The coronavirus pandemic has led governments across the world to postpone elections, reduce freedoms and adopt emergency powers, and Africa is no exception. Many believe this is necessary to limit the spread of the virus and protect public health. But could these measures, enacted in an emergency, threaten democracy?
A Global Emergency
At the time of writing, there have been almost 2.5 million confirmed deaths from coronavirus across the world. The real figure is likely much higher. In so serious a situation, most people have concluded that a temporary suspension of democratic freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, is necessary to prevent a massive loss of life. Like the rest of the world, many African countries followed this thinking, with governments strictly enforcing local and national lockdowns and imposing a range of other policies, including curfews. All justify their policies as necessary to prevent virus-related deaths and prevent the overwhelming of hospitals.
What’s the issue?
Some believe rulers have been using arguments relating to coronavirus to increase their own power. There is concern that freedoms suspended or reduced during the pandemic – such as holding political rallies or expressing oneself feely on social media – may not be fully restored. The emergency has allowed presidents to rule by decree and some fear that police forces have used the virus to justify violent tactics. Election campaigns have also been impacted by what some claim has been the uneven enforcement of coronavirus restrictions.
Two examples: Nigeria and Uganda
In Nigeria, a strict lockdown was imposed from 30th March 2020. Like other African countries, the strategy was to keep lockdowns as short as possible, which meant extremely strict enforcement. The result of this was a spike in police brutality, with the National Human Rights Commission reporting that, in the weeks immediately following the lockdown, more people were killed by police than by coronavirus. Meanwhile, before Uganda’s presidential election earlier this year, dozens were killed by security forces cracking down on gatherings of people. The government said this was necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus; the opposition denounced this explanation as a disguise for repression, and offered evidence that only their activities had been restricted, with governing party rallies taking place undisturbed. Both countries have a history of police violence but some think the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse.
Not the full story
Though government responses to the coronavirus pandemic can threaten democracy, they do not have to. Legislatures can be empowered to examine and amend coronavirus laws while clear and effective government communication can reduce the need for police enforcement. Elections can also go ahead successfully, as shown in Malawi. There, an election rerun was held in June 2020 after the original result was annulled by judges due to evidence of vote-rigging. The rerun was won by the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera, who took office peacefully. As this shows, the coronavirus pandemic need not threaten the rules and rights that make up democracy. Ultimately, attacks on democracy stem from choice, not necessity.