Africa: Coronavirus - Beware the Power Grab

7 April 2020

The pandemic is a real emergency and the perfect excuse for a power grab. We must monitor abuses and be ready to take back rights we've sacrificed.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, the public health interventions required to reduce its impact are wide-ranging and, in many countries, unprecedented. We must accept some restrictions on our freedoms in order to survive. That is the stark reality we face.

There is a long history of citizens being told by their governments to accept limitations on their rights to protect them from harm. Since 9/11, the US government has fuelled a global "War on Terror" that has seen governments across the world expand their arsenal of unchecked powers. This same toolbox of measures to counter terrorism - the power to detain without charge or trial, ban travel, impose house arrests ("lockdowns" by another name) and expand surveillance - are now being used to to tackle the pandemic.

Governments are enacting such powers at breakneck speed. According to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, at least 70 countries, including 12 in Africa, have declared an official state of emergency. Many more have passed decrees that expand the powers of police and the state. More than 3.9 billion people, or half of the world's population, have now been asked or ordered by their governments to stay at home.

The difference between the current pandemic and the usual justification for emergency laws is that, today, we are facing a genuine crisis. Unlike most instances in which a country is threatened by "terrorism", coronavirus really does imperil "the life of the nation", the legal threshold for declaring a state of emergency that, in the past, has rarely been met.

To tackle this crisis, it genuinely is in citizens' interests to accept an unusual degree of government intervention in their lives. However, this comes with some serious dangers.

Lessons and abuses

As a human rights lawyer working on counter-terrorism laws and states of emergency, I know where this story leads.

Examples from across the world show us that once governments, police and security services gain extra powers, they do not give them up without a fight. Egypt's state of emergency that ended up lasting 31 years, from 1981 to 2012, is a well-known example, but there are many more.

In 2015, for instance, France gave itself wide-ranging emergency powers in response to a series of coordinated ISIS attacks in Paris. It eventually ended the state of emergency in 2017, but not before it incorporated some of its new powers - such as the right to shut down mosques by executive decree and ban people from leaving their towns without having to go through a court - into its ordinary counter-terrorism law and with little opposition.

Another lesson from previous states of emergency around the globe is that governments and police often use their new powers to target already victimised groups. This has been the case with anti-terror law across Africa - from eSwatini, to Ethiopia, to Mali - and the world more broadly. In 2016, for example, Turkey used emergency powers to replace 94 elected mayors in Kurdish-dominated provinces with government lackeys. The failed coup that triggered the state of emergency had had little to do with the Kurds, but the government took the opportunity nonetheless to enact further repressive measures against the marginalised minority.

In response to today's pandemic, we have already witnessed a wave of police abuse, including in Africa. In Kenya, a 13-year-old boy was allegedly shot and killed by officers enforcing a curfew in Nairobi. In Nigeria, police are accused of beating a man to death while enforcing a 14-day lockdown in Abuja. In South Africa, an officer has been arrested for shooting and killing a man found violating lockdown orders. In Uganda, 20 LGBT+ residents of a shelter were charged with disobeying social distancing rules.

In many African countries, lockdowns have only just begun.

Monitor abuses and prepare

For many, coronavirus presents a triple threat: there is the virus itself, the economic consequences of lockdown, and the state repression used to enforce it. We must not lose sight of the latter.

Learning from past states of emergency, we can expect that police will abuse their newfound powers with already marginalised groups among their first victims. We may have to accept the enacting of these new powers, but we must ensure we monitor and challenge their inevitable abuse.

Moreover, we must be ready to fight for our rights back. While we look forward to returning to how things were before COVID-19, many governments won't be as eager. Across the world, some states will seek to cling on to the authoritarian powers they got used to exercising during the emergency. Once the pandemic is over, it will be up to us to regain the rights we have sacrificed.

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