Africa’s Pandemic Catch-22


The old adage goes that adversity does not build character, but reveals it. There has been a flurry of debates about whether democracies are better equipped to tackle the novel coronavirus than dictatorships, as well as well as commentary about what our daily lives might look like post COVID-19. It is entirely possible, however, that for most societies, COVID-19 is the great unmasking.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where the lack of state capacity to manage the COVID-19 outbreak in emerging democracies continues to be laid bare. Roughly 30 years into Africa’s democratization wave, the majority of the continent’s 54 countries can be considered democracies of different sorts. This has not translated much into the ability of these governments to deliver basic social goods and services, and health experts worry that the coronavirus may ravage countries with inadequate health systems and weak social safety nets. The consequences for democratic consolidation are considerable, given the already-fragile nature of many African democracies and the timing of upheavals close to periods of extended economic, political, and social discontent. After years of autocracy, civilian institutional decay, and weak democratic norms and practices, African armed forces retain an outsized role in law enforcement, civil defense, election management, and emergency response duties. This places their democracies in a Catch-22: Civilian leaders are expected to deliver the benefits of democratic governance in order to consolidate the transition to democracy, but lack the ways and means of doing so in political systems that have essentially military blueprints, forcing them to turn to their armed forces to do the heavy lifting of nation-building.

Alas, simplistic democracy vs. authoritarian frames miss the point. This is a story of variance in state capacity, national resilience, and the gutting of expertise in government.

How Did Africa Get to this Point?

Africa reported its first case of COVID-19 on Feb. 15, 2020 — roughly two months after the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China. As of this writing, the virus has spread to 53 of the 54 countries on the continent, with 52,368 confirmed cases, 18,015 recoveries and 2,027 deaths. Dissemination in Africa has been linked to several factors including urban population density, ineffectiveness of testing, and the continent’s proximity to Europe. The African Development Bank estimates COVID-19 could cost Africa losses in gross domestic product ranging between $22.1 billion and $88.3 billion, and total public debt could increase from $1.8 trillion last year to more than $2 trillion this year. The African Union estimates that 20 million African jobs could be lost as a result of the pandemic. There are serious concerns about the capacity of African governments to respond effectively to the continued spread of the virus. A Financial Times article noted that Sierra Leone has 18 ventilators for a population of 7.5 million, Uganda has 55 hospital beds for a population of 43 million, while 17 African governments report lacking the intensive-care capacity to treat the most severe cases of the virus. According to the World Health Organization’s “State of the World’s Nursing 2020” report, there are 8.7 nurses per 10,000 people in Africa, compared with 36 nurses per 10,000 people in the Western Pacific, 79.3 in Europe, and 83.4 in the Americas.

Even before COVID-19 and well after Africa’s democratic transition, the majority of Africans lacked quality health care in their countries, and African governments are largely failing to provide water and sanitation services, according to Afrobarometer findings. Anemic economic growth, income and wealth inequality, multidimensional poverty, and fragile state institutions continue to adversely affect health outcomes in Africa. For decades, military and civilian governments in Africa have neglected to invest in local healthcare systems, with wealthy elites preferring to seek medical treatment abroad. Very few countries have met the African Union’s recommended minimum of allocating at least 15 percent of their annual budget to the health sector.

Many African governments have introduced restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus, including drastically cutting back on economic activities, restricting large religious gatherings, and introducing stay-at-home and state of emergency orders. With weak safety nets for the overwhelming majority of Africans who depend on the informal economy, compliance with the lockdown rules has been mixed at best. In Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country and largest economy — lockdown rules in the capital city of Abuja, in Lagos (the economic hub of the country), and in Ogun (a subnational state adjacent to Lagos) have had varying degrees of compliance. Many other states across Nigeria saw their governors give stay-at-home orders, again to mixed effect. This could hardly be a surprise in a country where the majority of the labor market consists of petty traders, artisans, and subsistence farmers relying on in-person activity. Similarly, national lockdowns in the Republic of Benin, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cote d’Ivoire have proven to be so disruptive that governments have responded with a mixture of policy adjustments, coupled with what essentially amounts to non-enforcement across many cities and towns. Governments across Africa were always likely to face pushback from citizens deprived of their already fragile livelihoods.

Resilience and Social Trust in Africa

Missing from much of the discourse around the social consequences of COVID-19 is the stress placed upon political institutions and the general population by traumatic events, and their resilience to it.

Framing the question as a debate between democracy and authoritarianism obscures the debate about effective policy responses to COVID-19 in counterproductive ways. Nonetheless, it is true that in liberal democratic societies psycho-political concepts such as trust in government and public institutions, patriotism, and a keen sense of threat perception correlate with the political participation and social capital necessary to generate high levels of national resilience. For example, a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has grappled with a military conflict in the region of Kivu for years, its tenth outbreak of Ebola virus in 40 years (also concentrated in Kivu), as well as intercommunal violence in the west of the country and a contentious presidential election, will have seen its citizens’ sense of resilience, trust in public authority, threat perception, and vulnerability tested. And this is without getting into the lingering effects of decades of authoritarian rule under Mobutu Sese Seko. Now the country also has to battle the novel coronavirus.

In democratic societies, public perceptions of government and its key institutions often factor into consideration, as they enable decision-makers to estimate the population’s ability to endure difficult and costly decisions. It should come as no surprise that some of the democratic countries considered models for flattening the curve such as Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan report high levels of trust in their government, have excellent public-sector organizations that are capable of and responsive to policy complexity, and are able to retain the institutional memory from previous responses to national emergencies.

To put it mildly, the picture looks fairly different in African countries, even though a majority of them could be considered democracies.

Africa’s democratization wave of the 1990s gave birth to a groundswell of optimism about the rewards that democratic governance could bring to the continent. Millions of Africans have been lifted out of extreme poverty, with many countries witnessing rapid (if uneven) economic growth that has led to the creation of a middle class. That optimism has been tempered in recent years by political and economic setbacks — falling commodity prices and irregularities in global value chains have slowed growth in many African economies, and several African countries have experienced democratic backsliding of various sorts, prompting fears of a renewed rise of autocracy. The expectations of citizens that democratically elected governments should be able to provide basic social goods and services are blunted by the realities of weak state effectiveness and even legitimacy, in large part due to capacity difficulties but in some cases because of a lack of political will.

This is particularly consequential given African countries’ experiences with military coups and other forms of autocracy. According to Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, there have been more than 206 coups in Africa since 1950, with a little under half of them successful. In countries with many coups and military rulers such as Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, and Sudan, military coups have usually (but not always) followed periods of extended social discontent, economic malaise, and political paralysis. Using their superior organizational resources and capabilities, African armed forces have seized power under several pretexts including (but not limited to) restoring stability and order to the polity, enhancing national security, fighting corruption — and even, purportedly, to support the cause of democratization, as Malian Army Lt. Col. Amadou Touré claimed when he took over the reins of government from President Moussa Traoré in 1991. The Kenyan-American political scientist Ali Mazrui wrote about African soldiers as “traditionalizers” who upheld traditional African social norms and customs, even though the military as a whole is an ostensibly modernizing force.

As part of consolidating power, armed forces in Africa have usually taken over and weakened civilian institutions they couldn’t dissolve, including the civil service, the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, political parties, and even religious organizations. During their years in power, armed forces in Africa largely failed to improve living conditions as they promised upon seizing power, and healthcare was one of the largest casualties of their misrule. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, many sub-Saharan African countries were devastated by the combination of high (imported) oil prices and low prices for key export commodities, recurrent natural disasters, and political instability. This was followed by economic recession, spiraling debt, and the imposition of austerity measures by international financial institutions that decimated public services. In the health sector, these developments were all associated with public employees and health workers’ salaries decreasing in value, frequent drug shortages, and a mass emigration of African healthcare workers to the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. Some African countries introduced user fees and community-based financing schemes, but this did not ameliorate the impact of low public spending on healthcare, with long-lasting regressive effects that continue to plague Africa to this day.

What Does COVID-19 Reveal about the State of Civil-Military Relations in Africa?

That many African governments decided to enforce lockdowns with the army alongside regular security forces was almost a foregone conclusion. Despite significant progress moving toward democracy in Africa, armed forces are yet to accept core democratic principles regulating civil-military relations, such as civilian authority over the military and limiting their involvement in national affairs to the defense of sovereignty and territorial borders. In large part due to the socialized paternalism of military rule and the lack of trust in other key institutions, the army is regarded in many places as the only capable, trustworthy and efficient organ of the state. According to a 2016 Afrobarometer report on institutional trust, the army is the most trusted state institution in several African countries. In many African states, it is common for the army to do everything from managing the flow of traffic to providing security at voting precincts. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to conclude that weak African states with low levels of social trust and few capable institutions would turn to the one state entity regarded as legitimate to enforce order during a global pandemic. Roughly a month ago, South Africa began a national lockdown with the army out in the streets to enforce it. Since the lockdown began, there have been multiple reports of brutality by South African security forces. In Nigeria, citizens have detailed examples of heavy-handed behavior by soldiers enforcing the lockdown, including two soldiers filmed threatening to rape women and a 26-year-old man who was killed by soldiers in Delta State, with clashes between the troops and the residents ensuing. The Nigerian Army promptly put out several tweets stating it would investigate the two soldiers and imploring Nigerians to report incidents of “unprofessional conduct.” In Ghana, Senegal, DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and other African countries, hundreds of people have been arrested by security forces for disregarding regulations; many more have been assaulted and harassed and a handful have been killed by police and army forces. It just might be African security forces who need to be kept socially distant from regular citizens instead of COVID-19.

None of these incidents could be considered remotely surprising and unforeseeable, given the poor civil-military relations that have always governed public life in African societies, including a history of unconstitutional regime changes, political repression, and a dismal human rights record. This is a natural progression from the colonial origins of African militaries, where armed forces were created to project the dominance of European colonial powers and were occasionally used as a tool of domestic affairs in the colonial territories. This began a military culture of anti-democratic intrusion in political affairs that runs counter to the civil-military norms of a democratic society, one that still persists today. Even as Africa’s military dictatorships began to give way to multiparty democracies, political settlements between military elites and civilian politicians intended to placate the armed forces (who pose the greatest regime change threat) have entrenched the military in public life and in some instances given it veto powers within the political order, powers they are rarely shy to use.

What Is the Way Forward?

It is important not to tell a single story of doom and gloom, and note that where African governments and public organizations are struggling in managing the effects of COVID-19, regular African citizens and their customary institutional arrangements like religious organizations, non-profits and private sector entities are stepping in to fill important voids. In Nigeria, tech start-ups are offering innovative approaches to solving COVID-19-related problems and a coalition of private sector leaders have been donating money and medical equipment, with pledges to do more. Researchers in Senegal are working with British biotech company Mologic to develop COVID-19 diagnostic tests that can be done at home. Across the continent, Christian and Muslim faith groups run food distribution drives in cities and towns, as well as providing groceries and other basic amenities to the most vulnerable. In communities where the frequency of crime is surging, groups of youths have taken to protecting their neighborhoods and loved ones in the absence of responsive law enforcement and the fear of eventual military incursion. Even within the much-derided public sector, medical professionals continue to go above and beyond to deliver emergency services with the few resources at their disposal, and countries continue to share institutional knowledge gained from years of fighting pandemics, with the African Center for Disease Control playing a coordinating role. On a strategic level, Africans continue to support democracy and reject authoritarian rule, even as their disaffection with politics grows.

In the near future and long term, there are options the rich world could explore to support African countries as they manage the political, economic, and social burden of COVID-19. In the short term, development partners and international organizations as well as foreign governments should adopt a lead-from-behind posture, where emergency responses should be implemented based on the consultation of African governments and nongovernmental entities on the ground. There is likely to be a prolonged economic recession around the globe, and this could mean economic collapse across African countries that were in dire straits to begin with. Even tougher economic conditions raise the specter of widespread social discontent and political instability, and the rich world will realistically need to make difficult but necessary choices on development assistance, debt restructuring (if not outright cancelation), and a firm policy of support for democracy and human rights and against authoritarian lurches by any governments. In an era of diminished international collaboration, nativist populism, and neomercantilism, there can be no illusions about how difficult this process will be. And that is precisely why these engagements need to begin sooner, rather than later.

As one publication grimly put it, the lockdowns across Africa are “saving lives, but ruining livelihoods.” The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to destroy the fabric of African societies — democracies and autocracies alike — whose fragilities have been overlooked for too long, and the United States (alongside the rest of the developed world) can partner with African countries in preventing the current crisis from developing into a catastrophe.



Christopher O. Ogunmodede is a foreign policy analyst, writer, editor, and political risk consultant specializing in comparative authoritarianism in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. His work centers on the political institutions and foreign policy analysis of African states. He has extensive experience working across Africa with central and subnational governments, civil society groups, diplomatic missions, private sector firms, development aid and multilateral organizations, and is an editor at The Republic, a pan-African global affairs publication. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Dr. Randal J. Schoepp)