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What we’ve learnt about Africa, freedom and security

Africans are willing to give up their freedom to move around where they like and say what they think, and are willing to be watched if it means they get more security, according to a survey by research group Afrobarometer. Here are five of the key findings:

1. Many Africans are willing to trade freedom for security

Afrobarometer suggests that giving an option of either freedom or security is a strategyused by governments to persuade people to accept restrictions on freedom.

And, the survey suggests, it has proven a powerful argument – as more and more people are prepared to trade freedom to move where they like for a safer country.

The majority of those surveyed – 62% – are willing to accept curfews and roadblocks in the interests of greater security.

This is illustrated most starkly in Madagascar. Some 83% of those surveyed agreed with the statement “When faced with threats to public security, the government should be able to impose curfews and set up special roadblocks to prevent people from moving around”.

The motivation for answering this way, the research argues, may be because the country is “still trying to emerge from years of political turmoil and instability”.

2. Fewer Africans feel free to say what they think

In nearly all the countries surveyed, there has been a decline in the number of people who feel they can say what they think.

Roughly two-thirds (68%) of those surveyed said that people must “often” or “always” be careful of what they say about politics.

The country where there has been the biggest rise in cautiousness is Mali which, the research explains, has been in political crisis since a 2012 coup and an Islamist takeover of the north.

The research also picks out Zambia and Tanzania as two countries where there has been a significant decline in the number of people who say they are free to say what they think. These two countries, the research explains, are “watched due to increasingly authoritarian behaviour by their current governments”.

3. A significant number of Africans are willing to allow their private communications to be monitored

Some 43% of those surveyed are willing to accept government monitoring in the interests of security.

Mali stood out.

Some 75% of those surveyed in Mali agreed with the statement that the government should be able to monitor private communications, for example on mobile phones, to make sure that people are not plotting violence.

The research suggests that “violent extremists… may be taking a toll on popular commitment to individual liberties and civil rights”.

4. Fewer Africans care about the right to join groups

The survey reveals a decline in support for “the right to associate freely”.

This is the right to form and be part of a trade union, a political party or any another association or voluntary group.

Or, to put it another way, the context needed in order to start a protest group, such as those which have recently ousted long-time authoritarian leaders in Sudan and Algeria.

Some 61% of people surveyed agreed with the statement that “We should be able to join any organisation whether or not the government approves of it”.

That is a “modest” decline in support for freedom of association – from 66% a decade ago across 20 countries.

But Zimbabwe saw a “significant” decline in support for the freedom of association.

Since taking office in 2017, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has cracked down hard on protesters, especially in the main cities, who are opposed to his austerity policies.

However, people in Zimbabwe, and its neighbours South Africa and Mozambique, were generally less supportive of trading freedom for security than residents of the other countries surveyed.

5. Support for religious freedom is evenly divided

People are evenly divided on freedom of religious speech, with 49% backing complete freedom and 47% willing to tolerate government limits on religious speech.

The lowest levels of support for freedom of religious speech were in Tunisia and Mali.

More than 70% of people surveyed in these two countries agreed with the statement that “government should have the power to regulate what is said in places of worship, especially if preachers or congregants threaten public security”.

The research notes that these are both Muslim-majority countries that have been attacked by extremists – another example, perhaps, of people choosing security over freedom.


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