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COVID restrictions chipping away at Africa's civil liberties

March 4, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided African autocrats with the perfect set of circumstances to restrict civil liberties, rights activists say. China's growing influence on the continent may play a role, a report warns.

People wearing masks in South Africa
Image: RealTime Images/ABACA/picture alliance

The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a massive reordering efforts in almost every country's governing structures. From planning vaccine roll-outs to coordinating lockdown measures, each nation's social, political and fiscal systems have been exposed to nearly unprecedented stress tests.

However, in many African states, this has also brought a sinister force to the fore — one that might possibly outlive the pandemic: A Freedom House report has confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic has "exposed weaknesses across all the pillars of democracy, from elections and the rule of law to egregiously disproportionate restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement."

This the gradual erosion of civil liberties has hit sub-Saharan Africa particularly hard, as many post-colonial countries suffer from bad governance to this day.

Emboldening Biya and other African autocrats

The absence of an international mechanism to check on abuses of power is only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: The gradual erosion of civil liberties in certain sub-Saharan nations has demonstrably sped up in the past 12 months, with autocrats using COVID-19 restrictions as a front to justify their actions, rights groups say. The pandemic is providing autocrats with opportunities to exercise sweeping powers, curtailing civil liberties in new ways.

Cameroon's President Paul Biya, for example, appears to be using COVID-19 as the perfect excuse to remain out of sight, as political conflicts continue to plague the country — in addition to the actual consequences of the pandemic. His government has imposed a set of blanket COVID-19 restrictions that appear to be completely devoid of any sense of leadership on his part.

Paul Biya
Cameroon's President Paul Biya ignored the COVID crisis for months - for his own political gainImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Alamba

This, however, may not come as a surprise as the long-term leader of over 40 years, who according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project spends as much as a third of his time abroad, has repeatedly refused to comment on the pandemic at all - while enjoying five-start treatment at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva.

Pandemic elections

In East Africa, recently elected Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni meanwhile has unleashed a reign of terror on his way to reelection, having already held a tight grip on power for 35 years already. Many observers stressed that the country could not free and fair elections while using COVID lockdown measures selective to control the electorate and stifle opposition.

According to a report by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation, a German think tank associated with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Museveni's government carried out a long series of unlawful arrests and detentions, abusing his political power to suppress political dissent.

Yoweri Museveni
Ugandan autocrat Yoweri Museveni manipulated elections under the pretense of lockdown regulationsImage: Luke Dray/Getty Images

"The state of the respect for the rule of law and civil liberties, in particular, appears to be in steep decline in East Africa," Nicholas Opiyo, a top Ugandan human rights lawyer told DW. Opiyo himself became a victim of arrest in December 2020.

"In Uganda, and in particular in the last election, [the government] shut down social media and the entire internet for weeks," Opiyo said. Furthermore, civil society organizations working on election monitoring were arrested, imprisoned, while some are still facing charges.

COVID as a pretext

Tanzanians, like Ugandans, have also seen increased power abuse and restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech, and media during the pandemic. "We did research last year within the corona pandemic.

Willy Mutunga
Former Kenyan Chief Justice Willy Mutunga praised the findings of the FNF reportImage: AFP/Getty Images

"So many civil liberties have been restricted, and the pandemic has been used as a pretext to do that even more," Inge Herbert, regional director of Friedrich Nauman Foundation (FNF), told DW. Access to information — the internet in particular — has also been deliberately slowed down in the country in order to curb pre-election dissent. Whether this is a good idea in the midst of an information-driven pandemic, is a diferent question.

Addressing such abuses of power remains problematic especially in East Africa. Willy Mutunga, Kenya's retired Chief Justice, said of the FNF report, that it "deals with the challenges. It tries to look at solutions to fight dictatorships and authoritarianism in East Africa, which is growing very rapidly."

Malawi leading the way

However, with their dedication to democractic values, the Malawian people appear to represent a glimmer of hope as many other nations continue to struggle within the sub-Saharan African context:

The nullification of Malawi's flawed 2019 election and its subsequent rerun last year will have wider implications for the region, the Freedom House report adds. The court-ordered rerun after all marks only the second time in the entire continent's history that an election had to be canceled and rescheduled. And this, say experts, will not go unnoticed.

Elections in Malawi
Malawi's rerun elections came at the height of the COVID-19 pandemicImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gumulira

As African courts have increasingly been seeking to assert their independence against their governments in recent year, Malawi may just lead the way into the fute across Africa. The Freedom House report meanwhile also points out, however, that Malawi has endured a low-performing democratic system that had struggled to contain a succession of corrupt and heavy-handed leaders for most of its 55-year history as a republic. Whether it can continue to ride the current wave of democrative rejuvenation can only be decided by the people, and not the courts.

Proxy-wars and hidden agendas

However, there is also somewhat of a David-versus-Goliath imbalance at play as well, where the battlefield is located far away from African shores. Improving Africa’s quality in governance would likely be easier if there was concrete foreign assistance.

While historically, the US has claimed the role of global defender of democracy when it came to mediating such conflicts, this has changed in recent years under US President Donald Trump's protectionist policies. And following the attack on the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the country appears to be looking primarily inward, trying to heal inner divisions and rolling out its own vaccination program as a matter of priority — rather than intervening in questionable elections in Africa.

USAID office in South Africa
As the US is trying to heal internal divisions, its involvement abroad is limited to humanitarian aidImage: Bram Janssen/AP/picture alliance

Meanwhile, China has managed to increase its influence not just directly across much of Africa but also through its role in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States — in contrast — abandoned in 2018 under Trump. However, Beijing is not exactly partaking in these bodies without having its own agenda: in pursuit of its own strategic interests, China has been pushing a vision of non-interference around the world — which is exactly the kind of policy that allows abuses of democratic principles and human rights standards in Africa to go unpunished. 

Actual freedom for economic liberty

This means that champions of democracy and advocates for protecting fundamental freedoms face unprecedented challenges in this new world order that appears to be establishing itself across the globe as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Inge Herbert, civil society has to become more engaged and stand up for civil liberties in order to beat autocrats that have been sitting in their thrones for decades. However, the vast majority of people living in sub-Saharan Africa, she stresses, are primarily "concerned about economic rights" rather than civil liberties.

The FNF regional director believes that the message that needs to be heard is that without the respect of civil rights, no economy can thrive.

Andrew Wasike contributed to this article