cover up

Africa: The terrible power of political assassinations

in depth

This article is part of the dossier:

Political Capital

By Nic Cheeseman

Posted on May 22, 2023 12:10

 © Journalist Ralikonelo “Leqhashasha” Joki was gunned down on 15 May (photo: facebook)
Journalist Ralikonelo “Leqhashasha” Joki was gunned down on 15 May (photo: facebook)

On Monday 15 May, the people of Lesotho woke to the news that one of the country’s most prominent journalists had been gunned down the night before. Ralikonelo “Leqhashasha” Joki had just finished his popular radio show when he was shot “at least 13 times” in cold blood as he was leaving Tsenolo FM.

In response to the killing, and concerns that attacks using firearms have “skyrocketed,” the police minister, Lebona Lephema, revoked firearm licences and announced an indefinite nationwide curfew.

For Leqhashasha, however, the curfew is a perfect example of the government closing the stable door once the horse has bolted. Despite having received numerous death threats over the years, Leqhashasha was not accorded protection. He was also failed by the wider legal system, which has consistently failed to deliver justice for those murdered for speaking truth to power.

According to Kananelo Boloetse, chairperson of the Lesotho branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the belief that it is possible to kill journalists without any consequences has become commonplace “because since Lloyd Mutungamiri was shot in 2016, the assailants haven’t been jailed”. One reason for the slow pace of justice is that members of the government or the security forces are often directly involved in high profile assassinations and then use their positions to cover up their crimes.

In the case of Mutungamiri – the editor of Lesotho Times newspaper – his death followed “a trend of harassment by Lesotho authorities”. The reason for this campaign of intimidation was that Mutungamiri was brave enough to report on police corruption as well as abuses committed by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). Although five members of the LDF were subsequently accused of his murder, their trial is not due to start until July 2023 – five years after he was assassinated.

Sadly, Lesotho is not an isolated case. All too often, those speaking truth to power are assassinated with cavalier impunity. This, in turn, encourages further attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition leaders across the continent.

The cost of impunity

Nothing better demonstrates the damage that a culture of impunity can do than the events which took place in January this year. Three of the most inspiring voices for justice and freedom were brutally silenced in consecutive days.

  • Thulani Rudolph Maseko, an award-winning human rights advocate and lawyer in Eswatini, was gunned down in his own home in front of his wife and children.
  • Martinez Zogo was a fearless journalist in Cameroon whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on the roadside.
  • John Williams Ntwali was also an independent reporter, known as one of the last in Rwanda who was willing to talk about the government’s intimidation of its critics.

Officially, Ntwali’s death in Kigali was recorded as a road accident, after a car hit a motorcycle on which he was riding at 2:50am in Kigali. However, 86 civil society organisations have called for an independent investigation because many believe the accident was a cover up for murder.

The proximity of these killings, which occurred within just 72 hours, was a blow to the continent’s pro-democracy community. However, what was perhaps even more alarming than the timing was the lack of any concerted response by governments at any level of the international system.

Despite the fact that King Mswati had publicly threatened activists, such as Maseko, saying they would be “dealt with”, Eswatini’s regional and international partners have done nothing to secure justice for him and his family.

Every assassination instils fear in journalists as they execute their mandate to society.

Meanwhile, the Kagame government has ignored the civil society campaign demanding that the truth about Ntwali’s death be made public. It has neither launched a proper investigation nor provided evidence to back up the ‘official’ narrative.

The failure to respond to these murders will only serve to put those speaking truth to power at greater risk – and the scale of the problem is already far greater than most people realise.

The problem is bigger than you think

From 2019 to 2020, 185 people were assassinated in Africa according to a new Assassination Monitor report released by the Global Initiative Against Transnational and Organised Crime. These killings include local score settling, attacks on community leaders seeking to protect the environment, the silencing of journalists, and the cold-blooded murder of political rivals.

In regions like Latin America, organised crime is one of the most common categories, as rival syndicates violently compete to establish a monopoly. However, in Africa, the Assassination Monitor reveals that the vast majority of assassinations – almost 80% – had a political motive. This means that politicians, civil society and community leaders, and journalists are specifically targeted for murder.

The two countries with the highest number of assassinations in the period reviewed by the Assassination Monitor were Nigeria and Somalia. Significant numbers of killings were also reported in a range of other countries, including Mozambique and supposedly more democratic states, such as Kenya and South Africa. The geographical breadth of these killings demonstrates just how widespread the problem is, and just how much damage it does to justice, democracy and accountability.

One of the most distressing aspects of these deaths is how often they go under the radar, and how rarely those murdered get the recognition they deserve. This was painfully brought home to me in 2013, when my friend and research colleague Peter Wanyama was ambushed at the gate of his house and shot dead in what was clearly a premeditated murder.

Wanyama was a Kenyan lawyer who took on the important but dangerous task of representing the families of people who ‘disappeared’ during political violence in the Mt Elgon region of the country between 2006-2008. At the time of his death, he was preparing to file cases with the High Court of Kenya on behalf of the missing, which had the potential to expose and embarrass the country’s security forces.

Despite Wanyama’s great sacrifice and courage, no one has been held accountable for his murder; no one has stepped in to look after his family and take care of their needs; and no statue has been erected in his honour.

The ripple effect of political murder

Every assassination is a personal tragedy for the person who is killed, their loved ones, and colleagues. Moreso, it is a warning to other journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians to keep their mouths shut or risk the deadly consequences.

As the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) wrote in response to the murder of Leqhashasha, every assassination instils “fear in journalists as they execute their mandate to society”. The chilling effect of this can stall efforts for accountability and increase the scope for corruption and the abuse of power. Even failed corruption attempts can have this effect, with those targeted suffering a paralysing combination of fear, anxiety, and depression.

It is only when political assassinations cause more problems for those in power than they solve that the wave of killings will stop.

Imagine the effect, then, when multiple journalists are killed in the same country, like in Cameroon, where three journalists have been killed in the last four years, including confirmed cases of assassination.

We cannot remain silent in the face of these ongoing atrocities.

Instead, those who care about freedom and justice must support groups like African Defenders, Front Line Defenders, and Southern Defenders, who work to protect human rights defenders at risk.

We must also keep the memory of Leqhashasha, Mutungamiri, Maseko, Zogo, Ntwali and Wanyama alive, and amplify the stories they were working on as well as the issues they ultimately sacrificed their lives for. It is only when political assassinations cause more problems for those in power than they solve that the wave of killings will stop.

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