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Human rights in Africa: Review of 2019

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As the deadline closed in for regional political commitments to “Silencing the Guns” by 2020, intractable armed conflicts continued, and new forms of violence by non-state actors led to widespread killings, torture, abductions, sexual violence and mass displacements, including crimes under international law, in several sub-Saharan African countries.

Protracted conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and South Sudan continued to simmer, with indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians. Armed groups in Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere committed abuses, including killings and abductions, which caused mass displacements. State security forces often replied with serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.

These conflicts and insecurity – together with new forms of communal violence that emerged in countries like Ethiopia – were brutal reminders that Africa is a long way from breaking its deadly cycle of armed conflicts and violence.

Often what have been silenced are not the guns – but justice and accountability for crimes and other serious human rights violations. From Nigeria to South Sudan, countless victims of serious crimes and abuses did not see justice and reparations.

The year was also marked by widespread repression of dissent – including crackdowns on peaceful protests, and attacks on media, human rights defenders and political opponents. In over 20 countries, people were denied their right to peaceful protest, including through unlawful bans, use of excessive force, harassment and arbitrary arrests.

In two thirds of the countries monitored, governments heavily restricted freedom of expression – with some particularly clamping down on journalists, bloggers, civil society groups, and political opponents, including in the context of elections.

These violations unfolded in a context of failures to protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights. Forced evictions without compensation continued in countries including Eswatini, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Large-scale commercial land acquisitions impacted livelihoods of thousands in Angola. Access to health care and education – already dire across the continent – was further exacerbated by conflicts in some counties including Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali.

Yet across Africa, ordinary people, activists and human rights defenders took to the streets. From Khartoum to Harare and from Kinshasa to Conakry, peaceful protesters braved bullets and beatings to defend the rights that their leaders would not. And sometimes, the consequences were game changing – major transformations in political systems and opening space for profound institutional reforms, such as in Sudan and Ethiopia.


Africa is still home to some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, and armed conflicts were ongoing including in CAR, DRC, Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. In these and countries like in Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia and Mozambique, attacks by armed groups and communal violence led to deaths, displacements and injuries. Responses by state security forces were marked by widespread human rights violations and crimes under international law.


In Darfur, Sudanese government forces and allied militias carried out unlawful killings, sexual violence, systematic looting, and forced displacements. The destruction of at least 45 villages in Jebel Marra continued into February, and by May over 10,000 people had been forced to flee.

In South Sudan, civilians were killed in sporadic clashes between government and armed forces. Parties to the conflict obstructed humanitarian access, increasing numbers of children were recruited as child soldiers, and conflict-related sexual violence was pervasive – including rape, gang rape and sexual mutilation.

In Somalia, escalating and indiscriminate use of drones and manned aircraft by the US military’s Africa Command (US AFRICOM) to carry out attacks continued to cause civilian deaths and causalities. A record of over 60 airstrikes resulted in at least three civilian deaths, bringing the number of civilians killed by such attacks to at least 17 in the last two years.


Armed groups continued their brutal attacks, perpetuating a catalogue of abuses and crimes in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, DRC, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. Some attacks constituted serious abuses of international humanitarian laws. Often, the response of security forces and their allies also involved serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights laws.

In Somalia, the UN recorded over 1,150 civilian casualties by mid-November. Al-Shabaab was responsible for most of these targeted attacks – including a truck bombing in December, which killed nearly 100 people in Mogadishu. Military operations against Al-Shabaab by Somali and allied forces also resulted in dozens of civilian deaths and injuries, often due to indiscriminate attacks.

In Cameroon’s north-west and south-west regions, Anglophone armed separatist groups continued to commit abuses including killings, mutilations and abductions. The military responded disproportionately, committing extrajudicial executions and burning homes.

Security deteriorated significantly in the centre of Mali, with widespread killings of civilians by armed groups and self-proclaimed ‘self-defence groups’. In response, Malian security forces committed multiple violations including extrajudicial executions and torture.

In Ethiopia, the response of security forces to a surge in communal violence that killed hundreds often involved excessive use of force. For example, in January the Ethiopian Defence Forces killed at least nine people, including three children, during operations to contain ethnic violence in the Amhara Region. The army promised an investigation, but its findings had not been made public by the year’s end.