Colonialism has been one of the main factors responsible for insufficient human rights protection in Africa. The inherited colonial political and economic structures continue to contribute to the violation of human rights in Africa (Ikime, 1984: 34). Upon achieving independence, many African states proceeded to embark on egalitarian programmes which they sought to achieve for Africans the enjoyment of living conditions long denied to them: sufficient food, clean water, communication facilities, roads, health care, education, good housing and other benefits of a developed society. However, these desires could not be achieved because many States possessed limited and/or undeveloped resources, and lacked solid and determined governments.
This goal can only be achievable within a stable political groundwork, a political stability, and a national political consensus. Many former African colonies, by their very nature artificial creations of the colonial powers, encompass heterogeneous collections of tribes and represent at best, colonial convenience. National boundaries are not based on any definable criteria other than the accident of colonial partition (Asante, 1969: 83). Therefore, on attaining independence; African governments were confronted with a situation in which the very existence of their respective nations was threatened by cross boundary claims.
These boundary demarcations have led to the deportation of Africans from one territory to another (Umozerike, 1979: 106). For instance, Nigerians were deported from the Cameroons and Ghana soon after independence, Ghanaians from Ivory Coast, Rwandans from Burundi and vice versa; Liberians were in 1971 deported from Ivory Coast; and nationals of West Africa were deported from Nigeria in April 1983.
In 1958, The First All Africa Peoples Conference meeting in Accra criticized the “artificial frontiers” and called for their “abolition or adjustment” (Emerson, 1970: 5). However, African leaders, fearing the catastrophic consequences, have refrained from venturing into boundary readjustments. Rather, they have preferred the ad hoc solution of mass expulsion of non-nationals. R. Emerson has observed that “the balkanization of Africa was an old established matter to which colonialism only added a new dimension”. (1970: 311)
African States need to take on the basic issues of welding heterogeneous combination of tribes and communities into a united nation. The withdrawal of colonial powers often implied the removal of the only justification keeping a country together, and the threat of disintegration haunts every African government. Indeed, unity is a recurring theme in the rhetoric of most African governments and it is obviously a value which must be fostered in plural states which have a weak base of national loyalty. Yet, the paradox of the theme is that, because tribal identities and loyalties are historical, primordial and cultural in a very authentic sense, any attempt to suppress them too much by overemphasizing unity may be regarded as an attempt to extinguish the very root of one’s identity.
Nevertheless, effective participation by all the diverse communities in the life of a new national entity is the key to national unity and stability in Africa (Lewis, 1965). Where such participation is denied, or the security of one community is threatened, the most natural form of protest is to attempt secessions. As S. K. B. Asante has observed, in striving for national unity:
Bogey of tribalism should not be invoked to stifle legitimate political expression, it certainly should not be invoked to gloss over the fundamental requirement of effective participation by all groups in the natural political process, and the critical problems posed by such requirements. (Asante, 1969: 95)
Much as the ideal of unity ought to be sought, we should not gloss over the reality of African States as comprising ethnic groups which face each other as distinct groups competing for economic, social and political advantages. Civilian governments have been overthrown by military coup d’état for reasons not unconnected with the former inability to ensure the equitable distribution of these opportunities.
The military in turn has resorted to the use of authoritarian measures to prevent social and political disintegration. Thus, some scholars have justified the existence of pragmatic authoritarian governments as a preferable option of Marxist-Leninist governments for the enhancement of human rights (Haile, 1984: 611).
In his study of the military in Africa, C. Liebenow concludes that the increasing involvement of the military in politics gives little hope for the modification of the dismal state of human rights observance in Africa (1985: 126 -159).
It is thus pertinent to examine the major objective conditions existing on the continent that present obstacles to the protection of human rights; these obstacles include ethnicity, racism, and apartheid.
One of the major obstacles to the promotion and protection of human rights in Africa is ethnicity. An ethnic group has been defined as a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups such as a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area (Kanchan 2012: 69–70).
Ethnicity, therefore is a conscious effort on the part of an ethnic group, within a state, to discriminate against all others to its own advantage. Most of pre-colonial Africa was divided along ethnic lines. The colonial rulers-imposed boundaries without giving due consideration to existing ethnic boundaries. Nevertheless, the newly independent African States reaffirmed their commitment to the colonial boundaries and sought to ensure cohesion between the heterogeneous groups within their national boundaries. It was probably inevitable that some of the efforts at unification were bound to fail. (Breytenbach1975; Ake 1976)
One of the major factors that has encouraged ethnicity in Africa has been the manipulation of the fragile national socio-economic structures by the African elite and ruling groups to perpetuate ethnocentric policies. (Nnoli, 1974: 12) The ideology of the ethnic leader has been accustomed to continue exploitation. Archie Mafeje, thus observes that:
There is a real difference between a man who on behalf of his tribe, strives to maintain its traditional integrity and autonomy, and the man who invokes tribal ideology in order to maintain a power position, not in the tribal area but in the modern capital city and whose ultimate aim is to undermine and exploit the supposed tribesmen (Mafeje 1971: 258).
The exploitation of the socio-economic systems by dominant ethnic groups within African States to the disadvantage of other groups has led to gross violations of human rights. To illustrate it, a brief analysis of this practice through three selected African countries is necessary.
In Nigeria, ethnic groups compete for the control of the socio-political and economic systems. Civil politics in Nigeria has been characterized by political parties which represented the ethnic interests of the Hausa- Fulani (North), Ibo (East) and Yoruba (West). In the early 1960’s the three main political parties were the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) representing the Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups, the Action Group (AG) of the Yoruba’s and the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) which mainly represented the Ibo’s.
The political dominance of the NPC and NCNC alliance led to resentment and riots on the part of the Yoruba Action Group in 1964. A socio-political upheaval ensued in 1966, characterized by antagonism between the Ibos and Hausas culminating in the country’s first military coup, and the civil war which lasted from 1967 to 1970 (Breytenbach 1970; Kirk-Green 1970).
Since the end of civil war, consecutive Nigerian civil and military regimes have attempted to evolve systems that will ensure an equitable balance of power between the various ethnic groups, but with limited success. The devolution of central power to the regions was affected by General Yakubu Gowon in 1967 through the creation of 12 states out of the 3 main regions. The formulae of the creation of states had a calming influence on ethnic nationalism.
Thus, Nigeria went through three political phases: an apprenticeship to “genuine” federalism (1954–1965), federal domination under military control (1966–1979 and 1984–1999), and “muddling through” under civilian authority (1979–1983 and 1999 to date). Political decentralization and intergovernmental competition defined the first phase, during which regional administrations achieved substantial gains. During the second phase, successive military regimes-maintained centralism and federal domination, keeping Nigeria united but halting progress toward federal democracy consolidation. Civilian administrations under the third phase have sought to lead the federation in a confused way, including serious political and social tensions, modest economic performance, and deepening poverty (Adamolekun 2005: 383- 404).
Consequently, successive military regions have pursued this policy of state creation and at present the Federation of Nigeria is composed of 21 states. Nevertheless, the fact that Nigeria has had several military coups d’états and several attempted coups is evidence of the continuing manipulation of the socio-economic system by ethnocentric military and civilian elites. Thus, ethnicity is one of the main bases of instability, economic problems and the deprivation of human rights in Nigeria.
In Kenya, one of the most enduring attributes of the legacy of colonialism in post-colonial period is a sense of ethnic division. The origins of ethnic consciousness as manifested in Kenya’s political processes lay partially in the arbitrary way in which the British colonialists based administrative boundaries and local government on cultural and linguistic lines, a decision informed by an assumption that Africans lived in tribes, so tribes must constitute the basis of colonial administration (Sandbrook 1985: 49–50).
Beginning with the Jomo Kenyatta state (1963-78), successive governments in that country perfected the aspect of ethnic identity that intertwines with patronage and rent-seeking to the disadvantage of the nation state.
In Kanya, ethnic conflicts appear to be the inevitable consequences of the unresolved political and economic contradiction behind an apparently partisan political system. This system seems to place a higher premium on ideological or sectional interest at the expense of national interests. The “politics of the belly” syndrome appears to have been perfected by the Kenyan political elite.
Since the introduction of political pluralism in 1991, ethnic hostility has culminated in massacres, destruction of property, socio-economic uncertainty and insecurity. The new democratic openings on the governance front have generated a vicious struggle for political power, capital accumulation and unforeseen cutthroat rivalry for domination and control of strategic resources across the nation (Human rights watch/Africa 1993).
However, the most significant conflict witnessed since Kenya’s independence from Britain was the 2007–08 Kenyan crisis, a series of inter-ethnic clashes ignited by the 2007 disputed presidential elections. By early 2008, about a third of the 2,200 member Indian community in Kisumu, that controlled most of the city’s trade, had started returning home following ethnic clashes. According to community representative Yogesh Dawda, the resident Indians did not trust the Kenyan police’s ability to ensure their security. (Williams 2008)
In fact, in Kenya, the expulsion of Asians in general was carried out in a more systematic manner. The Asians who were Kenyan citizens had constituted themselves as small but dominant groups in control of the trade and commerce in Kenya. In realization of this fact, the newly independent Kenyan State gradually revoked the citizenship of the Kenyans of Asian origin. The Kenyan government justified its action on the need to effect fundamental structural changes in the State with a view to generating greater social and economic mobility for Africans. (Ghai 1973: 123-4)
Indeed, Tom Mboya, a Kenyan trade unionist, educator, Pan-Africanist, author, independence activist, and statesman who was one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Kenya (Kenya Human Rights Commission, 2006), emphasised the need to restructure the economy “in which the poverty line dangerously coincided with the racial lines”. (Mohiddin 1969: 43) Consequently, official Kenyan government policies discriminated against the Kenyans of Asian origin despite constitutional guarantees to the contrary.
The violence that erupted in the wake of the controversial 2007 presidential election tested Kenya’s political stability more than ever before, almost plunging the country into full-blown civil strife. Like a festering sore it exposed the structural decay embedded in the country’s system.
A confluence of irregularities pertaining to land allocation, an overbearing presidency, a pervasive culture of impunity, and ethnicization of power, malfeasance and sheer mendacity among both the political elite and the rabble almost pushed Kenya over the precipice. The crisis, however, also presented Kenyans with an invaluable opportunity to renew the country through institutional and constitutional reforms and it would have been regrettable if the political elite squandered that opportunity and once more began playing politics with the grave issues facing the country.
Consequently, the need to restructure the economic and social systems of African States cannot be overemphasised. Indeed, economic self-determination and self-reliance cannot be achieved without structural intra-national and global economic changes. However, these antra-national or domestic policies should take due cognisance of the equal rights of individual and groups within the national polity. Ethnic or racially biased socioeconomic policies cannot achieve unity and the egalitarian objectives sought by African States. Such policies only serve to alienate the minorities and fuel calls for full political and economic self-determination.
Individuals, ethnic and racial groups within a State also have a duty to identify with and contribute to national aspirations and refrain from forming ethnic or racial enclaves for exploitable purposes.
Apartheid, which was a system of institutionalised segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) from 1948 until the early 1990s, was characterized by an authoritarian political culture based on baasskap (boss-hood or boss-ship). This latter ensured that South Africa was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority white population. In line with this system of social stratification, white citizens enjoyed the very best status, followed by Asians and Coloureds, then black Africans. The economic legacy and social effects of apartheid exist still this day.
Apartheid is an extreme kind of racism. It is an established system of racial discrimination that was made formal and legal. The institutions and instruments of State were calibrated to confirm the upkeep of inequality and distinction between racial groups. Apartheid is thus the foremost barrier to the protection of human rights in Africa.
South Africa officially declared the apartheid policy in 1948, thus “legalizing” the practice of segregation and racial prejudice perpetuated by previous regimes. Apartheid is based on four distinctive but mutually complementary factors, namely; (a) racial prejudice and discrimination, (b) racial segregation and separation, (c) economic exploitation of natural and human resources and (d) legal, administrative and police terror. These ramifications of terror have been described as apartheid’s “most indestructible component on which it is dependent for its continuation” (Friedman 1978: 34).
The basic objective of apartheid is to ensure a stratified society through the imposition of restrictions on Africans, coloureds and Asians, thus securing status and employment for whites who constitute only 20% of the population of South Africa. Political control is vested in the white population by virtue of the Act to Constitute the Republic of South Africa. Consequently, only the whites can be voted into Parliament. Africans and coloureds are barred from voting (Friedman: 19) except in the homelands where they are allowed to participate in legislative functions subject to the veto powers of the Minister for Bantu Administration (International Commission of Justice (ICJ), 1967).
The great first apartheid law was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which made formal the racial classification and introduced an identity card for all people over 18, specifying their racial group (Alistar, 2020). Official teams or boards were established to come to a conclusion on those people whose race was unclear (Sanford, 1989: 224). This caused difficulty, especially for Coloured people, separating their families when members were allocated different races (Goldin 1987: xxvi.).
Moreover, during the Apartheid era, the control of the economy was firmly in the hands of the white minority and restrictions were placed on the participation of blacks and coloureds in the economy. Several legal instruments had been promulgated to place restrictions and regulate the jobs that Africans and coloureds could perform. For Instance, the Native Labour Act and the Bantu Laws Amendment Act of 1967 granted the Minister of Bantu Administration powers to define which categories of work Africans might not engage in, and also to prescribe the numerical strength of Africans in certain categories of employment.
The minority racist government of South Africa had passed laws to ensure effective control of workers and prohibiting South African Laws and the majority of its citizens of trade unions by restricting the rights of strikes.
South African Laws and practices violated the fundamental rights of the majority of its citizens (Asmal, 1985), The right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be subjected to torture, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment were not protected or observed (Amnesty international 1987: 99).
The Government of South Africa also violated the citizens’ rights to recognition as a person before the law as well as equal protection by the law. South African Laws violated the prohibition of arbitrary interference within the individual’s privacy, family, home or correspondence, the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of one’s state, the right to leave any country including his own and return to his country, the right to marry and found a family, the right to property, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (Gilbert: 69), the right to the standard of living adequate for health and the wellbeing of the subject and his family, the right to education and the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.
By the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act (1970) that granted ’national’ self-determination to the homelands, the South African government evolved a cordon of so-called “national” “client states” designed to be dependent on the Republic. The Bantustans were not representative of the will of the black South Africans because the political leadership of these client homelands was predefined by the Pretoria regime. The UN consistently declared the Bantustans as fraudulent and contrary to the principle of self-determination. Furthermore, apartheid laws were applied in these homelands. The dependency of these homelands on the South African regime was graphically illustrated by Dr. C. Phatudi of Lebowa1:
We became vast reservoirs of labour for the industrial and mining sectors of the Republic of South Africa. We are omni-dependent on the Republic of South Africa for all the electrical power consumed in these territories as well as for most of our water requirements. We are also absolutely dependent on the Republic for our transportation requirement as well as every aspect of telecommunications, postal and the like. If you add to this pattern of dependence, the considerably high disparity in the level of development, demographic explosions and in pure economic power between the territories and our white ruled neighbours, you will understand we have been dismissed as a hostage or client state. (The South African Bantustan programme: its domestic and international implications: 16)
The continued existence of the racist regime in South Africa was dependent to a large extent on its economic relationship with industrialised nations. Foreign investors were perpetuating apartheid by colluding with the regime in exploitation of the socio-economic resources of South Africa. The military might of South Africa was built upon the appeal of its argument that highlighted the Country’s significance as a strategic geopolitical location as a bulwark against communism in the region. (Eze, 1977: 55–56)
Most of the industrialised nations resisted the universal call to relinquish trade links with South Africa. The justification proffered by these nations was that the continuing foreign trade and investment in South Africa would lead to the integration of Africans into the main socioeconomic system, thus gradually withering down apartheid. (Friedman: 57) It was also stated that total imposition of mandatory economic sanctions against South Africa would have a devastating effect on the material conditions of South African blacks.
The living conditions of the majority of South Africans under the apartheid system barely satisfied their basic human needs; consequently, the imposition of mandatory economic sanctions on South Africa would not have significant adverse effects on their condition. Furthermore, the effect of such sanctions would force the South African regime to make a choice between imminent economic collapse and/or socio-political upheaval.
However, increasing domestic and international pressure on the government, as well as the realization that apartheid could not be maintained by force indefinitely or overthrown by the opposition without significant suffering, eventually brought both sides to the negotiating table. The Tripartite Accord, which ended the South African Border War in neighbouring Angola and Namibia, opened up a window of opportunity to create the conditions for a negotiated settlement, recognized by Niel Barnard of the National Intelligence Service. (Turton 2010)
Thus, general elections were held in South Africa between 26 and 29 April 1994. These were the first elections in which citizens of all races were allowed to vote, and thus the first held with universal suffrage. The election was held under the leadership of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), and marked the culmination of the four-year process that ended apartheid.
The election held on 27 April 1994 resulted in the ANC winning 62% of the vote and Nelson Mandela becoming president, with De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as deputies. The National Party, with 20% of the vote, joined the ANC in a Government of National Unity. Transitional politics continued after the election with a new constitution finally agreed in 1995 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) dealing with politically motivated crimes committed during the apartheid period.
The TRC was based on the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No 34 of 1995. Mr Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice declared about the TCR “ … a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission)
In South Africa, racism comprises negative states of mind and concepts on race or ethnicity which have been reflected in oppressive laws, hones and activities against racial or ethnic groups all through its history. Apartheid was a system that wrote segregation into law. Before the universal elections held in 1994, a white minority, particularly Afrikaners amid the period of Apartheid, delighted in different legitimately or socially benefits and rights which were denied to others.
In 1994, the democratic elected government took power and ended apartheid. It was supposed to be a new beginning, but a lot of the country still looks like nothing has changed. In fact, the new government lifted restrictions on where people could live. Millions of people who had been excluded from economic development for centuries migrated to major cities looking for basic services and economic opportunities.
These non-white South Africans settled where there was empty land creating informal settlements called “townships” on the peripheries of major cities like Cape Town. The government-built millions of homes and expended clean water and electricity.
However, this had a number of unforeseen consequences, the most important of which is that the only land that could be used for the public housing program was that of the periphery of the cities, and that unintentionally reproduced the very same legacy it was trying to undo. Today, 60 percent of the mostly black population in Cape Town lives in these townships at the end of the city creating disparities between majority Black South Africans living in the townships and a majority of white South Africans living in cities and enjoying better standard of living and life commodities. This situation resulted in an emergence of human rights breaches and violence mainly from the part of police.
According the Human Rights report The Legacy of Racism in South Africa (Magaisa, 2021), The reality is that police brutality and violence against Black bodies today is a legacy of apartheid. The designers of apartheid were so effective in implementing a system of institutional oppression that despite its end nearly 27 years ago, apartheid still has a solid hold over South African judicial institution.
Moreover, according to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour (2009):
The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens. However, the government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local media reported the following serious human rights problems: police use of excessive force against suspects and detainees, which resulted in deaths and injuries; vigilante and mob violence; abuse of prisoners, including beatings and rape and severe overcrowding of prisons; lengthy delays in trials and prolonged pretrial detention; forcible dispersal of demonstrations; pervasive violence against women and children and societal discrimination against women, persons with disabilities and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community; trafficking in persons; violence resulting from racial and ethnic tensions and conflicts with foreigners; and child labour, including forced child labour and child prostitution.
The foregoing analysis of selected problems of human rights in Africa reveals several trends. First, the mechanisms of power and status in Africa are based upon ethnic loyalties. The dominance of a particular ethnic group in a heterogeneous state is predicated upon its ability to monopolise or at least control major socio-economic and political institutions. The implications of this phenomenon on human rights arises where this control or power is utilized by the dominant ethnic/ or one group to secure advantages to itself to the detriment of others and without due regard to established or prescribed norms of equality, merit and justice.
Race, as ethnicity; is used to categorize certain sections of the population. Ethnic hegemony as well as race hegemony, mainly in South Africa; therefore, ensure discrimination and subjugation.
The effectiveness of any prescribed solution to the problem of ethnicity as an obstacle to human rights, will depend mainly on the will of African political leaders. Such solutions should include, the enactment of constitutional provisions that will ensure equal representation of different ethnic groups in national social, political and economic institutions.
African states should also take certain measures to end or at least limit human rights violations such as establishing an independent judiciary; incorporating the various UN human rights conventions into its domestic law; placing a duty on the state to guarantee all citizens legal equality; guaranteeing minority cultural rights, including the rights to speak, teach, and write their own language, practice their own religion, and practice other aspects of their cultures to the extent that such practice does not infringe on the rights of others; minority populations must be permitted some effective means of participating in the political process, and also the minority populations must be permitted some effective means of participating in the economic process.