Authoritarianism and Covid-19: The Complex Realities of Public Action in Africa

Written by | Wednesday, July 21st, 2021

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

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

The divergences 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 1994 Tutsi genocide: he reigns as an absolute master and has curtailed freedoms in the name of stability, peace, and economic development. Economic recovery and spectacular infrastructure construction over the past twenty years are the main arguments behind his disciplinary rationale. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the population silently followed Kagame as a guide in a country that is simultaneously cited as an example by some and denounced by others — such as Human Right Watch — for its authoritarianism.

If Rwanda seemed to do well in containing Covid-19 given its strict control over the population and on travel restrictions, the same cannot be said as regards its vaccine rollout. Although vaccine doses were ordered and received through the international Covax (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative (240,000 doses from AstraZeneca) and direct partnerships (102,000 doses from Pfizer-BioNTech), the goal to vaccinate one third of the population by the end of the year will be a hard feat. By the end of June, Rwanda had ranked 17th among African countries, with only 2.71% of its population vaccinated, just behind Mauritania (14th), Cote d’Ivoire (15th), Ghana (16th), and far behind Morocco (1st) — which has vaccinated 26% of its population so far.

As an alternative to exerting control by force, other authoritarian systems are driven by a central idea: the confiscation of power by the elite, which weakens the social bond and causes social relations to become, according to Durkeim’s definition, “anomic”, meaning deprived of values and unpredictable. As a result, in some of these countries, authoritarian leaders’ religious and mystical stances can become the guiding principles for 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 from Covid-19. As a result, Burundi did not take specific measures to counter the advancement of the pandemic. Nkurunziza officially died of a heart attack in June 2020, just like the former Tanzanian president, John Magufuli, a devout Catholic, who passed away in March 2021; he had poorly managed the first wave of the pandemic and promptly declared the “end of Covid” just a few months after the first outbreaks in the country.

The underlying lack of values behind authoritarianism has seriously affected the pandemic management, with scandals of embezzlement of funds that were supposed to combat the spread of the virus. Cameroon best epitomizes such phenomenon in Central Africa, with the revelation of the embezzlement of the “Special National Solidarity Fund” created in 2020 as well as the grant given by the IMF. Similar scandals have also transpired in South Africa. African countries’ management of the Covid-19 pandemic speaks volumes about how outdated and inaccurate binary explanations can be, including the connection between development and democracy and authoritarianism and efficiency in dealing with Covid-19. At the same time, however, exploring the link between authoritarianism and the pandemic can highlight the complexity of public action trajectories in specific contexts, which are informed first and foremost 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.

The Commentary can be downloaded here

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