Africa’s Dictators Are Killing. Who Is Giving Them Cover?

This year has been a bloodbath for anti-government activists across the African region.

On January 20, King Mswati III of the southern African nation of Eswatini, said that “people should not shed tears and complain” about the extrajudicial murders of political activists in the country, because the activists “started the violence first.” Just hours later, my friend Thulani Rudolph Maseko, a human-rights lawyer and democracy activist, was shot and killed at close range in his living room.

Earlier that week, Rwandan investigative journalist John Williams Ntwali was ordered to a police station for an interrogation and released. Williams Ntwali was well known for investigating corruption and reporting on those targeted and killed by Paul Kagame’s regime. Two days after his visit to the police station, his family was summoned to identify his body. Authorities said he died in a motorbike accident, though many suspect foul play.

Then, in Cameroon, on January 22, the mutilated body of the popular journalist Martinez Zogo was found. Zogo, known for radio programs that called out the corruption of influential politicians, had been abducted a few days earlier.

We are witnessing the invigoration of dictatorship in Africa. As a democracy activist from Zimbabwe, I know all too well that it does not take much for despots to feel threatened by ordinary citizens. It takes even less for them to order their murders. In March 2015, a young freelance journalist, Itai Dzamara, mounted a one-man protest demanding the resignation of our then-president, Robert Mugabe. Two days after speaking at a political rally, Itai disappeared — he was dragged from a barber shop and thrown into a pickup truck in broad daylight, never to be seen again.

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Democracy activists need support from the global community. As we pressure our governments to respect our basic human rights, however, our efforts are often undermined by the very nations we look to for moral and political leadership.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe figured out early in his dictatorship that he could murder dissenters with minimal consequences. When, in 1983, he and his North Korean–trained Fifth Brigade military unit ruthlessly killed thousands of Ndebele people in the south of Zimbabwe, the world merely shrugged. Mugabe went on to become the darling of global democracies. In 1994, in the U.K., he was designated an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by the British monarch (a knighthood thankfully if belatedly revoked in 2008), and was awarded honorary degrees by many of the world’s elite educational institutions. The Vatican even received him as a VIP guest while he persecuted Catholic bishops back home for challenging his brutality.

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The lives of democracy activists, investigative journalists, human-rights lawyers, and opposition figures in Africa have been worth little for a long time, and there’s no sign of change. Social media has enabled average citizens to expose dictators’ abuses, but this has consequently made everyday people the targets of dictators’ repression.

Small-time dictators are learning tactics from powerful ones. Chinese-state-owned companies export anti-protest equipment to autocratic governments in Africa, just as they’ve done to Venezuela, to devastating effect. The adoption of surveillance technologies, such as facial-recognition software, which has been delivered to African states such as Zimbabwe and Uganda, has meant that dictators of less-developed countries can track and harm those they deem malcontents just as easily as well-resourced autocrats.

As African dictators collaborate to murder their rivals, democratic world leaders have been all too willing to engage with these tyrants. The recent U.S.–Africa Leaders’ Summit was one such occasion. Dictators depend on a veneer of legitimacy to stay in power, and meeting with respected world leaders is one of the best ways for them to claim it. The summit served as a PR victory for some of the most oppressive heads of state on the planet. Democracy activists, who have been forced into exile by these same brutes, were left to protest and watch helplessly from outside the fences of the White House as our would-be killers were welcomed and serenaded.

Every photo op in a place that symbolizes freedom, and every dinner in their honor, can function as a powerful stamp of approval for these autocrats. While such engagements may seem harmless to some, they embolden dictators who return home to bear down even harder on those who oppose them. Having walked international red carpets that camouflaged his blood-soaked hands, Mugabe always returned home with a bounce in his step and a sneering look at his dissenters, knowing that regardless of his domestic policies of oppression there will always be a spot for him at a lavish dinner table in Washington.

Recently, the U.K. showed the world just how unserious it is about opposing African dictators. The British government struck a perplexing deal as part of which migrants seeking asylum in the U.K. can be relocated to Rwanda while their claims are adjudicated. In Africa, we call this appointing the hyena to guard the goat pen. For migrants seeking asylum in the U.K., being sent to Rwanda for safekeeping, under the care of the brutal Paul Kagame, must seem inconceivable. This deal is an implicit endorsement by the U.K. government of a known autocrat who has jailed dissenters in his own country and illegally abducted others from across international borders to be brought back and imprisoned in Rwanda. To whom can those Rwandans who are brave enough to criticize their government look for support when democratic nations deliver asylum-seekers into the hands of brutal dictators? Democratic nations have a profound responsibility to, at least, avoid empowering autocrats.

Thulani Maseko, Martinez Zogo, and John Williams Ntwali did not die simply because they confronted their oppressors. They died, in part, also because their killers believed that there would be no consequences for their murders. This belief was confirmed by the weak, business-as-usual responses that came from democratic governments that urged “thorough investigations” but did nothing more. Democratic leaders know full well that these dictators will never investigate, much less prosecute, themselves.

My heart grieves for Thulani Maseko. Our last conversation was about the real possibility that our lives might be taken for the work that we do — a risk he was willing to take. I still believe, as hard as it may be that the legacies of all these men will be as torchbearers for freedom in their homelands. To honor their lives, the global community must stop disregarding their deaths and normalizing their murderers.

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