Free Societies

Liberty Lost—Nigeria's David Hundeyin Underscores Need for Reform Across Africa

Placeholder 01
Brad Lips

Brad Lips | CEO, Atlas Network

This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek.

You probably haven't heard of David Hundeyin, but many in Africa have. He is a Nigerian journalist who founded the popular Substack newsletter West Africa Weekly, holding the continent's power players accountable in a way that advocates for individual liberty and human dignity.

Recently, Hundeyin was detained at Harare Airport in Zimbabwe. He was kept in a locked room with no windows (or a toilet) for nearly seven hours.

Why? He was trying to attend the Africa Liberty Forum—an annual event hosted by my organization, Atlas Network, to celebrate the continent's freedom champions—along with another event in Harare just prior. Many of these advocates for freedom risk their social standing and—in extreme cases—even their lives to push back against authoritarianism and other forms of government overreach in their respective countries. At the event, we paid tribute to Oredje Narcisse of Libre Afrique, a past attendee who was murdered last year during a protest against Chad's military regime.

Hundeyin's tale is a harrowing reminder of how Africans are routinely denied their dignity and common decency. Because he refused, as a Ghanaian passport holder, to pay a bribe upon entry into Zimbabwe, Hundeyin was at the mercy of arrogant government officials who act with impunity. Only after he tweeted to his more than 800,000 Twitter followers while in detention did the Zimbabwean authorities finally decide to release him.

How many similar situations drag on endlessly when the victim is unable to create a social media firestorm?

It is a harsh, harrowing reminder that global freedom is still a long way from secure, especially in Africa. Many African countries put up unnecessary barriers and roadblocks to seemingly mundane activities that free people readily enjoy in other parts of the world.

Hundeyin's detention is further proof that intra-African travel remains unnecessarily risky and extremely complicated, underscoring the need for reform that events like Africa Liberty Forum hope to amplify. As Magatte Wade, a Senegalese reformer, said to me, "If you think about governance as an operating system within which people try to succeed, most African countries are stuck with a buggy software of failure. It is almost impossible to operate as an entrepreneur or as a normal worker who wants to get ahead."

The numbers bear it out. Africa is home to dozens of countries with some of the worst economic freedom index scores in the world. While Mauritius stands out as mostly free, the rest of Africa is mostly unfree and repressed, with hundreds of millions of people doing business in informal markets rather than risking encounters with abusive governments.

The need for a course correction was on display at Africa Liberty Forum, and—despite Hundeyin's absence—it was heartening to see civil society organizations working to improve their home country's public policy environment.

One such organization, the Eastern Caucus (ironically based in Zimbabwe), helped roll back a cronyist government monopoly in public transit that had deprived citizens of options for traveling across the capital of Harare. In Burundi, the research and advocacy organization CDE Great Lakes simplified the requirements for trading across borders, thereby saving women from abuse at the hands of corrupt border guards with whom they previously needed to interact for basic permissions.

Efforts like these are sorely needed because the stakes are high. It is critical for the world that Africa succeeds, with 25 percent of the global population expected to be African by 2050. By then, Nigeria is projected to be home to 400 million people, overtaking the United States as the world's third-most-populous country. The average age in Africa is half of that in North America and Europe.

If Africa's younger generations can shake off the bloated, corrupt bureaucracies that have plagued their continent since the colonial era, Africa could play a pivotal role in the global economy moving forward. That's a big "if." Bringing our hopes to fruition will require more work by Africans to claim their natural rights, standing up to the everyday corruption of government officials.

When we opened our Africa Liberty Forum, knowing that David Hundeyin should have been among the change-makers in the crowd, it drove home the importance of civil society organizations that work for a better tomorrow. Millions of Africans have grown restless about the dysfunction that dominates far too much of their political and economic realities.

But the question remains: Can Africa summon the will to blaze a new trail which elevates the rights of the individual?