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Hair-raising issues, the sounds of the Sasaab go global, and secret witnesses in Nigeria (Demo)

Gambia takes Myanmar to court

In November 2019, The Gambia filed a case against Myanmar at the International Criminal Court, with the support of 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The case filed before the ICJ alleges that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State violate various provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“the Genocide Convention”).

The genocide case brought against Myanmar is the first of its kind – where the case is initiated by a country not directly affected by the alleged crimes. The tiny country of The Gambia is being criticised in some quarters for punching above its weight on the international platform. However, the occupants of the port city of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh gathered on a hill close to the refugees chanting Gambia, Gambia, on the first day of the proceedings on 10 December.

The proceedings would probably not have been initiated, if The Gambia’s foreign minister had not had to pull out from the annual conference of the OIC in Bangladesh at the last minute. It was during a tour of Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp that Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou, who had been sent as a replacement, was reminded of his time prosecuting cases from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide:

In her contribution in Forbes, Ewelina U. Ochab expressed the hope that “the steps taken by The Gambia should encourage other states to maximize the use of the existing United Nations mechanisms.”

Two weeks later, on 27 December, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) approved a resolution strongly condemning human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape and deaths in detention, committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya and other minorities.

The 193-member body voted 134-9 (with 28 abstentions) in favour of the resolution, which also calls on Myanmar’s government to take urgent measures to combat incitement of hatred against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. Zimbabwe was the only African country to vote against the resolution.

Hair expression movement grows

The growing global consciousness around the beauty of natural black hair was brought back to centre stage after the crowning of South African Zozibini Tunzi as Miss Universe. Tunzi went against the grain by refusing to don a wig or weave.

The issue of natural versus everything else – braids, weaves, straightening, extensions – has been the topic of much debate on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Sho Madjozi, [of Jon Cena fame] has colourful braids that young girls all over the world are imitating.  The ‘hair-raising’ issue is moving to the forefront of questions of identity and notions of what is considered beautiful in the mainstream. It is that same debate around self-expression, beauty, and identity that prompted South African Nikiwe Dlova to launch her Hair Street Culture platform.

Dlova invites women to a space where she encourages them to express themselves through their hair styles.

“Bald, relaxed, natural, dreadlocks, protective styles and everything else in-between, African hair can morph into anything you want it to, making it not only a form of expression and style, but a moving art piece.”

Welcome to the Republic of Sexual Abuse

In portraying the reality of one woman being killed every four hours, local campaigners People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) set up a fictional country as the centrepiece of an exhibition aimed at raising awareness of the high levels of gender-based violence in South Africa. As part of the 16 Days of Activism awareness campaign, the Republic of Sexual Abuse, complete with its own currency, passports and a blood-stained map, forces viewers to take a hard look at misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy. The organisers are looking for sponsors to help them take the exhibition across the country.

Traditional sounds of the Samburu Maasai go global

Three Nairobi-based deep house DJs – Foozak, Suraj and Dylan-S – travelled far into Kenya’s Rift Valley to Samburu and captured the traditional chants and songs of the women, warriors, elders and children in the community. Recorded in the most natural form, the sound samples from the communities were shared across the world through a network of producers for people to use to make their own music.

An album and documentary have been produced through this initiative, the proceeds of which will go back to the community. The main aim of the project is “to archive the traditional sounds of the Maasai people and to find a way to create a sustainable mode of income.” A special moment for one of the DJs was when he played the recordings back to the community – it was the first time they’d ever heard their voices on playback or benefitted directly from such recordings.

The constriction of Tanzanian civic space

Tanzania’s steady decline down the rabbit hole of repression continues with the arrest of human rights activist Tito Magoti – a lawyer with the Legal and Human Rights Centre – and Theodory Giyan, an IT expert working with him,  just a few days before the Christmas break.

Magoti was reported missing on 20 December when a member of the public saw men bundling him into a car. Giyan had gone missing a day before. After a social media outcry by family members and the public, the police confirmed that Magoti was in their custody and stated that he had been picked up by plain clothes police officers, not abducted. Police denied him access to his family and refused to state where he was held.

Both men were formally charged for leading an organised crime racket, being in possession of a computer programme that will be used to commit an offence, and money laundering. Both arrests mirror the August 2019 arrest of Eric Kabendera, who was also charged with money laundering and organised crime, in addition to sedition and tax evasion charges.

Kabendera also endured a week in detention without formal charges after he was nabbed by plain clothes officers. Access to his family and lawyer were restricted. Four months later, he is still behind bars, and his trial has been postponed over eight times. His appeals to have his bail reviewed, in light of his failing health, have been rejected.

He was back in court just after New Year’s Day to answer the charges of money laundering. His mother, who had been pleading for his release, passed away on New Year’s eve with her son still in prison. His case has been adjourned 8 times because “investigations have not been completed”.

In a positive development, Tanzanian political commentator Bollen Ngetti was found a day after he was taken. The critic says that he was abducted and questioned about his ties with the former Home Affairs minister before being released.

Nigeria’s secret witnesses

While considerable attention was focused on ensuring the release of political activist Omoyele Sowore, less attention is being paid to the disturbing modus operandi of Nigerian state prosecutors and their execution of justice in two major cases against journalists.

Agba Jalingo, the publisher of online news site Cross River Watch, in prison since August last year, is accused of terrorism and treason. This was after he published a Facebook post accusing Cross River state governor Benedict Ayade of abusing his power to siphon money meant for low income loans for a bank. The severe charges being brought against Jalingo and against Jones Abiri, in Abuja, allow the authorities to detain them for prolonged periods. The charges both journalists are facing carry hefty sentences, making it difficult for them to access bail.

Nigeria’s State prosecutors are insisting on using secret witnesses in these court cases being heard in two different locations in Nigeria. It is not clear how this process will play out, as it is understood that the witnesses will testify from behind a veil in and their identities will be withheld from the defence. Journalists and members of the public will not be allowed in the courtroom during the testimonies of these unnamed witnesses.

MTN and Vodacom: lower tariffs or face legal sanction

On 2 December 2019, South Africa’s telecommunications giants Vodacom and MTN were given an ultimatum by the South Africa Competition Commission to slash their data prices by between 30-50% within two months, or face legal sanction. The commission also recommended a daily free data allowance and the creation of zero rated sites, among a raft of proposed changes.

This was welcome news for South Africans who took to Twitter to celebrate the announcement. and a big win for the online #DataMustFall movement, who for years have used the hashtag to demand cheaper data from providers.

In its data market report, the Competition Commission pointed out that lowering prices will ensure more people, especially low income earners will have access to information and benefit from the economic advantages of cheap internet. The Commission accused the two mobile companies who have a joint mobile market share of 70% of charging anti-poor rates for data – even charging higher rates than their regional sister companies for 500MB of data.

MTN released a statement saying they respectfully disagreed with the Commission’s recommendations and vowing to resist the ‘intrusive’ price cut. Vodacom also opposed the report, pointing out that it minimised the impact that reduced spectrum had on the cost of data. The Commission urged operators to negotiate with the state body on its recommendations.

The South African government is also engaging mobile operators on the issue.

In Brief

Shrinking civic space, attacks on journalists by state and non-state actors, arbitrary and politically motivated arrests and disregard of the rule of law have prompted Media Rights Agenda (MRA)  to call on the Nigerian government to take action. Their demand is reinforced by the findings in a report released by MRA at the end of December,  titled “A Profession Endangered – An Analytical Report on the Safety of Journalists in Nigeria.“ MRA believes the Nigerian government should “adopt and implement policies and laws instituting preventive measures aimed at eliminating or reducing attacks against journalists and ensuring routine but diligent prosecution of perpetrators of attacks against journalists.”

In a review of their work in 2019, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) highlighted their efforts in the areas of violence against journalists, citizens’ rights to protest, the role of the media in demanding accountability, digital rights and the empowerment of citizens to actively participate in governance.

In their commemoration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) 2019, the Collaboration of International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) challenged Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to live up to their commitments. CIPESA reminded the three countries of their obligations to ensure digital accessibility for persons with disabilities and challenges.

The High Court in Accra awarded Ghanian journalist Ohemaa Sakyiwaa of Adom FM USD1,600 in compensation from ruling party New Patriotic Party (NPP) supporter Hajia Fati. Sakyiwaa was assaulted by Fati while she was covering an event at NPP headquarters.

In Benin, investigative journalist Ignace Sossou was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being found guilty of harassment through electronic communications. Sossou was arrested on 20 December on charges of defamation and disinformation for his Facebook post, which quoted Beninese public prosecutor Mario Mètonou describing Benin’s digital code as “a weapon” that can be used against journalists.

Also in Benin, a popular radio station – Soleil FMwas ordered to stop broadcasting on 18 December by the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communications (HAAC). The directive from the HACC notified the station that “its permit had expired because the renewal application was not successful” – even though it had been submitted on time.

A Toronto university launched a database that documents killings and other atrocities perpetrated during the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon. The information received is first verified, then aggregated, secured and published. The collated material of the atrocities committed by the Cameroonian military and non-state actions will be available for research and also for international justice processes.

South African digital rights activist Murray Hunter launched Boris the Baby Bot, the world’s first ever children’s book about data and digital surveillance. The Mail and Guardian describes it as “a little story about big data – and Boris, a baby surveilling robot’s attempts at tracking the movements of babies in a modern world.”

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