The pandemic continues to present unique challenges to democracies across the world. Efforts to stop the spread are becoming convenient excuses to suppress democratic activity. The UK are having problems, the BLM protests back in 2020 resulted in clashes with the police over lockdown restrictions as did the recent vigil for Sarah Everard where crowds gathered to protest women’s safety and male violence. On the one hand we must stop the spread of the virus, but also not limit peoples freedoms.
This trend can be seen across the world and unsurprisingly there are more serious concerns about this in Africa. There is a legitimate worry that African leaders may use the pandemic to hang onto power and supress, often brutally, opposition. The evidence suggests this fear is legitimate, however it is not widespread.
With countries focused on domestic and western responses to the pandemic, the suppression of democracy in some African countries has gone generally unnoticed. There have been isolated cases of media coverage, perhaps the most notable was the social media campaign surrounding the actions of SARS in Nigeria. However, this gained little mainstream media attention and public interest on social media soon dwindled. Zimbabwean police have used pandemic restrictions to arrest political opponents of the government. In Kenya, 15 people have been killed in crackdowns since lockdown measures came into force. Authoritarian governments are using the pandemic as a justification to repress protests surrounding socio-economic problems. The concern now is that the isolated cases may spread throughout the continent.
Seven countries who score low on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index had their elections in 2020. Guinea, Mali, Tanzania, Côte D’Ivoire, the Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda and Burundi were all plagued with controversies such as opposition boycotts, blocking of social media and irregular results. In the CAR the president called for the constitution to be amended to allow the election to be delayed, citing the pandemic as the reason. however, many of the polling stations could not open due to them being in rebel held areas. The constitutional court ruled against it. A clear attempt at using the pandemic to hold onto power in times of political instability.
In Uganda the efforts were more widespread and obvious; campaign rallies were banned, as too was campaigning. The stated reasoning behind this was stopping the spread of the virus. The bans however occurred in areas generally supportive of the opposition. Along with this, the opposition leader, Bobi Wine was arrested on coronavirus violations. However, an ulterior motive is not hard to find. In Burundi there were similar issues. International observers were put into a 14-day quarantine upon arrival and therefore stopped from carrying out their monitoring duties. This was despite the downplaying of the election and very few other measures in place.
The events in the CAR, Burundi and Uganda could present a worrying trend that spreads to other weak democracies across the continent. With that being said, elections in Guinea, Mali, Tanzania and Côte D’Ivoire went ahead without any pandemic issues. They were unsurprisingly blighted by the normal controversies and issues, but these were not related to the pandemic.
Although this could present cause for concern, like many things it should not be overplayed. The pandemic only played a minor role in elections last year. The already an established history of corruption and authoritarianism does not need a pandemic as an excuse to manipulate elections. Coronavirus is certainly a tool for leaders but not a cause of election manipulation.