Perhaps no one during my lifetime more epitomized the struggle for human rights than Nelson Mandela, who not only became South Africa’s first fully democratically elected president, but also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight for racial equality. I never met Madiba, but have carried his Long Walk to Freedom autobiography around the world with me.
Mandela may be the most emblematic African political prisoner, but there are countless others. This year, on Nelson Mandela International Day, we call on governments in Africa to respect the right of people to peacefully express their dissent and to immediately and unconditionally release the political prisoners who remain in jail.
Arbitrary and politically motivated detentions continue in countries such as Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. There are signs of hope in some places, such as The Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo, which have released many prisoners. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s reformist government has provided a new voice to its people through the 2018 granting of amnesty to tens of thousands of political prisoners, journalists, and activists.
The State Department—through our diplomatic engagements, human rights reporting, and collaboration with civil society organizations—works to free political prisoners, promote due process, and create the conditions for good governance, respect for fundamental freedoms, and rule of law. We also work multilaterally, through UN and regional bodies, as well as observe trials for political prisoners to demonstrate our support and document unfair proceedings.
Secretary Pompeo wrote in the preface to this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: “The founders of the United States and the delegates to the UN Commission on Human Rights recognized that fundamental freedoms of religion or belief, expression, peaceful assembly, and association belong to every human being. These freedoms are not granted by governments, but are derived from the inherent dignity of the human person. Nor may they be unduly restricted by governments even to further some economic, social, or cultural purpose. They are unalienable.”
There have been several recent prominent cases of people unjustly targeted for their actions and beliefs. Ugandan pop star turned presidential candidate Bobi Wine and Rwandan presidential candidate and activist Diane Rwigara come to mind. These courageous individuals stand up for the protection of fundamental freedoms at great personal peril and we honor them. On this Nelson Mandela International Day, we would like to shine a spotlight on the thousands of current political prisoners in Africa. Here are a few of their stories:
Marafa Hamidou Yaya, the former minister of state for territorial administration, whom Cameroonian authorities convicted on corruption charges in 2012 and sentenced to 25 years, though subsequently reduced to 20 years, imprisonment. In 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a decision qualifying Marafa’s detention “a violation of international laws” and found the Government of Cameroon has an obligation to end Marafa’s detention.
Germain Rukuki, the former employee of the banned NGO Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture-Burundi, whom Burundian authorities accused of acts against state security and rebellion, arrested in 2017, and sentenced in 2018 to 32 years imprisonment. His appeal is still in progress.
Peter Biar Ajak, the South Sudanese academic and peace activist arrested without charge in 2018 and, in June 2019, sentenced to two years in prison on charges of disturbing the peace by giving interviews to foreign media while in the midst of an uprising of prisoners also held for long periods without trial. The government has never stated the original motive for his arrest, and appeals remain ongoing.
These are but a few of the many brave individuals who have been unjustly detained by their governments. We call for their immediate and unconditional release, and for governments to ensure respect for fundamental freedoms.
“I have walked that long road to freedom,” Nelson Mandela wrote in his book about his life. “I have taken a moment to rest… But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” No political prisoner’s “long walk” will be complete until all political prisoners are free and we have succeeded in creating a world in which the fundamental freedoms of religion or belief, expression, peaceful assembly and association belong to us all.
About the Author: Mark S. Dieker is Director of African Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.