Authoritarian governments across Africa have used the opportunity offered by the Corona-virus-crisis to strengthen their hold on society.
In countries like Guinea, Zimbabwe, Togo, Rwanda and Uganda elections have suddenly been held or postponed, whatever suited the government best, large opposition gatherings prohibited, fake news (read: criticism of the government) outlawed, opposition politicians targeted specifically or whole sections of the media banned. Even in countries that we do not regard as authoritarian, such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa the police have been violent in quelling opposition or disobedience, with numerous deaths as a result.
The question is whether this will help those rulers in the long term. Dictators survive by the argument that citizens hand in many of their liberties, in exchange for stability and security. If they become ever more heavy-handed, but without containing the virus, their credibility suffers – possibly fatally.
In an Africa-wide survey conducted over the second half of April, commissioned by the Africa Liberal Network (ALN) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Africa (FNF), what emerged was that although more than nine out of ten Africans support strict measures to contain the virus, there is also sizeable concern about what it means for civil rights, and there is very little trust in government. “Governments still treat people like children, not as if they can take their own decisions,” commented Tami Jackson of the South African youth organization Progress SA.
Corruption and dishonest government
The lack of trust may well be fed by the fact that nearly two-thirds of Africans are angry about their health systems having suffered from corruption and dishonest government, putting Africa particularly at risk from the covid-19 virus. “Health systems are incomplete. The buildings are there, but inside those buildings there is not enough equipment, not enough medical staff,” explained Tanzanian youth activist Irene Kalumuna. Indicative of the political maturity of the African electorate is also that nearly two thirds suspect that a lot of news about the virus should be taken with a pinch of salt. One in ten even believe that most of the covid-19-news is fake and merely creates unnecessary panic.
What is remarkable, is that in many countries strong measures were initiated, although – at the time of the survey – the infection rates for Africa were much lower than for most other parts of the world. In fact, in Uganda president Yoweri Museveni enthusiastically banned opposition rallies even before the first case of the virus in his country was registered. Whether those infection rates are correct we do not know for sure, since testing is sporadic in most countries. Nonetheless, less than two-thousand corona-deaths were registered across the entire continent at the time of the survey. The country where testing is by some measure the most frequent, South Africa, received justified praise for taking lockdown measures ahead of the curve, even if some of those measures (such as the banning of cigarettes) were controversial.
Fragile health systems
The World Health Organisation (WHO) however continues to warn Africa that if the virus hits the continent properly, the fragile health systems are unlikely to be able to cope. Other international observers such as the World Bank fear that the already weak African economies will suffer irreparably from prolonged lockdown measures. Some autocrats already seem clueless, such as president Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar who recommended a herbal concoction to prevent and cure covid-19 and which he has begun to export to other African countries, or president John Magafuli of Tanzania who advised his citizens to go to church because “the virus cannot survive in the body of Christ”.
ALN-President Gilbert Ouédraogo of Burkina Faso said at the launch of the survey results: “There is a high level of awareness among Africans. How do we turn this crisis into an opportunity? I am talking about the environment and social relations – the so-called ‘kinder society’.” Kenyan liberal politician Rosemary Machua added: “We see positive effects on the environment. We see snow on Mount Kenya, and on Mount Kilimanjaro. What is next, how do we preserve this? We need an African response, with organizations such as the African Union.”
Liberals can take courage from the survey’s findings. Not only is there broad support for globalization and free trade across Africa (especially in West Africa), the same is also true for individual freedoms such as freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and press freedom. And, remarkably on a continent where not all that long ago so-called African Socialism was en vogue, there is skepticism about the role of the state (in southern Africa even more outspoken than elsewhere, and amongst women too), also as regards government intervention in the economy. Liberal ideals of an open society are no longer an obscure political fringe, but have become mainstream.
“We now see how weak governance is in Africa. This is an opportunity to make government systems more resilient, to re-think the model and make institutions more adequate to deal with shocks, and work together with private businesses and civil society. A revolution in mentality is necessary. We need more cooperation, mutualization and Africanization. It does not work if every small country does their own thing, for example if each maintains a tiny airline. We need them to work together, to have south-south relationships and also to have more free trade in Africa and use the chances offered by digitalization,” said Stanislas Zeze, investment expert from Côte d’Ivoire. This rings true, for instance in view of the end of April-announcement that the African free trade continental area (AFTCA), that Africa so desperately needs, would not come into effect as scheduled on July 1st.
There is also a warning for Liberals. If anything, the corona crisis has somewhat increased the support for government intervention in the economy in order to protect vulnerable groups, and especially there is support for this amongst younger people. Even if it is not a large majority (56%) and it includes a wide range of opinions ranging from a centrally guided economy to installing a safety net for the disadvantaged, clearly the image persists that a free, dynamic market economy benefits the haves more than the have-nots. Economic liberals have their job cut out in doing a better job at promoting and shaping ideas of economic freedom that imply gains for all, not merely for a happy few. Otherwise they risk losing the argument. That would be a great pity for the economic recovery of Africa.