/ 23 April 2020

At war with Covid-19: Opportunities for Africa?

Cameroon Vote Security
A Cameroonian policeman aims his weapon while he secures the perimeter of a polling station in Lysoka, near Buea, southwestern Cameroon. (Marco Longari/AFP)


The world is “at war” with the novel coronavirus, which broke out in the city of Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019, and has alarming fatality rates. Just months after its advent, more than 2.5-million people had tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 178 845 people had died by April 23. Although Africa began experiencing cases only in February, as of April 25 the continent accounts for 25 937 confirmed cases, with 1 242 deaths.

Mobilising for ‘war’ in developed countries

The immediate global reaction towards the Covid-19 pandemic has been to mobilise resources towards equipping public-health systems, while isolating societies and nations from each other. In the process, states have disabled major air, road and maritime international transport links in preparation for policing and controlling populations during enforced periods of lockdown.

Inevitably, in all developed nations, the existing systems have been overwhelmed, requiring the invocation of constitutional provisions for the military to play a supportive role. Key to these actions, however, is the developed world’s focus on developing a vaccine, an area which has witnessed almost unlimited resource allocation.

The immediate responses to Covid-19 have included public and private health systems attempting testing and treatment; isolating nation states through closing borders; and, finally, the parallel launch of internal population control during lockdowns, while shutting down normal economic activity (with the exception of emergencies). An assessment of the early effects of such developments in Africa has revealed deep structural weaknesses in the African state.

Assessing Africa’s responses

The above is argued  as the developed world’s overall war strategy against Covid-19 — what then is a comparative approach on the continent? There are four dimensions that best explain our predicament and the way forward.

First, in the wider scheme of things, the ultimate goal for leading countries in the fight against Covid-19 is to develop and make available an antidote or vaccine. In this furious search, Africa is not playing a role, but remains a spectator in the highly competitive search for a vaccine.

Secondly, military deployment and related expenditure has become a necessity, compelling countries to allocate resources towards unplanned military deployment, exclusively funded from local national resources. This is unprecedented as most African countries had registered steeply declining military expenditure allocations, with a few exceptions.

Furthermore, this is taking place in contexts where the main pillars of the economy, including taxation — have been deliberately suspended as part of the WHO recommended strategies, 

or collapsed from unforeseen effects. 

Africa’s revenues have mainly come from extractive and export commodities and the economies of Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Libya, Senegal, Cameroon, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Gabon, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco and Mauritania are now faced with an absolute loss of income. The recent collapse of the oil industry is instructive.

Thirdly, on the African continent, national strategic responses to Covid-19 have exposed existing inequalities manifest in densely populated formal and informal settlements. The deployment of forces has resulted in almost immediate clashes in slum areas in Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa, revealing deep structural inadequacies within African states. The presence of uniformed forces among citizens in informal settlements has naturally heightened tensions, culminating in increased human rights violations. 

The presence of uniformed forces in the slum areas almost automatically restrains normal economic activity. Minor, everyday occurrences that police would normally ignore then become transgressions in the eyes of authorities, leading to clashes when regulations are enforced.

Finally, although military expenditure has become a necessity, compelling countries to allocate resources towards unplanned military deployment (exclusively funded from local national resources), the reality is that this is not sustainable in the short to medium term.

This current trend goes against the pattern established over the past decade, during which military expenditure in most African countries declined steeply, allowing space for limited productive investment, as well as welfare and socioeconomic spending. 

The danger of relying on the use of the military in weak and fragile states — as publicly acknowledged by the African Union — is that the project of consolidating participatory democracy may regress, reversing gains achieved since the advent of multiparty democracy in the 1990s. Poor communities clashing with uniformed personnel is not unique to Africa; we have witnessed the same in Paris, confirming the point that Covid-19 has exacerbated socioeconomic and societal flaws that will take several generations to heal. 

It is also true that some African leaders have taken advantage of the lockdowns to continue running elections even when the opposition is unable to freely campaign, as we have recently witnessed in Malawi, Togo and Mali. This was an unforeseen phenomenon when the pandemic broke out at the end of 2019. 

Civil-military relations across the continent are tenuous at best. Covid-19, inadvertently, may have provided African governments with an opportunity to create a new social compact with their citizens to inspire and provide leadership, rather than falling back on old habits of repression and violence. We also need to launch urgent civil-military training and disaster-management entities, so that personnel can be sensitised to the need to conduct positive interactions, particularly within informal-settlement communities.

Civil-military relations remain a challenge in Africa. Covid-19 has compelled the continent to have boots on the ground and rifles on the streets in societies that are still fragile and easily reduced to conflict and confrontation.

Professor Martin Rupiya (PhD) is the innovation and training manager in the operations department of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes.