The pandemic is being used to erode democratic freedoms. Civil society must fight back

Several African governments have been praised for their decisive actions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already been responsible for more than 140 000 deaths worldwide and more than 18 000 reported cases in Africa. In countries such as Rwanda and South Africa, the measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus are among the most restrictive in the world. 

With the notable exceptions of Burundi and Tanzania — where government leaders remain in dangerous denial — taking quick action appears to have limited the spread of the disease. However, the strict imposition of curfews and lockdowns have also raised a number of concerns. One of the main criticisms has been that strategies used in wealthier nations may not work in Africa, especially in countries where the average citizen lacks the personal savings and access to food that may ultimately be needed to see out the crisis. 

What has received less attention to date, but is equally as important, is the way that Covid-related restrictions are now being used to undermine democratic freedoms. 

In some countries, leaders responded so rapidly that critics fear they are manipulating the crisis to consolidate their own political power. Most notably, governments in Malawi and Uganda banned public gatherings — and hence opposition rallies and civil society protests — before their countries had recorded a single case. Their counterparts in Guinea and Zambia are using the cover of the coronavirus to advance their authoritarian agendas and prolong their time in office. At the same time, efforts to enforce restrictions in the continent’s most influential states — including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — have resulted in widespread human rights abuses by security forces, which have a history of exploiting rather than protecting civilians.

This creates a stark problem for opposition parties and independent civil society groups, because the same measures being taken to tackle the pandemic also undermine their ability to defend democracy. Pro-democracy forces across Africa are thus being kneecapped — and often violently — under the expedient guise of public health and national security.

The challenge of defending democracy

In the midst of the pandemic, African opposition parties and civil society groups have little opportunity, tools or platforms with which to defend their hard-fought gains. The emergency powers recently enacted have, in many cases, shut down their operations altogether and limited their funding sources, especially as major donors and aid organisations continue to reactively shift their priorities. 

Any attempt to hold mass protests or to break the new rules would make it possible to depict dissenters as a threat to national security, thereby playing directly into the hands of abusive governments and their henchmen in the security forces. In Algeria, for example, this scenario is playing out on a daily basis, together with a targeted assault on journalists and activists on social media. 

Further south in Zimbabwe, supporters of the country’s popular opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, have also been unable to launch protests to challenge a recent, highly controversial Supreme Court ruling that he had no right to lead it. Meanwhile, in Malawi the country’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition have had to abandon their year-long protests, giving President Peter Mutharika the space to block necessary electoral reforms without facing mass demonstrations. 

One remaining vestige of potential dissent and accountability is the free press, but this has also come under sustained and relentless attack, well before the coronavirus entered our daily vocabulary. Recall that early on in China, the doctors and medical professionals who raised alarms about the coronavirus were arrested and some have disappeared entirely. Leaders across Africa have taken note, including in Egypt, where critical journalists who question the regime’s propaganda are being harassed and deported. A similar situation is unfolding in notoriously repressive countries, including Somalia and Rwanda

Similarly, in Guinea-Bissau, private radio stations have come under intense political pressure, with several journalists being targeted and physically beaten by state authorities. This kind of harassment has even been seen in democratic Ghana, where the military has lashed out at journalists who critically cover its activities, with one reporter being knocked unconscious following an altercation with a police officer.

In countries where the judiciary retains a degree of independence, the courts offer a small glimmer of hope. In Uganda, for example, the Constitutional Court recently moved to strike down provisions of the country’s draconian Public Order and Management Act. But in many countries, the judiciary remains under the thumb of authoritarian leaders and will not act to protect democracy. 

The ratchet effect

Democracy also faces a less obvious threat: the emergency powers imposed by governments, including in established democracies, creates enduring problems. These new powers — and the innovative technologies used to enforce them — are rarely reversed or curtailed when a crisis inevitably recedes. Consequently, measures that appear to be legitimately needed to protect the public today slowly erode our freedoms in the long-term. 

This “ratchet effect” is just as consequential as the strategies used by authoritarian leaders. In the United Kingdom, for example, a former Supreme Court judge has sounded the alarms, warning that that country’s lockdown risks evolving into a “police state.” In the United States, a recent report says the Trump administration is in talks with surveillance and data-gathering companies about technology similar to that already being used in Russia, in an effort to locate vectors of infections while also gathering highly personal data. And in Israel, human rights activists are rightly up in arms after the government employed emergency regulations to enable it to use electronic tracking technology, which had previously been restricted to anti-terrorism efforts, to track patients and enforce coronavirus-related measures.

The growing capacity of governments — including fundamentally democratic ones — to surveil and monitor their citizens represents a significant risk to our civil liberties. It also puts the international community in a difficult position when it comes to defending democracy worldwide, lest democratic-leaning governments be labelled as enforcing a double standard. 

The international response, or lack thereof 

Many of the governments that have traditionally stepped up to defend democracy — although often in inconsistent ways — are unable or unwilling to do so today. As it stands, Western leaders lack the bandwidth to engage in complex foreign policy issues, and also risk being punished by domestic electorates if they are seen as not concentrating their efforts at home. These same governments would also struggle to take the moral high ground, having imposed their own lockdowns and, in the case of the UK, already having postponed an election. This might explain the muted criticism of events in countries such as Ethiopia and Guinea.

Today, democracy’s import is being outflanked — not only by its sworn authoritarian enemies, but also by its most avowed practitioners. Civil society groups and opposition parties will continue to fight, but with one hand tied even more tightly behind their backs than usual. As a result, the recent retreat of democracy in Africa, and elsewhere, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. We must, therefore, take every opportunity to raise our voices, together, to hold our government leaders accountable at a time when their powers are increasingly unchecked, and to make it clear that democracy should never be put on lockdown.

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organisation Vanguard Africa

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Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits,

Jeffrey Smith
Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organisation, Vanguard Africa

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