COVID-19 has had a far-reaching and devastating impact on African economies, with major political implications for Africa. The pandemic is not just a health or socio-economic crisis; it is a governance crisis, testing the resilience of governance systems and institutions. It has exposed fundamental challenges of development in a weak institutional environment and the shortcomings of weak structures and leadership at all levels of governance.
At the same time, this moment has highlighted the critical role that effective and inclusive governance can play in terms of the relationship between the state and its people. Some African governments were able to rapidly and effectively respond with appropriate policies, and the strongest leadership and most effective COVID-19 responses have come from those that were committed to improving governance and instilling trust with citizens.
This article takes a high-level look at both sides. It identifies a few of the most prominent ways that the pandemic has both threatened and encouraged good governance practices in Africa. It is derived from key findings in two ACET research papers—Responding to COVID-19: An overview of governance issues and Governance and COVID-19: Scan of COVID-19 governance-related policy actions— produced in support of the German government’s Reform Partnership program, a multi-country initiative under the G20 Compact with Africa.
Expansion of Executive Power
In response to health and economic emergency situations, many countries have imposed far-reaching executive powers and restrictions on basic individual rights.
In Ghana, Kenya, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda, and Senegal, controversial laws were passed that provided discretionary powers to the executive branch to impose various restrictions. Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Uganda placed an absolute ban on the right to peaceful assembly and essentially removed the right of citizens and elected representatives to demand much-needed accountability and oversight for social change. In total, 106 executive measures were introduced across the continent to curtail the movement and assembly of people.
Other COVID-19 emergency measures not only empowered the executive branch of government but also weakened the other branches, such as the suspension of the functioning of parliament or judicial proceedings, making it impossible for civil society organizations in many countries to bring lawsuits to challenge COVID-19-related laws and practices that infringe on human rights.
The pandemic has become a convenient cover for some governments to clamp down on dissenting voices as well as major political opponents.
The tilt toward anti-democratic practices appeared particularly pronounced in countries with major elections scheduled in 2020. For example, COVID-19 measures that limited the size of crowded gatherings affected participation and turnout in Guinea, Mali, Benin, and Burundi. In Benin, civil society and other observers reported that similar pandemic-related interventions were used to suppress political opposition activities. In Cameroon, the government banned the Survive Cameroon Survival Initiative, a non-profit organization spearheaded by Maurice Kamto, the country’s main opposition leader. In Ethiopia, the government indefinitely postponed the country’s elections because of the pandemic, creating heightened socio-political tensions. The constitutional implications of the decision—and the subsequent crisis that unfolded in the Tigray region—have threatened the country’s governance structures.
Lack of Inclusive Governance
Limited decentralization has resulted in weak health care infrastructure and poor local service delivery.
The inequitable distribution of development projects and poor devolution of powers has resulted in weak health care infrastructure, inefficient administration, and poor service delivery at the local level in many African states. Therefore, response protocols were highly centralized and concentrated in capital cities and major urban centers. In countries such as Kenya, a two-tiered structure of governance—at the national and county levels—have hindered effective pandemic responses as competing powers fight for control of the health care system at the local level.
Human Rights Abuses
Pockets of abuse in some countries have been reported during the enforcement of lockdowns.
In many countries, the implementation of early lockdown measures led to significant police and military violations of the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens. Such actions were more prevalent in countries with historically abusive enforcement agencies. For example, multiple cases of alleged police brutality were reported in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
The need for an immediate response to the pandemic has increased opportunities for abuse and misappropriation.
In the wake of COVID-19 policy responses, exports of uncompetitive purchases, proliferation of substandard products, contract awards to incompetent contractors, price gouging, and bribery are on the rise in Africa. In addition, leakages in the distribution of cash grants and food parcels to food-insecure communities due to weak infrastructure corruption have resulted in diminished transparency and accountability. As a result, officials across the continent are being swept up in abuse of power investigations for siphoning funds intended to tackle the pandemic.
Transparency in Resource Mobilization
The pandemic has forced many African countries to harness untapped sources of resource mobilization.
Even as emergency financing needs and spending increased instances of corruption and poor oversight in many places, innovative transparency processes also emerged to reduce illegal activities. For example, some countries introduced and implemented corruption toolkits to enhance good governance principles in the management of the pandemic. In Tunisia, the introduction of a hotline for whistleblowers helped expose favoritism in the distribution of COVID-19 funds, arbitrary increases to the cost of health services in private clinics, and various irregularities in contracts in procurement of medical goods. Tunisia also introduced monitoring systems to track transactions carried out by the central pharmacy.
A common African trend towards increased digitalization of social services – a consequence of governments seeking faster and more efficient means of cash distribution in the face of sudden lockdowns – could ultimately help curb corruption by making disbursements more transparent.
Open and Effective Leadership
COVID-19 responses and outcomes were determined in large part by the nature of each country’s leadership.
On the one hand, many African countries benefitted from leaders whose action and decisions were rooted in science and sound policy practice and who were transparent with citizens about the nature and development of the pandemic. Consequently, such leadership quickly established a relationship of trust with their citizens in the midst of crisis. On the other hand, many leaders eroded governance, undermined the role of science, and politicized responses to the pandemic. An average of 72% of respondents in 20 countries surveyed by IPSOS expressed that they were somewhat or very satisfied with their government’s response.
The pandemic has prioritized a stronger focus on health sector governance.
In some instances, the increased attention to countries’ health sectors has gone hand-in-hand with the emergence of more decentralized and inclusive health systems. In Senegal, serious efforts were made at the district level to ensure decentralized sample collection in eight regions in the country. As in many other African countries, the Senegalese government has since promised an ambitious reform of the health sector and improved social policies through the Investment Plan for a Resilient and Sustainable Health and Social System.
In Tunisia, municipal councils all over the country established local crisis committees with representation from civil society organizations, political parties and other stakeholders to roll out local government responses to COVID-19. These local crisis committees coordinated with national institutions to implement targeted measures in their communities.
Five takeaway recommendations for good governance during an emergency or crisis
- Good governance requires inclusive decision making, accountability, and transparency.
- Good governance requires timely responses, efficient government initiatives, and consensus-building.
- Good governance requires fair legal structures, impartial institutions and a lack of impunity.
- Good governance requires capacity to transparently mobilize resources and ensure equitable service delivery.
- Good governance requires honest, open, and enhanced interaction between government and civil society.