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.

The pandemic and north-south divides

By Irene Fernandez-Molina, University of Exeter

‘The coronavirus is poised to spread dangerously south’. The global trajectory and mapping of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests a two-stage advance from east to west, and from north to south. Gramsci’s ‘southern question’ could not take long to be raised on all possible scales, from its Italian birthplace to EU politics to the world stage. To what extent is the so-called north-south divide — or divides in plural — a relevant lens to capture some of the current ‘pandemipolitics’?

A passenger has his temperature checked at a South African airport. Image source

There is indeed a very tangible, chronic global north-south gap in health capacities, including both universal health coverage and health worker density. In Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has called attention to serious shortages of hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, surgical masks, medicines and even medical professionals, due to prolonged brain drain. The picture is more mixed when it comes to health emergency preparedness, as some low- and middle-income countries benefit from the experience of dealing with other recent epidemics, such as Ebola in western Africa (2014–2016), in close accordance with WHO guidance. This learning, coupled with awareness of their health system’s fragility, has led many of them to en strict containment measures, including travel restrictions and lockdowns, in very early stages of the pandemic compared to western Europe and North America (is there an additional north-south dimension to social trust, including self-perceptions and assumptions about citizen responsibility?). Also, the population ageing divide between the global north and south is likely to play in the latter’s favour.

More as a side effect but very strikingly, the sharp global north-south (im)mobility divide has suddenly levelled out due to the avalanche of border closures around the world. By the second week of April, 194 countries and territories had enforced mobility restrictions of various sorts. The first African air and sea travel suspensions to prevent access from European countries in mid-March were celebrated in social media with some sense of karma. Since then, as temporary as this might be, the pandemic has in fact put citizens from all states on equal footing in terms of passport power, and even some unheard-of reverse clandestine migratory movements have been reported across the Mediterranean.

Fewer surprises may be expected in relation to the north-south economic capabilities divide. If anything, COVID-19 has brought to the fore a global division of vulnerability whereby the weaknesses of northern economies are increasingly attributed to their neoliberalisation and deindustrialisation, while those of southern states stem primarily from dependence, lack of fiscal space and informality. Over reliance on foreign investment, exports the north, migrant remittances and tourism means that, even if southern countries managed to mitigate their own public health crises, they would still heavily suffer the repercussions of the north’s recession, as happened with the 2008–2009 financial crisis. In other words, they are doomed to pay a double economic price: the cost of domestic containment plus the cost of dependence. Meanwhile, high public debt will hinder the implementation of extraordinary measures to cushion the immediate socio-economic impact of social distancing and lockdowns as well expansionary, stimulus policies to revitalise the economy subsequently.

Finally, the pervasive role of the informal sector in global south economies, especially in terms of employment and inclusion, adds to the lack of a social safety net for much of the population. Upon this background, popular protests against social distancing have erupted in countries ranging from India to Lebanon. Ultimately, the dilemma between dying of the coronavirus and dying of hunger is what draws the line between the global north and the global south in the pandemic’s context. This, of course, distinctly includes the bits of the global south that are present within the global north, and has huge political legitimacy implications.

Two approaches in IR that may help unpack policy responses to this situation. The determinants of the global south state responses can be explored from the perspective of Ayoob’s ‘subaltern realism’ and ‘Third World security predicament’. Looking at the intersection of structural economic dependence and primarily domestic security dilemmas in which ‘the security of the state and the regime become closely intertwined’ yields two interesting observations. First, southern states appear to be now prioritising tackling the public health emergency over economic concerns, which might be unprecedented in history. Second, from Chile to Algeria to Iraq, the ruling authorities of not a few of them have seized mass gathering bans as an opportunity to pause or stifle significant political protest movements, which points towards a conflation of state/human and regime security. Still, whether this temptation is limited to the global south and/or to more authoritarian states within it remains unclear.

Southern state responses to COVID-19 can also be examined as part of north-south burden-sharing in the provision of the global public good that is health. In this respect we can distinguish between the burden of containment, which involves interrelated political legitimacy and economic costs in the short to medium term, and the long-term financial burden that will result from sharp rises in the level of public debt. How are the two burdens going to be distributed? The containment burden is currently weighing on most of the world’s states, albeit not evenly, and particularly less intensely in a few global north countries that have opted for limited social distancing measures. Southern countries are generally shouldering their part, primarily out of self-interest — as their health system’s fragility leaves them no alternative — but also as an indispensable contribution to the global control of the pandemic. The latter expectation transpires from many current comments, which raise the spectre of COVID-19’s potential re-transmission from the southern hemisphere back to the north in the winter of 2020–2021.

Global north states could compensate for the southern states’ disproportionate containment burden by stepping up their contribution in carrying the financial burden. By mid-April, 90 countries had applied for emergency support or debt relief from the IMF. The IMF has in turn called on the G20 to ‘do their part’ as creditors, easing the debt burden of poorest states, and as donors, building up contributions to international financial institutions. However, for the time being the G20 has only agreed a ‘time-bound’ suspension of debt service payments, and has refrained from any new financial resource commitments such as for the IMF’s special drawing rights.

In short, global burden-sharing in the COVID-19 crisis is likely to be asymmetrical in the sense that southern states have little choice but to cooperate in containment, while there is no compulsion for northern states to contribute more financially.