Assessing the Implication of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Peace and Security in Africa
By Olajumoke (Jumo) Ayandele, PhD, Adjunct Instructor
Current regional and national responses to the pandemic demonstrate that threats to African security are evolving and that African wars are not just confined to armed conflict. In building a prosperous and stable post-COVID Africa, the region’s recovery will be dependent on the implementation of resilient frameworks that can simultaneously advance both human security and the demilitarization of political spaces.
Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has created an environment where the core tenets of democracy have been shaken to its very core in the last two years. While governments continue to adopt several measures to contain the spread of the virus, the region’s political landscape has become increasingly militarized, with democratic principles of state governance challenged in efforts to manage the economic and health impacts of the virus. In many African countries, undemocratic practices have included: political actors consolidating power by implementing government-adopted measures intended to either suppress dissent or deny opportunities for political participation; unconstitutional extensions of term limits; and the interference of the military in state affairs, as demonstrated by an increasing number of military coups or attempted coups in the last year.
These practices, and COVID-related restrictions, have further impacted the security landscape of the continent. Although instability and conflict in Africa were on the rise prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, government-adopted measures to contain the spread of the virus have heightened major structural inequalities and grievances that have driven conflict on the continent.
In a recently published Workshop Report with Yvan Ilunga, we assess the security and policy implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the stability and prosperity of Africa, identifying current and emerging trends, as well as opportunities for local, state, and regional stakeholders in building a stable Africa in a post-COVID world.
Africa’s Post-COVID Current and Emerging Trends and Challenges
In our assessment of the dynamics imposed by the pandemic on institutions, communities, and governance across the region, our report highlights four major observations:
1. Civil and Political Rights: The first is the dilemma African governments face in choosing to either promote the right to vote or safeguard the right to health during a public health crisis. In many countries, civil and political rights were restricted under the guise of containment measures, with state leaders deploying state security apparatuses to enforce COVID-19 restrictions, while simultaneously advancing their political agendas. While there were genuine reasons for many countries to postpone their elections in efforts to safeguard the health of their citizens, certain state leaders exploited the COVID-19 crisis, manipulating the political process by postponing elections, which exacerbated political violence in countries such as Somalia. Other countries like Burundi, on the other hand, conducted elections despite evidence of increased spikes in COVID-19 infection rates during the electoral cycle — demonstrating the dilemma in conducting elections during a public health crisis.
2. Protests and Demonstrations: The second relates to the increasing trend of political and civil instability that resulted from the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on the informal sector and on citizens’ livelihoods. Widespread protests and violent demonstrations during the latter half of 2020 and most of 2021 over escalating food costs, high employment and underemployment rates, and increased police brutality in enforcing COVID-19 restrictions pointed to citizens’ lack of trust in African institutions and their political leadership (see Figure 1). This coupled with the militarization of the political space with respect to the number of military coups in countries such as Guinea, Mali, Chad, and Sudan illuminate underlying grievances and the erosion of Western democratic values that predates the COVID-19 crisis.
Figure 1: COVID-19 and AFRICA Map Showing Protests and Violent Demonstrations in 2019–2021.
3. Increased militant jihadist group activities: Third, is the rise of militant jihadist group activities in the Sahel, Lake Chad, and Great Lakes regions in the last two years. Limitations on several civil society and international humanitarian partners programmatic interventions due to countries’ border restrictions at the onset of the pandemic affected both regional and national security responses. This resulted in armed groups and terrorist organizations being able to take advantage of the limited presence of government and international actors to regroup and build their legitimacy in areas under their control.
4. Public health capabilities: Finally, regarding public health capabilities, we highlight in our report that Africa remains in a challenging position with vaccine equity and distribution. Limited local capacity to develop and manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine fostered continued dependency on the international community for vaccines. This dependency, unfortunately, disempowered countries in their ability to strategically and organically develop solutions anchored in local, cultural, and social dynamics. For example, the double standards that African states faced regarding the credibility of their vaccine certificates, and the immediate travel ban of some Southern and West African countries in November 2021 following the discovery and transparency in reporting the Omicron coronavirus variant, undermined the much-needed trust in encouraging vaccine uptake and public reporting in the region.
Opportunities for Building a Stable and Prosperous Post-COVID-19 Africa
Despite the above challenges facing the continent, we conclude in our report’s analysis, that Africa can rebuild from within in its efforts to successfully address the impacts of the pandemic. To do this, however, we contend that the region’s recovery will be dependent on the implementation of resilient frameworks that can simultaneously advance both human security and the demilitarization of political spaces in building a prosperous and stable post-COVID Africa. Such frameworks would incorporate:
- An engaged civil society in building trust between local communities and state actors. This promoted community-driven approach is crucial in designing and implementing policies and programs that will be sensitive to local nuances and the grievances of marginalized groups.
- The development and support of community and national level institutions that are inclusive and complementary in increasing vaccination rates and in ensuring the continent’s resiliency when facing future disasters.
- The region’s informal economy in the design and development of post-COVID relief in boosting national economies.
- The design and development of early warning tools and systems that can respond to health crises and the evolving local dynamics of conflicts in the region.
- The leadership of the African Union in demilitarizing political spaces and promoting the integration of local stakeholders in regional security frameworks.
The pandemic presents an opportunity for African leaders to revisit the strengths of their current institutions. Current regional and national responses to the pandemic also demonstrate that threats to security are evolving and that African wars are not just confined to armed conflict. For us scholars and policymakers, this means that there is a need to approach African wars, peace, and security through an inclusive and holistic framework. One cannot talk about stability without economic development; economic development without addressing health insecurities; and health insecurities without taking into consideration its impact on political and civil liberties. These issues all influence the effectiveness of governing institutions. However, in addressing evolving threats to security, this will require innovation and collaboration across multiple levels of society in thinking, practice, and in the design of policies and programs in promoting good governance while also combating the complexity of African wars in the 21st Century.
This article is excerpted from the Author’s co-authored Workshop Report, “African Wars in the 21st Century: Post-COVID Emerging Trends, Challenges and Opportunities.” The longer version can be found here.
Dr. Olajumoke (Jumo) Ayandele is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the New York University Center for the study of Africa and the African Diaspora (CSAAD) and an adjunct faculty member here at the CGA. In her most recent position as a Senior Researcher at The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Dr. Ayandele supported the production of real-time data on political violence in Nigeria. She is passionate about understanding the dynamic relationship and intersection between African conflict, human security, and political stability, and has won numerous awards and grants to conduct her research.