The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

Despite the ill health and growing incapacity of President-for-Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda, his persona continues to dominate the political and civil context of present-day Malawi, even 30 years after he first took the reins of power at independence. Regardless of the momentous transition from a single-party dictatorship to a multitude of political groupings in 1992 and 1993, Malawians remain under the yoke and domination of Banda's Malawian Congress Party (MCP). With an election slated for May 17, 1994, all attention has turned to the levelling of the political playing field and the potential of the opposition political forces to break the MCP's domination of political activity in the country. The recent past has also seen the intervention of the Army for the first time in the political framework of the country, an event welcomed by many observers (including local human rights monitors), but one portending an uncertain (and even ominous) future in terms of civil/military relations in the country, and by implication, the operation of human rights groups. This occurred within the context of the Army's dismantling of the MCP's "Tonton Macoutes"--the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP)--who had been created by the ruling party as a secret police, albeit under the guise of a youth wing. It is troubling that very few human rights organizations (HROs) are even questioning the mode or the method by which the dismantling of the organization was effected, as well as the possible ramifications that this action has on the general context of human rights and freedoms in the country. This is explicable in terms of the relative youth of the groups in Malawi, and is also a manifestation of their being a direct outgrowth of the opposition movement in the country.

Given the fairly extensive legacy of oppression coupled with the suppression of several of the major human rights and political cases, an immediate task for HROs is the reconstruction of the past and the attempt to seek recompense for it. This is nevertheless taking place in a situation (akin to that of Kenya in the run-up to the 1992 elections) where the opposition is poised to fracture into several fragments and thus fail to unseat the MCP's monopoly of the political process. This could have significant implications for the future operation of HROs. Even if the MCP is unseated, HROs in Malawi must be prepared to operate in a fashion that is independent of the political context. Unfortunately, it is as yet unclear whether the emerging groups are merely facades, or extensions of the opposition political forces, rather than being genuinely committed to the broader struggle for human rights.

Church and Society Department

of the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian


Established on November 25, 1993, the Church and Society (C&S) Department of the Blantyre Synod is part of the human rights department, and intends to concentrate on civic education, reporting and monitoring. C&S has designed a course to educate voters on their rights (which covers the theology of human rights), a course on democratic principles (which covers the implications of voting), and basic human rights as contained in the international human rights conventions and other relevant instruments. The seminars are designed to train trainers, who will then proceed into the field and train others, so as to facilitate the development of a community-based scheme. The Department also intends to coordinate its efforts more closely with other human rights groups.

The Civil Liberties Commission


Established in early 1992, the Civil Liberties Commission (CLC) developed as an expression of the need for organized monitoring of human rights violations by domestic groups--a function previously carried out by external organizations. However, CLC remains a loose network of individuals rather than an organization with clearly-defined objectives in actual operation. CLC's objectives are the documentation of human rights abuses, public education, and case action on the behalf of victims of abuse. Few strides have been made with respect to either public education or documentation, and there is still exploration of the possibilities of activating this aspect of the CLC's functions. Most of CLC's achievements have been registered in case action, where there has been success in obtaining judicial review of a police decision preventing lawyers from visiting detained clients without permission, and questions relating to the right to bail. The CLC intends to establish a national network based in each of the twenty-four districts of the country to act as information sources on human rights questions.

Evangelical Alliance for Rights and Development


The main focus of EVARD is civic education related to the general elections projected for May 1994, but also beyond this time, especially because of the newness of opposition politics and problems associated with the legacy of a single-party dictatorship. When formed in 1988, EVARD initially focused on the plight of Mozambican refugees in the south of the country, in particular dealing with questions of the environment and traditional relief work.

Human Rights Movement of the Christian Council of Malawi


The Human Rights Movement (HRM) was founded by the Christian Council of Malawi (CCM) in November 1992, but a lack of resources prevented its activation until a year later when Reverend Chande Mhone was appointed Human Rights Coordinator. As a result, the organization is still in its infancy, and has yet to clearly define its role and function in the human rights struggle. The broad focus of HRM is human rights abuse (monitoring, exposure, documentation and seeking accountability); education (civic and voting rights); and reporting on violations (for example, arrest, detention, and police brutality). HRM is built around a National Human Rights Forum, which is composed of fifteen to twenty members who are annually elected from regional human rights fora. Supervision of all activities at the headquarters in Lilongwe is under the Coordinator. The Coordinator is also responsible for the initiation of national programs and campaigns, liaising with the press, and the promotion of linkages with other groups and activists (lawyers, and so on) in the field.

Legal Resources Centre


Established in March 1993 under the auspices of the Law Society of Malawi (LSM), the LRC began actual operation in July of the same year. Headed by veteran activist and former long-time Banda detainee Vera Chirwa, the LRC focuses on the education of Malawians about their human rights, legal representation of the indigent and low-income earners, as well as related research. The LRC has been particularly active in holding conferences on constitutional and electoral reform. It intends to expand its activities to the investigation of past abuses, and to this end, has placed several advertisements in the local papers requesting information. A number of cases have already been handled by the LRC, predominantly related to police brutality, illegal detention and unlawful deaths. The LRC also intends to train paralegals to carry out human rights work. Documentation is already part of the program of the LRC, but the library is still in its infancy and requires further development.

- Joe Oloka-Onyango

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