Campaign to repeal outdated offences launched

At the 51st Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, Promoting Pre-trial Justice in Africa (PPJA) is launching a campaign for the repeal of outdated offences.

Many people in prison in Africa are detained for nothing more than being poor or homeless or a ‘nuisance’. Many of these detainees are charged with offences which do not comply with national Constitutions or international law. Many will experience terrible conditions, fall ill, or suffer abuse in detention while their families will be without their support. It is time for African countries to review and repeal outdated offences inherited from colonial times.

This is the message of the PPJA campaign for the repeal of outdated offences being launched at the 51st Session of the African Commission with a poster and pamphlets.

An example of an outdated offence, is that of being a "rogue and vagabond". Rogue and vagabond offences across Africa have their roots in England’s Vagrancy Act of 1824. The offence criminalises various “nuisance” behaviours. For example, the Malawi Penal Code, like many others, provides that the following are rogues and vagabonds:

  • 'every ‘suspected or reputed thief who has no visible means of assistance and cannot give a good account of himself’
  • 'any person found on a road or at a public place ‘at such time and under such circumstances as to lead to the conclusion that such person is there for an illegal or disorderly purpose’.

Offences such as these give licence to police to arrest someone who is homeless or poor or is assumed to be a thief who has not caused harm to anyone. The offence may be abused by police. This is against the right not to be detained arbitrarily.

The Ouagadougou Declaration and Plan of Action on Accelerating Prison and Penal Reform in Africa endorsed recommendations calling for reducing the size of prison populations in Africa. The Plan of Action, dating from 2003, recommended “decriminalisation of some offences such as being a rogue and vagabond, loitering, prostitution, failure to pay debts and disobedience to parents” as a strategy to reduce the prison population.

Many of the offences identified in the Ouagadougou Declaration as ripe for repeal amount to nothing more than the criminalisation of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, or previously having committed an offence.

Nearly a decade has passed and few countries appear to have made any progress in implementing this strategy endorsed by the African Commission. PPJA aims to raise awareness about the issue and galvanise efforts toward legal reform of criminal law.

Tell us about colonial or other unconstitutional offences in your country and the progress made in repealing these laws. Email us on:

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