The COVID-19 Pandemic and Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Elena Gadjanova, University of Exeter

In 2019, countries in Africa registered both the largest gains and biggest losses worldwide on some common measures of democracy. This is part of a pattern of divergence, evident since at least the 2000s. And while it is still fairly common to paint Africa in broad strokes as either “hopeless” and “in perpetual crisis” or “hopeful” and “rising”, it is important to recognize that the reality of African countries’ experience with democracy is much more varied and complex.

Therefore, evaluating how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the quality of democracy in Africa must take this underlying heterogeneity as a starting point. We shouldn’t be speculating about whether Covid-19 will lead to a democratic decline or authoritarian resurgence, but asking how its impact will vary given countries’ highly divergent contexts and democratic trajectories preceding the pandemic.

Freedom House’s index of democratic trends for sub-Saharan Africa. Source and more details here.

Theories on democratic resilience and authoritarian retrenchment offer some direction in understanding this variation. The former highlight factors such as the strength of electoral management bodies, institutionalized opposition parties, free media, and a robust civil society in enabling democracies to withstand crises and emergencies. The latter list the ways, in which autocratic regimes use emergencies to consolidate their own positions: by enhancing executive powers, limiting basic civil liberties, cracking down on dissenters, and curtailing media freedoms.

Executive overreach

There is (rightly) a concern that governments will use the pandemic to increase and centralize power and dismantle existing checks and balances. As Farida Nabourema notes, dictators love lockdowns. To that end, the V-Dem project has compiled data on Covid-19 emergency provisions by country and classified them by type, level of severity, and by whether they include time limits and expiration dates. Looking at this data for Sub-Saharan Africa, it is not surprising that countries, which have made strides in democratization over the past few years (Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi) fare better and are less likely to have governments who abuse pandemic-related executive powers while autocracies (Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe) have implemented more sweeping power grabs. Thus, regime type trajectories create momentum that can either foster democratic resilience or accelerate autocratic backsliding during Covid.          

Human rights and civil liberties

Broad regime trends aside, the pandemic has led to a rise in police brutality in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa, often under the guise of “lockdown enforcement”. Here, too, the pandemic appears to be exposing and exacerbating pre-existing problems: all four countries have a history of police heavy-handedness and the integrity and professionalization of their security services has been seriously questioned. Such abuse of power can undermine trust in the state as a whole, spark protests and civil disobedience, and lead to further crack-downs in a vicious cycle of escalating violence. This danger is particularly acute when police brutality is — often with good reason — perceived as specifically targeting a section of the population alone.

Civil liberties and media freedoms can also suffer in the name of public health: some governments have increased digital surveillance, used their new powers to ban public gatherings, and selectively targeted media critical of their line on the pandemic. The International Press Institute currently lists 47 media freedom violations in Sub-Saharan Africa related to the pandemic, ranging from arrests and jailing of journalists, restricting access to information and excessive regulation, censorship, and verbal or physical attacks.  

Again, it is worth underscoring that human rights abuses in the name of public health are by no means the norm. For example, activists successfully pressured the government in South Africa to adopt a sunset clause on surveillance measures. Civil society organisations have sounded the alarm on police brutality in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. The Media Foundation for West Africa has launched a number of initiatives to track, document, and combat attacks on the media in a range of countries. But such push-back has been notably absent in other cases, such as Tanzania where CSOs have been “deadly silent”. This demonstrates the extent, to which democratic resilience is conditional on an effective civil society response.

Electoral integrity

With 22 African elections scheduled for 2020 and 18 more for 2021, there are no easy choices. Postponing or suspending elections risks undermining trust in the state, waves of protests, and the retrenchment of incumbent regimes. Going ahead risks increased infections, particularly given how rally intensive electoral campaigns across Sub-Saharan Africa tend to be and how crowded polling stations are on election day.

To guarantee safety, special provisions need to be put in place to cover the period of campaigning, voter registration, voting, and the tallying of results. This is a huge challenge given the importance of direct face-to-face contact. And while social media has become increasingly central to election campaigns in recent years, shifting to social media campaigning further risks of disinformation and inflammatory messages, disenfranchising the elderly and rural women, and increasing resource inequalities between bigger and smaller parties.    

Creating the infrastructure to allow for socially-distanced voting and vote counting in a way that ensures cross-party consensus so that no side later seeks to delegitimize the results would be a huge feat. Countries with electoral management bodies enjoying a reputation of integrity and a history of incumbents accepting defeat, such as Ghana, would be better placed to meet this challenge, but there will likely be trouble ahead in places where past elections have been bitterly disputed.     

Polarization and inequality

Beyond the immediate concerns with elections and voting, the pandemic can have long-term subversive effects on democracy by exacerbating polarization and deepening existing inequalities. Social polarization rises when state actions are seen as favouring some citizens over others. For example, in Nigeria, governors have been accused of scapegoating Qur’anic schools. In South Africa and Kenya, social media is full of examples of how curfews have been harshly enforced in some areas, while seemingly sparing others. In Uganda, the lockdown has provided cover for the regime to continue repressing street vendors and taxi drivers. In Ghana, the government has proceeded with demolishing poor residents’ homes in Accra despite the lockdown. All of these actions compound existing inequalities and threaten social cohesion. Partisan polarization has quickly followed suit with sharp divisions emerging along party lines regarding what measures are best to tackle the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, one African state provides a template for an effective government response that has successfully maintained national consensus and avoided polarization: Mauritius has been lauded for capitalizing on a long-standing culture of promoting national unity and a strong and centralized developmental state.    

In sum: accelerating divergence

So whither democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond? The pandemic will accelerate processes of divergence and heterogeneity already long underway. Countries with recent momentum towards democratization, vibrant civil society and media environments, robust electoral management institutions, and a culture of fostering national consensus are best placed to weather pandemic-related threats.

Accelerating divergence will likely have implications for states’ international relations as well — and processes of intra-African integration and cooperation in particular. On the one hand, increased divergence could hamstring pan-African movements and organisations, such as the African Union. On the other, it could foster the parallel strengthening of regional blocks such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC). This realignment and the emergence of different state cohorts will likely have far reaching consequences for how Africa engages with the rest of the world.

State of exception: balancing democratic freedoms with public safety, managing the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy

By Saipira Furstenberg, University of Exeter.

Italy, a country known for its convivial outdoor lifestyle, is today shuttered by the coronavirus. I am in Trieste, located in the northeast of Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia’s peak. The Italian port city, usually packed with tourists and local noisiness from Piazza dell’Unita, is today deserted. Its streets are empty, all shops and restaurants are closed except for newsagents, pharmacies and supermarkets.  There are few people on the streets, trying to avoid each other by staying one metre apart, as per the health authorities’ guidelines. The anxiety is palpable.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the government has introduced extraordinary measures to contain the epidemic and stop its further contamination. The government has effectively securitised the outbreak by imposing draconian measures such as banning public and social gatherings, closing schools and universities, and limiting travel nationwide which further restricts freedom of movement.

A house in Italy during the Covid-19 lockdown. Source

For weeks, the entire population have remained at home and only permitted to go outside only for emergency reasons such as attending medical appointments or to purchase basic provisions. Police has been deployed on the streets to enforce the government’s measures. These are the largest limitations on freedom of movement in the country since the second world war.

Italy quickly registered the highest reported death toll and number of confirmed infected cases behind China. However, the problem is not in number of death or people tested positive for the virus, the real issue is in number of beds available in the intensive-care units. As the head of Lombardy’s intensive-care crisis unit, Antonio Pesenti reports: “some of the best hospitals in Europe are in Lombardy, yet they are  on the brink of collapse”, “ we have to set up beds for intensive care in hallways”. The situation in Italian hospitals in the North has been described as  ‘war like’ with doctors having to choose who to safe from death. The fear is that the epidemic will run out of control and will move towards other parts of the country.

The virus has disrupted travel and halted manufacturing in the country. To mitigate the consequences of the national quarantine, the government has offered aid package to help to families and businesses. Yet such measures might be insufficient to support the country’s already fragile economy.

If nothing else, the crisis has created a sense of unity in Italy and abroad. Across social media the hashtag #iorestoacasa (“I’m staying at home”) is trending. On the radio celebrities are encouraging the public to take the government measures seriously. 

The extraordinary measures introduced by the Italian government are a test for our democratic values balancing freedom with public safety. The lockdown has already led to instabilities in the country with riots breaking out in prisons, after visits were banned, as a part of broader government’s effort to curb the spread of the virus. Shortly after the release of the leaked draft limiting travel in Lombardy and regions in North of Italy, thousands panicked and rushed in train stations or jumped into their cars to flee South.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said that the country faces a ‘national emergency’. Such declarations in political science reflects broader theoretical patterns of state of exception. The idea of state of exception introduced by Carl Schmitt refers to a situation where a state is confronted with a moral threat or state of emergency which allows the state to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good, thus to violate its own sovereignty principles to save itself. As Agamben notes (1998, p. 174) it enables the ‘creation of a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended’. While the state interventionist measures might be justified exceptional can be also subject to abuse: who decides on the exception? Whose interests it serves? And how can we reverse to the normal situation once state of exception is over?

Both Agamben and Schmitt define the concept of sovereignty as the one who possess the power to initiate a state of exception. As their readings demonstrate, there are paradoxical nondemocratic features of sovereignty power. There is no doubt that state of exception in Italy extends democratic governing principles to authoritarian practices with the imposition of a police-state to ensure public safety. In the long term, prolonging the state of emergency might lead to damage the rule of law and civil liberties. Yet the state has also the responsibility to protect its citizens against threats that might affect their security, health and welfare. Additionally, the fact is that states are increasingly embedded in global web of interconnections, where the action of one state can inherently affect the domestic affairs of another state. As such, the respect and the integrity of sovereign nation might be compromised if it puts other nations and their population at risk. In the present context, the threat of coronavirus is stateless in origin, however it is transnational in scope. Therefore, the drastic measures adopted by the Italian government to contain the virus justify its exceptional interventions. What the current crisis demonstrates is that the decision to contain the virus lies on its people and their willingness to collaborate with the government. In times of crisis it is the government’s duty is to protect its people, it is now down to people to trust their government.

Pandemipolitics and the (Potential) Unmaking of the Liberal World Order

By Gregorio Bettiza , The University of Exeter

The global politics of the current Covid-19 pandemic (i.e. ‘pandemipolitics’) intersects in complex ways with the making, ongoing crisis, and potential unmaking of the liberal world order. What the characteristics of this order are is a hotly debated issue in international relations. Rather than using a clear-cut definition, I tend to think about the liberal order as coming together around four interlocking features which constitute our contemporary, post-Cold War, globalized international system.

First, this order is characterized by a progressive growth of international institutions and rules designed to collectively govern multiple aspects of world affairs. Second, the liberal order is marked by the spread of capitalist modes of production and the forces of economic globalization, largely organized around neo-liberal logics which require the scaling back of the state and thrive on the (relatively) free movement of goods, finance, and people worldwide. Third, this order facilitates and legitimizes the global diffusion of liberal values and institutions, including democratic regimes and universal human rights norms, while simultaneously delegitimizing and stigmatizing non-liberal worldviews and identities. Fourth, and finally, driving many of these processes and structures, are ideas, practices, and interests largely stemming from powerful Western actors.

Flags of United Nations member states

The paradox of the coronavirus pandemic, as John Heathershaw already observes in his post, is that it very much flourishes on the forces which structure this order. International mobility and economic interdependence have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus outside Chinese borders. It is not an accident that some of the most open, rich, and globally connected regions and cities — whether it is Lombardy in Italy, London in the UK or New York in the US, — have been hit the hardest. The rolling back of social securities and healthcare systems in a neo-liberal age of austerity, privatization, and casualization have undermined the capacity of societies and states to respond adequately. Continued poverty and disparities in much of the Global South, are leaving the developing world particularly vulnerable as the pandemic moves in their direction.

Yet Covid-19’s diffusion and international responses — which unsurprisingly include important curbs on globalization and a reassertion of the state, — simultaneously intensify the current crisis of the liberal world order. This is especially the case as pandemipolitics interacts and accentuates existing forces which have been destabilizing this order in past decades: financial and economic crisis; ongoing power shifts, most notably from the West to the East; and the rise of populist, nationalist, and authoritarian politics across regions.

Global cooperation has been sorely lacking. Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise, while countries compete for medical supplies, machineries and patents to protect their citizens at the expense of others. Borders have quickly hardened, even in the supposedly borderless Schengen Area. Collective European institutions have appeared slow, divided, and out of step with the challenges the situation is posing them. The festering cleavage between Northern and Southern European countries has rapidly reopened and widened, most notably in the context of the ongoing Eurobond debate. American and Chinese global rivalry has intensified even further.

Curbing the virus is requiring that substantial parts of the global economy come to a standstill. A recession, if not even depression, is in the making as businesses are going bankrupt, supply chains are being disrupted, unemployment is soaring, stock markets are tanking, and public deficits are ballooning. Meanwhile, the internetization of our lives and economies is accelerating. Under conditions of lockdown, online giants like Google, Facebook and especially Amazon are becoming even more powerful. Lesser known platforms like Zoom and Houseparty are finding their way into our lives (and data).

Liberal values and institutions are coming under considerable stress. Democracies, principally Western ones, have appeared incompetent and in disarray as they have struggled to keep Covid-19 at bay. According to the available statistics (as of early April), the US and many European states have all surpassed China in the number of cases and deaths. As economic crisis breads populism, the world may likely see further democratic backsliding. Hungary, where Prime Minister Victor Orbán now rules by decree circumventing democratic institutions and practices, may be a warning sign of things to come. Simultaneously, autocracies are appearing to many as more efficient systems and are seizing the (propaganda) moment. Despite bearing important responsibilities, China is effectively presenting itself as part of the solution rather than the problem to the global pandemic. Civil liberties are being threatened as states significantly expand their surveillance capabilities. Covid-19 is proving to be a further boon for surveillance capitalism too.

It may not be all doom and gloom. Another future is possible. As the coronavirus exposes the contradictions and accelerates the crisis of the liberal world order, opportunities for radically changing course may open up. These may include a newfound appreciation, rather than persistent delegitimation, of the state as the provider of public goods and social safety nets. We may see greater investments in healthcare and research, accompanied by a revived trust in science and expertise. Citizens may become increasingly conscious of and resistant to the ever more intrusive forms of surveillance modern technologies facilitate. Decreasing emissions and pollution in a world in lockdown, are likely to provide powerful new data and narratives supporting the fight against climate change. A renewed sense of interdependence and solidarity, that we are all part of a common humanity, could enable greater and fairer forms of global cooperation. A less Western-centric international system may emerge with other regions of the world contributing more actively to global knowledge and norms.

2020 is destined to become an important benchmark in the unfolding crisis of the liberal world order. What lies beyond it is yet unknown. Two different horizons of possibility were explored. A more pessimistic one of rising divisions, authoritarianism, and surveillance, born from an analysis of how current pandemipolitics potentially reinforce a series of ongoing, worrying, global developments. This assessment, however, should be interpreted more as a warning than a prediction of an ineluctable fate. Societies and polities have recurrently had the capacity in the aftermath of critical junctures to create a better world. Which scenario will materialize in the coming decade remains uncertain. What is likely is that today’s global pandemic will bring to an end — for better or worse — the liberal world order as we knew it.