Author Archives: Mathea Loen

Blog text MA -Thesis: Pentecostalism, Democracy, and the political effects of sermons

The actor-centred scholarship on democratic transitions have found that the church played an instrumental role in many democratic transitions that came in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall. From the Catholic church in Poland (Eberts 1998) that functioned as a defender of freedom and a source of protection from the communist regime; to Latin America, where the Catholic church embraced a liberation theology challenging the structures in place that reinforced marginalisation of the poor (French 2007); and to Africa, where the major ecclesiastical bodies worked together with the broader civil society to overthrow autocratic leaders and to facilitate for democratic transition (Sperber and Hern 2018; Gifford 1995). With being instrumental in the democratic shift in the nineties, the role of churches in today’s political climate becomes interesting to unpack. Who are they, and where are they now?

Christianity on the African continent is indeed multifaceted, and there exists a vast body of congregations competing for the souls of Christ. Among these congregations, the Catholic and the mainline Protestant churches remain prominent, both in the community and politically. However, in the last 30 years, a wave of charismatic churches has started to emerge and grow in popularity, not just on the African continent but also globally, often referred to as the Pentecostal church.

Historically, Pentecostalism has its origins in North America. It is thought to be as American as the apple pie, and most researchers argue that its beginnings can be traced back to the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles. Characterised by charismatic and lively sermons that are often televised, an emphasis on the current gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, as well as a literal interpretation of the Bible, it has soon become a form of spiritual and modern Christianity that has spread across the world like a wildfire. The religion seems to tap into an essential part of African culture and spirit, with its music, egalitarian structures, and prosperity gospel, in a way the Catholic and traditional Protestant church may not have been able to.

However, according to Paul Freston, in Africa, “little is really known about the [political] role of the churches beyond the leadership of the mainline churches” (Freston in Grossman 2015, 340). Indeed, Pentecostalism has grown immensely over the last 40-30 years in many African states, but we have little systematic understanding of how this growth affects democratic development. More specifically, we know little about the consequences of people’s increasing exposure to Pentecostal teachings. In my MA-thesis, “Divine Intervention: The influence of Pentecostal Sermons on Democratic Values,” I set out to analyse the democratic implication of this new and emerging Christian branch that has taken such a strong foothold in Sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, my thesis asks how Pentecostal teachings might influence individual attitudes towards democracy in Zambia

Zambia is chosen as the case of study as it represents a distinctive case in the context of Pentecostalism and democracy on the African continent. In contrast to their role in other African countries, the Zambian Pentecostal churches corroborated with the mainline churches and the rest of civil society in overthrowing the one-party rule led by Kenneth Kaunda contributing to the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in 1991. Additionally, Zambia’s first elected president after the transition to democracy, Frederick T. Chiluba, was a born-again Pentecostal, further situating the case of Zambia in a unique position compared to other sub-Saharan countries.

Yet, similarly to many other nations that transitioned in the region, Zambia’s democracy has struggled, since it´s 1991 transition. While Zambia has an impressive record of peaceful alternations of power among new democracy and has been able keep its democracy score steady on the Freedom House measures over the years, and at first glance, there is little evidence of a country moving down an autocratic spiral. And perhaps, identifying Zambia’s democracy as backsliding may be the wrong characterisation. However, while democracy institutions and practices are maintained and even strengthened in certain areas, such as peaceful alternation of power and high voter turnout, it may be curtailed in other areas, such as civil rights and media freedom – leaving the democracy in a state of stagnation, rather than regression or progression. The country’s political trajectory is a classic example of the fact that alternation of power does not necessarily lead to liberal political norms or supporting institutions required for democratic consolidation.

Both the political trajectory of the Pentecostal church in Zambia and the analyses presented in the thesis indicate how Pentecostals move within the realm of democracy and democratisation. Paul Gifford eminently argued that while the mainline churches challenged Africa’s dictators, the newer evangelical and Pentecostal churches provided their support for the incumbent leaders (1995, 5). However, in Zambia, they are very much a part of it, which is exemplified by being part of the collective effort to democratise Zambia and by pastors encouraging congregants to vote and to vote for good leaders. Nonetheless, their individual set of beliefs and practices are mediated through how they practice their citizenship; Even though they are a part of democracy, they seem to be actors who play within the existing rules and do not further challenge undemocratic structures in place that might reinforce their marginalisation.

While the data constrain the thesis’s ability to make any causal claims, it indicates that Pentecostals exhibit some political preferences that are distinct from other Christians in the region and that Pentecostalism embodies a democratic ambivalence in their religious teachings. The thesis proposes that exposure to sermons can influence political values that shape Christian citizenship by providing metaphysical instruction that influences how believers respond to government actions. Combined, the analyses paint a picture of an individualistic religious ideology that values a minimalist form of democracy but simultaneously produces a Christian citizenship characterised by self-efficacy.

Finally, my thesis calls for more extensive research and data collection concerning the relationship between Pentecostalism, democratic values, and political behaviour in sub-Saharan states. My findings suggest a need for more fine-grained analyses of religion to illuminate the Christian citizenship produced within places of worship and how this citizenship might have implications for democracy.

By Caroline Borge Bjelland
Research assistant UiB

To read the full master thesis, click here.


Eberts, Mirella W. 1998. “The Roman Catholic Church and Democracy in Poland.” Europe-Asia Studies 50 (5): 817-842.

French, Jan Hoffman. 2007. “A Tale of Two Priests and Two Strucggles: Liberation Theology from Dictatorchip to Democray in the Brazilian Northeast.” The Americas 63 (3): 409-443.

Gifford, Paul. 1995. The Christian Churches and the Democratisation of Africa. E.J. Brill.

Grossman, Guy. 2015. “Renewalist Christianity and the Political Saliency of LGBTs: Theory and Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa.” The Journal of Politics 77 (2): 337-351.

Sperber, Elizabeth Sheridan, and Erin Hern. 2018. “Pentecostal Identity and Citizen Engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa: New Evidence from Zambia.” Politics and Religion 11 (4): 830-862.

How to ensure digital access to information in Africa

The right to access information and by extension the right to Internet and Internet-based information is today recognised as key for open and democratic societies. The technical possibilities to provide this access digitally vary greatly across the world and especially the gap between rich and poor countries have raised concerns over a global ‘digital divide’. Even though digitization ranks low on the priority lists of many developing countries, the increasing tech savviness in many African countries has the potential to reduce this gap. Good digital practices for improving citizens’ access to information can further reduce other inequalities, like income and education. Digital access should not be seen as a separate goal, however, but rather as a means to enhance and support ‘analogue’ practices. In order to reap the fruits of the growing technical know-how for ensuring access to information, it is necessary to combine the legal arguments for why with the technical solutions for how.

The analogue right to access information

One such analogue practice is to institutionalise the right to access information. While advocates for the freedom of information in Western democracies are largely concerned with the free flow of digital information and unrestricted online communication and file-sharing, efforts to promote freedom of information in most African countries are fundamentally focused on championing citizen’s right to access government-held information – with limited success so-far. Even though more and more African countries are adopting so-called Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, too many of them remain unimplemented and ineffective. Indeed, it will require much more than adopting these FOI laws to improve access to government data, increase transparency and expand the frontiers of democracy. How to implement these laws is key.

Technical solutions have great potential for open government platforms, proactive information sharing on government websites, and civil society monitoringDigital democracy – also referred to as e-democracy or Internet democracy – is a growing concept worldwide that essentially refers to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in political and governance processes. Importantly, ICTs are seen as an addition to and not a replacement for traditional ‘analogue’ political practices. There is a wide consensus that the Internet can contribute to improving political participation. The use of Internet and ICTs contains immense potential for the notion of digital democracy, both with the growing possibilities of e-government and e-participation but also the aspect of increasing information flows and transparency in government.

Digital access and right to the Internet

Digital access, that is access to Internet and communication devices, is naturally a fundamental prerequisite for citizens’ use of ICTs in political participation. The right to Internet access is embedded within the notion of both digital access and access to information, as Fola Adeleke and Matilda Lasseko Phooko (2010) argue in their chapter ‘Towards realizing the right of access to Internet-based information in Africa’. Key to their argument is the point that while ‘access to information’ is a socio-economic resource, the Internet is increasingly the way to actually access information.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates that only 25.4% of people on average used the Internet in 2018. This greatly differs across the continent, from 56.2% in South Africa to 1.3% in Eritrea. Further, estimates on Internet use in Africa often suffer from large margins of error, as they are based on poor measures and thus do not always reflect the reality on the ground.

Ultimately, the increased spread and usage of ICTs in Africa has the potential to enhance citizens’ access to information. In order for digital technologies to benefit everyone everywhere, and especially harnessing the benefits of Internet access for digital democracy and political participation, the remaining digital divide must be closed. If governments and citizens both take advantage of the digital revolution, ICTs can improve the access to and use of information. However, the potential for transparency and open government practices depends on how it is being leveraged.

Digital democracy was on the rise in Africa, but is now being challenged by misrepresentation, high prices – Malawi is said to have the most expensive Internet in the world – and repression. This has been termed ‘digital dictatorship’, or what Freedom House has labelled ‘the rise of digital authoritarianism’. In her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, Nyabola (2018) examines digital democracy in Kenya and explores how political elites try to prevent social movements from translating their online political participation into meaningful offline political gains. This study shows that citizens and politicians alike have found new ways for their messages to travel far and fast. However, as elsewhere in the world, African societies and politics are facing speculations and disinformation, fake news and propaganda disseminated online, affecting the public debate. Especially Internet shutdowns have become a new normal in Africa.

Combining the right to access to information with digital solutions

Leaving behind the question of digital access in Africa, let us turn to the question of how to improve citizens’ access to government data with the aim of increasing transparency and expanding the frontiers of democracy. Two prominent civil society campaigns have become the global mouthpiece of advocacy towards a more open and transparent governance. The first is the Freedom of Information (FOI) campaign, which is largely regarded as a global social movement. In Africa, this campaign is spearheaded by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. More recently, a similar movement in the form of open government data (OGD) was launched to help support the idea of greater openness and accountability in governance. This was later followed by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) between governments and civil society advocates currently counting 14 African government members (out of 78 worldwide). The shared core underpinning of these two movements is that establishing an accessible (free) public data regime in countries will promote democratic governance and improve transparency and accountability relations.

There is, however, a key difference between the two advocacy campaigns. As Afful-Dadzie and Afful-Dadzie (2017) find, while FOI campaigns focus on the law and legal arguments for the right to information, OGD campaigns focus on the use of technology and digital solutions for open data. The OGD approach is in that sense leveraging more on new technical possibilities for how governments can communicate and share information with their citizens. While fears of OGD narrowing its focus too much to data access technologies have been voiced, it now seems that in Africa – where FOI campaigns arguably have gained more traction than OGD – should focus more on digital advantages in providing citizens with access to information.

Some would argue that the main challenges of African ‘access to information’ regimes are more fundamental in nature than can be remedied by digital tools. The key issues in implementing FOI in Africa include poor archiving practices, history of oral communication, and the cost of producing information for the requester. ICTs and digital information platforms can offer some practical technical solutions to these issues by reducing costs and making it easier to create national government platforms for sharing information such as police and health records, education certificates, and so on. In sum, if implementation of right to information regimes are to be successful, policy discussions need to put more emphasis on how to leverage technical possibilities in realising fundamental rights to access to information. Good analogue practices must be supported by technical solutions.

This blog post was originally published on 29 September 2020 at the Democracy in Africa website, as part of the newly launched blog series on Decoding #DigitalDemocracy in Africa.

Taking Stock of Citizen’s Right to Access Information in Africa


28 September is UNESCO’s International Day for Universal Access to Information, formerly known as Right to Know Day. The slogan of this year’s celebration is ‘Leaving No One behind’. What is the status of citizen’s access to information (ATI) legislation in Africa?

Determining how legislation can contribute to upholding transparency, accountability, and good governance through ensuring citizen’s rights to access to information is a cornerstone of the democratic process and a key determiner of development. ATI laws enshrine this potential, providing a legal instrument for citizens to request and access government information, documents and records from government bodies about official rules and activities.

African ATI laws

Legal frameworks to regulate information flow and availability are increasingly more common. Across the globe, there has been a recent surge in the adoption of ATI laws. Today, over 120 countries have adopted such laws, covering most of Europe, America and Asia.

When the Ghanaian parliament adopted the long-awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill on 26 March this year, the total of African countries with an explicit law on citizen’s right to access information was brought to 25. The African experience of adopting these laws is fairly recent, as the continent ‘lagged behind’ the global norm for a while. Notably, 20 of the 25 African ATI laws were passed just in the last decade.

Graph showing number of ATI laws in Africa adopted in Africa, by year and accumulated.

Graph showing number of ATI laws in Africa adopted in Africa, by year and accumulated.

Still, while the global trend shows that legal frameworks to ensure ATI becomes increasingly stronger, there is great variation in these laws across the African continent. Indeed, the drafting of these laws seem to be a ‘double-edged’ sword, where the political process could either result in a strong law, like the highly saluted South African PAIA (2000), or as a government tool to curtail press freedom, like the Zimbabwean AIPPA (2002), considered the most egregious ATI law in Africa.

The African experience so far shows, as illustrated below, that countries with relatively democratic regimes adopt relatively strong ATI laws, and vice versa. However, the variation in quality of ATI laws is greatest amongst the most authoritarian regimes. Some scholars even argue that Zimbabwe’s law should not count as an ATI law at all. The ‘double-edged sword’ thesis seems most applicable to the mid-tier ranging African regimes, however, where most of the resulting laws are either relatively strong or relatively weak.

Table showing the distribution of African ATI laws according to RTI rating and V-Dem’s liberal democracy index. Global Right to Information Rating produced by the Centre, available at African countries score between 52 a…

Table showing the distribution of African ATI laws according to RTI rating and V-Dem’s liberal democracy index. Global Right to Information Rating produced by the Centre, available at African countries score between 52 and 124, therefore the categories 51-75, 76-100, 101-125, with a 24-point range for each group. Note: Missing RTI ranking for Guinea 2010. V-Dem’s liberal democracy score (version 9) indicates the country’s score the year before adopting ATI law (as the adoption of the law is expected to influence the democracy score). *Zimbabwe, Angola and Tunisia have updated ATI laws, and both RTI rating and V-Dem score pertain to the latest laws.

The two-front advocacy

The recent ‘flurry’ of laws in Africa has to a large extent been assigned to the successful campaigning of so-called ‘right to access activists’ within African states. Globally, the adoption of ATI laws is generally seen as the result of civil society advocacy and ‘push’ for these laws. Governments and political elites, on their side, are seen to be unwilling and resisting, by arguing that ATI laws are merely for the benefit of journalists, certain civil society organisations, and political opponents. By sceptics, ATI laws are framed as just another tool for the country’s already privileged elite.

From my fieldwork interviews with the civil society ‘Right to Information’ coalition in Ghana, one very conscious strategy they employ is exactly to counter this elitist perception of the law. Their aim was to bring it closer to the ordinary citizens and their everyday life, by linking the RTI bill to political promises, embezzlement of public funds, and construction of roads, hospitals, and schools. In order to achieve success, the coalition members argue, it is necessary to make the demand for a Ghanaian ATI law into ‘a people’s demand’. The campaigning for the RTI bill in Ghana was therefore directed both towards politicians and the general public.

In effect, is it all about supply and demand?

Having a nice law on paper says very little about citizen’s actual access to government information, and further, the effects on enhancing people’s everyday lives and their accountability relations with the state. Effective implementation of access to information regimes is key. These laws will not surmount to anything unless there are politicians willing to enforce them at all levels of bureaucracy and citizens ready to make use of them.

As Ghana now embarks on implementing the RTI law, numerous challenges lie ahead. As laid out in a policy brief written with a colleague at Ghana Center on Democratic Development, there are both legal and practical challenges in implementation that could possibly impede citizen’s actual access to information. However, Africa’s fairly recent experience with ATI laws also offers some lessons learned and guidelines on ‘best practices’, ranging from good record-keeping to training of government workers at all levels (see Amanfo and Selvik, 2019).

However, the most powerful mechanism for effective implementation lies in the roam of public engagement. As one RTI coalition member stated at a public forum in Accra this week: “The process of attaining an effective ATI regime is really all about supply and demand”; now that governments have promised to supply, citizens must use the law and demand information.

This blog is written by Lisa-Marie Måseidvåg Selvik, first published on Saktuelt.

Amanfo and Selvik. (2019). “‘Best practices’ in Access to Information implementation – where do we go from here?”. Policy Brief series, Ghana Center on Democratic Development. Accra, Ghana. (Forthcoming.)


Defending human rights in the digital age


How do human rights look in an increasingly digital world? What challenges and opportunities do technology pose for human rights defenders? How do we ensure our accrued human rights online as well as offline? These are some of the questions human rights advocates around the world are grappling with.

RightsCon – defending and extending digital rights

RightsCon is a yearly summit series on human rights in a digital age, organized by AccessNow. The purpose of this event is to bring together multi-stakeholders in the field of human rights and technology to “connect, strategize, and shape the future”.[1] This year’s RightsCon in Tunis gathered nearly 3,000 participants, including business leaders, policy makers, general counsels, government representatives, technologists, and human rights defenders. There were around 30 governments and over 150 tech companies present. The RightsCon is more than just an annual conference and meeting place; it is a movement that connects and mobilizes a global community between events to collaborate on the most pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and technology. The event is a cornerstone in building a global ‘RightsCon community’.

The RightsCon started out as a human rights event in dialogue with businesses in Silicon Valley and has steadily evolved into a community that not only sees human rights in relation to technology, but one that promotes digital rights as human rights. It is built on multistakeholderism and diversity, which shone through as the event gathered participants from over 100 different countries, most of whom were female and many identifying with a non-binary identity. AccessNow, the main organizer, is an international non-governmental organization that aims to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk, such as LGBTQI communities and indigenous groups, all around the world. The RightsCon series has as part of this strategy facilitated a coalition of partners who launched the #KeepItOn campaign against Internet shutdowns at RightsCon Silicon Valley 2016.

Picture showing the main entrance of the RightsCon conference venue, with a big banner over it stating “RightsCon Tunis 2019” and “8th annual summit on human rights in the digital age”. Flags on top in various colors, as well as a Tunisian flag. Pho…

Picture showing the main entrance of the RightsCon conference venue, with a big banner over it stating “RightsCon Tunis 2019” and “8th annual summit on human rights in the digital age”. Flags on top in various colors, as well as a Tunisian flag. Photo: Private/Lisa-Marie M. Selvik.

The concept of digital rights & digital tools of repression

Digital rights entails that the human rights laid down in international law should be protected, whether exercised in person, through technologies of today, or through technologies that will be invented in the future. In other words, human rights should count online as well as off.

The protection of human rights in a digital era is challenging in all regime types, democracies and autocracies alike. Protection of digital rights can be a challenging balancing act for any government, especially at the nexus between national security, privacy and human rights. The program at RightsCon Tunis, which is highly community-driven, reflects this; the issues discussed spanned surveillance technologies, content moderation and artistic freedom online, data protection, press freedom and fighting online hate speech.

We learn more and more about how authoritarian regimes are using digital tools to broaden the repressive toolkit, mainly by two forms of control; the restriction or disruption of the Internet and digital surveillance. Crucially, Internet shutdowns have become a particularly popular tool, especially for autocracies during times of elections.

There is also increasing apprehension about the challenges that digital technologies pose to democratic politics. Especially the rights to privacy and freedom of expression is a constant challenge, both in the relation between governments and businesses and between governments and their citizen. The recent court ruling on President Trump’s blocking of critics on Twitter is just one example of this.

Picture showing a big canvas displaying the topic of a session, captured from the back, with people in the foreground and a beam of light streaming through a girls hair from the podium. The projected image on the canvas reads “RightsCon Tunis 2019” …

Picture showing a big canvas displaying the topic of a session, captured from the back, with people in the foreground and a beam of light streaming through a girls hair from the podium. The projected image on the canvas reads “RightsCon Tunis 2019” and “Protecting digital communities in democracies from the digital reach of authoritarian countries“. Photo: Private/Lisa-Marie M. Selvik.

Fighting for digital assembly rights

The digital space is not a neutral space. A particular focus for civil society actors during RightsCon 2019 was how to enable digital civic space in political contexts where civic space is already constrained. Governments are increasingly learning how to regulate, control and use these previously unregulated spaces. The rights-based answer from human rights activists and advocates are, however, that when governments disrupt the Internet, introduce social media tax, or impose restrictions on private blogs, they are grossly violating individual rights to freedom of expression and access to information. “We must recognize the great opportunities that Internet provides us to exercise our democratic rights, but we also need to understand how these spaces can be manipulated and hijacked by others,” proclaimed UNSR Clément Voule during a session on ‘enabling digital civic space’ in Tunis.

Many sessions were concerned with how human rights activists could resist and respond to shrinking space for dissenting voices, both on the streets, but in particular online. Several sessions raised the issue of government’s increased use of Internet shutdown, introduction of laws restraining online civic space, with cybercrimes laws, antiterrorism laws, surveillance laws, media and anti-”fake news” laws and demonstrations laws. The consequences of these laws are in line with the conclusions of a brand new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The UN Special Rapporteur writes that “[t]he digital age has opened new space for the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. There are numerous examples across the globe which demonstrate the power of digital technology in the hands of people looking to come together to advance democracy, peace and development. However, the digital revolution has also brought a range of new risks and threats to these fundamental rights.”

This report on ‘the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital age’ finds a growing trend of restrictions on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association online, such as criminalization of online activities, arbitrary blocking of online content, and government-sponsored trolling and cyberattacks – in particular targeting groups at risk, such as women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (see pages 10–12).  

Picture showing the main stage at the closing ceremony, in a massive hall called The Beehive due to its shape and light settings. The big canvas on the stage reads in bold, capital letters: “What’s next?”. Photo: Private/Lisa-Marie M. Selvik.

Picture showing the main stage at the closing ceremony, in a massive hall called The Beehive due to its shape and light settings. The big canvas on the stage reads in bold, capital letters: “What’s next?”. Photo: Private/Lisa-Marie M. Selvik.

Going forward: Human rights, online and off

In the aftermath of the RightsCon 2019, UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, the situation of human rights defenders, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Michel Forst, David Kaye, and Clément Voule, released an official statement calling for the protection of human rights in digital spaces. AccessNow also released the RightsCon Learnings, a community statement that captures the richness and diversity of the debate in Tunis. Going forward, digital rights activists and their supporters will continue to fight for the protection of human rights online as well as off.


This blog is written by Lisa-Marie Måseidvåg Selvik. The text is based on her PhD work on digital rights activists and attendance at RightsCon 2019 in Tunis 11-14 June, with participant observation and an interview with the RightsCon Program and Community Manager.

[1] Formulation collected from an e-mail sent out to the RightsCon community before the event.  


Interview with Alan Msosa on the situation for LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi

Alan Msosa is a research affiliate at the Centre on Law and Social Transformation. He is part of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Lawfare (SRR) project and is currently a postdoctoral candidate at the University of York.

In this interview, Marit Tjelmeland and Alan Msosa discuss the current situation for LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi. This interview relates to the SRR project.

Malawi is one of many former British colonies in which homosexuality was criminalised with the aim of ‘Christianising’ the natives. A traditional wedding by Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both legally identified as male, has triggered an unprecedented debate on whether the repressive laws are just. Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested, resulting in a dramatic court case in which they received a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment with hard labour. They were however released through a presidential pardon following intervention of the United Nations.

Malawi is an important case study for the understanding of how majority members of society deal with minority interests. In the case of LGBTQI+ rights, it is an opportunity to analyse how local African communities navigate universality of human rights when confronted with contested norms and values.

Praise and criticism for the new laws

While Malawians are deeply divided on whether to do away with the colonial laws criminalising same sex relations, the government is indecisive on the course of policy and law. For example, a moratorium on arrests of LGBTQI+ people initially announced in 2012 has been reaffirmed in 2014, suspended by the courts in 2016, and reaffirmed several times afterwards.

However, these steps towards progress are not without resistance. In 2015 the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act came into law. Elements of the act were met with international praise (including by the United Nations) for raising the minimum age of marriage.[1] But the act has also been criticized for redefining ‘sex’ of a person to prohibit recognition of any change of gender from that assigned at birth.

Contextualizing the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi

Whilst the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in most of Europe focus on gaining the right to same-sex marriage, struggles in Malawi have focused on protecting the LGBTQI+ community from violence and access to HIV/AIDS services. In light of the fact that same-sex sexual activity carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, opening up for same-sex marriage would be a very radical change. Msosa explains that the fight for LGBTQI+ rights has to adjust to the context to focus on what is practically achievable for the moment.

Although the lack of marriage equality is not necessarily the focus of the fight for LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi, it is reflective of how anti-gay attitudes impact how ordinary people and institutions discriminate against the LGBT community. These anti-gay attitudes make it difficult for the LGBT community to be open about their sexual orientation and identity especially when accessing health services. Previous research has shown that inadequate access to health services among men who have sex with men (MSM) is detrimental to overall population health. This can seem paradoxical: on the one hand the Malawian government is seen as progressive in the HIV and AIDS response, but on the other it does little to eliminate repressive laws that impede access to HIV services among in MSM communities, whose HIV prevalence is twice that of the general population

Perceptions of LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi

A recent study suggested shows that over 90% of Malawians state they would not be comfortable having a gay neighbour, suggesting many would oppose radical strengthening of LGBTQI+ rights. This negative perception is usually tied to a fundamental lack of understanding about what it means to be LGBTQI+. For example, would Malawians feel uncomfortable having an intersex person as a neighbour in the same manner as a man who has sex with other men? How different are attitudes of urban population different from their rural counterparts? The anti-gay antipathy can also be a response to a context of fear, as many people still misunderstand homosexual men to be paedophiles and rapists. 

Msosa further claims that rural areas are more tolerant to non-conforming sexual identities, as the community ethos of uMunthu dictates that hurting one community member means the whole community is hurt. Co-existence thus works as a foundation for tolerance. He argues that the role of communities in the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights needs to be re-thought, as community principles do not usually contradict the values of human rights, but rather exemplify human rights’ universality. Rural communities are not ignorant people, they have solutions to offer.

The fight for LGBT rights: a paradoxical approach

A quagmire can be seen in many aspects of the anti-LGBTQI+ movement. Religious values are cited as the reasons for anti-gay attitudes and yet as an argument for tolerance and universality in other contexts. Another paradox can be seen in the origin of the anti-gay laws: despite their origin in British colonialist laws, anti-LGBTQI+ movements frequently claim they promote Malawian values and cultural values.

Msosa argues that the claim of “Malawian values” being anti-LGBTQI+, is not an accurate reflection of Malawian society as a whole. He calls this the “elitist argument”, arguing that anti-gay attitudes are most prevalent among the societal elites and that the unwillingness to acknowledge LGBTQI+ rights is motivated by elites’ attempts to retain political power by manipulating views of the majority.

One approach to advancing LGBTQI+ rights has been trying to emphasize the distinction between non-consensual sex and consensual sex between adults. Highlighting this difference helps in distinguishing non-consensual same-sex sex, which ought to warrant criminalization, from consensual activities which the law should not intervene in. There is need to rethink the LGBTQI+ rights being demanded to pre-empt unclarified issues.

Fighting for rights in the courts

In Malawi, as in many countries where same sex-activities are criminalized, the battle for LGBTQI+ rights has mainly taken place in the courts. The case against the couple attempting a traditional wedding marked the beginning of this court centred battle for LGBTQI+ rights. In 2014, the Malawian High Court were considering three cases of (non-consensual) sodomy, and decided to review constitutionality of one section of the anti-gay laws. The state – presumably in fear of a judgment for unconstitutionality – has been trying to challenge the cases on technicalities. The cases are yet to be decided.

In 2015, a politician called for all homosexuals to be killed following the first-ever television interview of an LGBTQI+ Malawian. The politician was summoned to answer penal charges of inciting others to contravene the law. However, the chief prosecutor seized and discontinued the case, a move that was aimed at averting a court decision that would have favoured LGBTQI+ protection. This shows that the courts are yet to meaningfully change the law towards LGBTQI+ rights. However, the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, demonstrates that there is often a long road towards major legal changes through litigation.[2]

Although the main focus in Malawian LGBTQI+ mobilization has been on litigation, Msosa points out that there has been some improvement in LGBTQI+ rights locally as with the global LGBT rights movement. In recent years, there has been increase in international support for LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi. There is also a rapid increase in establishment of LGBT-related groups. Malawi is also being featured in global research on LGBT rights and attitudes towards LGBT rights.

What is next for Malawi?

Although Malawi have come a long way in decriminalising homosexuality and in their progressive HIV/AIDS policies, there is still a long way to go. There is need to educate the public on the diversity of non-conforming sexual and gender identities order to promote public awareness for greater tolerance and coexistence.

There is need for deeper understanding of the attitudes of Malawians towards non-conforming sexualities as well as LGBTQI+ rights. Without such understanding, the proposed solutions may miss the critical drivers of homophobia in the Malawian context.

Strengthening of LGBTQI+ organisations and communities will empower them to advocate for issues that they see as priority. Decriminalisation of anti-gay laws and social inclusion will remain high in the agenda.

Msosa points out that although it is true that there is homophobia in Malawian society, there is an opportunity to learn from instances where tolerance and inclusion exist. There is need to  explore how uMunthu can improve political and social attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people.



The closing space in 2019: digital and physical shutdowns of protests


The most visible attacks on African democracy noted in 2018 – large-scale, public protests and government shutdown of access to internet and social media –continue with enhanced speed in 2019.

Photo by

Photo by

He must have seen it coming. When President Mnangagwa decided to increase fuel prices by 150% in mid-January following a long period of general inflation, the public responded instantly.  Urban Zimbabweans took to the streets of the major cities to protest to show their displeasure over political mismanagement and economic malaise. As Mnangagwa left for Russia to build alliances and attract investment, the government cracked down heavily on the protests. They forced internet providers to close down access, and for a few days the news of the violence perpetrated by government troops and government-controlled militias and gangs only trickled out, though the large scale of the crack-down has subsequently been documented.

Since the start of 2019, similar events have taken place in Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Tunisia. While 2018 saw a small decrease in the number of protest locations in Africa, an increase in fatalities in demonstrations were noted as repression “heavily thwarted outward displays of disaffection” according to ACLED’s annual report. Who protests? Why do Africa´s urban population protest, and how are governments responding?

The Zimbabwean case is illustrative. Protests are dominated by young men residing in urban areas, most often from precarious economic backgrounds. They are often organized and led by individuals from a middle-class background. As Lisa Mueller shows in her recent book, protest movements are most successful in building and sustaining protests when they are based on cross-class alliances.  

The fuel price hike as a trigger is also a common trend. Protests typically occur in situations of worsening economic conditions, particularly if these conditions are widely attributed to a government that are reluctant to let go of power and has recently organized controversial elections. This makes it easier to build the cross-class alliances between a middle class motivated by political concerns and a precariat mostly motivated by economic concerns.


How are governments responding?

After the fall of autocratic regimes following large-scale, urban protests seen during the Arab Spring, authoritarian leaders have invested heavily in preventing them from happening and when they happen, from succeeding. However, there are limits to what even autocracies can and will do. Suppressing protest, particularly through lethal force, is costly. Repression can trigger both short-term backlashes in terms of generating sympathy for the protesters and long-term backlashes at the polls.  

They are instead turning to smart repression. Authoritarian governments try to limit their direct involvement in violent crackdowns. Instead, African governments opt to work through non-state actors such as militias and gangs. In Zimbabwe, as in recent protests in Uganda, individuals in civilian clothes operated in tandem with security agencies in suppressing protests, according to a new report.

Lowering visibility is another key strategy and closing down access to the internet and social media during protest, now happens routinely particularly where government retain majority control of internet service provision. In Zimbabwe, government ordered the internet shut on the first day of protest and it remained off for most of the period of blatant repression. Though the courts later deemed this unconstitutional, the shutdown both made communication and coordination between protesters and the documenting of the repression for the outside world more difficult. While the ability of the Zimbabwean government to control the narrative remains uncertain, the internet shutdown did at least buy time.

The democratic backlash in Zimbabwe is still unfolding. As in other locations in Africa where economic situations are uncertain and politics is contentious, protests, and crackdown on protests, are likely to continue to play a prominent role.


Alicia Yamin appointed Senior Fellow of the Global Health and Rights Project (GHRP)

Alicia Yamin, a Global Fellow of the Centre on Law and Social Transformation has been appointed Senior Fellow of the Global Health and Rights Project(GHRP) at Harvard University.


The project will work to promote the theorization of the “right to health”, and study how this right is applicable under both international and domestic law. How can using the human rights framework be a tool in advancing global health justice?

“It’s important to say that I see GHRP not as a platform for human rights cheerleading, but rather as a space, and opportunity, to engage in critical reflection on many of the assumptions and methods that have guided human rights work as it relates to health” says Yamin to the interviewee from the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy.

Yamin points to three principle challenges for promoting justice in the health law policy:

  1. Health has to be recognized as a legal right
  2. The right to health must be reflected in the institutions and how they prioritize
  3. It must be shown that treating health as a right can contribute to fairer health systems, more just societies, and help to curb global health inequity.

We congratulate Alicia with this wonderful appointment, and look forward to the findings of the project. See how Alicia explains the link between Health, Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Agenda in the video below

Zambian courts breaking BAD?


Two court decisions in the last month has led Zambians to question the democratic commitment of their judiciary.

On 23 November, the Supreme Court of Zambia, in a case against anti-corruption activist Gregory Chifrire, gave a long and angry judgment denouncing all forms of criticism against the court, whether in the media, in the form of demonstrations, in letters to the court, or by lawyers arguing cases. Using their “inherent jurisdiction” (derived from a British colonial era provision that no longer is law in the UK) they sentenced the activist to 6 years of prison for contempt of court, an unprecedented harsh punishment that sent waves of shock and disbelief in the audience. The court also issued explicit warning to the legal community as well as the media and civil society that, while acknowledging the value of freedom of speech, criticism of the judiciary or individual judges would undermine their authority and the rule of law in society and thus is unacceptable.


The second judgement, which was handed down by the Constitutional Court on 7 December concerned the eligibility of sitting president Edgar Lungu as a candidate in the 2021 presidential elections. Cases concerning presidential term limits are high stake and always challenging for courts to handle, and here the circumstances were unusual: Lungu was first elected president in a presidential by-election in January 2015, after the death of the then president, Michael Sata. He was reelected in the ordinary presidential election in September 2016. According to the constitutional provisions in force at the time, a president who has been elected twice cannot stand again. Subsequently this has been changed, and the new provision says that a president can serve a third term if the first term was less than three years. The question before the court was whether the three-year rule could be seen to also hold for the current president, even though he was elected to the presidency before the change of the constitution. The opposition argued that to ‘backdate’ the provision was illegal and self-serving, while the Constitutional Court held that to not provide for transitional provision extending the new rules to the sitting president must have been an oversight on the part of parliament and handed down a ruling that allowed president Lungu to seek a third term. The court again used the opportunity – in the very opening of the judgment – to issue a warning that they would not accept criticism of the court.

These judgments signal most clearly a narrowing of the courts functions as democratic spaces, but they are also taken as signs of an unwillingness to stand up against executive overreach. Why is this so serious?  


 The Zambian constitution, like that of other constitutional democracies places the courts as the guardians of the rights, freedoms and democratic rules of the game enshrined in the constitution and thus gives judges a central role in keeping open the democratic space. As a consequence, in context where executives are moving in an authoritarian direction the courts tend to face considerable pressure. The pressure stems both from opposition politicians and actors in civil society who attempt to mobilize the law and the courts in their efforts to keep open democratic spaces and a level playing field, and – more problematically – from executives seeking to use the legal system to punish the opposition and stifle criticism and who lean on the judges to rule in their favour. In Zambia the fear is that the courts have given in to executive pressure and abdicated their democratic accountability function and are now seeking to prevent public criticism of their backsliding.


Siri Gloppen

Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen

Director, Centre for Law & Social Transformation


Body politics and radical rudeness against autocratic rule in Uganda


The infamous Luzira prison complex is beautifully located on one of Kampala’s hills. From the manager’s office in the women’s section the views are stunning.  The officer in charge (OC) explains that she has a master’s degree in human rights and appears to run the prison with a firm but flexible hand, with concern for the people entrusted her – including the forty or so children who stay in the prison complex with their incarcerated mothers.


We are here to see Stella Nyanzi. The feisty and articulate academic and activist was arrested on 2 November 2018 on charges of cyber harassment and offensive communication after posting a poem to President Museveni on her Facebook page on the occasion of his birthday on 16th September. The poem was found to contain offensive and vulgar language insulting the president and his late mother. Nyanzi on the other hand argues that this is urgent political criticism at a time when democracy in Uganda is being severely undermined.

Stella, who has to sit on the floor while receiving her visitors in the OC’s office, sees herself as an intellectual in the Ugandan tradition of ‘radical rudeness’, which was devised and effectively used by critics of the colonial regime in the 1940s. She wants to awaken people and bother those abusing their power – be a constant irritant, a stone in the shoe that eventually may trigger action. This is also why she has refused to be released on bail, which would allow the government to endlessly delay the case against her.  Rather she has chosen to remain in custody and use her bodily presence there to demand that the president personally come to court to testify against her. 

This is not the first time Stella Nyanzi engages in body politics. Her effective use of bodily metaphors – including famously calling the president a pair of buttocks – contributes to her massive following on social media but has also repeatedly landed her in trouble. As has her engagement for school girls’ right to menstrual care enabling them to go to school during their period. In April 2017, she was arrested for criticizing – again in bodily terms – the president and the First Lady, who doubles as the Minister of Education for going back on their promises of providing sanitary pads to schoolgirls. She has also been suspended from her position at Makerere University’s Institute for Social Research – staging a nude protest when she was locked out of her office.  The costs are high. Illness caused by incarceration. Burdens on her three young children. But this is also for them. Their right to express themselves freely is on the line.

Stella explains how the international support structure for human rights defenders is ill suited to her unconventional, and more effective modes of activism: Funders will line up, ready to pay bail and engage human rights lawyers – but no one is willing to support the costs of a criminal lawyer to take her case though the court system, thus securing a more long-term focus and possibly even a pro-freedom of speech decision. Donors seek to thread a careful and polite line of support for activists without offending governments. This detracts from the agency of local activists and makes activism impotent.


Siri Gloppen

Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen

Director, Centre for Law & Social Transformation