“There is no trust of the government here in Kano,” my friend, a filmmaker in northern Nigeria, says in reference to the pandemic. His city saw a spate of unexplained deaths in April which the government now believes were mostly due to COVID-19. But he says many in Kano aren’t convinced and believe that the government is fabricating the crisis to extract funds from the World Health Organization (WHO). A couple hours later I receive a note from a rickshaw driver in Mombasa complaining of clientelism in lockdown food relief efforts. Those who aren’t connected “have to fend for themselves.” The authorities, he claims, “are playing politics instead of helping the less privileged.”
Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated trust deficits between governments and their citizens. There is a polarizing discourse over lockdowns in the United States fueled at least in part by contradictory and conflicting messaging from politicians and health experts. Conspiracy-minded Brits have attacked 5G towers, and even the Swedes, paragons of technocratic efficiency and social cohesion in the imaginations of many Americans, are quickly losing faith in their government over its controversial approach to the virus.
This trend has emerged in Africa as well and could have profound ramifications on the region’s politics. Despite the relative success of many African countries in initially slowing the spread of the virus, public health officials have warned that the continent could emerge as the next epicenter of the pandemic. The political fallout from the virus will vary country by country, but across the continent there are concerns that governments are doing too much, too little, or otherwise exploiting the crisis for nefarious ends.
Several events from this past month have been illustrative of the problem. In Africa’s second most populous state, Ethiopia, the upper house of parliament voted on June 10 to extend the mandate of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, set to expire in October, due to the pandemic. Ethiopia had been lurching towards a constitutional crisis since March when the government postponed elections planned for the summer and subsequently declared a pandemic-induced state of emergency. Ethiopia’s politics are dangerously polarized along ethnic and ideological lines, which has produced high levels of intercommunal violence and displacement in recent years. It is all the more concerning, then, that June’s vote was pushed through without any input from the diverse opposition: The Speaker of Parliament, a member of the ethnic Tigrayan Party that recently broke with Abiy’s coalition, resigned in apparent protest prior to the vote. Three major opposition parties, including two from Abiy’s populous Oromo community, warned that the move will prompt further unrest.
If Abiy can’t forge a deal with the major opposition groups, which he has shown no indication he is capable of to date, then a significant segment of the population may boycott or contest the election, whenever it is held. This would be tragic for Ethiopia, which has proceeded impressively but haltingly along a profound political transition since 2018, when Abiy assumed leadership of a Leninist-inspired one-party state pledging reform. No one knows what a contested election would mean for Ethiopia, but the risks of increased intercommunal violence if not wider state collapse are real. Like Ethiopia, neighboring Sudan is in the midst of a precarious political transition and also confronting a severe economic crisis, both of which COVID may exacerbate. (As Jean-Baptiste Gallopin recently wrote, Sudan’s transitional government has faced growing social discontent over the past year and now must navigate an overwhelmed health system along with an increasingly irate and food-insecure populace.) International donors pledged $1.8 billion in much needed aid to Sudan last week that should help mitigate the country’s economic woes, though to what extent remains unclear. Suffice it to say, Ethiopia and Sudan were already fragile states at risk of further destabilization—COVID could prove to be a dangerous accelerant.
If Abiy’s government is using the virus to consolidate power, Tanzania’s government has denied the pandemic outright. “Corona in our country has been removed by the power of God,” the erratic President John Magufuli told an exuberant crowd of mask-eschewing churchgoers in June. The Tanzanian government stopped reporting COVID cases in April (Jair Bolsonaro must be envious), but the U.S. Embassy has taken the rare step of warning that the virus is likely spreading amid reports that many hospitals have reached capacity. It is impossible to know how many Tanzanians believe their president’s triumphalist rhetoric, but there has been no shortage of outcry from Tanzania’s leading opposition parties, which have sizeable support despite Tanzania’s restricted political space. Three parliamentarians died under mysterious circumstances last month, prompting concerns that the virus is ripping through the country’s political elites, who are generally older, clustered in a few communities, and much more well-traveled than the average Tanzanian (Nigeria, Kenya, and South Sudan are but a few other countries where notably high numbers of political officials have been infected).
Which brings us to Tanzania’s small, landlocked neighbor—Burundi. Outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005 in the wake of the country’s brutal civil war, was another leader who downplayed the pandemic and eschewed lockdowns, apparently reasoning that ensuring the election of his hand-picked successor in May’s poll trumped any public health imperative. To no one’s surprise, Nkurunziza’s dauphin secured victory with nearly 70 percent of the vote, results that the opposition has disputed. Things were therefore looking pretty good for the outgoing President, who was set to continue receiving a generous government salary and remain the country’s “Supreme Guide” in retirement, undoubtedly remaining active behind the scenes in the ruling party.
But then he died on June 8—abruptly and mysteriously—just two days after he had been out attending a sporting match. Speculation abounds that he fell victim to COVID, bolstered by reports that his wife was in a Kenyan hospital receiving treatment for the virus. His supporters, on the other hand, allege he was poisoned. Whatever the cause of death, Nkurunziza’s departure leaves a power vacuum that the country’s generals and senior regime officials will likely jostle to fill. A proactive, consensus-based response to the country’s emerging outbreak therefore seems unlikely. Burundi’s citizens, who have faced years of repression and violence, will suffer for it.
Pandemic responses have become political flashpoints even in countries where there is no risk of a power grab or regime collapse. As protests against police brutality erupted in over a hundred American cities in recent weeks, Kenyans and South Africans also took to the streets to demonstrate against recent killings at the hands of security forces tasked with enforcing lockdowns. In both countries—and across Africa more broadly—lockdowns and lockdown-related violence have disproportionately affected an already neglected urban poor. Yet amid this hardship, the Nairobi city government nonetheless proceeded with its plans to bulldoze slums in May, which will only reinforce anti-government sentiment among the urban underclass.
Thankfully, freedom of expression remains relatively robust in both Kenya and South Africa and COVID is unlikely to change this. Not so across much of Africa. Zambia had already been witnessing democratic backsliding in recent years; the pandemic has now given the ruling party an opportunity to consolidate authority, as Zambian academic Sishuwa Sishuwa recently argued. Uganda recently announced a ban on political rallies ahead of next year’s elections which, however justified on public health grounds, conveniently gives an advantage to the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. Meanwhile, press freedom is at risk in several African countries as governments seek to control the pandemic narrative. Restrictions on professional, independent media are especially concerning given how rampant misinformation about the virus has been online, especially on platforms like WhatsApp that are widely used across Africa. Once again, this problem predates COVID but is exacerbated by the virus: A new report from Reuters and Oxford University, based primarily on pre-pandemic polling, shows that three-quarters of Kenyans and South Africans worry about reading fake news on social media.
The social and political tensions brought out by the virus will likely worsen over the next few months as the pandemic looks set to accelerate across Africa. Many African leaders have begun easing lockdowns, reasoning that the economic toll is too high. Their concerns are certainly justified, but there are no good options. Most African healthcare systems are woefully unequipped for the virus. A surge in COVID deaths, tragic in its own right, could severely weaken the social fabric of any society. But re-imposing or prolonging painful lockdowns is sure to stoke public resentment and increase the already high levels of food insecurity that millions of the most vulnerable face. Additionally, Africa’s economic woes cannot be remedied by African governments alone given how intertwined the continent is with the global economy. A prolonged drop in commodity prices and remittances would be devastating. Entire industries like tourism and commercial aviation are at risk of collapse in some countries. Consequently, the World Bank has predicted that Africa will experience its first recession in 25 years, with GDP expected to contract between 2 and 5 percent.
All this said, we must be clear-eyed about the severity of these challenges without rushing into overwrought doomsday predictions or ignoring the nuances of each country’s political and economic situation. For starters, much remains unknown about the virus’s transmission and lethality in Africa, largely due to limited testing. Additionally, as numerous African commentators have pointed out, not all public health best practices from the West can be seamlessly transplanted into African societies, which means we may see more innovations in virus mitigation or treatment coming out of Africa in subsequent months (though I wouldn’t recommend anyone rush to buy the untested herbal remedy touted by Madagascar’s President).
More importantly, previous predictions of continental societal collapse have not been borne out. Grand narratives about Africa—the Conradian “Hopeless Continent” or Panglossian “Africa Rising”—are tempting to foreign audiences, but the reality is more complex, indeed muddled. Africa is home to many fragile—if not failed—states as well as some stronger ones. Yet even in the general absence of effective states, most African societies have proven resilient in recent years.
There is no single explanation for this resilience, but it is worth recognizing that where governments lack strong relationships with their citizens, civil society, traditional authorities, religious figures, and the like have often compensated with their social capital. This has implications for international responses to the pandemic: Donating PPE and agreeing to debt relief can alleviate the burden on African governments, but the 2014-16 West Africa Ebola response showed that partnering with civil society is also crucial to public health interventions.
This is reason for a degree of optimism, but the fact remains that Africa faces a more challenging moment than any in recent memory, one that could produce significant turbulence in parts of the continent. This coronavirus is horrific enough in its own right. In some African countries, one can’t help but fear that the political crises it leaves in its wake could be too.