“Freedom Under Threat”: New report on the spread of laws restricting NGOs in Africa from Freedom House

The new report “Freedom Under Threat: the Spread of Anti-NGO Measures in Africa was released today. It provides a valuable review of recent developments in counter-democracy push back from governments in power in numerous countries.

In Kenya, here is a good, straightforward recitation of the approach taken after the “UhuRuto” election of 2013 with a Jubilee Party platform calling for a crackdown on independent NGOs said to be modeled after post 2005 repressive measures established by the Meles Zenawi government in Ethiopia (see “Attacks on Kenyan civil society prefigured in Jubilee ‘manifesto’“) and the legal “pitched battle” since:

In Kenya, meanwhile, the new government elected in 2013 made six successive attempts to modify the PBO Act—a progressive law passed by Parliament and signed by the outgoing president just months prior to the elections.49 All of the attempts were loudly opposed by NGOs and the political opposition, and the High Court ordered the government on October 31, 2016, to publish the original PBO Act in the official gazette to bring it into operation.50 The government refused to comply, prompting NGOs to request that two cabinet secretaries—overseeing the Ministry of Devolution and Planning and the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government—be held in contempt of court.51 The court ruled in the NGOs’ favor on May 12, 2017. Rather than implement the court order, however, the government continues to apply the outdated NGO Act of 1990, and it is unclear how the situation will be resolved. The broad-based Civil Society Reference Group, an alliance of over 1,500 leaders of national and international NGOs that ran a multiyear campaign for the adoption of the PBO Act,52 continues to insist on its implementation. Indeed, Kenya represents an interesting case study of the pitched battles that have characterized the struggle between governments on the continent that seek to narrow democratic space on the one hand and civil society sectors that seek to preserve democratic gains on the other.

The moves by African rulers appear related to or inspired by authoritarian trends elsewhere:

Although no attempt is made in this report to analyze laws outside Africa, there are parallels between anti-NGO measures adopted across the continent since 2006 and those adopted in Russia and China—two influential global actors that have forged close ties with African governments. Sudan’s anti-NGO law coincided with the first of several Russian laws,6 closely followed by Rwanda’s measure in 2008. Russia’s second wave of legal restrictions coincided with those of several African countries—notably Ethiopia, Zambia, and Mozambique—while China’s 2016 and 2018 regulations came alongside measures by several other African governments surveyed in this report. It is difficult to establish specific links between the African laws and those adopted by the two global powers, but the close relationships built in Africa since 2000—particularly by China—support a modeling hypothesis.

Why “the war for history” matters now: “authoritarian momentum in East Africa” (Part Six)

Efforts to retroactively legitimize the 2007 Kenyan election and turn away from the questions of why election fraud was allowed to stand also help divert attention from the current questions of what the United States and Kenya’s other diplomatic “partners” will do or not do now in the face of the current retrenchment of hard won freedoms and democratic openness. Kenya is less free and less secure now than it was in 2007. When a few more years have gone by will 2002 still be a remembered as a turning point for democracy in Kenya or just a false “spring” producing only a temporary thaw in authoritarian governance?

Here is some good context from Freedom House from April of this year.

“Authoritarian Contagion in Africa” by Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs, on the Freedom at Issue blog:

The broader phenomenon illustrated by Kenyatta’s actions [seeking restrictions on civil society and the press] is not just a matter of coincidence or independent imitation. Whether they are selling sophisticated technology to track down dissidents online or sharing legislative approaches that provide a patina of legitimacy for their crackdowns on political opponents, repressive governments are actively working together to push back against nonviolent movements for democratic change. Indeed, such authoritarian solidarity has arguably outpaced collaboration among the world’s democratic states, which are often feckless in mobilizing to defend their own values and assist likeminded activists under duress.

In East Africa, evidence of authoritarian contagion is growing. The governments of Uganda, once seen as a great hope for democracy, and South Sudan, the world’s youngest country and a recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance, are contemplating restrictive legislation targeting NGOs.

However, the true regional pioneer of this approach has been Ethiopia. Under longtime prime minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, the Ethiopian government issued laws on NGOs, the media, and terrorism that have collectively devastated the country’s political opposition and civil society. The most prominent democracy and human rights groups have been forced to abandon or radically scale back their work, and many of the leading activists have fled into exile.

Other leaders in East Africa and beyond no doubt observed with interest as the international community failed to mount any serious challenge to the Ethiopian government’s repressive actions. Donor countries declined to use their extensive development aid as leverage. Instead they meekly promised to monitor how the new laws were implemented. Whether out of consideration for Ethiopia’s role in combating terrorism in Somalia or fear that the country would turn to China as an alternative patron, the world’s wealthy democracies declined to challenge the Meles regime even after its legislation’s ruinous effects became apparent.

The citizens of Kenya, particularly those who opposed Kenyatta’s presidential candidacy or documented his role in fueling past ethnic violence, may now be paying the price for the international community’s hesitation to act on Ethiopia. It is certainly possible that Kenyatta—facing an international indictment—would have taken the same steps in the absence of a successful model for repression in the region. But his political allies might well have deserted him if they had reason to believe that Kenya would pay some meaningful price for antidemocratic initiatives.

One hopes that the United States and other democratic donor governments will draw their own lessons from these experiences, finally recognizing that the prioritization of security and macroeconomic concerns over democratic performance is a self-defeating strategy. In the long run, repressive states are less stable, less prosperous, and less friendly to democratic partners than open societies, and the spread of authoritarian practices can only damage the interests of Washington and its allies.

Last month Freedom House awarded it annual Freedom Award to Maina Kiai “in recognition of his fearless leadership in advocating for constitutional reform, fighting political corruption, and educating Kenyans of their basic civil and human rights.” The same Maina Kiai who pushed for release of the 2007 IRI/USAID exit poll and challenged the U.S. to live up to its principles: “A Deal We Can Live With” by Maina Kiai and L. Muthoni Wanyeki, New York Times, Feb. 12, 2008.

 

Turning Point in Kenya? Update on opposition to Kenyan anti-NGO and Media Bills

“Freedom of Expression is Your Right”–Subversive NGO Solganeering in Kenya’s Neighbor Uganda
"Freedom of expression is your right"

Opposition to controversial Kenya Media Bill heats up” Sabahi Online via AllAfrica.com

Cuts in foreign funding for NGOs intended to silence critics–Human Rights Watch” from Trust.org

William Ruto and his Ethiopian host had chilling message on media freedom” from Macharia Gaitho in The Daily Nation.

Kenya attempts to silence civil society“, Freedom House Spotlight on Freedom.

For perspective (not just to say I warned you so) see my post about Kenyatta and media freedom from December 2009:  “More Government of Kenya action to muzzle media”:

The Standard reports that it has been enjoined  from publishing stories regarding Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and the purchasing of government vehicles.  Uhuru sought the temporary injunction to protect his interests and reputation.  Seems like a classic case of a high gov’t official using prior restraint to avoid challenge to his job performance.

This is to me another example of fact that the media environment in Kenya is not quite as free as international commentators frequently suggest.  While there is quite a bit of reporting on corruption, the fact remains that it hasn’t dented impunity, and there is a great deal that is known but not reported, and many stories get started but never followed to conclusion.

After the paramilitary raid on the Standard Group in mid-2006, the US eventually made peace with impunity for this attack on the media.  By the summer of 2007, then-Internal Security Minister Michuki–who famously said of the Standard raid that the Standard, having “rattled a snake” should have expected “to get bitten” for its reporting–was the featured speaker at the Ambassador’s Fourth of July celebration, talking of his recent security cooperation tour in the US.  With this background for its critics in the Government, the press can’t help but wonder how far it can go.

And from March of this year: “Attacks on Kenyan Civil Society prefigured in Jubilee ‘manifesto'”

A “Must Read” on the “Egyptian Circus” from South Africa’s Daily Maverick: “A dangerous habit, spreading of democracy”

This piece from the Daily Maverick‘s J. Brooks Spector is the most detailed and explanatory coverage on the Egyptian charges against the international and local NGO employees.  Do read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:

In theory at least, the social and political explosion of the Arab Spring should have been NED and its associated bodies’ next golden moment in the sun. All those regimes, previously frozen in time, now suddenly with their societies breaking out into a new, more open style of politics and freer elections should be making bountiful times for groups like the NED. Instead, these organisations seem to be running into a growing wave of suspicion about their ulterior motives.

Traditionally, of course, authoritarian rulers have viewed these pro-democracy groups with deep suspicion, routinely denouncing them as meddlers or spies – and sometimes directly harassing their staffers. But Egypt’s move breaks new ground in announcing it wanted to try 19 Americans and several dozen others on charges that have left the Obama administration shocked and surprised – and put the major American military aid program to Egypt at risk as well.

In the wake of the announcement of the charges, the Egyptian government quickly recalled a senior military aid delegation that was just about to begin some intensive discussions with members of Congress. The charges, as they were publicly announced, included operating without licenses, “conducting research to send to the United States” and supporting Egyptian candidates and parties “to serve foreign interests”. The fresh winds of last year’s Arab Spring and the heady embrace of the ideas of Gene Sharpe and Saul Alinsky and the power of the Internet, satellite TV and social media appear to have shifted more than just a bit.

In response, the IRI and NDI have argued their activities consisted of teaching the methodologies of grass-roots organising, political campaigns and democratic elections to anyone willing to listen, just as they have been doing in other places for years – without favouring any particular Egyptian political faction. An allied group, the Freedom House NGO, said that for its part it had been training young activists and carrying out international exchange programs while another NGO, the International Centre for Journalists, was doing its training on media issues. All four bodies insisted that had been trying to comply with Egyptian laws and be transparent about their activities. As Freedom House executive director David Kramer told reporters, “Everything we did was out in the open.” Where’s the beef?

Oddly, perhaps, the NDI and IRI seem to have come into the sights of prosecutors because of their role in supporting opposition to President Hosni Mubarak, before he fell from power last year. Sinister stuff that. Former chief of intelligence under Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, explained in his court deposition, “Data was collected about the activities of the American Embassy through the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.” Moreover, back in March 2011, when US officials had announced grants of some $65-million to pro-democracy groups, Fayza Abul Naga, Egypt’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation – and a holdover from Mubarak’s regime – had renewed her longstanding campaign against foreign financing. Some analysts speculate she is close to the country’s highest-ranking military figure, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and their relationship is tied up with the crackdown.

Egyptian Circus

From the Washington Post story reporting the announced intent to prosecute Americans working for IRI, NDI and Freedom House:

Pro-democracy groups have worked openly in Egypt for years, although the government has long refused to grant them operating licenses. The groups were buoyed last year when the government allowed them to monitor parliamentary election, the first time foreign monitors were allowed to observe polls in the country.

Hopes that Mubarak’s fall a year ago would be a boon for pro-democracy activists were dashed on Dec. 29 when Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs and seized files and computers. The current investigation, led by two investigative judges who were state prosecutors, is predicated on a 2002 law that bars organizations from accepting foreign funding if they are not licensed by the state.

Obviously the Egyptian Government could have expelled American and other foreign NGO democracy workers at any time, or not let the organizations operate to start with.  Prosecuting people now for doing what they were definitionally in the country to do and have been doing openly–using funding from the U.S., Germany, and or other democratic governments–is blatantly unfair to the individuals targeted as well as to the organizations.

This is not a criminal matter–Egypt has real crimes to address and these prosecutions are obviously a sideshow for ulterior motives.

Another sad tale of why it IS hard to support democracy from inside the Beltway in Washington . . .

“Democracy Digest” from the National Endowment of Democracy reports on a perplexing problem that anyone who is interested in democracy support or promotion should give some serious attention to:

. . . But as President Barack Obama was telling the ruling military [in Egypt] to stop harassing pro-democracy groups, powerful lobbyists were pressing the regime’s case in Washington.

Egyptian security forces seized computers, documents, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash in December 29 raids on the offices of pro-democracy NGOs, including several Egyptian groups as well as the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House.

“The lobbyists quickly mobilized to provide Egypt with political cover, touching off a behind-the-scenes battle between K Street interests and U.S. officials — with potentially huge implications for the critical U.S.-Egyptian relationship,” Politico reports.

A lobbyist working for the Livingston Group immediately circulated talking points — which some Capitol Hill insiders suspect were drafted by Egyptian officials in Washington — claiming that the IRI and NDI were operating outside Egyptian law. These lobbyists vehemently opposed any calls for cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt. The United States gives Egypt roughly $2 billion per year in aid, mainly as military assistance.

“[There] are foreign NGOs working in Egypt without being licensed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social Solidarity. Under this category falls NDI and IRI,” the talking points stated, which were obtained by POLITICO. “No organizations, entities or individuals, national or foreign, should be allowed to operate outside the law.”

IRI, NDI and Freedom House have pushed back hard, with help from their own high-profile supporters. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the chairman of IRI’s board of directors, while Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and a particular target of Egyptian ire, runs its program there. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is the head of NDI’s board, with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) serving as a vice chairman.

“I think what’s concerning about this, about where we are right now, is you have American citizens being hauled into the Egyptian Ministry of Justice and questioned, interrogated, and at the same time, you have American citizens — lobbyists — lobbying on Egypt’s behalf,” said Scott Mastic, IRI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “It’s very distressing.”

“I think a lot of people were very angry to see Livingston up here lobbying for the Egyptians after all this,” a congressional source told Politico. “Some people up here are pretty pissed.”

“To be prosecuted now strikes us as 100 percent political,” said Les Campbell, NDI’s Middle East program director. “This is more about what is happening in Egypt, and we’re caught in a Catch-22.”

For the record I had an entirely positive experience running the NED-funded portion of the IRI Kenya programming when I was Resident Director of the IRI East Africa office–the controversy that we ended up having was strictly about the Kenyan election observation and exit poll that the Ambassador got funding for through USAID which did not involve NED at all.

At the same time, it has to be noted that IRI certainly has Americans who are lobbyists for foreign governments on its board — including the board member who was the lead delegate for the Kenya election observation. What is being done to IRI and NDI–most especially to their local staffs who don’t have the protections associated with American citizenship–is to me very wrong and unfortunate. But what thuggish foreign government that can afford it does not hire one or more lobbyists in Washington to represent its interests (including opposing pressure for democratic reforms) unless it is prohibited by U.S. law from doing so?

We all read about the Abramoff scandals, etc., etc. I have noted here before some of the people who served this role for the Moi regime in Kenya at the same time IRI was doing an election observation back in 1992. Yes, it would be nice if Americans refused to do this work for foreign governments working at cross purposes with our professed values and our stated policies, but that just does not appear to be a realistic thing to hope for given the long track record of how these things work–this is not a new problem. [Update–it appears that the “naming and shaming” approach may have borne fruit in this case: “Lobbyists Drop Egypt’s Government as Client”, NYTimes.]