Africa: COVID-19 Being Used to Diminish Democracy, Governance in Africa


Watching almost every nation seal their borders, declaring total lockdown of their economies and governments to tame Covid-19, one is tempted to expect the worst.

The response to the pandemic has also seen leaders assume powers unprecedented outside wartime but without formally declaring a state of emergency in their countries. The coronavirus disease, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation is not only wreaking havoc on public health and the global economy but also disrupting democracy and governance worldwide.

Covid-19 has hit at a time when democratic politics in many countries especially Africa was already under threat and it risks intensifying democratic backsliding. In the past three months, many governments have used the pandemic to expand executive power and restrict basic individual rights; yet such actions are just the tip of the iceberg.

The likely impact of this global crisis on multiple dimensions of democratic politics and governance broadly is uncertain. Several governments have leapt into action. For instance, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on March 18, 2020, during a televised address to the nation labelled the Covid-19 crisis as a "war" and requires "NRA guerrilla tactics" to defeat.

He indicated that although the coronavirus kill ratio is not very high compared to, for instance, Ebola; this is if the victims are in perfect health, "it was better to error on the side of caution using a hammer to kill a mosquito than suffer the consequences of inaction. This implies the application of military means to handle public health affairs and spells doom for democratic governance on many fronts.

African governments' response to control the pandemic will likely transform other pillars of democratic governance-- such as electoral processes, and civic engagement-- and potentially reset past democratic gains.

It threatens to usher in broader effects on governance by overburdening countries' basic governance functions, exacerbating corruption, unsettling relations between national and local governments, and transforming the role of non-state actors.

Some governments certainly will find it tempting to use the Covid-19 crisis to tilt the political field in their favour. The outbreak also presents an opportunity for incumbents to entrench themselves, delay elections, and outlaw political gatherings or protests on grounds of public safety.

In Uganda, for instance, a court petition was filed seeking to suspend the 2021 general election "for five years until government gains control over the Covid-19."

Also, the incumbents are distributing relief items like maize, beans, hand washing items branded with their names and portraits to gain political favour from potential voters in anticipated elections in 2021.

It's important to note that good governance is a very crucial aspect of managing this pandemic and the effects that will follow. Democratic governance that focuses on decisions and actions of the leaders has eight major characteristics that include participation, consensus-oriented, accountability, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law.

Good governance is responsive to the present and future needs of a given nation, exercises prudence in policy-setting and decision-making, and has the best interests of all stakeholders in a given nation-state.

In Uganda, it is not surprising that we have already started experiencing episodes of corruption in the Office of the Prime Minister (Disaster and Preparedness) in the purchase of relief items for the most affected urban populations.

Citizen adherence to government guidelines and directives to the pandemic is closely tied to trust in the government. A government's reputation on transparency creates trust and reinforces a belief among citizens that restrictions on civil liberties are being applied reasonably.

A robust Covid-19 response for the continent will need to take these factors into account and include citizen engagement, the involvement of special interest groups and religious leaders.

Covid-19, especially in Africa, is a political crisis as much as a health and economic emergency. What governments choose to do post-Covid-19 will determine the course of recovery and the impact thereof.

We have to be alert during and after the crisis because the powers governments have assumed to fight the pandemic may fit the public's preference for security over freedoms but as to whether governments will revert to democratic politics and good governance remains to be seen.

The author is a researcher with ACODE.

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