East African governments are in the international spotlight for human rights violations, even as serious questions over resolve to deal with past injustices come to the fore.
In the Human Rights Watch World Report 2020, released on January 15, the international Human Rights Watch condemns what it terms “regressing trends” within the region.
These include restrictions on media and critics of the ruling governments. For instance, Tanzania and Uganda have both come down hard against freedom of association, assembly and expression by introducing new regulations restricting online activity.
In Tanzania, the analysts cite deregistration of civil society groups, arrest of journalists, restriction of civic space, and undermining the rights of women and of children by banning pregnant girls from returning to school.
Tanzania has since passed the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content Regulations) giving the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority wide discretionary powers to license blogs, websites, and other online content.
In January, the High Court sitting in Mtwara quashed an application by the civil society organisations Legal and Human Rights Centre, trustees of the Media Council of Tanzania, and the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, challenging the regulations.
In Uganda, the government introduced new regulations requiring online operators to apply for authorisation to host blogs and websites or risk being shut down.
The government also censored media outlets, and arbitrarily detained outspoken critics of the president, among them opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine.
Outspoken academic and activist, Stella Nyanzi, was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for a poem she published on Facebook in 2018 criticising President Museveni.
In Kenya, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and a lack of accountability for serious human-rights violations by security forces, include some of the grave rights abuses of concern, despite promises by President Uhuru Kenyatta to address key issues.
The report cites Kenya’s abuses during land evictions condemning what it refers to as the authorities’ “continued abusive evictions of people from the Maasai Mau Forest”.
All three countries have also been censured for intolerance for consensual same-sex relations, sexual orientation and gender identity. All countries continue to arrest individuals on the grounds of alleged sexual orientation.
Kenya’s courts last year upheld sections of the penal code that punish consensual same-sex relations with up to 14 years in prison.
In September, the Tanzania’s deputy Home Affairs minister called on police to arrest people who “promote homosexuality”, and has banned provision of sexual healthcare to anybody suspected to be lesbians gays bisexual and transgender (LGBT).
In June, police forcibly returned a group of Ugandan LGBT asylum seekers from Nairobi to Kakuma, despite admission from the UNHCR that it could not guarantee their safety from persecution in the camp.
Since 2018, Human Rights Watch found that police in Kenya killed no fewer than 100 men and boys in Nairobi’s informal settlements, on account of being criminals, even though they had not been taken through the legal process, and more than 180 other people across Kenya.
Authorities are yet to investigate most of these reported extrajudicial killings.
In 2018, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian police accountability institution, told media it was investigating 243 killings by police, but the institution appears overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the cases and undermined by the lack of co-operation from the police service.
So far, the institution has secured convictions against just three officers since it started working in 2012.
In December 2018, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting a pattern of harassment, intimidation and other abuses by security forces of at least 35 environmental activists it said were protesting potential environmental and health concerns.