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Insecurity and Covid-19: Threats to electoral democracy in Africa

More than 13 African countries are scheduled to hold, or have already held, parliamentary or presidential elections in 2021. Reflective of the democratic backsliding observed on the continent in recent years, more than a third of these polls are likely to be little more than political theatre – aimed at garnering a fig leaf of legitimacy for leaders who need to be seen to have a popular mandate. 

In Uganda’s January poll the same winner was returned for the sixth consecutive election following a campaign marred by attacks on opposition candidates. Measures put in place by the Electoral Commission of Uganda for “scientific campaigns” designed to limit the spread of Covid-19 were implemented more rigorously on opposition candidates, by security agencies who remained loyal to President Yoweri Museveni. In November 2020, security forces clashed with protestors in Kampala demanding the release of opposition candidate Bobi Wine, after he was arrested for violating the guidelines that required presidential candidates to meet or address crowds of less than 200 people. Over 50 Ugandans were killed in the clashes. The combination of, and links between, Covid-19 and insecurity are an increasingly common challenge facing polls on the continent. 

The coronavirus context

According to the 2016 Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index, 22 of the 25 countries most vulnerable to infectious disease are in Africa. But to date, the continent has recorded a little more than 4-million cases of Covid-19 and more than 100 000 deaths out of a global total of more than 120-million cases and more than 2.5 million deaths. But the social and economic effects of the pandemic might end up having the greatest impact. The imposition of lockdowns, designed to restrict movement and slow down the spread of the disease, have equally affected jobs and livelihoods, especially for the poor. These measures have also created opportunities for authoritarian regimes to restrict people’s ability to engage in civic and political processes such as elections.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s tenure was extended after parliamentary elections scheduled for August 2020 were postponed due to Covid-19. Despite opposition from the federal government, political actors in Tigray province opposed this decision and decided to go ahead with its own regional election. The region is now involved in an active conflict with the Ethiopian state, with the problematic elections one of several triggers for a multifaceted conflict that has drawn in actors from neighbouring countries.

For the most part elections did proceed as planned in 2020, even if scheduled by-elections were postponed in 11 countries – Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. But the health risks of doing so quickly became apparent. In Burundi, having stood aside after serving three terms, former president Pierre Nkurunziza died in office, shortly before his elected successor was due to succeed him. Covid-19 was the suspected cause, though officially his death was ascribed to a heart attack. A similar fate befell President John Magufuli in Tanzania last month, just five months into his second tenure at the helm. Nkurunziza and Magufuli were both vocal deniers of the existence of Covid-19 and did not seek to introduce measures to stop its spread. 


Elsewhere restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus have also impacted on the space for political discontent. It is not just the election campaign period that is being affected, restrictions on public gatherings can impact voter education efforts and wider demands for greater transparency and accountability in how governments operate. That is not to say that measures to limit the spread of the deadly disease should not be in place to protect voters and candidates alike during elections but that they must be balanced carefully with commitments to a fair and equitable process. 

Growing insecurity

In contexts such as Chad, Ethiopia, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso and Somalia the challenge of holding elections during a pandemic has been, or will be, further exacerbated by prevailing insecurity. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project data showed a steep upsurge in violent attacks taking place in March and April 2020 across Africa – when restrictive measures were first introduced to address the threat posed by Covid-19. This suggests that terrorist and non-state armed groups capitalised on the pandemic to increase attacks. If these trends continue, “Africa is at risk of losing ground to violent groups following years of counterterrorism advances alongside regional and international security partners,” according to experts at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Recent events in Niger are a concern in this regard.

On 2 April, Mohamed Bazoum was sworn in as elected president of Niger. He took over from Mohammed Issoufou who stood down after completing his two constitutionally-mandated terms in office in what was the country’s first ever democratic transition from one elected administration to another. But Bazoum inherits an insecurity pandemic. In January at least 100 people were killed in a terrorist attack near the border with Mali: seven members of Niger’s election commission died when their car hit an explosive device on election day in February; while in March another 137 Nigeriens civilians perished in two separate attacks by gunmen on motorbikes. Niger has been troubled by insecurity for several years but the spate of attacks by hardline Islamist groups in early 2021 seem to have been aimed at disrupting and undermining the election process. 

However, Bazoum and the ruling party – to which he and Issoufou both belong – have also been able to utilise the prevailing insecurity narrative for political ends in recent weeks. After unsuccessfully challenging the election outcome at Niger’s Constitutional Court, leading opponent Mahamane Ousmane called for mass protests to overcome what he claimed was a rigged outcome. But the prevailing insecurity, including an attempted coup d’état on 30 March, created the conditions for the rallies to be banned by the government. 

Prevailing insecurity also limited the participation of voters in Burkina Faso’s November 2020 poll. Although provisions were put in place to support voting for those internally displaced by insecurity, the amended electoral code stated that the more than one million internally displaced people were to be enrolled where they were displaced, and their vote counted in the constituency they currently occupied, not where they have previously lived. The impact of this was that under threat constituencies elected officials charged with trying to address multiple challenges, are now doing so with a very small popular mandate. Furthermore, voting amid a strong security presence can have implications for voters’ perceptions of freedom.

Invariably, the responsibilities of maintaining internal security, peace, order and justice within a country lies with the police. However due to the lack of an effective internal security mechanism, several African states regularly deploy the army to maintain internal insecurity and forestall instability. With military personnel that are usually earmarked for counterterrorism measures now being deployed, or having been deployed, to enforce lockdowns or implement pandemic response measures in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya, there are concerns about an oversecuritisation of key state functions, without an improvement in the prevailing security situation.

Implications for democracy

Politically, Covid-19 has created conditions that have worsened the state of insecurity on the continent. It has also impacted on the electioneering process and political campaigns by providing justification for leaders with authoritarian ambitions to restrict rights and oppress opposition. Selective use of pandemic control measures to restrict the ability of opposition parties to campaign poses a threat to multiparty democracy. While Africa has so far largely avoided the worst case Covid-19 scenario, the emergence of new variants could potentially create health, social, economic and political emergencies in the coming months and years, especially as vaccine rollouts remain slow. All these have serious implications for democratic accountability.

But on a more positive note, the pandemic has increased the speed at which digital tools are being developed and deployed for democratic accountability. Notwithstanding the challenges, these have the potential to make African elections safer, cheaper, more efficient and more accurate.

This is part of a series of essays exploring the state of electoral democracy in Africa that is being run in conjunction with the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development

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Jibrin Ibrahim
Jibrin Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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