Frontline Grassroots Defenders Converge on Monrovia

Philip Jakpor
11 Min Read

       …decry under-reportage of infractions in West Africa

On 25 December 2023 Nigerians woke up to the sad news of yet another round of killings by terrorists seeking to uproot the locals in the country’s middle belt from their ancestral lands. By the time the dust cleared, at least 200 people were confirmed dead and over 500 wounded and displaced. The attackers, who used guns and machetes, burned houses and other property in 17 rural communities in the regions of Bokkos and Barkin Ladi in Plateau State. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Similar attacks had happened in Kaduna, a nearby state only a month earlier.

But these kinds of killings are not limited to only Nigeria. Cases of settler-landowner crisis and massacres of defenders of land rights are happening in Northern Ghana, the Republic of Niger, Mali and other countries of the region where climate change has forced nomadic Fulani herders of the Sahel further south, where they compete for access to land and water with farmers and land owners. Across the continent, the dead are either not properly accounted for or are reduced to mere numbers without identity and quickly forgotten as the authorities try to downplay the magnitude of the crisis.

The challenge of the under-reporting of these incidents and the plight of frontline grassroots defenders informed a gathering of activists from 16 West African countries in Monrovia, the Liberian capital from 17-19 January 2024 for training on collection of data relating to the kind of incidents described above. Participants came from Nigeria, Ghana, Siera Leone, Mali, Cape Verde, and Mauritius. Others were from Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, Liberia, and the Republic of Benin.

The event, which had the goal of training participants on the required knowledge, skills, and tools to effectively monitor, document, and address the acute under-reporting of abuses against frontline defenders was organized by Green Advocates and the Mano River Union-Civil Society Organisation Platform with support from the International Land Coalition (ILC), Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC), and the Global Witness (GW) and Alliance for Land Indigenous and Environmental Defenders (ALLIED).

Peter Quaqua, Coordinator of Green Advocates, explained that frontline grassroots defenders continue to contend with abuse from their own governments and transnational corporations operating in the region with very little or no attention paid to their plight. 

He said that the data collectors’ training and a planned West African Directory for documenting cases are initiatives and attempts to ensure that the profile of little-known defenders working to protect the planet are documented and for the African story told by Africans.

Country Representative Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Christian Mukosa, said that the training is timely and that the UN agency is committed to promoting, protecting, and ensuring human rights in Liberia and across Africa.

Mukosa said that human rights encompasses the economic, social protection, and developmental issues, even as he noted that the issues he listed are interconnected and addressing them vital for Africa to achieve the 2030 Agenda and combating poverty ravaging most countries of the region.

He underscored the fundamental role that human rights plays in fostering sustainable development and addressing pressing challenges in the region hence the need for a comprehensive approach to data collection.

He also affirmed the UN’s commitment to promoting a holistic human rights agenda even as he emphasized the need for accurate and meaningful data to guide policy and decision-making.

Acting Campaign Lead of the Land and Environmental Defenders Campaign of the Global Witness, Rachel Cox, weighed in on the subject, explaining that the organisation has produced reports showing attacks on people defending their communities across the globe but particularly in Latin America.

She highlighted the fact that Africa has been largely underreported in view of a data drought predicting that the West African Directory conceived by the Green Advocates and MRU staff was an ambitious initiative.

Cox stressed the need to strengthen the template dashboard for data collection presented to participants for review maintaining that its use will address the gaps in global datasets and project the real stories of defenders in the region working to protect their human rights.

Laura Furones, the Global Witness Senior Adviser, Land & Environmental Defenders, explained that her organization has been documenting the incidences of murders of rights defenders since 2012 and that the total number of killings of defenders stood at 1,910 since 2012.

She noted that most of the records from Global Witness is from Latin American countries like Ecuador, Brazil and the Honduras, noting however that the under-reportage of killings in Africa made it imperative for a data base that can be the source of information that can adequately capture the reality of the global picture.

In her brief remarks, Resident Representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Josephine Nkrumah pointed out that accurate data collection provides the requisite information that enables governments to put in place adequate policy and make adequate predictions to be able to safeguard and continue to build sustainable nations.

Echoing the same view, the Civil Freedom and Human Right Defenders (HRDs), Researcher and Database Coordinator of BHRRC, Hannah Matthews, acknowledged the difficulty and challenges in terms of reporting in Africa, and specifically West Africa.

Hannah said that the work of frontline grassroots defenders piles pressure on state actors in putting policies and measures in place to ensure that the defenders are protected despite the risk they face in the protection of the land and environment. 

She explained that the data gap observed in West Africa puts the burden on civil society and those on the frontlines to fill the gap. 

Earlier, Alfred Brownell the Liberian Goldman Environmental Prize recipient for 2019, said that the gathering was epoch-making in the quest to gather evidences of reprisals and the plight of frontline grassroots defenders.

He insisted that he himself and his family were victims of reprisal because of his advocacy to prevent the destruction of tropical forests for palm oil production. After receiving death threats as a result of his work, he and his family fled Liberia in 2016.

He charged the participants to sharpen their skills in data collection and proper documentation as that these are crucial to recording the true picture of what is happening in West Africa and the entire African continent.

Aside the interventions, the event equally had brainstorming and breakout sessions which afforded participants the opportunity to review their strengths and weaknesses as well as threats and the opportunities that they can exploit in doing their work better. In the communique that was drafted at the training, the participants observed that frontline grassroots defenders live in vulnerable communities that have suffered systematic and historic threats, reprisals, marginalization, killings and other forms abuses from their own governments and transnational corporations.

They noted that amidst the rich natural resource deposits, the people of West Africa are among the poorest and least developed in the world because of official corruption. They went further to assert that international data collection organizations have not been able to fully cover West Africa, resulting in the violation of defenders without documentation.

They resolved to condemn the killing and non-lethal attacks of defenders in West Africa by state and non-state actor and Called on state authorities to recognize the role of indigenous communities and defenders, and do more to protect their rights by investigating reprisal attacks to end impunity for crimes against them;

They also demanded that the authorities and concessionaires comply with applicable laws and standards on free, prior and informed consent in granting private investors/Concessionaires the rights to extract natural resources in indigenous communities. They expressed the determination to collaborate with international organizations in elevating the plight and security of grassroots defenders in order to secure emergency support mechanisms for those in need.

Signatories to the communique include: Green Advocates International (GAI) based in Liberia, Strategic Youth Network for Development (SYND) from Ghana, Pilex Centre for Civic Education Initiative and the Renevlyn Development Initiative (RDI), both from Nigeria, the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) –in Sierra Leone, Youth Initiative for Land in Africa (YILAA) from Republic of Benin, and No -Vox – Cote d’ Ivoire, among others.

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