Despotism on the Rise across Africa amidst COVID-19

A report by the UN released on 23 April argues that the coronavirus pandemic should not be used as a pretext for autocratic regimes to crack down on human rights and block the free flow of information, while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said the global public health crisis is rapidly turning into a human rights crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic is spinning at uncontrollable speed across our civilization. And as the contagion spreads, so does the panic.  States reacted differently to the initial threat, then a familiar pattern emerged: Prepare; Prevent; Lockdown; Surveillance; Observation.

Some did it better than others.

While some saw a sinister political opportunity: the lockdown.  This entails many things. The intentions are as important as the reasons behind the intentions.

Lower Rates of COVID-19

We have seen lower infection rates across Africa than Asia and Europe; so far. Of course, some say these numbers are low because African countries are not testing, and those that have tested, the numbers are woefully infinitesimal.

As of 22 April, South Africa had recorded 3,953 cases after conducting over 130,000 tests making it the country with the highest infection rate followed by Egypt with 3659 and Algeria with 3008.

Most countries do not know the number of infections they have, yet many AU member states have embraced the lockdown phase, with the powerhouses South Africa and Nigeria leading the way.

At least 16 other countries announced a State of Emergency with varying degrees of severity.  So what does this mean for fundamental freedoms, especially in nations where civil rights are often flouted?

Impact of Polls with COVID-19

This year we were due to see at least eight crucial elections across Africa: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Rep, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Malawi, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.  In some cases, the polls would have been a make or a break it moment for the regimes in power.

There were already risks of disputes, civil strife, and conflict, if the elections were not properly managed.

Ghana is perhaps the only exception. But for governments facing political challenges, the pandemic may be a godsend.

A prolonged interim measure, such as a lockdown, serves their interest to continue to oppose and frustrate reforms, which include an election in 2020, now unlikely event.


Guinea-Conakry is nestled in a neighborhood of volatility, from the Senegambia region and Guinea-Bissau to Mali and Burkina Faso.  Not to mention Sierra Leone and Liberia, where memories of bitter civil wars are still fresh. All of these states are announcing restrictions such as curfews, lockdowns and states of emergency.

Octogenarian President Alpha Condé has just won a poorly organized and arguably discredited referendum, to which the African Union and ECOWAS declined to send observer teams. Condé, 82, has scrapped term limits, and can stay at the helm for another 14 years.

His constitutional amendments were updated last month, just as the pandemic was rearing its head in Africa. He also managed to capture the Parliament, with 100 seats, leaving just 14 to the weakened opposition that has vowed to fight him in the courts and on the streets.

Condé swiftly announced his plan to fight the pandemic. On 27 March, he declared a state of emergency, renewable one month at a time.


The World Bank has praised Tanzania’ President John Magufuli for his strategy, which does not include a lockdown. In fact, he has done the very opposite of that.

Although his peers discouraged mass gatherings of any form, especially during the Easter period, he has encouraged Tanzanians to go pray in churches and mosques to quell a “satanic” virus.

He believes prayer and divine intervention are the only things that can tackle COVID-19, hence no lockdown and no State of Emergency.

Tanzania was already on a ‘political lockdown’, whereby opposition leaders, journalists, artists, human rights activists, just about anyone who disagreed with Magufuli, became a target.

He has taken over the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) one of the longest-ruling party in Africa. His opponents have been mauled by a raft of laws and regulations, and security apparatus blindly loyal to him, as well as a systematic weakening of media and state institutions.

His most ardent of supporters now say there is no point in holding elections in 2020, for the reason that Magufuli would be the undisputed winner. Elections would be a waste of money at a time of a global crisis.


Malawi went through a tumultuous 2019, triggered by a sham election. It was rejected by the courts which then ordered the Mutharika administration to call a second poll for July 2020.

There were other preconditions for the second round: major administrative reforms; an overhauling of the Electoral Commission (seen as biased and incompetent); and the scrapping of the first-past-the-post rule. (This means the winner has to get a 50 plus one majority and no party looks capable of doing that in the first round.)

The Gambia

President Adama Barrow, whom many say was an accidental candidate in 2016, is now a missing president in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  He has addressed the nation twice since the pandemic broke out.  Both instances were pre-recorded statements.

He has declared a lockdown, which is unenforceable because of the inability of the government to deploy its wherewithal to oversee a functional and effective 45-day State of Public Emergency response plan.

Elections are slated in The Gambia in 2021. Major reforms are in the pipeline that must be adopted if elections are going to be credible. The country just went through a constitution-making exercise, which pointed to sectarian divisions in a country renowned for its religious tolerance.

The Constitutional Review Commission delivered the draft constitution, which could usher the Third Republic.  However, not everyone wants a new constitution.

Barrow might use the State of (Public) Emergency to drag his feet and draw out the reforms. In doing so, he raises his chances of success at the polls under the current rules that were set up by ousted leader Yahya Jammeh, who perfected the art of term elongation despotism in his 22 years in power.


In Ethiopia it is a very different story.  Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has led Ethiopia on a raft of reforms.  Some say they were too swift and too radical.  Others welcomed them.

Now he has to forge ahead to keep up the momentum of the changes he triggered when he took office. Military reforms are crucial to stabilizing the country.  The direction has prioritized gender equality and reconciliation activated by the release of political prisoners, as well as the olive branch extended to Eritrea.

Unlike his peers, Abiy needs an election.  He must test his standing in free elections to break away from the grip of the kingmakers, the old guard of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Those from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and other ethno-nationalists disapprove of Abyi’s yearning to be his own man and his launching of the Prosperity Party.

Unintended Consequences

This year brings opportunities for leaders to style themselves as benevolent dictators.  Reforms will be stalled where they are needed most.  Elections, the litmus test for multiparty democracy, will be postponed, even cancelled.

Leaders, both popular and loathed, may continue to rule without a mandate.  They will carry a big stick wrapped in regulations curtailing freedoms: contraction of civic space; bans on movement and assembly; and even on free speech.

These flow from the newfound control in the form of the lockdown.  There are also unintended consequences. People will see through the pretexts and try to mobilize.

The political temperature in many countries points to growing anger and impatience, long before lockdowns became the ‘coping mechanism’ of the elites and rapacious regimes.

Resistance to state and military overreach may well backfire in countries already dealing with poor governance.

How will the African Union and the regional economic communities deal with the fall-out as some regimes use the pandemic to crack down on legitimate protest against their political and economic failures?

Bottom line: “Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars,” an alarmingly appropriate observation in Albert Camus’s observation, in La Peste seventy-three years ago.

Jeggan Grey-Johnson is Communications and Advocacy Coordinator at OSF- Africa Regional Office.

First appeared in The Africa Report.