CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and RESOCIDE jointly organised a workshop on enhancing the capacity of human rights defenders to respond to threats in West Africa in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso from 2 to 3 July 2012. The workshop which brought together participants from Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, the Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and the USA, aimed at identifying specific threats faced by civil society and human rights activists in West Africa and creating a network to facilitate timely and proactive responses to these threats. At the close of the meeting, particpants agreed to create a West African Network for human rights defenders which they named Africa Rights Defenders. The meeting was made possible by the financial support of Irish Aid.
At the start of the workshop, participants presented country experiences on human rights issues. It was clear that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and human rights defenders continue to work in restricted spaces despite improved legal frameworks for democratic governance and different levels of political transitions experienced by countries in the region. Even though the constitutions of most West African countries make provisions for the respect and protection of human rights, and countries are signatories to or have ratified several regional and international human rights conventions, governments often lack the will to implement these commitments.
Most country experiences indicate that human rights defenders, journalists and civil society activists are often victims of physical assaults, kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture, judicial harassments and pre-trial detentions. Family members of and lawyers for activists are regularly threatened while some human rights defenders have been assassinated in the line of duty. In Senegal for example, close to 20 activists died in prison during the tenure of the former president while citizens and human rights defenders were attacked, harassed and tortured as they led protests against attempts by the president to amend the constitution to extend his stay in office.
In The Gambia, very few organisations focus on human rights as the government repeatedly targets CSOs that do so. The situation is compounded by pronouncements from key government officials, including the president, threatening human rights activists with death for compromising the stability of the state. In Nigeria, human rights defenders working in some regions are subjected to threats and harassment when they attempt to expose corrupt practices and violations of the rights of citizens. Women human rights defenders face particular difficulties in the north, south and south east of Nigeria as they challenge religious, traditional and culturally rooted stereotypes.
Countries experiencing transitions from war face serious threats, as in Cote d'Ivoire, where perpetrators act with impunity, and the judiciary is perceived to be biased, making it difficult to heal the ethnic and political differences that were at the heart of the country's conflict. In some countries, intelligence agents infiltrate meetings organised by civil society while posing as representatives from CSOs, and in other countries, such as Burkina Faso, the whereabouts of some activists in prison remain unknown, while other activists are victims of malicious campaigns and propaganda in the media. Activists have been monitored and trailed when travelling abroad for conferences, and governments impose restrictions on the media, political and electoral processes and on civil liberties. A long period of stability in Burkina Faso has given rise to formal democracy but while the institutional dimension is completed, the rights of ordinary citizens are not respected. The Government has generated thousands of fictitious CSOs to occupy the public space and prevent human rights defenders and civil society activists from their work.