/ 25 March 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is a wildcard that will change politics as we know it

Graphic Malawi Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)


Just a few weeks ago, Peter Mutharika’s political future was looking bleak.

Malawi’s much-maligned president had been the subject of more than six months of vociferous anti-government protests, which were showing no sign of simmering down any time soon. The president’s administration had been on the receiving end of a scathing, unprecedented Constitutional Court judgment that annulled last year’s presidential election, citing widespread irregularities. And a new opposition coalition seemed to all but guarantee that Mutharika would be unable to muster the support necessary to win the rerun, scheduled for early July.

But things are looking up for Mutharika, thanks to a wildcard that no one could have predicted or planned for: the coronavirus pandemic.

After initially being taken by surprise, Mutharika has wasted no time in taking full advantage of these exceptional circumstances. Although it remains to be seen if his recent decisions will be effective in preventing the spread of the virus, there can be no denying their political effects.

In mid-March, the president dissolved his Cabinet. The new Cabinet is stuffed with loyalists. A few days later, he fired the head of army — the same army that had won widespread praise for protecting protestors against brutality meted out by the police, who are seen as loyal to the Mutharika.

And then Mutharika announced his coronavirus mitigation measures. Last week, he declared a national disaster. As per Malawi’s Constitution, this gives the president extraordinary powers, which he immediately used to ban gatherings of more than 100 people. He also shut down schools and colleges and suspended international conferences.

It is a necessary response, and one adopted by countries across the world. But there is no doubt that it is also very convenient for Mutharika. Suddenly, the protests that have dogged his administration are illegal. So are opposition political rallies. Should the country record more cases of Covid-19, Mutharika could decide to postpone the presidential election — and he would get away with it. Already, the heavily criticised electoral commission head Jane Ansah has said that “the successful implementation of the election calendar will be subject to the mitigation of the impact of the coronavirus”.

An unprecedented precedent

If Mutharika does delay the vote, he will simply be following in the footsteps of some of the world’s most established democracies. In England, local elections and the London mayoral race have been postponed for a year. In France, the second round of local elections was pushed back until July. And in the United States, Democratic primaries in at least seven states have been delayed — and those states that chose to go ahead with their primaries have been criticised for putting the lives of their citizens in danger.

But the stakes of delaying democratic processes are much higher on the African continent. Other African countries with general elections scheduled for 2020 include: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Côte D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Ghana, Niger, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Sudan and Togo. How many of these votes will go ahead, and what do potential delays mean for leaders at risk of overstaying their welcome? How do opposition movements respond? In places such as  Burundi, Ethiopia and Côte D’Ivoire — and, of course, Malawi — where stability already hangs by a thread, how much greater will the risk of conflict become?

Mutharika is not alone in using the coronavirus to advance his own political interests. These are strange times, when the normal rules of politics and diplomacy seem to have been suspended; when draconian measures, which would have been unthinkable mere weeks ago, are now being implemented all over the world. It is a once-in-a-life time opportunity for unscrupulous leaders to further their own interests — and they are already taking advantage.

In Guinea, President Alpha Condé pushed ahead on Sunday with a controversial referendum to amend the Constitution. Critics fear that this will allow him to extend his term in office beyond current limits. The referendum was boycotted by opposition groups, and heavily criticised by the international community. This criticism, and the threat of serious diplomatic consequences, was enough to force Condé to delay the referendum in February. But with the international community now distracted by the pandemic, Conde pushed ahead — despite the infection risk of holding mass gatherings. He used his security forces to brutally suppress protests against the referendum, but this was almost entirely ignored by the outside world, consumed as they are with managing the pandemic.

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has responded to the pandemic by denying its severity — and ignoring the science on how to contain it. He has urged Tanzanians to continue attending church. “Coronavirus cannot survive in the body of Christ: it will burn,” he said. “That is exactly why I did not panic while taking the holy communion.” This is a typically populist move from a leader looking to shore up his base among Tanzania’s powerful Christian constituency. At the same time, the shrinking of civic space continues: just a day after criticising Magufuli’s response to the pandemic, writer Khalifa Said was cut loose by Mwananchi publications, the country’s most prominent media house.

Elsewhere in the world, Hungary’s authoritarian government is attempting to push a bill through Parliament that would give it sweeping new powers. The bill has been criticised by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatović because it would enable the president to rule by decree indefinitely, and provides no constitutional safeguards on that power. “Even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary and judicial scrutiny and [the] right to information,” she said.

And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has enacted an emergency decree that  gives him unprecedented powers, especially when it comes to surveilling citizens. It also prevents the convening of the newly elected Parliament, which happens to be led by the opposition; and allows him to delay the beginning of his own corruption trial. “Legal experts say the measures — ostensibly taken to protect public health — [are] a power grab without precedent in Israeli history, including wartime, and may serve as an example to other leaders as the crisis unfolds,” reported the LA Times.

A cautionary tale

As the effects of the pandemic worsen, both in Africa and across the world, expect more opportunities for leaders to grab more power — and to entrench authoritarian systems of government. States of emergency or national disaster come with sweeping powers for the executive, and tend to override human rights provisions. This is already happening in Rwanda, where the government’s much-lauded response to the pandemic has come with a greatly increased police presence. Two young men have already been shot dead by policemen after allegedly defying lockdown orders.

And when states of emergency are declared, leaders are often reluctant to concede their new-found privileges. An emergency law passed in Egypt in 1967, during the Arab-Israeli war, was revoked only in 2012 — after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. This should be a cautionary tale for us all.

What’s more is that this will all be happening without the usual oversight provided by the international community — oversight which, when it works effectively, has acted as a brake on the worst excesses of authoritarian leaders. For better or worse, the great powers are preoccupied with their own problems right now, and are already scaling back their interventions in other parts of the world. The United States has recalled all 7 000-plus volunteers in the Peace Corps, who were working on development projects across 60 countries. As the global recession bites, we can expect developed countries to slash their humanitarian and development budgets.

It’s not just party political leaders that are looking to take advantage of these extraordinary circumstances. Especially significant has been the reluctance of some religious communities to comply with state edicts when it comes to coronavirus containment measures. In Africa, church leaders in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana and Zimbabwe have come under fire for pressing ahead with services in defiance of government orders. This may be the beginning of a process of political contestation that redraws the lines between church and state.

Nor can it be a coincidence that militant groups in both West and Southern Africa have chosen this moment to launch headline-grabbing attacks. In two separate incidents this week, Boko Haram militants killed 47 Nigerian soldiers and 92 Chadian soldiers; while in Mozambique the flag of the Islamic State was flown over the port of Mocímboa da Praia after it was temporarily captured by insurgents on Sunday. This is the biggest defeat for Mozambican security forces during the two-and-a-half-year insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region. While the machinery of the state is preoccupied with another crisis, further setbacks can be expected. 

In small ways and large, the coronavirus pandemic is already altering politics as we know it. As countries grapple with its effects, expect these changes to increase in frequency and intensity. The political landscape of Africa, and the world, may look very different in a few months time.