Algeria accused of rights crackdown ahead of elections


There is growing criticism of Algeria’s human rights and freedom of expression record days before the presidential election in which Abdelaziz Bouteflika is widely expected to win a fourth term in office.

President Bouteflika is seeking a fourth term in office

In a report published on April 14th, Amnesty International stated that “the Algerian authorities regularly ban and forcibly disperse peaceful protests and have imposed severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

The human rights group cites numerous examples of restrictions on civil liberties, including a 2012 law allowing the government to ban organizations seen to threaten principles as vague as “national constants and values” or “morality”.

Amnesty International slammed the three-year ban on public protests in the capital Algiers, which has been forcibly enforced against demonstrators in the run up to this the presidential election on April 16th. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also criticized the crackdown on peaceful protests in March, stressing that it had specifically targeted members of the “Barakat” (“Enough”) movement who opposed a fourth term for Bouteflika.

The bulk of recent criticism has to do with press freedom, with Amnesty International highlighting the closure of the private Al-Atlas TV channel after a raid by security forces on March 12th.

“Attacking a private television station simply because it dared to broadcast a different view is a reprehensible attack on freedom of expression,” Amnesty International researcher Nicola Duckworth said in a statement.

Reacting to this, Madjid Bekkouche, a spokesman for the Bouteflika election team, said “Al-Atlas TV had difficulties paying its transmission fees and its licence was not in order,” replied.

The human rights group gave other examples, including foreign journalists being denied visas to cover the presidential campaign and the wife of a journalist who had covered opposition protests being threatened at gunpoint and scalded with hot water by “three individuals in plain clothes believed to be members of the security forces”.

Amnesty International regretted that Algeria had not granted access to UN human rights experts, such as the special rapporteur on torture, to shed light on such abuses.

Campaign documents used by Bouteflika’s campaign counter that his government has consistently granted licences to new media outlets. “Between 2009 and 2013, the number of daily newspapers rose from 78 to 142,” they say, adding that two laws in favour of freedom of expression were passed under the current President.

“Algerians now have access to numerous private TV channels, which work in the field to reflect the country’s wide diversity,” said Bekkouche.

Amnesty International argues, however, that their licences are temporary and can be revoked by the authorities on a whim.

H’mida Ayachi, the head of Algérie News says money can also be used to silence critical media. Government agencies, who provide the majority of advertising revenues in Algeria, cancelled all contracts with his newspaper recently. “This has happened because our paper gave space to certain opposition groups, including the Barakat movement,” says Ayachi. “We’re being punished for this. The President’s supporters are clearly set on muzzling the opposition.”

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Ghana: Developing the digital economy


Multi-million dollar grant aims to establish world class tech facilities in Ghana.


The Rockefeller Foundation has announced a $3.8m grant to the Ghanaian government in partnership with the World Bank to support the establishment of world class facilities that will attract IT and IT enabled firms, including Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) firms to Ghana and create jobs for Ghanaian youth.

The grant complements the World Bank’s US$5 million provided under the eGhana Project and is part of the Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa initiative launched in 2013 – a $100m initiative aimed at improving 1 million lives through ICT skills and jobs for high potential but disadvantaged youth, a press release said.

The new grant will enable completion by August of a mini ICT Park in central Accra and will potentially provide direct and indirect employment to over 10,000 people, primarily youth, who have few alternative job opportunities.

Recent research funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and issued by the Dalberg Institute, a strategic advisory firm, identifies access to real estate as the primary barrier to expanding the BPO sector in Ghana.  “This grant will help address that constraint directly by providing the funds for the Ghanaian government to create a world class facility,” the Foundation says.

“As the Rockefeller Foundation enters its second year of our $100m Digital Jobs Africa initiative, we applaud the commitment of the Ghanaian government for steering the hiring at this new state of the art ICT Park towards poor and vulnerable youth – which will help to achieve our ultimate goal of impacting the lives of 1 million people through digital jobs for disadvantaged youth.  This project will transform the landscape of Ghana’s IT /ITES sector while ensuring that disadvantaged youth are the ultimate beneficiaries.  When young people are empowered economically, the entire nation will benefit,” said Mamadou Biteye, Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Africa Regional Office.

The Rockefeller Foundation and World Bank support are designed to catalyze additional funding. The Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa initiative is being implemented in six countries in Africa – Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco.

In September 2013, the World Bank approved the $97m eTransform project which builds on the earlier eGhana project. Both projects seek to use ICT to improve the reach and efficiency of private and public service delivery and create jobs.

Dr. Edward K. Omane Boamah, Ghana’s Minister of Communications commented:  “Not only can we transform the ICT sector, making Ghana internationally competitive, we can provide opportunities for hundreds of disadvantaged young people who have the skills and drive to work in the digital economy, but are only lacking the access and opportunity.”

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DR Congo: The quest for oil is the latest threat to Africa’s most venerable wildlife reserve


The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental bodies, including local ones, have also voiced concern about a planned joint operation by small British firm SOCO International PLC and the Kinshasa government in part of the Virunga National Park.

Gazelle in Virunga National Park (Picture: Wikipedia / Radio Okapi)

The whole protected territory on the border with Uganda and Rwanda covers 800,000 hectares and has attained worldwide renown, notably for its rare and endangered mountain gorillas.

SOCO has stated that in July 2013, its chairman Rui de Sousa met with WWF chief David Nusbaum, and proposed that they “work together to find the best way forward.”

The firm also expressed a commitment to “improving our dialogue” with all parties “about how (its) activities in eastern DRC could affect the flora and fauna of the Virunga National Park and the livelihoods of the regional population.”

Created in 1925 in the far east of what was then the Belgian Congo, the whole park was declared an “endangered” part of the global heritage by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994.

The area is exceptionally rich in biodiversity, but is located in scarred North Kivu province, tracts of which have been ravaged by successive conflicts for more than 20 years.

Poachers and logging teams have damaged the reserve, as elsewhere in Africa, but the park is also criss-crossed by rival armed groups and soldiers, while local people have taken up illegal residence.

A global protest campaign erupted after SOCO in 2010 won a contract from the Congolese government to jointly prospect for oil on a concession overlapping the park’s territory.

International resistance proved strong enough to make Kinshasa suspend SOCO’s permit in 2011, until a “strategic environmental evaluation” had been conducted.

The launch of the study failed to satisfy the WWF and local organisations, which argue that such contracts and permits handed out by the state violate both Congolese law on conservation and the UNESCO convention protecting World Heritage Sites. A recent report by a French NGO, the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development, said that “far from constituting a manna for development”, oil production at Muanda had instead led to pollution and the degradation of the environment. For Thierry Vircoulon, the central African project director of the International Crisis Group, “the confirmation of oil reserves in the east would exacerbate the dynamic of conflicts” there.

SOCO has pointed out that it plans to operate only within a small geographical area of “lowland savannah around Lake Edward and the lake itself”, and that it “will never seek” to enter the gorilla habitat.

This is insufficient for UNESCO, which has declared that oil prospecting and production are “not compatible” with world heritage statutes. The organisation warned that part of the park may be unlisted, a prospect that horrifies wildlife activists.

The WWF argues that the DRC has more to gain in economic terms by protecting the park and developing sustainable tourism, fishing and hydroelectric projects, rather than undertaking a search for oil that might not even be there.

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Southern Africa: The second phase of a massive water transfer project is launched


South Africa and Lesotho ceremonially launched their biggest joint infrastructure investment project on March 27th.


Work on the Rand 14 bn ($1.3 bn) second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is expected get underway in April with the construction of a 155-metre high Polihali Dam and tunnels.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma called it a “win-win” project, as impoverished Lesotho will secure revenue while South Africa gets water.

Launched in 1998, the project provides South Africa with the scarce resource, while contributing to the economic growth of the tiny mountainous kingdom, known for its large water reserves.

The project situated in the northern part of the country is expected to be fully operational in 2022.

Lesotho has benefited from significant infrastructure development since the inception of the scheme, including road linkages and upgrades.

The landlocked country, entirely surrounded by South Africa, also generates hydro-power from the large dams built so far.

The first phase of the project supplies South Africa with about 10 bn cubic metres of water a year, and the amount will increase to 17m cubic metres with the completion of the second phase, according to the South African Water and Environmental Affairs department.

“This is a good opportunity for the people of Lesotho and South Africa, not only will many people get jobs but our relationship as countries continue to be strengthened through projects such as these,” said Zuma.

South Africa is a water-scarce country, and supply has in recent years come under pressure from population growth and industrial activity.

At the launch, Zuma said the new Polihali Dam will go a long way in alleviating the strain.

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Ethiopia “eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mail”


Ethiopia has virtually unlimited access to its citizens’ phone records, thanks to China-made surveillance technology, according to a new report.

A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “They Know Everything We Do”: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia, based on more than 100 interviews with victims of abuse and former intelligence officials, says the authorities use access to mobile data and call recordings to harass and arrest people they believe oppose the government.

Recorded phone calls with family members and friends – particularly those with foreign phone numbers-are played during abusive interrogations in which people are often accused of belonging to banned organizations. Phone networks have been shut down during peaceful protests and protesters’ locations have been pinpointed using information from their mobile phones. Intercepted emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the country’s anti-terrorism law.

Ethiopia’s telecommunication is monopolized by state-owned Ethio Telecom. A sim card can only be obtained in Ethiopia after registering personal details, making it easy for the government to identify domestic callers, according to HRW.

Spyware developed by British, German, and Italian companies has also been used to target Ethiopians living abroad. It gives security and intelligence agencies practically unfettered access to files, information, and activity on the target’s computer. This software, used to target Ethiopians living in the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway and Switzerland, has been used to capture Skype conversations that have appeared on pro-government websites.

A US citizen of Ethiopian origin filed a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government in February, saying his computer had been hacked and he had been spied on for more than four months.

In another case, an Ethiopian refugee in London has asked British police to investigate evidence that FinSpy software known as “FinFisher” was used to hack his computer.

Getachew Redda, an adviser to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, rejected the Human Rights Watch report. He said the government “would not waste resources in eavesdropping conversations of opposition figures”, adding that HRW had “made it a habit to accuse Ethiopia of almost everything that goes wrong in the region” and it has a “negative knee-jerk reaction about any developments in the country”.

In February, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Voice of America (VOA) that his government did not engage in computer hacking. “There is freedom of speech, everyone is entitled to his opinion, and that is something that is at the core of our rules and procedures. There is freedom of expression, and the hacking business is not our business.”

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Cameroon: Musical freedom fighter dies


 Lapiro de Mbanga (1957-2014)

Lapiro De M’Banga (Picture: Patrice Vigier / Wikipedia)

Cameroonian singer Lapiro de Mbanga, a critic of President Paul Biya whose 2008 song “Constipated Constitution” became a protest anthem and cost him three years in jail, has died.

Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger (April 7th, 1957 – March 16th, 2014), better known as Lapiro de Mbanga, was nicknamed “the guitar man” and had a huge following among the downtrodden and forgotten workers with his satirical lyrics and quasi-rapping style mixing French and Pidgin English.

For several years, Mbanga lived in self-imposed exile in Nigeria and Gabon. He returned in 1985 to Cameroon, where he proceeded to compose and record what Index on Censorship has described as “a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country.”

He died of cancer in Buffalo, in the northeast of the United States, where he had been granted asylum a year after his release from prison, friends said.

“I am sad he left us so early,” Joshua Osih, the deputy chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Front of which Mbanga was a member, said.

In 2008, “Constipated Constitution” lashed out at Biya’s proposed constitutional amendment to scrap term limits. The song became an anthem for protests that were brutally repressed, leaving at least 40 dead. The constitutional change was adopted nonetheless and Biya, who took the helm of Cameroon in 1982, is still in power at 81.

Mbanga was arrested during the rioting and sentenced to three years in prison for incitement to violence in his native southern town of Mbanga, a charge he always denied.

The singer — who has been dubbed “the unceremonial sheriff of the backyards” -nearly died of typhoid in prison and lost repeated appeals before being eventually freed a day before the official end of his sentence. Undeterred, he released a new single simply entitled “Demissionnez” (Resign). That led to death threats and he went into US exile with his wife and children in late 2012.

“Lapiro de Mbanga was a musical freedom fighter,” Freemuse, a Denmark-based musical freedom organisation that campaigned for his release from prison, said. He “articulated the daily injustices he witnessed in his songs — and was punished hard for his right to express them.”

“Undaunted by his experience behind bars, Lapiro and the US-based NGO Freedom Now successfully brought his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in February 2012. The UN issued an opinion that the detention by the Government of Cameroon was arbitrary and a violation of international law. Shortly after his 2013 Montreuil concert, the Cameroonian Supreme Court annulled its 2008 ruling against the music star and ordered a retrial.

“It seemed that Lapiro’s pledge to return from exile cleansed of all charges would triumph. That death denied him this ultimate rehabilitation leaves a bitter taste,” said Freemuse.

Find out more on this story

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£25,000 Prize for African Engineering Innovation Launched


The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering has launched the first Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, worth £25,000 for the overall winner, and six months of mentoring, training and support in commercialising for all of the shortlisted innovators.


The award is part of a wider initiative of the academy to promote engineering in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also running a pilot programme on engineering education exchanges with universities in several sub-Saharan Africa countries and the Africa-UK Engineering for Development Partnership, which is mapping capacity of the UK engineering community for international development-relevant research.

The initiatives follow an October 2012 report by the academy that identified a major lack of engineering capacity in Africa.

At the launch meeting, African delegates highlighting the need for wider, institution-focused capacity building in their countries.

“We need engineers now, and for the future we need to build a culture of innovation and excellence,” said a representative form the Seychelles.

A delegate from Tanzania suggested similar prizes to recognise institutions that have high-quality programmes that others could learn from.

Research on how innovation works in Africa is “very patchy”, said Ian Thornton, from the UKCDS (UK Collaborative on Development Sciences). This means, he said, that governments may be 90% of the way there – but still see little impact of innovation on their economies, and know little about why that is the case.

Peter Matthews, executive director of Engineers Against Poverty, said there were “a lot of barriers” and that the “environment is not very conducive” to innovation in Africa, but despite this, there were some young innovators emerging there – sometimes working on technology innovation in their spare time.

“African young people innovate, but they don’t get support,” he said.

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation is supported by the Shell Centenary Scholarship Fund, Consolidated Contractors Company, ConocoPhilips and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The prize is open for entries until the end of May to engineers connected with universities and research institutions in sub-Saharan African countries.

Engineers from all disciplines are invited to submit innovations with a social, economic or environmental benefit. Entries must be early-stage innovations which have the potential to be scaled-up and are ready for commercialisation.

At a launch meeting in the academy’s premises in London, United Kingdom representatives of diplomatic missions from the nations of the Southern African Development Community agreed to meet again and follow up on the ideas that emerged in order to further collaborate on capacity building in engineering and innovation.

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