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Coronavirus and democracy: The virus that killed civil liberties?

Rights groups are worried. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to a shuddering stop. One third of the world is on lockdown, unable to leave their homes for any reason save food and medicine.

This has required governments to introduce sweeping measures banning their citizens from public places. In Hungary, parliament has given the prime minister the ability to rule by decree. In Chile, public squares once occupied by protestors have been cleared by the army. In Britain, the government has introduced “eye-watering” powers to detain people and close the borders. Even the prime minister, Boris Johnson, described them as “draconian”.

There is almost unanimous consensus that these laws are a proportionate and necessary response to arguably the biggest global crisis since the Second World War. However, this legislation is giving rise to serious concern over the longevity of democratic norms in countries home to weak institutions, not least in Africa.

At the time of writing, 11 countries on the continent had gone into either full or partial lockdown, with heavy restrictions placed on civil liberties. These include those with little to no democratic pretence, such as Zimbabwe and Uganda, right up to those that enjoy relative or complete freedom, like Rwanda and Mauritius.

The coronavirus has already been used to decimate voting processes. In Guinea, a referendum on whether the president, 82-year old Alpha Condé, will be allowed to remain in office for another two terms, still went ahead as the rest of the world was shutting down, because, according to the strongman, Guinea “cannot isolate itself from its fellow countries”.

Malawians were set to return to the polls in July for what had been hailed as a democratic milestone, not just for the country, but for Africa. After the disastrous 2019 poll was annulled by the nation’s top court, the rerun, set to take place in July, looks heavily in doubt.

The president, Peter Mutharika, has already taken disturbing steps in the name stopping the spread. Just last week he ordered opposition political parties to stop their coronavirus awareness campaigns, calling their public health efforts a politicisation of the pandemic.

But Guinea and Malawi are not alone. Criticism has been levied at the authorities in both Kenya and Uganda, where footage has circulated online showing the aggressive nature of the lockdowns there. Police have been seen beating, whipping, even shooting pedestrians, many of whom are forced to forego an income in order to quarantine themselves. Earlier this week, a 13-year old Kenyan boy, playing on the balcony of his home, was shot dead by a stray police bullet.

The roundup and arrest of 20 LGBT people in Uganda for “congesting in a school-like dormitory setting within a small house”, has been decried by Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a rights group, as “a clear case of discrimination” against the LGBT community.

While it is true that autocratic rulers can take the swift and decisive action needed in times like these without the hurdle of legislative scrutiny, they often do not have the people’s best interests at heart. Political scientists have highlighted that, while people are often brought together during times of crises, they also present an opportunity for leaders to permanently hold onto power.

In Germany in 1933, Hitler used the Reichstag fire to suspend all civil liberties. In 1982, an attempted coup took Daniel arap Moi and Kenya down the same path. Tragically, in many parts of Africa, the writing is already on the wall. “These are risky times for democracies”, says Erica Frantz, an academic at Michigan State University. “We really need to pay attention to crisis events that can be used for transitions from democracy to take place”.

Africa is yet to feel the full force of the coronavirus. When it eventually does, it will require a truly global effort to beat it back; so too will the rise of autocracy. But unfortunately, the democratic process did not need the coronavirus to hasten its decline.


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