Are COVID-19 Measures Being Used to Stifle Democracy in Africa?

Are COVID-19 Measures Being Used to Stifle Democracy in Africa?

The global pandemic presents a unique challenge to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from making it more difficult and more expensive to carry out elections, there is an emerging worry that democratic activity will be suppressed in the name of ‘stopping the spread’. 

The coronavirus pandemic is placing additional strain on the state of democracy in Africa. Carrying out election campaigns is even more difficult in countries not possessing robust public health infrastructure. A worrying concern is that incumbent leaders may see the pandemic as an excuse to stifle democratic opposition and hang on to power. This concern is, however, a little unfounded. Examination of 2020’s African elections shows that the cynical use of pandemic restrictions to suppress democracy is present but not widespread. The pandemic is not likely to be over in Africa before the 13 national elections due in 2021 have taken place, and it can be expected that if current trends persist some – if not all – of those elections will be marred by the cynical exploitation of coronavirus measures to suppress democratic activity.

Elections in Healthier Democracies

Two elections took place in countries with a relatively stable democratic record (Ghana and the Seychelles). Both countries rate as flawed democracies according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, but appear to have been fairly credible. In neither country was there any major disruption to voting from COVID restrictions. The Ghanaian opposition are contesting the election but the results were largely in line with pollster predictions and were judged free and fair by observers.

Delayed Elections

Two of the scheduled elections – the Ethiopian general election and the Chadian legislative election – were officially delayed, with the pandemic being cited as the reason. The Ethiopian decision to delay their election led to the Tigray region refusing to comply, resulting in the ongoing conflict there. There is a possibility that the pandemic was used as an excuse for the incumbent administration to delay the election, but that doesn’t seem likely as the resulting Tigray rebellion has actually weakened the administration’s position. 

The Chadian legislative election has been continuously and periodically delayed since 2015, with incumbent President Idriss Déby blaming the pandemic for the latest suspension. The country does suffer from political instability and a lack of government funds, but critics have accused Déby of enforcing delays to retain the current favorable balance of the legislature. In this instance then, the pandemic can be seen as being used as an excuse to further disrupt and delay the democratic process.

Elections in Weaker Democracies

Seven elections took place in countries that have a weak record when it comes to being a functioning democracy. These took place in Guinea, Mali, Tanzania, Côte D’Ivoire, the Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda and Burundi. All of these countries score lowly on the EIU democracy index, being rated as either an authoritarian or a hybrid regime. The credibility of the elections that took place in these countries was marred by discrepancies including opposition boycotts, the blocking of social media and irregular polling results.

The election in the Central African Republic was heavily disrupted by political instability. With rebel factions controlling large areas of the country outside of the capital, polling stations were unable to open and those that did reported irregular results. The President, Faustin Toudéra, had proposed amending the constitution allowing the elections to be delayed, citing the pandemic as a reason. Although the constitutional court ruled against it, this action appears to be an attempt to use the excuse of the pandemic to delay democratic action, as the main threat to the election’s integrity was political instability. 

The use of COVID restrictions to disrupt democratic activity was observed in the Ugandan presidential. Campaign rallies were banned, and campaigning was not allowed within the capital and 10 highly-populated districts. Slowing the spread of coronavirus was cited as the reason, but critics noted that the areas chosen were those in which President Museveni’s main challenger, Bobi Wine, was most popular. Wine himself was arrested on coronavirus violations, but claimed that it was part of a broader attempt to stifle opposition campaigns, noting also that Museveni was able to hold political rallies despite the apparent restrictions.

Additionally, the Burundian presidential election was marred by similar claims of pandemic restrictions being abused. External election monitors were effectively stopped from observing the election via a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals into the country. This rule was imposed despite the government constantly downplaying the extent of the crisis and establishing few other pandemic measures. It can therefore be seen as a ploy to halt proper scrutiny of elections that the UN labelled not free and credible.

These three elections may point towards the emergence of a worrying trend in the struggling democracies of Africa. However, the remaining elections in democratically weak countries took place in the absence of any significant COVID restrictions. The elections in Mali, Tanzania, Guinea and Côte D’Ivoire were all lacking credibility, with social media often being blocked and major discrepancies being reported, but none of them involved the use of pandemic measures to either restrict campaigning or suppress voting. It appears that coronavirus restrictions have so far played only a minor role in subduing democratic activity in sub-Saharan Africa. With an established history of corruption and authoritarianism, undemocratic leaders generally do not feel the need to use the excuse of combating the pandemic to manage election outcomes and suppress their opposition. The cynical exploitation of coronavirus restrictions can best be analysed as a single ‘tool’ available to disrupt elections, one amongst many others. Indeed it can be expected that in a country that has downplayed the extent of the pandemic, such as Tanzania, such exploitation will not occur. 


As it stands, it seems that the use of pandemic measures as a method to stifle democracy is not very pervasive. More politically stable countries with a history of better-functioning democracy are expected to cope with the strain. In the coming year we may see countries with hybrid or authoritarian regimes use pandemic restrictions as an excuse, but for many the subjugation of democratic activity in Africa will simply continue much as it has in the past.


Categories: Africa, Politics

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