Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Africa and Human Rights: A Long Way to Go?

A few days ago, Zimbabwe's Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his wife, Susan, were involved in a brutal car accident. Tsvangirai walked away with relatively minor injuries, but his wife was mortally injured and died quickly after the accident (click here to read the story: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/03/06/zimbabwe.tsvangirai.accident/index.html). For those who haven't followed African politics lately, the news of the crash may seem purely incidental and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. After all, a car accident can happen to anyone, right? Not entirely true in the context of Zimbabwe, and Africa more broadly speaking.
Morgan Tsvangirai has been a long-time political opponent and foe of the country's dictator, Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for decades, and who has a history of crushing any political opposition and making enemies disappear. In 2001, Defense Minister Moven Mahachi died; Employment Minister Border Gezi's died in 1999, and just last year, Elliot Manyika, a government minister and former regional governor, also died. All three died in car crashes. Recently, Mugabe was pressured into a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, whereby Tsvangirai was elected Prime Minister. And then, Tsvangirai and his wife were victims of an eyebrow-raising car crash as well. Tom McDonald, the former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, is suspicious of the circumstances leading up to Tsvangirai's car accident and says that the incident "gives him pause." Other experts on this volatile African region also cite concerns, suspicions about Mugabe's possible involvement, and fear that this incident will cause further instability in Zimbabwe and will fragilize the already fragile power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
Moreover, observers and experts are sceptical about Mugabe's (and other regional countries' leaders) willingness to respect human rights in general. Mugabe has been known to brutally crush any opposition, and the truce with Tsvangirai was negotiated only after bloody demonstrations in which hundreds of people were killed. Tsvangirai himself has been imprisoned, arrested and beaten during the last few years. Mugabe may have officially agreed to share power with Tsvangirai, but may in fact only be waiting for another opportunity to make Tsvangirai disappear, either by orchestrating his murder or by accusing him of unfounded crimes and by imprisoning him for a long time. Any other human rights activists operating in Zimbabwe risk a similar fate. Zimbabwe is not alone, however: throughout Africa, many other countries refuse to respect human rights. In Kenya, two high-profile human rights activists were recently killed, raising suspicious about a possible police (and government) involvement (click here to read the story: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/03/06/kenya.activists/index.html). And many other African countries regularly engage in human rights violations: Sudan, Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Somalia are just a few examples. Africa as a continent (with some notable exceptions) has a long way to go with respect to affording appropriate human right protections to groups and individuals. And opposition politicians like Tsvangirai deserve global praise for their willingness to sacrifice everything, including the safety of their loved ones, for the chance to dethrone oppressive leaders.

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