Constitutions and Human Rights: Where art Thou Africa?

A Constitution is the highest law of the land and any piece of legislation that goes contrary to the constitution is considered null and void. Constitutions normally have provisions for promotion and protection of human rights. In an ideal situation , the very existence of constitutions should be enough protection to citizenry , but the reality is that  constitutional provisions are many a times suspended and  citizens’ rights violated by the very  individuals and institutions supposed to protect the citizens.

A look at various Constitutions across Africa confirms indeed that these documents have provisions for human rights protection and promotion. In Kenya for example, Chapter Five of the Constitution[1]  has provision for rights which include but are not limited to  Right to Life, Equality and Freedom from discrimination, human dignity meaning that every person has inherent dignity and the right to have that dignity respected and protected, freedom and security of the person, Freedom of Assembly,  Right to privacy , Freedom of Expression , Freedom of the media and freedom of movement among others. In Uganda Chapter Four of the Constitution[2] spells out rights which include Equality and freedom from discrimination, Protection of the right to life, Protection of Personal liberty, Respect for Human dignity and protection from inhuman treatment, Protection from deprivation of property and Right to privacy of person, home and other property. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the Constitution in Chapter IV has provisions for Fundamental Rights[3] and these include Right to life, Right to dignity of human persons, Right to a fair hearing, Right to freedom from discrimination, Right to Peaceful assembly and association  as well as Right to freedom of expression and the press.

Despite the constitutional provisions for protection and promotion of rights, many a times the reality in African countries is different. Rights are violated with abandon by the very individuals and institutions mandated to protect rights, additionally it seems that Constitutional provisions sometimes work for the rich and the popular and not the poor and ordinary citizen. When citizens decry the state  of affairs in a country, they get arrests. For instance, the End SARS[4] protests in Nigeria being a genuine protest against police brutality, the response was live bullets on citizens. In Africa elections bring about a lot of anxiety. Many a times the day of elections things go well and there is peace , the aftermath of counting of votes determines whether there will be peace or chaos. Many countries have had very bad experiences with election, for example Kenya where people lost property , died and had to forcefully relocate, in neighbouring Uganda , elections have been marred with violence  and opposition party supporters arrested  mostly young people. In Burundi, the Third Term Debate sparked protests  and as noted by Human Rights Watch  there were killings and enforced disappearances  especially of opposition supporters[5].The unrest in Burundi resulted into a refugee crisis as Burundians escaped to neighbouring countries  such as Tanzania , Kenya and Uganda for safety.

Constitutions contain chapters on Integrity, but unfortunately this is often  not respected. It has become a trend for African leaders to abuse power and as Lord Acton aptly put, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’’.[6] African leaders have gone ahead and pushed for removal of presidential age limits  such as the case of Uganda.[7] In Africa democracy is under siege and during elections  governments of national unity get formed  between the ruling party and the opposition. With opposition co-opted into the ruling government , checks and balances  no longer apply because who  is  going to question  about the state of affairs. And in some cases deliberate violence is meted on opposition strongholds including mass arrests of oppositions supporters and even opposition leaders as  has happened severally to Uganda’s Bobi Wine[8] . How do we talk about democracy in Africa when opposition gets cowed into submission?

In Africa when political leaders die , the successor comes from the same family. Africa is replete with examples of sons taking over after their fathers. For example, in Togo , with the voting of Gnassingbe the son of the Togo’s 5th president Gnassingbe Eyadema  for the third term means that  the same family will have ruled Togo for 48 years[9] .In parliaments  , the death of a Members of Parliament , means that a “replacement” is derived from the same family. Is Africa suffering a leadership quagmire?.

Constitutions  have provisions for right to employment, but sadly in  Africa despite having thousands of universities , workforce has to be imported from other countries , then what is the point of having engineering  course when  graduates will stand on the streets with placards seeking jobs ?.[10] And for how long will African youth continue to make the dangerous trips to Europe dying in the process as they search for greener pastures while Africa is the richest continent in terms of natural resources ?.

Every year in the month of May , Africans celebrate and reflect of Africa Liberation Day .We need to re-think about Africa and issues of human rights .How does a Constitution have provisions for protection of the right to life but in the same countries citizens get abducted and end up dead .How do we talk about freedom of the press when journalists get arrested and  radio stations shut down[11] because they have spoken the truth  or have questioned issues of corruption in a country .How do we talk about freedom of assembly when protestors , of which protesting is a constitutional right get met with live bullets and arrests. How do we talk about  equality and right to education when poor children during a pandemic cannot continue with their education because they do not have the necessary gadgets and  are still expected to sit for the same national exams? how do we speak about right to adequate housing  when evictions take place during a pandemic.

Yes, as Africans we need to have a deep conversation about the state of affairs in our continent , especially in relation to human rights and social justice.


Cover Photo Credit @ Charles Monari












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