The political impact of coronavirus in Africa: reform or revolution?
Posted on 11th May, 2020 in Director's Blog
Photo credit: GCIS
Throughout the world, the coronavirus pandemic is testing political as well as medical systems. Some will survive, some may not. But everywhere, the strain it is putting on politics is accelerating a number of processes of change that were already under way, while interrupting others.
This applies to Africa as much as anywhere. Here it is already accentuating the difference between democratic and authoritarian governments. Accountable governments have the legitimacy to secure popular support for the fight against Covid-19 and its effects, tough though this is. Authoritarians, by contrast, have been tempted to use it to increase their authority, imposing lockdowns by force and silencing opposition. This may prove to carry a high price for them in the future.
In the last two blogs, I have examined the health and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for Africa. With long experience of infectious epidemics, most African governments responded swiftly, imposing lockdowns that appear to have slowed the spread of the virus, even if it is increasingly clear that with the limited testing possible, official figures do not tell the whole story.
But the pandemic carries a high cost for Africa. All Africans face a triple whammy: firstly, the collapse of global demand and commodity prices has drastically cut their external income; secondly, the lockdowns have hit both formal jobs and the informal sector hard, cutting people’s income when they often have nothing else to fall back on; and thirdly, there is an emerging crisis of subsistence due to Africa’s lack of self-sufficiency in food and the swarms of locusts in East Africa and floods and drought elsewhere. Soon, there is a risk more and more Africans will fall into poverty or start to go hungry.
An effective response to the pandemic depends on a high degree of social cohesion – where people are willing to help each other by respecting the lockdown rules or devising ways to manage social relations to reduce the risk of infection – and of political legitimacy, where people will accept what the government tell them. Countries like South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia and Kenya have broadly achieved this.
Of course, for more authoritarian governments, or ones with security services not under democratic control, imposing a lockdown is an opportunity to exploit. From a number of countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Guinea, there are stories of people being arrested, beaten, imprisoned and even raped for breaking curfews, and journalists being silenced for trying to report the truth. This will neither contain the virus nor increase a government’s legitimacy. On the contrary, it is more likely to undermine that legitimacy and lead to a stronger popular reaction in the future. In Uganda, 3,600 have reportedly been arrested for breaching the lockdown and shut up in prisons where they are far more likely to catch Covid-19, while its leaders blame the virus on China and the West. This is not an effective response, and people will soon see that.
But there is a bigger picture that has political ramifications in these circumstances. Africa has a rapidly growing population, thanks to the transformational impact of modern medicine and health services that mean the mortality rate of mothers and children has dropped dramatically in the past 50 years. This will provide a demographic dividend. But right now, it poses the challenge of expanding education to meet the growing need of a young population, and to create opportunities for young men and women coming onto the job market.
Frustration has been mounting amongst the youth at the lack of economic or educational opportunity, and at the lack of political responsiveness to their plight. In many countries – Algeria, Sudan, Uganda, Guinea, Ethiopia, South Africa – street protests have multiplied in the last few years.
Sadly, the quickest way to empower youth is to give it a gun. Terrorist groups know this, and are not slow to seize the opportunity. Their persistence in the Sahel and the Horn, and their recent appearance in countries like Mozambique, bear witness to the economic and political failures of those governments.
According to recent research by the Ichikowitz Foundation, African youth are among the most optimistic in the world. They firmly believe things will get better for them. In normal circumstances they may be willing to wait 5-10 years to see whether things will work out. But under the stress of Covid-19 and its impact, those time horizons may shorten. A collapse of economic opportunity requires a dynamic, not a repressive response from governments if the people’s faith, particularly young people’s, is to be sustained.
The global economic downturn poses unparalleled political challenges. For Africans, it is exposing the importance of developing Africa’s own resources, stimulating growth by their own efforts on their own continent, and not waiting for aid, investment or remittances from the outside to deliver them. So domestic economic reform to help open up local opportunities, and above all building their own regional markets as a basis for growth – including through the African Continental Free Trade Area – will be essential if young people’s search for jobs is to be rewarded. Leaders need to act, and act collectively.
Without that reform, the patience of youth will wear thin and their optimism will drain away. And that is a recipe for more radical political action. The next 12 months will be a testing time for all countries. If they respond constructively, they will survive. If not, an ‘African Spring’ may follow more swiftly than they think.
The message for all African governments is clear: to accelerate reform, or run the risk of revolution.
Nicholas Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.