As countries in the region navigate the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, their governments should learn lessons from the management of the crisis so far. This will help inform policy choices and societies’ responses to future crises.
Among the eight worst affected countries in Africa, three – Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon – are in West Africa and the Lake Chad Basin. Despite variations in individual countries’ situations, Africa so far maintains relatively low declared morbidity and high recovery rates.
Governments face both healthcare and socio-economic problems in dealing with COVID-19. Most states initially adopted stringent preventive healthcare measures, but in some countries this led to social tension and fiscal stress that resulted in some restrictions being lifted. This despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
These contradictions make citizens question what drives the decisions their governments make – and what they reveal about certain countries’ governance generally. This is particularly true when it comes to restrictive measures, and elections that are held during the crisis.
Following a worldwide trend, governments in West Africa and the Lake Chad Basin have resorted to various measures that restrict mobility and social contact in trying to curb the spread of COVID-19. Other responses include border closures, curfews, isolation of urban centres considered to be pandemic epicentres, public transport bans or restrictions, closure of bars, restaurants, schools and places of worship.
In some countries, like Senegal, initial government-led consultations ensured a wide social consensus about the restrictions. In contrast, measures taken in Cameroon were contested by some opposition parties in an attempt to discredit the government’s management of the crisis. Politicising the pandemic has probably contributed to confusing citizens and blurring the state’s voice at a time of uncertainty.
In Mali, a curfew was challenged by the population. The country is going through a deep and protracted crisis that sees government decisions generally questioned by an aggrieved citizenry. The pandemic added complexity to already tense social relations, and in response the government kept mosques and other places of worship open. This suggests that a lack of consultation and communication on COVID-related decisions undermines public trust in governments.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, elections have taken place in Guinea, Mali and Benin. Polls in some countries were inherently risky, and the pandemic added an extra layer of conflict, or more opportunity in the case of some governments. In all these countries, the political context has strongly influenced COVID-related decision making.
In Guinea and Mali, actors disagreed on whether to hold elections irrespective of the pandemic. This was aggravated by popular perceptions that voters wouldn’t be properly protected at polling stations. Voter turnout figures have been contested, and even when they have been comparatively low, it’s unclear whether this is linked to the pandemic.
In Guinea, the elections took place amid political agitation around a possible constitutional change aimed at paving the way for a third term for President Alpha Condé. Opposition parties suspect Condé restricted political freedoms to achieve his goals.
In Mali, the double threat of terror attacks and the spread of COVID-19 probably contributed to keeping voters away from polling stations. The abduction of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé by unknown groups compounded an already volatile situation.
In Benin, legislative and local elections were held amid a political crisis linked to the structural reforms introduced by the charter of political parties and the revised electoral law, both adopted in 2018.
In the absence of a tracking system, it’s hard to say whether holding elections has contributed to the spread of the virus or not. These examples illustrate the dilemma faced by governments that had to choose between respecting an electoral schedule on the one hand, and ensuring the safety of citizens and the integrity of their basic democratic rights on the other.
As Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger are scheduled to hold elections this year, numerous lessons should be drawn regarding voter registration, innovative campaigning, sanitised polling stations, consultations and consensus building, among others.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a ceasefire during the pandemic didn’t resonate with most violent extremist groups in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. Available data doesn’t indicate an increase in the number of attacks, but shows a continuation of the existing trends.
Violent extremist groups continue to stage attacks in Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Burkina and Niger against civilian and state targets. More empirical research is needed on whether movement restrictions affected violent extremist groups’ modus operandi, supply chains and recruitment in the region. Studies could also show whether restrictions have changed state responses to counter-terrorism and preventing violent extremism.
Various observations can be made about how African states have reacted to previous health crises and the current one. One is that health considerations don’t always play the most important role in government responses to pandemics. Political, religious and socio-economic considerations as well as security factors are important variables in understanding policymaking during a pandemic. Corruption, or perceptions thereof, are also key lenses through which responses can be analysed.
The past few months show that citizens’ compliance with government measures isn’t static; it can change as the situation evolves. Evidence gathered in fighting previous epidemics indicates that citizens and community leaders generally have a good sense of appropriate responses to what affects them. Where there’s been sufficient consultation, the rate of voluntary compliance to restrictive measures has been higher.
Another observation is that responses haven’t been conflict-sensitive enough and have contributed to aggravating existing political and security problems in some countries. The brutality used to enforce restrictive measures has generated additional tensions in others.
Knowledge and evidence-based responses to COVID-19 will determine how governments in the region manage their ongoing peace, security and governance problems. Mapping out individual country situations and generating innovative evidence-based policy advice is key. Good practices and success criteria should also be developed to help overcome mistrust between countries given the different results in fighting the pandemic.
Paul-Simon Handy, Senior Regional Adviser, ISS Dakar