With only the Comoros and Lesotho yet to record any cases of Covid-19, it is clear that Africa is now firmly in the grip of the pandemic with South Africa registering the most cases (2 506), while being lauded for its rapid action lockdown that took effect on 27 March 2020 and has been extended to 30 April. However, often held up as a beacon of democracy on the continent, South Africa’s management of the coronavirus is raising some alarm bells, with nine people already allegedly killed by security forces as they attempt to enforce the lockdown. Internal party-political processes have been put on ice as both the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) postponed internal conferences, with early talk that 2021 local government elections could be pushed out further if need be.
More immediately, however, concerns are emerging about the powers and functions of the National Command Council (NCC) that has been appointed to “guide” the country during the current State of Disaster, and which is dictating the formulation of regulations (some of dubious constitutionality) on a questionable legal basis with unmeasured effects on governance, national policy formulation, and oversight. Under the Disaster Management Act, the national executive is “primarily responsible for the coordination and management of national disasters”, but the extent to which it may centralise this into an NCC type body (of only 14 ministers) is uncertain. What is clear is that any such move would need to be regulated, and an ad hoc parliamentary committee should be established to maintain oversight over the council. This has not happened, and the usual functioning of portfolios and their committee’s oversight has slowed dramatically. The detail aside, the exact role of the NCC is deeply blurred, with presidential statements on its coordination functions at odds with a “leading” role that is at points interfering in policy and regulatory matters, potentially exercising a policy-making authority it ought not have as its constitutional status remains opaque.
Elsewhere in the sub-Saharan region, Covid-19 has already changed the balance of power with no obvious democratic gains. In Malawi (16 cases), in early February 2020, 79-year-old President Peter Mutharika, was facing a real challenge to his continued rule after the constitutional court annulled the May 2019 vote that he won narrowly amid widespread “irregularities” after broad protests for him to step down ahead of May 2020 presidential elections. Mutharika looked like he could be on his way out until he, in March, responded to Covid-19 by shutting down schools and banning large public gatherings; effectively halting campaigning. In this context, Mutharika is expected to buy himself more time in office by announcing a delayed poll soon.
Ethiopia (85) has already indefinitely postponed its 29 August 2020 general elections after a similar ban on public gatherings. While the delay could give all sides more time to prepare, these elections were critical as they were expected to be the first competitive polls since 2005 election results were violently overturned by Ethiopia’s ruling party and finally overthrown in February 2018 after years of national resistance. With federalism up against an emergent group of pan-Ethiopian parties (including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party and Berhanu Nega’s Ethiopia Citizens for Social Justice) that promote a unitary social system, Ethiopia’s fragile stability will not tolerate the wait well.
Others are going ahead regardless, with associated repercussions. Guinea (404 cases) went to the polls in late March to elect members of parliament and vote on constitutional reform as protests and coronavirus concerns continued. Opposition parties boycotted the vote, accusing President Alpha Condé of planning to use the constitutional referendum to extend his stay in office with the virus outbreak effectively making it easier for him to bulldoze his way to another term. Besides constraining opposition activity, the lockdown also stopped a high-level Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation visiting prior the referendum, while also inhibiting other regional efforts to halt the vote. The new constitution retains a two-term limit, but because it is not retrospective, Condé could seek another term in the upcoming election, scheduled for December 2020.
In a telling affirmation that the mere holding of elections is no guarantor of democracy, Mali also went ahead with elections in March, with a second round due on 19 April. This was despite severe concerns about security and the coronavirus, and civil society demands for a postponement after the kidnapping of an opposition leader and various elections officials – all this while terrorist attacks continued unabated.
Burundi (5), meanwhile, has a unique approach to containing the coronavirus, dismissing pandemic fears and claiming “god’s protection”. Life and May 2020 elections will continue as normal – offering little hope for democracy or national health security in one fell swoop.
A glimmer of hope emerged in the Ivory Coast’s (654 cases) President Alassane Ouattara’s surprise announcement that he would not run for a third term when or if the country goes to the polls in October 2020, while various other countries have yet to confirm or change electoral plans. Egypt, fast catching up on South Africa’s infection rate with 2 505 cases, has yet to pronounce on whether May 2020 elections will proceed. Meanwhile, for now, elections in Chad (23), the Central African Republic (12), Gabon (80), Ghana (636), Niger (570), Senegal (314), Liberia (59), Somalia (80), Somaliland (5), Seychelles (11), Tanzania (88), and Namibia (16) are still on the table. However, the African impacts of the virus are still unravelling, with Uganda’s (55) High Court already petitioned to the 2021 election for five years.
elections one of the most tangible mainstays and measures of democracy, the
virus could severely test progress in this regard in many African countries.
Amid bona fide moves to manage the coronavirus crisis and the potentially
devastating economic fallout, some governments and politicians will inevitably either
deliberately exploit the situation and/or opt for solutions that come with high
risks for human rights, good governance, and the rule of law. While Africa
obviously needs to make the most vigorous efforts it can to contain the virus
and protect its people, the parallel global attention deficit and already weak
oversight and accountability mechanisms mean that impoverished and locked down communities
will have minimal recourse should their governments misappropriate the coronavirus
as a tool to entrench political power. Civil society and external observers
will need to pay close attention to not only how Africa deals with Covid-19,
but what happens to democratic norms and human rights in the process. With
elections a tangible opportunity to manipulate both fears about the health
risks associated with large gatherings, and political outcomes, careful election
monitoring and external observer missions have possibly never been as
important. Continent-wide lockdowns will make this difficult.
 All case numbers as at time of writing