Cameroon, Eswatini, Rwanda: Three devastating days that shook Africa

Jeffrey Smith
By Jeffrey Smith

Founding director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit organisation that partners with pro-democracy leaders to ensure free and fair elections. He is also the co-creator and producer of The Resistance Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Posted on Friday, 27 January 2023 13:33, updated on Thursday, 16 February 2023 10:06
Mourners place candles in a room of Radio Amplitude FM where a portrait of journalist Martinez Zogo has been placed to pay tribute to him, in the Elig Essono district in Yaounde on January 23, 2023.(Photo by Daniel Beloumou Olomo / AFP)

In consecutive days this month, from 20-22 January, a trio of Africa’s brightest lights for freedom and accountability were violently extinguished. In just 72 hours, three of the continent’s most intrepid and well-respected leaders had been silenced.

And while the details of each case are still slowly coming to light, there are justified concerns that they were killed by the governments that they spent much of their professional lives critiquing.

With deafening silence from African leaders, and democratic powers outside of the continent sitting on their hands, their deaths will not be the last. Every unchallenged assassination further emboldens the use of violence and murder, putting more vulnerable human rights defenders at risk.


On 20 January, John Williams Ntwali was reportedly killed in an ‘auto accident,’ which many observers believe was a cover for political assassination. Ntwali was one of the few remaining journalists in the country who covered the many politicised trials of journalists, government critics, and opposition members.

Over the years, he had been arrested on trumped-up charges; regularly threatened and attacked in the pro-government media and online for his investigative reporting; and, in his own words, had survived a number of ‘staged accidents.’

Rather conveniently, the Rwandan authorities have so far failed to produce photo evidence or CCTV footage of the ‘accident,’ an extreme rarity in a country that has become a police state.


The following day, on 21 January, the brave and award-winning human rights lawyer Thulani Rudolph Maseko was assassinated. He was shot several times in his home, while enjoying a quiet night in with his wife, Tanele, and their two young children.

This brazen murder took place just several hours after Eswatini’s dictator-monarch, King Mswati III, had publicly warned pro-democracy advocates that mercenaries would “deal with them.”

Like Ntwali, Maseko was no stranger to death threats and attacks. He spent considerable time behind bars, including in solitary confinement, due to his efforts advocating for democracy and attempting to hold the monarchy accountable for its cavalier corruption, executive overreach, and myriad human rights abuses.

He is perhaps best known for challenging the monarchy – the last absolute one in Africa – in the courtroom, often arguing that his fellow Swati people be treated as equal citizens with dignity, not the royal subjects that Mswati deems them to be.


Then, on 22 January, the body of Cameroonian journalist Martinez Zogo was found on the side of a road – naked, mutilated, and in a state of decomposition – after ‘unidentified attackers’ had abducted him after trying to enter a police station to escape his attackers.

Zogo, the editor-in-chief of the privately owned radio broadcaster Amplitude FM, had recently reported on a case of alleged embezzlement involving a media outlet with government connections.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented over the years, Cameroon is among Africa’s most perilous countries in which to practice journalism; many media practitioners have been arrested and jailed on spurious charges, ‘disappeared,’ or killed. The gruesome kidnapping and murder of Zogo is only the latest in a string of attacks against journalists in Cameroon under President Paul Biya’s dictatorship.

Biya, who has a decades-long record of repressing opposition and manipulating elections, is one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats.

‘Fate of human rights and free speech’

Rarely, if ever, has the fate of human rights and free speech on the continent suffered such a series of devastating setbacks in such a short period of time.

While Ntwali, Maseko and Zogo were prominent in their home countries, each one was also a beacon of hope and an example of courage that inspired human rights defenders across Africa, and in similarly authoritarian contexts worldwide. Each of them literally spoke, and wrote, truth to power: in the pages of newspapers and online outlets, on their radio broadcasts, and in the courtroom.

…leaders of democratic countries, through their local embassies, have failed to speak out.

Ntwali, Maseko, and Zogo are not the first outspoken critics to be slayed in their home countries. And more will surely follow given the fact that Rwanda, Eswatini, and Cameroon remain among the world’s least tolerant states and greatest human rights abusers.

But this is not just an issue in the three countries.

These disturbing events exemplify a broader deterioration for the respect of human rights and freedoms across the continent.

Just this week, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation released its annual Index of African Governance, which showed that the continent is less democratic than a decade ago. More specifically: security, the rule of law, and human rights have deteriorated in more than 30 countries, according to their analysis.

The picture is even worse when it comes to human rights activists and journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in their annual census, reported a 50% uptick in the killing of journalists, with at least 41 media workers killed in ‘direct connection with their work.’

Failure to speak out

Each of our heroes murdered in the span of three days this month had a well-known history of targeted attacks against them. Each of them had expressed, often repeatedly, that their lives were in imminent danger due to their work.

Yet leaders of democratic countries, through their local embassies, have failed to speak out. Instead, they choose to hide behind the charade that it is unclear who was responsible for their murders, couching their shameful statements in the language of ‘condolences’ and ‘prayers’ in order to pull their punches.

One reason for these weak official statements is that many democratic states are worried that if they are seen as overly critical of governments, they will necessarily push these countries closer to the Russian orbit and Vladimir Putin.

But sacrificing human rights on the altar of security won’t do anything to counter Russian influence. In the days following the brazen murder of Maseko in Eswatini, for example, King Mswati entered a ‘security agreement’ with Russia and is openly working with apartheid-era mercenaries to ‘deal with terrorists.’

Going forward…there are solutions

There is much blame to go around, to be sure. But there are also workable solutions.

First and foremost, the slack must be picked up by African leaders and institutions, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACPHR). Rwanda, Eswatini, and Cameroon have each ratified the ACHPR charter, meaning that its secretariat can take charge of the independent investigations that are needed in all three countries – not only to determine the facts with credibility, but also to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

The United Nations General Assembly, too, could act by uniting to lead the charge on, and to ultimately appoint, a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to each country. Doing so would help to set the record straight while laying bare the facts, in each case, for future generations.

We often encourage human rights defenders, activists, and independent journalists to be heroes. Yet, we just as often fail to have their backs when they are inevitably pressed against the wall by their abusers in power.

Democratic governments with the power and leverage to do so can also enforce targeted sanctions and visa restrictions, for instance, on leaders in Rwanda, Eswatini and Cameroon, those who are clearly violating international law and long-established norms.

Diplomatically, the leaders of democratic nations can also – at the very least – stop posing for friendly photographs as was recently the case in Washington, DC during the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit.

In Washington, too, local citizens can push for simple actions: they can petition local officials to change the street names in front of the Swazi Embassy, for example, to Thulani Maseko Way. This would serve as eternal reminder to Swazi diplomats: ‘we know what you did, and we will not let you forget.’

We often encourage human rights defenders, activists, and independent journalists to be heroes. Yet, we just as often fail to have their backs when they are inevitably pressed against the wall by their abusers in power.

Let us honour the legacies of Ntwali, Maseko and Zogo as they would surely want us to: by joining in solidarity – through steps big and small – to prevent the silencing of others who fearlessly fight for their basic rights, and ours too.

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