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  • Protecting Human Rights in Africa: Roles and Strategies of Non-Governmental Organizations
  • Mahmood Monshipouri
Protecting Human Rights in Africa: Roles and Strategies of Non-Governmental Organizations, by Claude E. Welch, Jr. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1995) 347 pp. + Index, $39.95

Contemporary developments in Africa present many barriers to the realization of human rights. The obstacles include weak and divided states, widening economic gaps, intrusive armed forces, patron-client networks, ethnic animosities, and aid fatigue. On the positive side, recent events in South Africa suggest that it is possible to have an effective democratic polity in a multiracial society. In recent years, grassroots movements throughout Africa have removed repressive governments and empowered African peoples. The failure of states to fulfill national and communal aspirations have made civil society a topic of debate. Viable state-society relationships have yet to be developed and a crisis of governability faces many African states. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are bent on building a culture of human rights from below. Focusing on grassroot empowerments and education, NGOs have become agents of change. But can NGOs effectively promote change through culture?

A distinguished human rights scholar and Africanist, Claude Welch addresses this question via an analysis of NGOs in four countries, Ethiopia, Namibia, Nigeria, and Senegal. These countries represent a broad spectrum of contemporary Africa and evidence drawn from them can thus be used as the basis for understanding sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. 1

Welch presents a sympathetic treatment of political change south of the Sahara. He constructs his arguments around two basic assumptions: (1) Africans are well aware of human rights issues and (2) NGOs play crucial roles in resolving human rights issues. 2 Welch explores NGOs’ functions through the strategies of education, empowerment, and enforcement based on documentation, democratization, and development. Welch argues that strengthening civil society in Africa by means of NGOs can be the key to the promotion and protection of human rights on that continent. 3

NGOs have met with varying degrees of success in appealing to domestic courts or international supervisory bodies. They do so in order to demolish impediments to education, empowerment, and the protection of human rights in these countries. Namibia and Senegal have benefitted from foreign aid linked to their favorable human rights records and political stability. Ethiopia and Nigeria, by contrast, have been severely criticized for their poor human rights records. 4 [End Page 214]

In all four, however, human rights groups are recent creations. Organizations like the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the Nigerian Legal Research and Resources Development Center, and RADI (Réseau africian pour le développement intégré) of Senegal came into existence in the late 1980s. Similarly, the failure of centralized state structures in these countries had become manifest by the early 1990s. As in the rest of Africa, society rather than the state has become the center of attention. A remarkable agreement on the significance of democracy and human rights has emerged in sub-Saharan Africa where these are now viewed as central to the institutions and values of civil society. NGOs have become integral to civil society, and the “NGO revolution,” as the author calls it, has widened as well as deepened opportunities for widespread political involvement. 5

Human rights NGOs rely on a variety of approaches to develop civil societies. These include education, empowerment, enforcement, documentation, democratization, and development. When they concentrate on empowerment and democratization, human rights NGOs may cross an indistinct boundary into political activism. They can remain acceptable to governments by focusing on education, enforcement, documentation, and development. For example, ethnic groups seeking to empower themselves collide with the desire of states to maintain centralized control. Hence, the issue of self-determination at the level of ethnic group is politically divisive. 6 Three ongoing ethnically-based movements (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) of Nigeria, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) of Ethiopia, and the Movement Démocratique des Forces Casman çais (MFDC) of Senegal) epitomize the conflicts that develop when political and economic demands for autonomy use the language of human rights. 7

Since the mid-1980s, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women...

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