COVID-19 Is an African Political Crisis as Much as a Health and Economic Emergency

Sub-Saharan Africa is speeding toward a political crisis as well as a health and economic catastrophe in the face of the rapidly expanding COVID-19 pandemic. The region’s media and leaders had been slow to come to grips with the threat in part because infection rates were minimal and confined to a few countries throughout February and into the first week of March. The region, like most areas in the Global South, initially received a reprieve from the COVID-19 outbreak that ravaged China and is now spreading rapidly across Europe and the United States. But that grace period is now over. As of March 18, 2020, there are 25 sub-Saharan African countries with confirmed cases. And every day brings new reports of infections, even in landlocked countries such as the Central African Republic and small countries with tiny populations such as Equatorial Guinea and the Seychelles.

From Newsworthy to News Overload

The virus’s swift expansion has dramatically altered the media narratives just in the past week alone. Throughout February and into the first week of March, the burgeoning COVID-19 story was covered by African media, but it had to compete for space against cooking recipes on News24 in South Africa, President Kenyatta’s domestic political rivalries on the Daily Nation in Kenya, and criticisms of President Buhari’s leadership on Premium Times in Nigeria. But now it is different. The COVID-19 story is no longer just confined to a news site’s health section. This is the region’s most important story in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, among other countries. On Friday, Kenyans, for example, searched for terms related to coronavirus on Google more than 400,000 times. On Sunday, most South African papers led with stories on the pandemic, noting that beloved sporting events, such as the Two Oceans Marathon, have been cancelled and quoting prominent religious leaders who warned that coronavirus is not “ just a European problem.” Sub-Saharan African publics, like people everywhere, are wracked with concern about the implications for their well-being as well as their livelihoods.

A Gut Punch to the Region’s Economies

Sub-Saharan African economies started to show signs of strain from the COVID-19 outbreak even before the virus made landfall in a meaningful way. In mid-February, the IMF warned that Africa was at risk of a slowdown as the coronavirus throttled demand from China, its largest trading partner. The impact of COVID-19—compounded by a significant dip in oil prices—will disproportionally affect Nigeria and put other resource-dependent economies such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia in jeopardy. According to the BBC, African airlines (including Royal Air Maroc and EgyptAir) have already lost a combined $400 million since the outbreak began, with airlines suspending flights to and from China. The region’s governments are understandably apprehensive that the virus will slow infrastructure projects, delay business transactions, and curtail Africa’s access to global supply chains. The lack of inventory for consumer goods threatens the livelihoods of countless small-to-medium-sized businesses across Africa who are all scrambling in vain to find alternative suppliers who can match China’s formidable pricing and efficient logistics.

Workers, too, are feeling the pain. So long as those container ships remain docked in Chinese ports, Africa’s construction, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors are running dangerously low on intermediate goods needed for building projects and farming. Construction on the 2,000 km Niger-Benin pipeline and the nearly-done Lagos-Ibadan in Nigeria have stopped completely. One after another, workers are being idled across the continent due to the escalating COVID-19 crisis on account of lack of materials or Chinese personnel.

A Political Crucible for the Region’s Leaders

The combination of escalating economic disruption and the slow and uneven response to the COVID-19 outbreak is contributing to political crises in several of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest democracies. In the past week, several governments have leaped into action. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa during an address to the nation on Sunday labeled the crisis as a “National State of Disaster,” warning that “this disease will be extremely disruptive” and could have a “potentially severe” impact on businesses and jobs in South Africa. Senegalese president Macky Sall ordered for all schools and universities to be closed for the next three weeks and for all religious festivals to be canceled. His government is also working with a U.K. firm to develop a hand-held coronavirus test. Other governments have issued restrictions, established hand-washing stations, or earmarked significant resources to respond to the crisis. But as the financial and human toll deepens, it is almost certain that African publics will look for someone—anyone—to blame.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta offers a preview of what other African leaders might expect. The Kenyan president’s clumsy handling of the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from insufficient preparation at the country’s hospitals to the resumption of direct flights from China, resulted in the High Court’s intervention to overrule the State House. Kenyans have gone online to vent their rage toward the government’s handling of the situation, and now, with three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, if Kenyatta fails to reverse the negative momentum, the president will likely have to contend with a full-blown political crisis while simultaneously dealing with a pandemic.

The potential for more political confrontations is high. In several countries, the opposition has been quick to score points at the government’s ham-fisted response. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) this month attacked Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari for neglecting to address the nation’s concerns about the pandemic, calling it an “absolute leadership failure.” Opposition parties in Gabon, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zambia also have weighed in, proffering their own proposals to contain the disease. Ghana’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) had the most biting quip, advising Ghanaians to “wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water as if you unexpectedly just touched [a ruling] NPP t-shirt.”

Many of the governments almost certainly will find it tempting to use COVID-19 to tilt the playing field in their favor. The outbreak presents an opportunity for incumbents to entrench themselves, delay elections, and outlaw street protests on public safety grounds. In Uganda, for instance, there is currently a court petition to suspend the 2021 presidential election “for five years until government gains control over the coronavirus disease.” If granted, this decision would benefit Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, who is increasingly unnerved by popular musician Bobi Wine’s presidential campaign. Autocrats similarly could use the COVID-19 outbreak to quell protests. Sub-Saharan Africa saw the largest increases in anti-government demonstrations in the world between 2009 and 2019, with significant mass protest movements in Sudan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. This may affect the political situation in Togo, where the opposition has vowed to protest President Faure Gnassingbe’s flawed reelection victory. At least in one case, the COVID-19 outbreak could strengthen democratic forces. Guinea’s opposition and the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) have another reason to demand President Conde to drop his bid to extend his term in office, arguing that it is unsound to proceed with a constitutional referendum scheduled for March 22, 2020.

Where Is the International Community?

African governments and publics will closely monitor their external partners, rendering judgments on whether China, the European Union, and the United States are sufficiently responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in sub-Saharan Africa. When the news broke, there was an uptick in xenophobia against Chinese citizens in sub-Saharan Africa. A Kenyan politician allegedly said Chinese people should be stoned on sight, while there have been other cases of Chinese people harassed and intimidated on fears of coronavirus. In Nigeria and Kenya, there was panic when flights from China arrived at their international airports.

However, as of mid-March, it has become clear that the majority of the cases in sub-Saharan Africa have come from Europe, notably Italy and France, not from China. Indeed, Somalia is the only sub-Saharan African country with an index case connected to China. The Chinese government also has started to pivot, repositioning itself as contributing to the global response. In a letter to the United Nations, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun pledged “solidarity with the rest of the international community to jointly fight the epidemic.” Jack Ma, founder of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, said he will partner with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to distribute 10,000-20,000 corona testing kits per country, more than 100,000 masks for each African country, and guideline books on how to treat patients with the virus.

An African verdict on the U.S. response is still evolving, but the United States missed an early opportunity to reaffirm its reputation as the most important leader on health and humanitarian issues in the region. To be sure, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) committed $37 million in financing for high-priority countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, to prepare and respond to the threat of COVID-19. The United States also is working to strengthen African national health laboratories. But these initiatives rarely garner headlines, and some official U.S. statements have been confounding. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy at the Woodrow Wilson Center on 2 March stated that he cannot say “what is going to happen and in which particular country because we have no idea unfortunately” to a question about the U.S. response to coronavirus in the region.

If the United States wants to build on its record of health and humanitarian responses, it should refocus its public diplomacy to demonstrate how its support tangibly helps Africans address this public health emergency. U.S. embassies should step up their engagement with local newspapers as well as unleash their ambassadors to talk directly to African citizens about U.S. contributions. Some U.S. diplomats could even join the WHO SafeHands challenge. Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s social media video, in which he called on fellow African leaders to accept the challenge, has been viewed more than 300,000 times in only two days. A U.S. official working in tandem (or virtually) with an African counterpart is a powerful symbol of U.S. commitment.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Eric Olander is the managing editor of the independent, non-partisan China Africa Project website and podcast.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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