Human rights and decolonisation in Africa are intertwined

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Is transformation a desirable goal for Africa, or a red herring to make us forget about the real work – decolonisation Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
Is transformation a desirable goal for Africa, or a red herring to make us forget about the real work – decolonisation Picture: iStock/Gallo Images


Although it might seem surprising to some, there are still parts of the global populace who nurse strange posers about Africa’s relationship with human rights.

They raise questions such as: What do Africa, human rights and transformation have to do with one another?

Are human rights instruments for transformation in Africa neocolonial impositions or the last refuge of the privileged?

Is transformation a desirable goal for Africa, or a red herring to make us forget about the real work – decolonisation?

Human rights vital to Africa

Human rights and transformation have one thing in common with Africa or any other group of people anywhere in the world, regardless of factors such as race, gender, age, colour, religion – humanity.

Africans are humans, and it is already established that humans have rights, many of which are considered inalienable. This is especially the case as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) promulgated that all human beings are free and equal, irrespective of their colour, creed or religion. Thus, human rights are vital to Africa, just like they are to the rest of the world.

The confusion, however, perhaps lies in the fact that the concept of human rights was promulgated by the erstwhile colonial powers, thereby making many subscribe to the belief that it is linked to colonialism. This association of human rights with colonial masters and, therefore, colonialism, as one of its vestiges, is primarily responsible for some of the opening posers above.

One of the questions to be asked is how exactly human rights benefit the Western/colonial powers over Africa

To begin with, it is worthy to note that only three of the now 54 existing African countries entered the UDHR charter signed in 1948. Others joined on attainment of independence. According to the UDHR, “Human right is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

The UDHR’s first article reads thus: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The following article completely eliminates prejudice, discrimination of any kind, including gender, race, sex, ethnicity, religion, nationality, culture, age, colour and profession. In short, human rights are about the equality of all people and their freedom to life, property, association, movement and expression.

Given that colonialism is about the denial of freedom to a particular country, then it begs the question of how human rights can be regarded as colonial impositions. One of the questions to be asked is how exactly human rights benefit the Western/colonial powers over Africa.

Existent fundamentals and practised norms in Africa

The African Union, to which all African countries are signatories, has also enacted its own, known as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The goal of the charter is to protect the inalienable rights of Africans. Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has a court of justice where individual member states can report cases of human rights abuses. The rulings of the Ecowas court are binding on all member states.

READ: Human Rights Day: Of precincts, protests and polarities

The above shows and serves to justify that it cannot be a colonial imposition when African states themselves willingly agree to further strengthen the provisions of human rights with more charters and ways of implementation, which the UDHR lacks.

Human rights instruments are transformational, because anything that protects one human from the vices of another also preserves peace and justice in the society. The absence of a guarantee of rights means an individual could hit the streets of Washington DC in the US with a Magnum 99 or a Baretta, shoot everyone and return to their own base a free person.

It means survival will only be for whoever is more evil and has the means to stay alive – the rule of force. After all, where there is no law, there is no sin. And where there is no sin, punishment does not exist. The described situation only regularises chaos, disorder and anarchy. It sustains a system maintained by the survival of the fittest.

Moreover, human rights are not new to Africa and cannot be said to be a Western concept, let alone a colonial imposition. In precolonial Africa, many of these modern rights were exercised, even though not pronounced, spelled out or documented. The one significant difference between then and now is that then, there were those (royal family, for instance) who were regarded as above the law, but now the law is believed to be above everyone.

Thus, no one, not even monarchs or presidents, can wilfully take a life as they deem fit.

While the arbitrary taking of life or property was not uncommon, even then, they were often regarded as acts of tyranny. Similarly, despite the pronouncement of human rights in the present day, there are still acts of tyranny by leaders, similar or worse than in the precolonial period.

What human rights do is protect the weak and less privileged from the privileged and powerful in society

For instance, the Muhammadu Buhari government in Nigeria, or the erstwhile administration of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are infinitesimal examples of where the guarantees do not totally ensure safety. By implication, it can be said that the UDHR and other principles introduced by the West on human rights are hitherto existent fundamentals and practised norms in Africa, even before the encounter with the colonial masters.

You do not need a teacher to know that taking the life of another is wrong or an injustice to the victim. All you need to be is a good person. This is why, despite the existence of these charters, laws, judicial systems and the police force, crimes keep happening.

Freedom/protection of the common person

Human rights are crucial to resolving social conflicts. The big advantage and strength of the human rights paradigm lie in the values espoused by its norms, which are, by nature, transformative. These values, inherent in human rights, are used by legal practitioners, human rights advocates and dispute resolution practitioners to resolve conflicts, thereby bringing the transformational effects of law, justice, and order to the society.

This is particularly the case when the state actors desire complete resolution to conflicts. The desire is crucial to the transformation of a lawless society from one that disregards law and order to one where peace reigns supreme, which is something lacking in many African countries, especially Nigeria. Indeed, reverence for human rights is undoubtedly transformational.

Furthermore, to see human rights as the last refuge of the privileged is quite paradoxical in practical terms. Put differently, what human rights aim to achieve is the freedom or protection of the common person, and the less privileged from the privileged ones. Thus, it cannot be the last refuge of the privileged; it is the direct opposite. It is the privileged who have the power to violate the rights of the less privileged as if it were nothing.

Thus, what human rights do is protect the weak and less privileged from the privileged and powerful in society.

READ: Are some human rights more right?

Another question that I find rather funny is about perception: Is transformation a desirable goal for Africa, or a red herring to make us forget about the real work – decolonisation? Africa, as a continent, is home to some of the worst cases of human rights abuses, with the rise of dictators in several parts of the continent. I can cite scores of nations all over Africa, South Africa included, with records of culpable human rights violations.

Nigeria, my homeland, for example, recently intimidated its people and stifled them from protesting the unjust killing of youths. In return, the government sent the armed forces against its unarmed citizens and opened fire. If such a society does not need transformation, which society does?

Unjust and extrajudicial killings continue in many parts of Africa – Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Somali, Sudan, Congo. We could actually see such unjust acts in probably every part of the continent. Thus, transformation is a desirable goal for Africa.

Promoting peace and nation-building

The pursuit of Africa’s transformation from the path of injustice and utter disregard for the rights of its citizens, which it seeks to protect, perfectly aligns with the issue of decolonisation. They both embrace the concept of freedom, justice, self-determination, fairness, humanity. In fact, they are intertwined.

The pursuit of decolonisation hinges on freedom from foreign powers, while the preservation of Africans’ rights hinges on freedom from both international and local abusers such as security operatives, the government and the powerful.

Strict adherence to and protection of the dictates of human rights will result in an enabling environment for peace, and promote the nation-building process while promoting peace, especially in situations where these dictates are strictly enforced. The violation of human rights of people based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, age ensures that violence thrives.

And where there is violence, there can be no development.

This perfectly sums up the African continent, just like the Middle East. The ongoing turmoil in these regions is an inhibitor to peace, and where there is violence, especially in the face of human rights abuses, the thriving of the citizenry, as much as the public image of the country, will be difficult and negative.

Based on the fundamental principles of respect for human rights, peaceful conflict resolution will ensure peace and the birth of an egalitarian and transformational society in which everyone is willing to contribute.

Falola is extraordinary professor in the Free State Centre for Human Rights at the University of the Free State.

This opinion piece is from the webinar Africa / Human rights / Transformation – a conversation with Johan Froneman, Dhaya Pillay and Toyin Falola on March 16


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