“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 Rather than implement the court order, however, the government continues to apply the outdated NGO Act of 1990, and it is unclear how the situation will be resolved.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.