Freedom of expression and Africa’s new activist musicians

Kofi Annan

The world this weekend reacted with sadness at the news of the passing of former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. Mr Annan, who was born in Ghana in 1938 and known for speaking out on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people, enjoyed a distinguished career that culminated in his leading the UN and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. It is fitting that as we reflect on the highs and lows of his career, we also recognise a new generation of young Africans yearning for justice, fairness and human rights in a climate where their freedom of expression is being curtailed.


In Uganda, a musician-turned-MP was arrested and tortured after his supporters allegedly attacked the president’s motorcade. Robert Kyagulanyi, an MP who also goes by the stage name Bobi Wine was brought before a military court for allegedly being in possession of a gun when arrested—in the lead-up to the arrest, his driver was shot dead by security forces. This was despite that as a civilian, a military court would not have the authority to hear his case.

Bobi Wine has previously used his music to speak out against Uganda’s president  and highlight the plight of many people in the country. Some consider his arrest as the government’s attempt to silence a critical voice and stifle a growing youth movement.


In Nigeria, the national broadcaster has banned a cover of the song ‘This is Nigeria’, by Nigerian rapper Falz (real name Folarin Falana). The song raises a number of issues faced by ordinary Nigerians—including wide spread corruption, the opioid crisis, sexual assault and religious tensions—and has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube. The Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) claims the song contains vulgar and negative lines and further concerns have been raised by Nigeria’s Muslim Rights Concern about the alleged demonization of Muslims. However, the song remains available online and will therefore continue to provide a critical voice and counter narrative to state sanctioned messages.


In Zambia, Pilato (real name Fumba Chama) a local musician, is undergoing a protracted court process for participating in a peaceful protest. The musician who routinely raises social issues faced by ordinary Zambians released a song in December 2017 with thinly veiled references to corruption at the highest levels of the Zambian government. He received threats from members of Zambia’s ruling party and fled to South Africa fearing for his safety. He was arrested on his return on a separate charge and is currently the subject of on-going court proceedings. According to Amnesty International, Pilato’s arrest is connected to his music and a threat to his freedom of expression.

The above examples are just a snippet of what is going on across Africa as activist musicians from Senegal to Tanzania and Ghana continue to exercise their right to freedom of expression in speaking out against perceived injustices. Theirs and anyone else’s rights must be protected even if their music causes offence to others provided they don’t break any laws in the exercise of their rights. Africa has a strong legacy of change brought about through activism and freedom of expression through music. It is a shame that such an integral right is under threat. To shut down young musicians with critical voices is to put out the flickers of hope for Africa’s future.

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