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CSOs, Media, join hands to resist Threats to Civic Space in East Africa


Stakeholders in democratic participation in East Africa are stepping up efforts to protect the civic space from limitations that come with the government’s measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Kenya Correspondence Association (KCA), the East African Civil Society Organizations’ Forum (EACSOF) hosted online forums to create awareness and exchange of ideas among journalists and CSOs.


The KCA recently started a WhatsApp Civic Space Protection Group, while EACSOF-Kenya has hosted the Protection of Civic Space in East Africa Platform (PCSEAP) in conjunction with the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) for the last two years. Even though participants in both webinars affirmed the need for the restrictions in regards to the containment of Covid-19, there were genuine concerns raised to the possibility of the restrictions being weaponized to further shrink the space for free expression and association.


In the region, different governments have had different reactions to Covid-19 and therefore instituted different measures to contain it. Uganda and Rwanda initially had some of the most restrictive measures, both governments embracing lockdowns early after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic.


Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame instituted the first of Africa’s lockdowns on 21st March, 2020. Borders were completely closed, save for returning citizens and cargo. And the returning citizens were put under a two-week quarantine. Private and public workers were ordered to work from home and to stop unnecessary movements in and out of the home except for shopping errands. Public gatherings and travel between cities had been banned even before the announcement of the lockdown.


Uganda declared a countrywide lockdown towards the end of March 2020. Before the lockdown, in February 2020, the country had put 100 people who had travelled from China under quarantine at Entebbe Airport. Then it banned gatherings, closed schools and intensified screening.


But the Ugandan authorities have been criticized for using disproportionate amounts of force in implementing the restrictions. Assault on journalists, arrest of protesters and alleged shooting at citizens are some of the human rights and freedom restrictions witnessed in the country.


Tanzania and Burundi seem to have preferred a totally different approach. Tanzanian leader John Magufuli and the late Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza, departed from the approach of imposing restrictive measures, claiming divine protection. Whereas Magufuli had initially imposed measures such as closure of schools, these were lifted after the leader declared Tanzania Covid-19 free.


However, it has been difficult to verify the president’s assertions because Tanzanian authorities long stopped giving updates on infections. This lack of information has raised questions as to whether the authorities in that country are covering up the real situation in the run up to elections expected later in the year.


Burundi’s approach to the pandemic was brought to serious question when president Nkurunziza succumbed to what are widely believed to be Covid-19 related complications. The president died on 8th June, 2020 less than three weeks after the country held elections on 20th May 2020. The official cause of death was given as a heart attack. It was noteworthy that his wife had been on treatment for Covid-19 in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, at the time of his death.


Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta imposed a countrywide curfew soon after the first case of Covid-19 was reported on 13th March 2020. Public gatherings were banned, schools were closed and a national dawn to dusk curfew imposed. Further restrictions were imposed in the hotspot counties of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale and Mandera,. However, the country avoided the harsher lockdowns imposed by its neighbours.


Kenya scored poorly in implementing the measures, with the police killing at least 15 people in just about a month and a half of the restrictions. The high level of police brutality, reported by among others the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) forced the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Internal Affairs, Fred Matiang’I, to issue a warning that action would be taken against perpetrators.


Kenyan police are known for brutality against citizens, including many cases of extrajudicial killings around the country. In a few cases, those responsible for extrajudicial killings have been brought to book. However, police killings have continued unabated.


During the KCA-hosted webinar, both presenters and participants emphasized the fact that Covid-19 had only made a bad situation worse in regard to civic space in East Africa. As pointed out in a number of reports, civic space has been under threat in the region for many years. Governments have used legislation, regulatory, administrative and other measures, to limit citizens’ ability to associate, assemble and express themselves freely.


There was consensus that anti-Covid-19 measures had merely been “instrumentalised” by authorities to attain political ends. This certainly explains the brutality meted on citizens in enforcement of the measures and the resultant injuries and deaths that resulted from these extreme enforcement actions.


The need for collaborative efforts to expand the civic space in the region is urgent. The efforts of KCA and EACSOF-Kenya are a first step towards coalescing a movement that will act to achieve this goal. A coherent strategy will include building partnership with like-minded organisations across the region to harness the resources required for this endeavor.

Morris Odhiambo is the Chairman, East African Civil Society Organisations’ Forum, Kenya Chapter (EACSOF).

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