Ordinarily, when a strongman postpones or cancels an election, activists, campaigners and observers cry foul. Casting your ballot is the truest form of democratic expression, something that should be cherished, encouraged. But covid-19 has changed all that.
Guinea’s octogenarian president, Alpha Condé, quickly spied the opportunity presented by the pandemic. In late March he finally pressed ahead with a vote already postponed four times, covid-19 clearly not a good enough reason to delay once more. Both the opposition and international election observers boycotted, leaving the door wide open for blatant manipulation. Not only did the ruling party increase their share of the vote, but a referendum on presidential term limits tacked on to the ballot means Condé can stay until he’s 94.
The situation in Burundi is similarly dire. The virus has not stopped a fiery election campaign, marred by widespread social unrest, intimidation and violence. The government has taken surprisingly few measures to combat the disease, and the country remains the only one in Africa not to halt its top-tier football league. Matches were suspended on 13 March, only for stadiums to be repurposed for campaign rallies. Fixtures are due to restart the day after voting.
But according to the president’s handpicked successor, General Evariste Ndayishimye, Burundians need not worry. “The coronavirus is killing people everywhere else”, he told supporters. “Do not be afraid. God loves Burundi”. Hardly reassuring for the World Health Organisation officials recently expelled.
Most election monitors from the East African Community were planning on staying away from Burundi, but President Nkurunziza did not want to take any chances. Just nine days out from election day he declared that any international observers would be quarantined for two weeks on arrival.
Despite recent characterisations of elections observers as “zombie monitors”, directed in large part towards the Southern African Development Community, who approved votes in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe last year, their presence is known to curtail extra-judicial cruelties. Opposition figures in Burundi say frequent abuses are going undocumented. Agathon Rwasa, who leads the opposition FNL, claims his supporters have been beaten, detained and murdered.
Elsewhere in the region, Tanzania’s president, John “the Bulldozer” Magufuli, looks increasingly likely to press ahead with elections in October. Like his counterpart in Burundi, the president believes God will protect his country from the coronavirus because, as he says, it is the “devil”, which “cannot live in the body of Christ. It will burn instantly”. Nowhere is the situation more precarious than Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island region off Tanzania’s coast, where the public clashed with authorities after the election there was annulled in 2015.
But while some are using the pandemic to push on with elections, others are using it not to. Malawi’s beleaguered president, Peter Mutharika, is fighting tooth-and-nail in court to prevent a rerun of last year’s sham election following its annulment in February. On 8 May judges threw out his appeal, labelling it “embarrassing” and “unprofessional”.
Uganda’s long-time dictator, President Yoweri Museveni, last week said it would be “madness” to hold elections there next year if the coronavirus still persisted. At the time of writing, the country had confirmed just 160 positive cases, in large part due to its efficiency in dealing with its outbreak. Its shared border with the DR Congo forced it to implement effective disease control measures during its neighbours Ebola epidemic. If it continues on this path, the virus will not have enough of a presence to warrant any postponement of the vote.
It’s hard to find a strongman anywhere in the world who has not sought to exploit the virus. Whether it’s through fear or faith in the almighty, autocrats are seeking to further consolidate their grip on power. But pandemic or not, the way to stop them remains the same. Malawi is proving that robust institutions, an independent judiciary, and brave voices of dissent can have an effect. There is hope yet.