When Presidents Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were brought down within a few years of each other, Africa appeared to be getting rid of the old men that had dominated the political scene for decades.
Intense, because so many major events came one after another, from the outbreak of COVID-19 through to contested elections in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Tanzania – and, just when it was looking like the firestorm of bad news had burned itself out, the conflict in Ethiopia.
Breathless, because so many struggled to breath under the weight of oppressive security forces, from the United States to Nigeria, while millions of people seriously ill with COVID-19 found themselves gasping for oxygen, dependent on ventilators to stay alive.
In some ways, Africa is one of the only continents to have emerged from this most challenging and exhausting of years with enhanced its reputation enhanced.
Contrary to some commentator’s expectations, the coronavirus did not decimate Africa as it did Europe and North America. Instead, early government shutdowns and the rapid closure of borders – along with younger populations and warmer climates – helped to contain the disease. As a result, Afropessimists around the world were left sorely disappointed, and spent the rest of the year trying to find the magical ingredient that would explain why the continent did not have to be saved by Western donors.
This represented a significant success story worth celebrating, not least because it is a powerful reminder that African states can act effectively and decisively to tackle major national challenges when it is in their interests to do so. However, lurking in the shadows of this more positive narrative is a more troubling one. In much, but by no means all, of the continent the effective response to COVID-19 came at the cost of human rights and democracy, further entrenching authoritarian regimes.
The real political story of 2020 is therefore not the containment of COVID-19, but the way in which this set in motion twin processes of repression and resistance.
A year of repression and resistance
The spread of coronavirus did not cause greater political violence in any simplistic sense – instead, it exacerbated existing tendencies. In countries like Kenya, South Africa and Rwanda, heavy handed security forces that have regularly been accused of human rights violations used extreme force to implement curfews, leading to numerous deaths. Meanwhile, authoritarian leaders that faced mass protests or elections – including in Guinea, Uganda, Zambia Zimbabwe – took advantage of the spread of coronavirus to manipulate social distancing requirements, constraining the activities of opposition parties and civil society groups.
The fact that COVID-19 dominated international headlines and attention also had a detrimental on democracy around the world. With the United States obsessed with its own election and the Trump soap opera, and the UK incapable of managing either the pandemic or Brexit, there was precious little pro-democratic leadership on the world stage. Sensing that there would be few if any international punishments for even the most blatant abuses, authoritarian leaders ceased trying to hide their repression.
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Not content with manipulating the outcome of general elections in Tanzania, President John Magufuli’s government used mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists to try and stop post-election protests, while nine people were killed in clashes with the security forces on the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar.
Perhaps emboldened by events in Tanzania, President Yoweri Museveni has already unleashed “unprecedented intense violence” in Uganda, even though the polls are still weeks away. Opposition leader Bobi Wine has been arrested multiple times, his car has been shot at, his bodyguard has been hit with a rubber bullet and it is believed that close to a hundred people may already have died at the hands of the security forces.
COVID-19 also led to an intensification of violence in a much less well publicised, but no less important, way. Across Africa, and across the globe, the closure of schools and restrictions on population movement placed women and girls at a much greater risk of gender-based violence (GBV).
In Malawi, school closures left girls at greater risk of abuse by “non-strangers” such as neighbours and family members during the day time. As a result, the number of child marriages in some districts increased by over 90%. Similarly, researchers from the University of Birmingham found that violence of women in Kenya increased significantly during the pandemic, while the average age of victims decreased.
This broader trend was sadly mirrored in the political sphere, with a series of horrific acts of violence against female activists and leaders that highlight the prevalence of a particularly misogynistic form of authoritarian rule. As Glanis Changachirere has argued, writing about Zimbabwe, “women’s bodies have thus become perfect tools of objectification, projecting the state’s and, by conflation, ZANU-PF’s desires of domination over the MDC-A opposition: their bodies are used as weapons of violence to send a deep message of political conquest to the contesting party.”
New forms of resistance
The rise in political violence and GBV has been saddening to watch, but this cloud had a silver lining that should give us hope for the future. Almost every act of repression has been met with an innovative form of resistance that has demonstrated the creativity and bravery of Africa’s opposition and civil society activists.
Police brutality in Nigeria inspired mass protests driven by a youth movement determined to bring about change. Government efforts to criminalise protest in Zambia and Zimbabwe inspired citizens to record individual acts of resistance away from the prying eyes of the security forces.
When these “patchwork protests” were knitted together online, via Twitter and Facebook, they became another brick in the wall of opposition to authoritarian rule.
Moreover, in all of these cases, social media took protests to a global audience, as hashtags like #ZimbabweansLivesMatter and #ZanizbarLivesMatter both paid homage to the Black Lives Matter movement and demanded the same attention be paid to black lives lost in Africa. In turn, the fusion of diverse networks of resistance provided a shot in the arm for activists across the continent.
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It is easy to be dismissive of these protests – after all, they have so far done little to remove ZANU-PF from power in Zimbabwe, or its namesake, the Patriotic Front, from power in Zambia. But this would be a mistake. Popular protests brought down the regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 2019 – and played a major role in forcing transitions of power in, among others, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, and Niger.
Nowhere was the power of protest more evident in 2020 than Malawi, where regular mass protests kept the flawed elections in 2019 in the headlines and increased the pressure on the country’s democratic institutions to respond. After the presidential election was nullified by the courts, a re-run held in June 2020 was won by a new opposition coalition. As a result of these changes, Malawi became the only country in the world to move towards democracy during the pandemic, and was subsequently celebrated by the Economist magazine as the “country of the year”.
Malawi also demonstrated the ability of civil society groups to challenge other forms of violence, as Oxfam Malawi worked with the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus to draw attention to the increase in child marriages and GBV, and to work with traditional leaders and schools to turn the tide. Sadly this battle, like so many others, is still being fought – but the fact that it is being fought by a new generation of brilliant, brave and compassionate leaders means that this should be a source of hope rather than despair.
The outlook for 2021
This pattern of repression and resistance is unlikely to end in 2021. If anything, it will intensify. For all the talk of the coronavirus not hitting Africa hard, its economic impact has been profound. As governments have increased spending on healthcare, revenues from tourism had fallen sharply, pushing an increasing number of country’s towards a debt crisis. Zambia has already defaulted and others are likely to follow.
One of the typical consequences of unsustainable debt levels, sooner or later, is that governments have to cut spending in order to balance the books. In turn, this will intensify popular frustration at some of the continent’s most ineffective and corrupt regimes, inspiring further bouts of resistance and repression.
The outcome of these struggles will determine the degree of progress towards democracy – or lack of it. Recent years have seen a growing polarisation on the continent, with countries such as Tanzania and Uganda becoming increasingly repressive while some of Africa’s leading democratic lights have consolidated their gains.
Indeed, it is telling that while so many countries were sliding towards greater authoritarianism in 2020, Ghana held another election that – despite being close – was so well run and orderly that some correspondents characterised it as “boring”.
History suggests that in many countries repression will win out in the short term, but not forever. Every year an African country teaches us about the transformative potential of people power, and when that lesson is learned it stays learned. As a friend of mine commented, while arguing that I should strike an optimistic tone in this column, “Of course I believe in change, I’m a Malawian.”
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