What data tells us about COVID-19, security and regional peace operations in Africa

ACCORD Conflict & Resilience Monitor
References: ACLED

COVID-19 could deepen fragility and exacerbate violent conflict, though data from regional security interventions to date suggest that not much has changed. However, with the rapid spread of COVID-19, the likelihood of a worsening security situation and a more constrained operational effectiveness of security personnel is a possibility.

COVID-19 confirmed cases are rising, but fatalities remain low in Africa. Except for the Western Pacific region, Africa’s rate of confirmed cases remains the lowest globally. If this trend continues – despite the exponential number of confirmed cases, and amidst weak health systems – Africa may be spared the worst impact of an unprecedented global health crisis. 

Beyond the health implications, there are growing concerns that COVID-19 will almost certainly worsen or create new forms of insecurity. Pre-COVID-19 conflict management measures – such as diplomacy, peace processes, and regional and international peace support operations, as well as ongoing stabilisation priorities in the Lake Chad Basin and other parts of the Sahel – could suffer from delays or setbacks due to COVID-19. There are also indications that worsening socio-economic conditions may create new forms of social tension. 

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), for example, has reported that major conflicts in Africa have not abated. The level of conflicts in the Lake Chad Basin region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Mozambique have not been impacted by COVID-19. Some of these conflicts host regional peace operations either authorised or mandated by the African Union (AU), which could be limited by COVID-19. In this regard, there is an expectation that non-pharmaceutical interventions – such as restricted movements and social distancing measures – will affect the rotation of and mission support (including the delivery of food, rations and fuel) to peacekeepers on the frontline. Such limitations will affect operational effectiveness and potentially expose both the civilian population and peacekeepers to risks, including of attacks by armed militia or terrorist groups. 

Turning a spotlight to two major regional peace operations – the Multinational Joint Taskforce (MNJTF) against Boko Haram and the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – we are seeking to determine the extent to which the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on the threats vis-à-vis security operations. Over the last four months, the MNJTF has continued to engage in intense military operations, especially in the Tumbun Yashiisland and village in the Lake Chad Basin, as well as in other MNJTF sectors of operation. Operation Yacin Takfi continued with the April 2020 offensive by the Chad National Defence Forces, following an attack by Boko Haram against their defensive location on the lake island of Boma. Although the threat remains, it has been reported that there has been a general decline in the level of security incidents in the MNJTF sectors of operation. It is commendable that both the multinational and national forces have sustained offensive operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, the likelihood of a worsening security situation in Africa is a possibility. However, data from #AMISOM and #MNJTF suggest that the situation has not improved or deteriorated to date @jmartyns #C19ConflictMonitor

Attacks against AMISOM and the civilian population by Al-Shabaab have also been sustained despite COVID-19. According to data reported by the AU Situation Reports, Al-Shabaab activities reported between March and June 2020 were approximately 95% the same as activities reported during the equivalent period in 2019. Deaths and injuries of AMISOM personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic over the last three months have accounted for approximately 20% of the total number recorded last year. Civilian deaths and injuries owing to attacks by Al-Shabaab also remain relatively high, accounting for 11% of the total number recorded in 2019. Of course, there are several intervening variables that tend to influence the activities of Al-Shabaab. However, the data powerfully conveys a fair degree of consistency in the nature of the threats by the terror group before and during the COVID-19 context.

COVID-19 has strikingly not halted the pattern of insecurity and regional security operations in the immediate term – and efforts by regional security personnel have matched the threats faced. What could explain this continuity between the pre-COVID-19 and prevailing security situations in areas experiencing regional security interventions? First, and perhaps the most important reason, is the fact that most of the confirmed cases in Africa (except for countries with high testing capacity, such as South Africa, Ghana and Egypt) rose geometrically in the last month. For example, despite the first confirmed case of COVID-19 being recorded in Nigeria in February 2020, it was not until 18 April that Borno, a state in the Lake Chad Basin, recorded its first confirmed case. Even then, testing in borderland areas experiencing conflicts remained low in comparison with urban centres. Second, there is still a significant level of myth and misinformation or “infodemics” around the disease, particularly in rural communities, which makes people adopt a “business as usual” approach. Recent analytics of print and social media users in Africa reveal contrasts between the information circulated by the government and health officials and narratives circulated by the public. In countries with limited social contract between the state and citizens, the risks of misinformation are real. Overall, the modest spread of COVID-19 in previous months in Africa may have created an enabling environment of the continued security interventions at a sub-regional level. However, with the rapid spread of COVID-19, the likelihood of a worsening security situation and a more constrained operational effectiveness of security personnel is a possibility.

As countries with the support of regional institutions and the international community adopt policies that will avert a meltdown, a spotlight on regional peace operations must be sustained and supported. Regional solidarity and leadership – led by African Union chairperson, His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa – have been promising and forward-looking, despite the domestic crises that his country and other AU member states are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other pre-existing socio-economic crises. Health procurement for troops deployed in various theatres of operations should be a necessity. As an anonymous military personnel mentioned: “We should not wait until our soldiers are infected before they begin to supply us with masks, PPEs…”. Prevention is better than curing the possible effect of a security vacuum that could be left by the incapacitation of regional forces due to COVID-19. 

Dr Jide Martyns Okeke is a governance, peace and security expert. The views expressed here are not linked to any institutional affiliation and remain a personal reflection. He tweets at @jmartyns

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