Authoritarianism and Covid-19: the complex realities of public action in Africa

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During the Covid-19 pandemic, many highlighted the link between authoritarian regimes and efficiency in managing the pandemic. However, when it comes to Africa, the link between the quality of the response and the type of diet is not a direct correlation. In fact, the effectiveness of a country’s pandemic management depends primarily on national trajectories in most cases. This was the case for AIDS in Africa, as for Covid today.

The examples of Senegal and Rwanda clearly illustrate how similar measures can lead to different results depending on the type of regime. To illustrate, on March 21 and 23, 2020, respectively, the authoritarian government of Rwanda and the democratic government of Senegal imposed a curfew. In these two very different countries, a curfew had not been put in place for decades and, as such, a few groups of young people decided to defy the ban. In Dakar, there was friction between the young people and the gendarmes, and a few batons marked the evening. Likewise, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, some young people also clashed with the police. The result, however, was quite different from what happened in Dakar: the police shot two young people in the street and later the police beat a 30-year-old man to death for breaking the rules of the curfew. This brutal comparison shows a return to the use of “legitimate violence”, the disproportionality of which highlights the difference between a pluralist regime where political authorities debate and negotiate – like Senegal – and an authoritarian country like Rwanda.

The differences between Senegal and Rwanda are also visible in their leadership. Macky Sall, the Senegalese president, came to power in 2012 following an election, as has been the case in the country since the 1970s. Meanwhile, Rwandan President Paul Kagame came to power after the genocide of the Tutsi of 1994: it reigns supreme and has restricted freedoms in the name of stability, peace and economic development. The economic recovery and the spectacular construction of infrastructures over the last twenty years are the main arguments of its disciplinary logic. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the population silently followed Kagame as a guide in a country both cited as an example by some and denounced by others – like Human Right Watch – for its authoritarianism.

While Rwanda has appeared to be successful in containing Covid-19 given its strict control over the population and travel restrictions, the same cannot be said for its vaccine rollout. Although vaccine doses have been ordered and received through the international Covax initiative (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) (240,000 doses of AstraZeneca) and direct partnerships (102,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech), the objective to vaccinate a third of the population by the end of the year will be a difficult feat. At the end of June, Rwanda ranked 17th among African countries, with only 2.71% of its population vaccinated, just behind Mauritania (14th), Côte d’Ivoire (15th), Ghana (16th) and far behind Morocco (1st) – which has so far vaccinated 26% of its population.

Alternative to control by force, other authoritarian systems are driven by a central idea: the confiscation of power by the elites, which weakens the social bond and causes social relations to become, according to Durkeim’s definition, “anomic” , that is, deprived of values ​​and unpredictable. As a result, in some of these countries, the religious and mystical positions of authoritarian rulers can become the guiding principles of public policies. For example, former Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza – an authoritarian leader who was ruthless to his opponents and a follower of the Evangelical Church – had decreed that prayer would protect against Covid-19. As a result, Burundi has not taken specific measures to counter the spread of the pandemic. Nkurunziza officially died of a heart attack in June 2020, as did former Tanzanian President John Magufuli, a devout Catholic, who died in March 2021; he had mismanaged the first wave of the pandemic and had promptly declared the “end of the Covid” just a few months after the first epidemics in the country.

The underlying lack of values ​​behind authoritarianism has severely affected the handling of the pandemic, with embezzlement scandals believed to fight the spread of the virus. Cameroon best embodies this phenomenon in Central Africa, with the revelation of the misappropriation of the “Special National Solidarity Fund” created in 2020 as well as the subsidy granted by the IMF. Similar scandals have also occurred in South Africa. African countries’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic says a lot about how binary explanations can be outdated and inaccurate, including the link between development and democracy and authoritarianism and efficiency in management of Covid-19. But at the same time, exploring the link between authoritarianism and pandemic can highlight the complexity of public action trajectories in particular contexts, which are above all informed by their history.

“Authoritarianism and Covid-19: the complex realities of public action in Africa” – Commentary by Fred Eboko – Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.

Commentary can be downloaded here


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