Africa in the news: Ethiopia, Nigeria, and internet control updates

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Investigations into the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia continue

On Thursday, March 4, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for an independent assessment amid reports of a quickly deteriorating situation for human rights in the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia this year. Justifying the probe, Bachelet said, “Deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continue to be shared with us, as well as reports of continued fighting in central Tigray in particular. … Credible information also continues to emerge about serious violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict in Tigray in November last year.”

On March 3, the government of Ethiopia announced an investigation into an alleged massacre of several hundred people in the city of Axum last November, reversing a firm denial issued just a few days before. The presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray is disputed by the Ethiopian government, though even government-appointed interim Tigray leaders confirmed their presence back in January.

In February, the Eritrean government had rejected a story about the incidents in Tigray reported by the Associated Press as “outrageous lies.” In late February, Amnesty International firmly disputed that account, stating, “The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum. Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity.” Around the same time, the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that its preliminary investigations had similarly confirmed lootings and sexual violence in the region.

New U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call this week for Ethiopian troops to withdraw from Tigray was rejected by the Ethiopian government. The situation has increasingly drawn attention from the new Biden administration: In February, Blinken called on the African Union to investigate the allegations. Around the same time, The New York Times reported that an internal U.S. government report says that the Ethiopian government has engaged in “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” in Tigray.

For more on the complex crisis unfolding in Ethiopia, see the November 2020 event, “Crisis in Ethiopia and its regional repercussions,” as well as Zach Vertin’s Brookings blog, “Averting civil war in Ethiopia: It’s time to propose elements of a negotiated settlement.”

Nigeria to regulate cryptocurrencies; schoolgirls released amid deadly violence

Last month, Nigerian regulators took steps to control cryptocurrency investments and transactions. More specifically, the country’s central bank banned financial institutions from trading or facilitating transactions in cryptocurrencies. The Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission has also announced it intends to introduce regulations over the buying and selling of cryptocurrencies, indicating that they fall under the category of securities transactions. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, concerned over the potential misuses of cryptocurrency and their implications for consumers, lent support to the recent actions of regulators. The values of many cryptocurrencies have exploded over the past year: Bitcoin has increased 423 percent, while ethereum has increased 540 percent.

On Tuesday, violence broke out as Nigerian soldiers began to release hundreds of recently kidnapped schoolgirls to reunite with their families. The week before, gunmen had abducted 279 girls from a state-run school in Zamfara State in northwest Nigeria. The gunmen, who killed a police officer in the attack, arrived on around 20 motorcycles and took the abducted girls into a nearby forest in the early hours of the morning, according to a high-ranking official. The girls have been recovered from their kidnappers and were being held in the school as they awaited reunification with their families. According to witnesses and video evidence, family members grew angry and started throwing rocks when soldiers announced their intention to keep the schoolgirls in the school overnight before releasing them to their families. Soldiers responded by opening fire, killing one person and injuring two others.

For more context on the recent abductions in Nigeria, consider reading “Rising insecurity in northwest Nigeria: Terrorism thinly disguised as banditry” by Oluwole Ojewale.

Nongovernmental organizations warn that ‘digital authoritarianism’ is on the rise in Africa

This month, the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) published a study in which it found that, over the past 20 years, at least 10 African countries have employed a myriad of tactics to suppress their citizens’ freedom of expression and access to information. Such tactics include internet shutdowns, mobile interception, internet surveillance, and laws limiting free speech and setting a legal precedent for arrests based on online speech. Moreover, the report warns that, across the continent, digital authoritarianism is on the rise, threatening Africans’ basic rights and freedoms. Indeed, the number of intentional internet shutdowns enacted by African governments “increased to 25 in 2020 from 21 in 2019.”

The results of the report have already been evident in recent events, particularly elections. For example, Amnesty International reported Uganda’s election this year, as well as every presidential election since 2011, was marred by internet blackouts, social media bans, and pro-government disinformation campaigns on social media. According to a report by Access Now, a nonprofit that defends digital rights, a multitude of other African countries, such as Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, and Togo, employed some feature of authoritarian control over the internet during their elections in 2020. Recently, other countries have enacted internet shutdowns to curb civil unrest, such as in Senegal and Ethiopia.

Due to these measures, reports ADRN, Africans are increasingly utilizing secure digital technologies, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging, to circumvent government control, continue voicing opposition, and establish novel civic spaces online.