sahel, and other countries it may well serve as an example to future protests for more Arab Springs and even new African ones.

Chriaz Arbi is a Tunisian political expert and UN consultant on women's affairs. Maurizio Geri is an analyst on peace, security, defense, and strategic foresight. He is based in Brussels, Belgium. 

References

[1] Freedom House. Freedom in the world 2020: Tunisia.  Freedom House, 2020.https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-world/2020.

 

[2] Crisis Group. “Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example.” Crisis Group, October 10, 2015.https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/tunisia/tunisia-s-national-dialogue-quartet-set-powerful-example.

 

[3] International Center for Transitional Justice.After the Truth Commission, Tunisia Must Pursue Inclusive Transitional Justice.International Center for Transitional Justice, October 7, 2020. https://www.ictj.org/news/after-truth-commission-tunisia-must-pursue-inclusive-transitional-justice.

 

[4] UN WOMEN. Tunisia’s new Constitution: a breakthrough for women’s rights.UN WOMEN, February 11, 2014.https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/2/tunisias-new-constitution.

 

 

[5] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Results from Tunisia’s 2018 municipal elections. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 15, 2018. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/08/15/results-from-tunisia-s-2018-municipal-elections-pub-77044.

 

[6] Euromed Rights. Situation report on Violence against Women: Tunisia. Euromed Rights, February 2018. https://euromedrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Factsheet-VAW-Tunisia-Feb2018-EN.pdf.

 

[7] International Republican Institute. Tunisia Poll October 2020: “A Decade after the Revolution, Tunisians Worried About the Future”. International Republican Institute, January 7, 2021. https://www.iri.org/resource/decade-after-revolution-tunisians-worried-about-future.

 

[8] World Bank. Doing Business 2019: Economy Profile of Tunisia. https://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/t/tunisia/TUN.pdf. 

 

[9]  OECD. OECD Economic Surveys: Tunisia March 2018 Overview. https://www.oecd.org/economy/surveys/Tunisia-2018-OECD-economic-survey-overview.pdf

 

[10] The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Consensus Politics and Democracy in Tunisia: Challenges for Political Reform.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2, 2020. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/consensus-politics-and-democracy-tunisia-challenges-political-reform.

 

[11] Brookings. Report: Tunisian democracy at a crossroads. Brookings, February 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/research/tunisian-democracy-at-a-crossroads/.

 

[12] International Republican Institute. Public Opinion Survey, Residents of Tunisia September 24 – October 11, 2020. https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2020-10_iri_tunisia_report_.

 

[13] La Presse. tn. “The polls are favorable to her: Why does Abir Moussi seduce the voters?” La Presse. tn, November 21, 2020. https://lapresse.tn/79382/les-sondages-lui-sont-favorables-pourquoi-abir-moussi-seduit-elle-les-electeurs/.

In 2019, Kampala police procured $126 million worth of closed circuit television camera (CCTV) surveillance technology from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to help control the city’s growing crime problem. Opposition and civil society leaders contend that the surveillance cameras, which rely on facial recognition technology, will be used instead to track and target government critics. This concern appears justified as an independent investigation has found that Ugandan intelligence officials are using the technology to crack the encrypted communications of popular singer and opposition leader Bobi Wine.

African Countries That Have Deployed Surveillance Technology

  • Algeria
  • Botswana
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Egypt
  • Ghana
  • Malawi
  • Nigeria
  • Rwanda
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe

Similar concerns have emerged across the continent as over a dozen African countries have deployed surveillance devices in recent years. These countries represent a range of political systems, and the intended purposes of the surveillance systems vary. Nonetheless, these technologies present challenges to democratic norms and practices. Specifically, activists and digital rights organizations have raised concerns over privacy. The introduction of these technologies without institutional checks and balances renders citizens more vulnerable to political surveillance and suppression.

The growing accessibility of monitoring products in Africa has been made possible by the sales of foreign technology supported by soft loans, primarily from China. In addition to Huawei and other Chinese firms, which have built roughly 70 percent of the 4G network infrastructure on the continent, private cybersecurity and surveillance firms from Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, among others, have also been active in Africa.

“Remote-control hacking” is another form of surveillance technology that is spreading across the continent. These surveillance systems enable governments to access files on targeted laptops. They also log keystrokes and passwords as a means to turn on webcams and microphones.

“The growing accessibility of monitoring products in Africa has been made possible by the sales of foreign technology supported by soft loans, primarily from China.”

Eavesdropping is another surveillance technique that allows governments to access calls, texts, and the locations of phones around the world. This technique, most closely linked to the Bulgarian-based surveillance firm Circles, an affiliate of the NSO Group, which developed the infamous Pegasus software, provides spyware technology to countries as a means to exploit faults in telecom systems. Several governments in African countries, such as Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, are reportedly using these systems to connect to their local telecommunications companies’ infrastructure to conduct surveillance.

The adoption of surveillance products in Africa is closely linked to Huawei’s Safe Cities projects. The Safe Cities concept makes use of a range of interconnected tracking devices, video cameras, software, and cloud storage systems to tap public and private platforms in a more cohesive manner to enhance public goals such as policing, managing traffic, and streamlining administrative services. Access to this web of systems ostensibly increases the visibility of police officers who can then agilely track and respond to crime in real time.

There is no robust evidence linking the adoption of surveillance technology and a decrease in crime in Africa. However, the spread of surveillance technologies in Africa does thrust the continent into a critical inflection point, torn between the increased capability to monitor citizens through widely available digital products and protections for democratic norms and practices. This is happening without much public debate due to an underappreciation of the implications.

What We Have Learned about the Use of Surveillance Technology in Africa

A street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

A street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo: Nebiyu.s)

Ethiopia’s approach to ICT investment is informative. With the help of Beijing, Ethiopia has championed the use of ICT technologies as an instrument to strengthen its local administrative capacity. For example, the Woredanet project digitally connects ministers in Addis Ababa with the country’s 950 district administrations (woredas), nine regions, and two city administrations.

This growing ICT capacity for local governments is tempered by Ethiopia’s poor record of internet freedom. Its online environment remains encumbered by regular internet shutdowns, which are motivated by political objectives. This suggests that the implementation of surveillance technologies is vulnerable to being abused. This vulnerability is compounded by Ethiopia’s lack of a comprehensive legal instrument to regulate privacy and data protection measures.

Ethiopia is not an outlier. Half of the countries in Africa do not have laws on data protection. Promoting national cybersecurity policies for the expanding use of digital surveillance devices is therefore an essential step toward advancing digital rights.

Huawei’s 2018 annual report maintained that its Safe Cities project serves over 100 countries.  Huawei’s first African Safe City system  connected 1,800 high-definition cameras and 200 high-definition traffic surveillance infrastructures across Nairobi. Additionally, a national police command center was established to provide support to over 9,000 police officers and 195 police stations. These technologies aim to support crime prevention, as well as  accelerate response and recovery.

“In which contexts are these surveillance tools being utilized to enhance the public good versus primarily to advance the repressive capacity of those in power?”

The benefits of the Safe City project are hard to verify and appear exaggerated. According to Huawei, crime rates from 2014 to 2015 decreased by 46 percent in areas supported by their technologies in Kenya. Yet, Kenya’s National Police Service reports indicate smaller reductions in crime during those years. Nairobi and Mombasa, the two cities with the surveillance technologies, have also seen increases in reported crimes in 2017 and 2018.

While Huawei’s Safe Cities model may provide a template, it is important to recognize that these governance and surveillance systems are being installed at the request of African governments. The relevant question, then, is to determine in which contexts are these surveillance tools being utilized to enhance the public good versus primarily to advance the repressive capacity of those in power. Given the diversity of African governments that have adopted the surveillance technology, answering this question must be determined on a country-by-country basis. This, in turn, will support reform strategies and illustrate the viability of locally driven policy solutions.

Priorities for Addressing the Misuse of Surveillance Technology

The impulse for governments to control information in a society and surveil citizens has always existed. In fact, this has been the focus of many African intelligence services over the years. The adoption of new surveillance technology in Africa, however, has dramatically empowered governments to do so—and at a scale not previously seen. What may have taken a whole army of operatives to do in the past can now be accomplished by a few engineers.

Building on country-level reform strategies and best practices, African legislators and digital rights advocacy groups can strengthen norms and regulations surrounding surveillance technology by establishing AU advisory panels to lay out recommendations. The African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protectionwas established in 2014 to provide a framework for cybersecurity in Africa. As part of this, member states are asked to establish national cybersecurity policies as well as legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks for cybersecurity governance. Yet, the Convention requires the ratification of 15 countries to take effect. Thus far, only five countries (Namibia, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, and Mauritius) have done so.

Row of surveillance cameras

The absence of a clear regulatory framework leaves many African countries vulnerable to misuse of surveillance technologies. While individual countries must continue to work toward domestically driven policy solutions, facilitating a shared understanding of regulatory approaches to these devices can accelerate the means to confront common concerns and illegitimate uses. By taking advantage of already established frameworks, these advisory panels can provide the necessary counsel on whether appropriate checks and balances are in place.

A common regulatory approach also has value given the increasing interconnectedness of information communication technology systems across nations. Additionally, many African countries lack the capacity in terms of expert personnel to facilitate the development and implementation of cybersecurity policy and regulatory frameworks. A common regulatory approach offers a collection of tools, policies, and guidelines that can enable local actors to more quickly protect their respective cyber environments.

“The absence of a clear regulatory framework leaves many African countries vulnerable to misuse of surveillance technologies.”

Tapping available training content and programs consistent with domestic realities can support digital rights advocates and other stakeholders with essential facts and frameworks to engage constructively with the demands of digital rights and security concerns. Promoting cyber stability and increasing awareness of cybersecurity governance in Africa, moreover, helps support the establishment of enforcement mechanisms and the development of institutional capacities. International actors can also work with local African civil society organizations to strengthen checks and balances and address concerns over privacy. By supporting digital rights initiatives, international actors can empower and scale the work of local organizations.

African citizens are facing a digital inflection point. There is an urgent need to understand and strengthen the means of protecting digital rights as part of the broader array of civil liberties and political rights. To advance these goals, training, best practices, advisory panels, and conferences that include digital advocacy groups, policymakers, security professionals, and citizens can accelerate the learning curve on these issues and find policy solutions that ensure freedom while paying critical attention to security demands.

Bulelani Jili is a Ph.D. student at Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies and a former Yenching Scholar at Peking University.

 

This article has originally appeared on the portal for Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

 

soldiers in Cameroon
Cameroonian troops deployed in response to the Anglophone uprising, with a billboard featuring President Paul Biya in the background. Photo via (AFP)

Ngala Hansel

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has asked three UN special rapporteurs to investigate exactly what led to the death of Cameroonian journalist Samuel Wazizi.

The government of Cameroon has announced that Wazizi died on August 17, 2019 while in military custody. He had been arrested in August 2019 for allegedly providing logistics to separatist combatants in the Southwest of Cameroon. Prior to the announcement which was made in June, the journalists fate was unknown to the public. His lawyer and family members were not allowed contact with the journalist during his incarceration.

Cameroonian authorities initially denied that Wazizi was in custody. Waziz's family says they have yet to receive his body from the government.

 “I call on the authorities to shed light on the events that led to Wazizi’s demise and ensure that any contravention to his rights as a journalist and as a detainee are brought to justice," said Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, in a statement in response to the announcement of his death in June.

Wazizi whose birth name is Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe was born on June 6, 1984 and was a cameraman and journalist for Chillen Media Television (CMTV) in Buea, Southwest Region of Cameroon.

RSF states that they believe Wazizi was targeted because of his critical reporting regarding the way the government was handling the conflict in English-speaking regions.

Journalists working in Anglophone regions have found it difficult to report on the conflict at times. A 2014 law enacted to fight Boko Haram terrorists in the north of the country critics believe is being used to silence journalists reporting on this seperate conflict. The two conflicts have offered severe challenges to the rule of President Paul Biya who has ruled the country since 1982.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned this practice, with Angela Quintal, CPJ Africa Program Director stating that “Cameroon is clearly using anti-state legislation to silence criticism in the press. When you equate journalism with terrorism, you create an environment where fewer journalists are willing to report on hard news for fear of reprisal”.

No arrests have yet been made in the Wazizi case, but Quintal speaking to New Africa Daily asked for the release of other detained Cameroonian journalists:

“We repeat our call for the remaining 7 journalists in jail to be released. Several have been in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods. Wawa Jackson Nfor for more than 2 years and Paul Chouta for more than a year” she said over the phone, adding that “Some are in poor health, including Thomas Awah Junior. We wrote to President Paul Biya asking that he be released on humanitarian grounds. More recently we wrote to several African presidents, including Biya, to release the journalists amid Covid-19, Their continued incarceration in Cameroon’s overcrowded and shocking prisons, is a death sentence. That letter was co-signed by more than 80 media freedom and rights organizations”.

Cameroon ranks 134 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

RSF’s full statement can be read here (https://rsf.org/sites/default/files/un-allegation_letter-wazizi.pdf )

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari (Photo by Kola Sulaimon/via AFP)

In Lagos, twenty-five anti-government protesters arrested on Wednesday were released after appearing in court, where they were cautioned against unruly and unlawful behavior. They were arrested during peaceful demonstrations—organized under the aegis of the #RevolutionNow movement and tagged “national day of action”—across major cities. The protestors are demanding better governance from the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of a failed protest called by the journalist and activist Omoyele Sowore, who was arrested as a result and charged with treason, money laundering, and cyberstalking. He was freed in December, but he still faces trial.

The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), an alliance formed in 2018 by Nigeria’s main opposition People’s Democratic Party and dozens of other parties, has condemned the crackdown on #RevolutionNow activists during Wednesday’s demonstrations.

 

Government Priorities

The arrest of the twenty-five protesters in the Ikeja suburb for unlawful protest and disregarding COVID-19 social distancing measures elicited stronger reactions than usual, as it occurred around the same time as a deadly attack on a community in Kaduna State, allegedly by a Fulani militia group. The authorities appeared to be more preoccupied with clamping down on protestors violating interim measures than acting against violent bandits, which has prompted rising anti-government sentiment.

 

Protestors and police clashed in the streets of Kinshasa on July 9, 2020, in demonstrations against the choice of the new president of the Independent National Electoral Commission. (Arsene Mpiana/AFP)
Protestors and police clashed in the streets of Kinshasa on July 9, 2020, in demonstrations against the choice of the new president of the Independent National Electoral Commission. (Arsene Mpiana/AFP)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo saw the third mass demonstration in ten days this past Sunday as thousands of people protested against the choice of a new president to head the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Unlike the first two demonstrations, during which a number of people were killed and dozens were injured after tear gas was used, this third demonstration passed without any major incident.

 

The demonstrators are demanding a depoliticized commission

 

The protests are focused on the choice of a member of the outgoing CENI team to head the new team, Ronsard Malonda, the current executive secretary. The demonstrators are demanding a depoliticized commission. They take issue with Malonda given his involvement in the 2006, 2011, and 2018 presidential elections, which were believed to have been rigged in favor of former president Joseph Kabila.

Malonda’s appointment as CENI president has already been approved by the National Assembly, but still has to be confirmed by President Félix Tshisekedi.

Catholic organizations in the country called for the demonstrations, with the support of the Lamuka opposition coalition. They believe that Malonda’s nomination is another ploy by Kabila, whose FCC party retains significant influence over the military and the National Assembly, to sway the 2023 election in his favor once again.

 

Beninese president Patrice Talon has become increasingly autocratic since his election in 2016. (Yanick Folly/AFP)
Beninese president Patrice Talon (Yanick Folly/AFP)

Online news media in Benin have been subjected to a vague federal decree since the beginning of July that demands all “online media must suspend all publication under penalty of being subjected to the force of law.” The media release was published by the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC), one of seven ostensibly independent institutions formed under the 1990 constitution.

During a media conference, a spokesperson for HAAC claimed to have noted “an all-out creation of online media without prior authorization,” but there was no more clarity on the scope of the new ban.

Since President Patrice Talon was elected in 2016, the Media Foundation for West Africa has recorded fourteen violations of press freedoms and freedom of expression. Several of these instances involved HAAC suspending outlets, sometimes for an indefinite period, as punishment for publishing material deemed to be an attack on the president or for publishing “false information” in the form of articles commenting on the declining state of the economy.

 

“Beninese media are now paying for bureaucratic sluggishness”

 

In an effort to avoid running afoul of the law, some Beninese news sites, such as Banouto, have complied with the HAAC’s decree and are thus now stuck in limbo as they await the HAAC’s next step. In the process, they are missing out on potential stories and reneging on commitments.

Communications expert Léon Anjorin Koboubé told Agence France-Presse that online Beninese media are now “paying for bureaucratic sluggishness” and that this latest ban is “a way to kill local initiatives.”

Press freedom organizations in Benin argue that the HAAC is simply carrying out a continual pattern of press intimidation, based on a law passed in 2018 that criminalized online misdemeanors, including the spreading of “false information.” It is one of the reasons Reporters Without Borders ranked Benin at 113 on its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 96 the year before.

 

Malaika School in Kalebuka
Malaika School in Kalebuka, near Lubumbashi

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to rattle the world earlier this year, schools were among the first institutions to be closed. Many schools were able to move instruction to the digital sphere, with classes and even graduation taking place on videoconferencing platforms. In most parts of Africa, however, e-learning is a luxury available to only a few.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) schools have been closed since March. The government, with the help of partners like UNICEF, has set up some radio and television distance-learning programs, but a lack of electricity in remote rural areas, let alone Internet access, deprive students of this opportunity.

Like the rest of the country, the village of Kalebuka in the southeast has been hit hard by the pandemic. Farming, using mainly manual labor, is the main economic activity in the area. There is no electricity or internet in Kalebuka. No tarred roads. No modern hospital.

This is where the all-girls’ school Malaika opened in 2010 with just three classrooms. The school was established by the nonprofit Georges Malaika Foundation, founded in 2007 by Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, an international model and philanthropist born in Lubumbashi to a Congolese mother and a Cypriot father. She was only five years old when her father died and her mother made the difficult decision to send her to Europe to be raised by relatives. She lived in Belgium and later Switzerland, and started modelling as a teenager. Eventually, she realized her dream of establishing the foundation—named in memory of her father Georges and the Swahili word for angel, malaika—to provide girls in the DRC with some of the opportunities she had had growing up.

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka

Today, the school provides free primary and secondary education to about 350 girls, with classes taught in French and English. The curriculum covers math, science, information technology, art, and more. And the school offers access to the Internet, computers, and television. It provides these girls with the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

The foundation’s aims go beyond education; it has also built a community center and installed twenty wells in Kalebuka.

Malaika wells
Malaika installed and refurbished wells in Kalebuka that now provide access to clean water for more than 30,000 people.

The Hunger Virus

“We hope so much that the school and the community center can open up soon,” Musunka says. “We are worried about the children, not only academically but more about their health. If they are lucky, they now get only one meal per day. When they go to school, we give them breakfast and lunch. Not going to school means their health is in danger.”

English teacher Rebecca Mbayo says the lockdown has brought starvation to Kalebuka. “These girls represent all Congolese children. Most of them start the day by asking, ‘When will mom come and cook food for me?’ and get the response, ‘Maybe,’ rather than saying if they will eat or not eat. In general, these children eat once a day or they don’t eat at all. That is why Malaika provides two balanced meals to keep them healthy and prevent them dropping out of school.”

Our school and community center were ordered closed by the Congolese government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says headmaster Sylvain Koj, “but Malaika continues to support the local community.”

The school has been distributing desperately needed food and necessities to those in need in the community. “So far, we’ve helped about 60 families per week, comprising more than 3,000 individuals,” Koj says. The school also commissioned local women to sew masks, which it distributes along with soap and sanitizer to people in Kalebuka and neighboring villages, many of whom do not have access to basic hygiene products. “We are providing sanitation and prevention education by teaching local people about proper handwashing, safe hygiene practices, and more.”

During the lockdown, the Malaika organization has been distributing food and basic necessities to those in need in the community.
During the lockdown, Malaika has been distributing food and basic necessities to those in need in the community.

Learning During Lockdown

While the school remains closed, the teachers have kept up the education of the girls to the best of their ability by providing lessons to do at home. Normally, the students would finish their homework at school rather than doing it at home by the light of a candle or a lamp. Now, the teachers walk from door to door distributing homework that the children would do by daylight in the absence of electricity.

Malaika has also organized webinars at the school presented by inspirational women such as British actress Thandie Newton; Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter, and actress Eve; and television broadcaster June Sarpong.

The students miss their school, Mbayo says. Despite the lingering danger of the pandemic, she feels it would be best for the present health and wellbeing of the girls to go back to school. “We are resilient. We have lived with war, Ebola, malaria, and cholera, and we adapted. Even with this pandemic, we have to adapt and learn to live with it.”

Malaika School in Kalebuka
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka takes a close personal interest in the school that she founded.

A Matter of Survival

Despite the twenty wells that Malaika built with the help of donors, access to clean water continues to be a challenge. In the absence of basic necessities at home, it’s near impossible for these children and their families to follow safety regulations. Of greater risk than COVID-19 or malaria is the risk of starvation.

There is also, as Mbayo explains, the risk of girls being forced into prostitution, begging, theft, and early marriage.Whatever challenges they face at home, school is a safe environment.”

While they’re not going to school, many of the girls help their mothers sell vegetables on the street to make enough money for their families to eat.

“They work in their parents’ fields, and sell the food in the market and in the center of town,” Mbayo says. “They have to walk long distances and do heavy work, risking accidents, rape, violence, and kidnapping.”

What happens if a child gets sick? Leya, a ten-year-old girl from the community, died during the lockdown period when she didn’t receive proper treatment in time due to poor living conditions. “If Lea had been studying at the school, we would have seen that she was unwell and would have been able to prevent her death.”

Two girls from the school—nine-year-old Edoxie and fourteen-year-old Esether—both fell sick during lockdown and weren’t immediately treated. Edoxie underwent surgery due to typhoid fever and is now recovering. Esther had to have surgery on her leg.

“Parents do not have the money to take their children to hospital, so it falls to Malaika and the community to help them if they’re ill,” Mbayo says. “These interventions are possible thanks to people who support us.”

The students have been making face shields for healthcare workers using the school’s two 3D printers. If these girls can help and contribute with the little that they have, then so too can the rest of the world to ensure their survival.

The students have used the school’s two 3D printers to make face shields for healthcare workers..
The students have used the school’s two 3D printers to make face shields for healthcare workers.

If you would like to donate to Malaika, visit www.malaika.org/donate.

 

Rebecca Anne Proctor is a journalist and former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Middle East. (Twitter: @rebeccaproctor)

 

A bronze statue of former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou.
A bronze statue of former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Don Bosco Mullan, a prominent Irish media producer and civil rights activist, became a well-known public figure after the publication of his book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday: The Truth in 1997. It sparked a second public inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 wherein British soldiers fired on unarmed civil-rights protestors, killing thirteen of them.

From 1994 to 1996, Mullan worked with Concern Worldwide and visited Rwanda and the refugee camps in eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) He also attended the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in 1994, invited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a gesture of thanks for his anti-apartheid activism.

Mullan’s latest venture brings him to Burkina Faso, a trip that he described as a “pilgrimage” to the burial site of Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader whose four years in power transformed Burkina Faso from one of the poorest nations in West Africa to one with a level of agricultural self-sufficiency, mass literacy and vaccination programs, and major land redistribution and gender equality reforms.

Touched by Sankara’s vision, Mullan has endeavored to erect a monument to the revolutionary in Addis Ababa, the seat of the African Union.

In a letter addressed to a friends, Mullan envisions the statue: “This monument will depict [Sankara] planting trees alongside a young Burkinabe girl, demonstrating his foresight on environmental conservation, his respect for feminine leadership, and his belief in the rebirth of Africa through its youth and future generations.”

 

Sankara, the Environmentalist

The environmental motif references an ongoing project known as the Great Green Wall, an effort to plant millions of trees across the Sahel to reverse desertification, hold off adverse climate change, and generate new economic opportunities. Sankara was an early advocate for environmental protection; during his four years in power, more than 10 million trees were planted in Burkina Faso.

 

In the Badalabougou neighborhood of Bamako, people gather on July 12 at the mosque where Imam Mahmoud Dicko led prayers for the victims who died in clashes between protestors and government forces the previous two days. (Michele Cattani/AFP)
People gather in the Badalabougou neighborhood of Bamako on July 12 at the mosque where Imam Mahmoud Dicko led prayers for four victims of clashes between protestors and government forces. (Michele Cattani/AFP)

Mass demonstrations have persisted in Mali despite the threat of COVID-19. Many thousands of Malians have taken to the streets since June to protest against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s handling of the jihadist insurgency, a declining economy, and government corruption. On July 10 and 11, these actions culminated in the death of up to eleven people as protesters blockaded roads, stormed the national assembly, and occupied the offices of the state broadcaster in Bamako, forcing it off the air.

 

President Keïta announced the dissolution of the constitutional court

 

In response to this latest escalation, President Keïta announced the dissolution of the country’s constitutional court, which had been the focus of public frustration after overturning several provisional results for parliamentary seats of the hotly contested elections held in April. In a televised address on Saturday, Keïta insisted on working with the political opposition to create a new constitutional court and implement some of the demands issued by the Mouvement du 5 Juin–Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques, a coalition of opposition political parties and civil society organizations headed by Imam Mahmoud Dicko.

Opposition leaders have reacted with suspicion at Keïta’s plea for collaboration, pointing to the arrest of several protest leaders by security forces on the same say. Even the Convergence pour le Développement du Mali (CODEM), a party that is ostensibly aligned with Keïta, issued a strongly worded condemnation of the disproportionate use of force against demonstrators and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Boubou Cissé.

 

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.

 

A soldier stands guard as former Anti-Balaka child soldiers wait to be released from a camp in Batangafo, Central African Republic, on August 28, 2015. (Edouard Dropsy/AFP)
A soldier stands guard as former Anti-balaka child soldiers wait to be released from a camp in Batangafo, Central African Republic, on August 28, 2015. (Edouard Dropsy/AFP)

 

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.

 

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Jun 12, 2021