The pandemic is being used to erode democratic freedoms; Civil society must fight back!

Several African governments have been praised for their decisive actions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already been responsible for more than 140 000 deaths worldwide and more than 18 000 reported cases in Africa. In countries such as Rwanda and South Africa, the measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus are among the most restrictive in the world. With the notable exceptions of Burundi and Tanzania — where government leaders remain in dangerous denial — taking quick action appears to have limited the spread of the disease. However, the strict imposition of curfews and lockdowns have also raised a number of concerns. One of the main criticisms has been that strategies used in wealthier nations may not work in Africa, especially in countries where the average citizen lacks the personal savings and access to food that may ultimately be needed to see out the crisis. What has received less attention to date, but is equally as important, is the way that Covid-related restrictions are now being used to undermine democratic freedoms. In some countries, leaders responded so rapidly that critics fear they are manipulating the crisis to consolidate their own political power. Most notably, governments in Malawi and Uganda banned public gatherings — and hence opposition rallies and civil society protests — before their countries had recorded a single case. Their counterparts in Guinea and Zambia are using the cover of the coronavirus to advance their authoritarian agendas and prolong their time in office. At the same time, efforts to enforce restrictions in the continent’s most influential states — including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — have resulted in widespread human rights abuses by security forces, which have a history of exploiting rather than protecting civilians. This creates a stark problem for opposition parties and independent civil society groups, because the same measures being taken to tackle the pandemic also undermine their ability to defend democracy. Pro-democracy forces across Africa are thus being kneecapped — and often violently — under the expedient guise of public health and national security. The challenge of defending democracy In the midst of the pandemic, African opposition parties and civil society groups have little opportunity, tools or platforms with which to defend their hard-fought gains. The emergency powers recently enacted have, in many cases, shut down their operations altogether and limited their funding sources, especially as major donors and aid organisations continue to reactively shift their priorities. Any attempt to hold mass protests or to break the new rules would make it possible to depict dissenters as a threat to national security, thereby playing directly into the hands of abusive governments and their henchmen in the security forces. In Algeria, for example, this scenario is playing out on a daily basis, together with a targeted assault on journalists and activists on social media.

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