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Liberia »

Liberia is a multiparty constitutional democracy in West Africa, with a population of approximately 3.5 million people. Its largely resource-based economy is made up of mining, oil, and exports of commodities such as rubber and timber. Liberia’s current president is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist and prisoner of conscience, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

The Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, but the majority of the population was and continues to be members of indigenous ethnic groups. The nation modeled itself on American principles and adopted a constitution similar to the United States. Indigenous groups were excluded from citizenship until 1904 and frequently clashed with the Americo-Liberian settlers.

Americo-Liberians dominated politics for most of the country’s history. The True Whig Party was de facto the only political party for much of the 20th century. In 1980, Samuel Doe led a military coup d’état that overthrew and killed President William Tolbert, who had been in power since 1971. The Doe regime was characterized by widespread human rights violations and was challenged by armed insurgencies consisting of members of other ethnic groups.

After a long and bloody civil war during which Doe was executed by a rival group, a peace agreement among the warring factions led to the election of guerrilla leader Charles Taylor as president in 1997. Under Taylor, the government continued to be characterized as brutal and corrupt. Taylor sponsored an insurgent army in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone that killed and injured thousands.

Taylor left the country in 2003 and was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international tribunal in 2012. A broad-based transitional government ruled Liberia until 2005 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected. Sirleaf called for the extradition of Taylor and cooperated with the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Her government established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to deal with issues arising from the war. Since 2005, the human rights situation in Liberia has improved, although international watchdog groups continue to express concern over aspects of the judicial system and other issues.

President Sirleaf was elected to a second term in a November 2011 election that was characterized by international observers as free and fair.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013 report, Liberia was rated as “partly free.” The country earned a rating of three in political rights and four in civil liberties, with one being the most free and seven being the least. Liberia faces serious issues of corruption, which affect the functioning of the bureaucracy and judicial system. 

Ethiopia »

With a population of nearly 85 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. The population includes some 80 ethnic groups, with the largest being the Oromo and the Amhara. The majority of the population is Christian, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, but there is also a significant Muslim minority.

The Ethiopian economy is based primarily on agriculture, with a growing services sector and one of the largest GDP growth rates in Africa in recent years. Main industries include food processing and textiles, and the most important export goods are coffee and gold. While unemployment is high and the country has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world, the current government has instituted economic reforms and begun a process of privatization of state enterprises.

Until 1974, Ethiopia was a monarchy, ruled by a dynasty that traced its roots to the 2nd century B.C. Unlike most of the African continent, Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power and has long been recognized as a sovereign country.

The downfall of the monarchy led to the establishment of a socialist government under Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Mengistu regime received significant aid from the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. Ethiopia suffered a series of internal and external conflicts, calamitous droughts, massive famines, and refugee crises during the 1970s and 1980s. The Mengistu regime was a harsh dictatorship with little tolerance for dissent. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 10,000 people died under what has been called the “Red Terror,” although the exact number is unknown.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, opposition groups united to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They ousted the Mengistu regime in May 1991. A new constitution and political reforms led to the first multiparty elections in 1995. Over time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF tightened their grip on power by promoting ethnic federalism through which power is given to regional and ethnically based authorities. The 2005 elections were deeply troubled, with violence and widespread accusations of fraud. A number of prominent opposition leaders were accused of inciting violence and held as political prisoners for calling a general strike and boycotting the new parliament.

The flawed 2010 elections resulted in an EPRDF landslide, with only 2 seats going to the opposition. A crackdown on opposition parties, civil society, and the media prior to the elections further limited political space in the country. Since the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn has served as prime minister.

Freedom House describes Ethiopia as “not free,” with both the civil liberties and political rights given a rating of 6, with 1 regarded as most free and 7 as least free. 

Zimbabwe »

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa, with a population of approximately 12.5 million people. A former British colony, a white minority unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia in 1965. The Rhodesian government excluded the black majority from political power and failed to win diplomatic recognition. In 1980, an agreement brokered by the British government established Zimbabwe’s independence as a multiracial democracy. That same year, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, led by Robert Mugabe, swept the first free elections in the country. Mugabe served as prime minister until 1987, when he became president, an office he holds to this day. During more than two decades of Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe’s democracy has steadily eroded.

Mugabe’s social and economic policies have been disastrous. An estimated one-fifth of the population is infected with HIV. Life expectancy has declined dramatically since 1990. Land redistribution in the 1990s cut food production and led to hunger and disease. The government’s mismanagement of the economy led to hyperinflation in the 2000s, reaching an estimated peak of 13 billion percent in November 2008.

Mugabe has stifled democracy and human rights since coming to power. The government cracks down on opposition political parties and civil society groups. Basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are not respected. Violence surrounding the 2008 elections led to a power-sharing agreement between ZANU and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Freedom House rates Zimbabwe as not free in political rights and civil liberties, noting Mugabe’s frequent abuses of power, corruption, regime-sponsored political violence, the lack of independent media, and flawed electoral processes. 

Equatorial Guinea »

Equatorial Guinea is one of Africa’s smallest countries, with a population of roughly 650,000 people. It is the only independent country on the continent where Spanish is the official language. Extensive oil reserves were discovered in 1996 and have dramatically altered the country’s fortunes. Oil has made Equatorial Guinea the wealthiest country in Africa on a per capita basis, with the World Bank estimating the country’s per capita GDP (Purchasing Power Parity in current international dollars) at over $35,000 – nominally higher than that of France or Japan. However, the country’s resources are distributed very unevenly, with more than 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

The area now known as Equatorial Guinea was home to many indigenous tribal groups when it was first discovered and colonized by the Portuguese in 1471. In 1778, Portugal ceded the area to Spain and it became home to many plantations. Immigrants came from other African countries as well as Spain looking for work. Freed slaves also came to the country, creating a mixture of ethnic and cultural groups. Spain ruled the country as a colony until 1968, when it granted Equatorial Guinea independence.

In 1968, Francisco Macias Nguema became the first president of the nation. During his rule, Macias carried out the execution of those who he perceived as a threat to his rule as well as many members of the Bubi ethnic minority. By the end of his time in power more than a third of the population of Equatorial Guinea had either fled the country or had been executed. The nation experienced a massive “brain drain” as Macias specifically targeted intellectuals and those involved in education. Macias also declared himself president for life, closed down some churches, prevented Equatoguineans from leaving the country, and banned things he perceived as “un-African,” including Western medicine.

In 1979, current President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo overthrew and executed his predecessor and uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, in a bloody military coup. However, Obiang continued many of the policies and practices of his uncle’s regime. The judiciary and parliament are firmly under the control of the president. Obiang’s regime has never held credible elections. Basic freedoms, such as freedom of expression, assembly and conscience are not respected by the regime.

Equatorial Guinea’s oil resources are controlled by Obiang’s supporters and other elites. Corruption is rampant – in 2013, Transparency International ranked Equatorial Guinea 163rd out of 177 countries surveyed.

In its 2014 “Freedom in the World” Report, Freedom House labeled Equatorial Guinea as “not free”. The nation received the worst possible score of seven in political rights, civil liberties, and as its overall freedom rating. Freedom House’s 2014 “Freedom of the Press” Report gave Equatorial Guinea a score of 90, where 0 is the best possible score and 100 is the worst possible score. 

South Africa »

South Africa is a nation of almost 53 million on the southern tip of Africa. The nation has a unique multicultural character and is approximately 80 percent African and 10 percent European, with the remaining 10 percent being of mixed race or Asian heritage. These broad racial categories include a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Although it has the largest economy on the continent, much of the nation remains in poverty and there is great economic disparity. Historically, the mining industry has played a key role in South Africa’s economy and it continues to remain an important industry today, alongside manufacturing, tourism, and financial services.

South Africa was first settled by non-natives in 1652, when the Dutch established an outpost in what would later become Cape Town. Soon after, British, French, and German settlers came to the area. The descendants of the original Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners. Conflicts over land and power arose between the settling groups as well as between the settlers and the native people of the region. In 1910, Britain formally created the Union of South Africa as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.

Throughout South Africa’s history, non-whites were subjected to widespread discrimination. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government passed a series of laws institutionalizing discrimination and segregation. In the 1948 elections, the National Party, which served as a platform for Afrikaner nationalism, gained power. The National Party program was centered on the system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Supporters of apartheid argued that South Africa was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, “Coloured” or mixed-race, and Indian.

The white minority oppressed the African majority and other non-white groups. Black Africans were particularly disadvantaged in terms of education, housing, income, and health. Blacks were denied citizenship and not permitted to use the services and facilities accessible by the white minority. Many blacks were forced to relocate when their neighborhoods were declared “white.” A series of laws enacted in the 1950s further codified and expanded racial segregation. In part, the National Party justified its policies by branding its opponents as communists.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to advocate for the rights of black South Africans. As apartheid expanded, the ANC and other groups used both nonviolent and violent actions to combat the government. The ANC and other groups were oppressed by the government, and many of their senior leaders were banned or imprisoned. Nelson Mandela, a prominent ANC leader, was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement gained strength. Foreign governments and the international community isolated South Africa. International sanctions damaged the economy and helped erode domestic support for apartheid. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War weakened the government’s claim that yielding power would lead to a communist takeover.

In 1990, the government of South Africa took its first steps toward ending apartheid when it ended a ban on certain political organizations including the ANC. Nelson Mandela and other opposition leaders were released from prison and apartheid legislation was repealed. F.W. de Klerk, President from 1989-1994, helped to broker this transition of South Africa from the apartheid-era to a multi-racial democracy. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

In 1994, South Africa held its first election that allowed all adults to vote, regardless of race. The ANC gained power and Nelson Mandela was elected president. South Africa enacted a liberal, democratic constitution, backed by a strong and independent judiciary. While the ANC has remained the strongest party, elections are vigorously contested and democratic safeguards are respected. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated abuses and crimes committed during the apartheid era.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized South Africa as “free” with an overall freedom rating of two, with one being the most free and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of two in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2013 Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to government restrictions on the press and the prevalence of civil cases brought against journalists for libel.