Pathways to safeguarding free speech in Africa

-from “Nelson Mandela: The World’s Most Beloved Statesman.”

Author: Adam Sulaiman

‘’Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.’’ Those were the words of Ben Franklin that should reverberate in the mind of every African leader who curtails their subjects’ constitutional right to freedom of expression. 

The concept of ‘protection of free speech’ is a cornerstone of democracy and human rights that should be attached with high probative value. It is generally believed that societies that progress are the ones that allow open debates and the exchange of ideas to find better solutions. Indeed, free speech is a fundamental pillar of democracy that drives social change. It is tenable to assume that the liberty of citizens to express themselves has evolved over the years with freedom of speech having a strong impact on different perceptions. It is a herculean task to accomplish as it presents various albatrosses ranging from legal frameworks, cultural biases, and other numerous challenges. 

To overcome these barricades, newfangled approaches should be looked at, by focusing on solutions that promote inclusivity and viability. Taking a trip down memory lane, Africa’s struggle for independence and subsequent governance challenges have hindered its approach to freedom of speech. Colonization and authoritarian regimes have suppressed dissenting voices, leading to a prevailing culture of censorship. Factors such as corruption, political instability, weak democratic institutions, and restrictive laws further curtail free speech rights. Harassment, threats, and violence against journalists contribute to an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. 

In a report by Afrobarometer in 2013, it was revealed that the level of freedom Africans exert can be equated with the confidence they have in government performance. Statistically, the countries with high levels of free speech are Ghana with 74% rates, Tanzania and Liberia with 77% and 75% rates respectively. Conversely, with only one in every four individuals feeling unrestricted in expressing themselves, Sudan at 19%, Togo at 21%, and Zimbabwe at 22% are found languishing at the bottom of the log. 

A major driver of this heartbreaking statistic is that we have been our own worst enemies. It is true and evident that many countries have constitutional provisions for free speech, but premium importance is not placed on them for constructive enforcement. A vision for free speech realization cannot be achieved solely, the mandate must be taken up, and all hands must be on deck. Advocating for legal reform and utilizing digital activism are vital strategies for civil society organizations to challenge oppressive laws and foster freedom of expression. African countries need to revise their legislation to align with internationally recognized standards of free speech, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To achieve this, it is imperative to strengthen domestic legal systems by establishing independent judiciary bodies and providing comprehensive training for legal professionals. 

Harnessing the power of social media and online platforms can serve as a remarkable means to raise awareness and mobilize support for legal reform. Moreover, engaging youth in advocating for freedom of expression is of utmost importance. The younger generation acts as catalysts for social change, and they are resolute in fighting for their rights. By empowering them through dialogue, initiatives, and dedicated platforms, their voices can be amplified, prompting a challenge to oppressive systems. 

Digital technologies in Africa provide avenues for protecting free speech through collaboration between governments, civil society organizations, and tech companies. To promote this, efforts should focus on digital literacy, internet accessibility, and secure platforms for expression. Investments in infrastructure and connectivity are needed to bridge the digital divide. Encouraging online anonymity tools, encryption, and data privacy safeguards will further safeguard individuals from surveillance and persecution. 

International cooperation and support are essential for safeguarding free speech in Africa. The international community can pressure African governments through diplomacy, sanctions, and aid to civil society organizations advocating for free speech. African governments need to realize that restrictions on free speech violate human rights and impede progress in innovation, accountability, and good governance. 


Protecting free speech in Africa requires innovative, context-specific approaches that promote inclusivity, strengthen legal foundations, harness technology, and foster trust and collaboration. These solutions pave the way for exchanging ideas, empowering citizens, and ensuring free speech becomes a reality for all Africans, contributing to sustainable development, social progress, and democratic governance. ‘’Where there is freedom of speech, there should be a guarantee of freedom after speech’’.


1. Clinton Sakofa, ‘'90 Freedom of Speech Quotes on Protecting our First Amendment Right’’, Everyday Power, April 11, 2023,

2. All Africa, “Africa: Free speech equals better governance, says report”, Premium Times, October 17, 2013,

3. Asonzeh Ukah, “Africa and free/hate speech”, The Immanent Frame, January 4, 2019,

4. Melusi Simelane, “False news or free speech: Protecting freedom of expression in Botswana”, South Africa Litigation Centre, May 3, 2023,