In the two years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic many African governments were facing protests from disaffected citizens and political opposition groups. These protests led to the removal of governments in countries like Algeria and Sudan; instability in others like Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Guinea; and exposed corrupt practices in Liberia and South Africa. Those grievances remain unsettled despite the COVID-19 disease. Under conditions of state of emergency and for personal safety reasons, people suspended street protests and many took to online platforms where they now face increasing surveillance by security agencies.
The extra-ordinary response measures needed to control the spread of the epidemic among the population cannot be tolerated under normal constitutional principles that guarantee basic rights and freedoms. Hence, declaring emergencies, to enable security forces to enforce quarantine regulations, has become a common policy action across the world.
However, emergency powers – contrary to the objectives of ending the transmission of the coronavirus disease – are in some cases being exploited by incumbent governments in Africa to advance narrow partisan objectives, including curtailing the free speech particularly of those critical of their policies.
Emergency powers are in some cases being exploited by incumbent governments to curtail the free speech of those critical of their policies. @ibnyeiTweet
Information dissemination and accountability to the public are crucial to every emergency response mechanism. Thousands of local organisations across the continent have mobilized to support efforts by their governments in sensitising local communities about the COVID-19 epidemic. From NAYMOTE-PADD, a civil society group in Liberia mobilising and supporting youth organisations to spread information on the virus to the Social Justice Network, an organisation working in Cape Town, South Africa on similar initiative, civic organisations have become crucial partners in fighting the COVID-19 epidemic in their respective countries.
But these organisations, like the political opposition, face harassments and threats of prosecution when they demand accountability from their governments. In South Africa, the government passed legislation in March that criminalizes “Any person who publishes any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person” about COVID-19 or anyone who questions “any measure taken by the Government to address COVID-19”. Similarly, in Liberia, when the government declared a state of emergency in April, the country’s solicitor general announced that media institutions and individuals who spread ‘fake news’ will be hunted down as part of enforcement measures. According to the solicitor general “You cannot have 100 percent rights that you may exercise during normal times…Liberia is technically at war [with COVID-19].”
Governments in these two countries have been under the spotlight in the last two years, and with these measures in place, they are gaining the upper hand in evading public scrutiny not only on COVID-19 but also on longstanding demands for public accountability concerning issues like ‘state capture’ in South Africa and ’16 Billion’ in Liberia. In May, when an opposition politician in Liberia questioned the government’s decision to distribute rice and foolishly suggested in a Facebook post that citizens needed guns, not rice, he was arrested, under charges of sedition – even though Liberia had long repealed laws criminalising free speech and sedition. In the wake of his arrest, the country’s solicitor general again reminded the citizens about the state of emergency indicating that free speech was equally suspended.
Activists in many other countries are now being harassed under rules meant to criminalise ‘fake news’ during this epidemic. For instance, two Tunisian bloggers were arrested in April for questioning the effectiveness of the government’s coronavirus response. They faced charges of defamation and public disturbances. And in Algeria, where the new government was facing increasing protests before the epidemic, emergency laws adopted to fight the epidemic and curtail ‘spreading false information’, are being used increasingly against bloggers, journalists and the Hirak protest movement that was active long before the outbreak of the epidemic.
After the storm around COVID-19 subsides, perhaps sooner or later, governments that accumulated more powers or attempted to subvert opposition activities could face renewed and larger protests. Longstanding grievances may be compounded by the economic and social fallout from COVID-19 as most countries face recession and rising unemployment – grim pictures already predicted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It will require responsible and accountable leadership in government, private sector, and civil society to cushion these non-health related effects of the pandemic and maintain some level of stability.
Longstanding grievances may be compounded by the economic and social fallout from COVID-19 as most countries face recession and rising unemployment. @ibnyeiTweet
Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to provide answers and maintain public peace and stability as citizens rise to demand accountability. But this cannot be achieved without checks on its own powers. Failure to check these powers could lead to a whole different kind of epidemic in the form of harassment and political persecution across the continent, and derail progress made towards democratisation over the last 20 years.
Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is a PhD student at SOAS University of London and an Adam Smith Fellow in Political Economy at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University. He tweets at @ibnyei.