Report Reveals Attacks against Freedom of Association in Many African Countries

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  United States, District of Columbia, Washington - 05/14/2019 (

Human rights defenders and good governance watchdogs targeted with legislative roadblocks.


Freedom House released a report today ( actions against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by governments across Africa. The report finds that 12 African countries have passed laws that improperly constrain NGOs in the last 15 years, while six more have anti-NGO measures pending. In six countries, restrictive legislation has been abandoned by executives, rejected by legislatures, or invalidated by courts, often in the face of pushback from civil society.

“Restrictions that hamstring NGO activity are often part of a broader strategy to narrow democratic space and prevent challenges to the rule of strongmen and governing parties,” said Godfrey Musila, the report’s author.

“Civil society plays a central role in holding governments accountable and protecting human rights,” said Freedom House’s Jon Temin, director of Africa programs. “Cracking down on NGOs through legislative and other restrictions doesn’t bode well for the health of democracy in many of these countries.”

Curbs on NGOs working in Africa, particularly those that focus on human rights and governance, come in the context of a global assault on democracy that often appears to be coordinated across borders. Antidemocratic African governments mimic and draw inspiration from each other, but may also be influenced by major actors on the global stage such as China and Russia, which have both forged close ties with many countries in Africa.

The study identifies which countries may be next to introduce this kind of legislation. Political and economic challenges, preexisting limits on freedom of association, and susceptibility to backsliding in countries that have recently transitioned to democracy all threaten NGO rights. Such conditions make Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia particularly vulnerable to restrictive NGO laws.

Importantly, the report highlights lessons from countries where civil society has effectively halted anti-NGO measures. Successful tactics include lobbying legislators, policymakers, and the international community; pursuing litigation; building cross-border coalitions; and using technical experts to help develop lobbying strategies, educate legislators and NGO leaders, and prepare draft legislation.

“Blocking these measures, or turning them back once they’ve passed, is possible,” said Musila. “It often takes coordinated actions among NGO actors, cross-border learning, and the use of courts to dramatize the NGO cause.”

Freedom House is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the expansion of democracy and freedom around the world. We analyze the challenges to freedom, advocate for greater political rights and civil liberties, and support frontline activists to defend human rights and promote democratic change. Our flagship annual report, Freedom in the World, assesses the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world. It is composed of numerical ratings and supporting descriptive texts for 195 countries and 14 territories.

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