Current and past fellows of the African Leadership Centre held a virtual discussion on July 27th on “Rethinking Governance, Security and Peace in the Time of COVID-19: Implications for African Leadership.”
To stimulate the discussion, an article by one of the current fellows was shared ahead of the event.
IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud said the purpose of the conversation was to reassess some of the inherited organizing paradigms of good governance, the state, security, and development, and to highlight innovative actions that African leaders, particularly women and youth, have come up with to spur progress and lay foundations for the post-pandemic future.
Since 2008, IPI has worked with King’s College London and the African Leadership Centre to bring a select group of African scholars to New York each July, though this year’s nine IPI African Junior Professional Fellows participated virtually. For the purposes of the conversation, they broke off into three groups, choosing their individual focuses from the categories of governance, security, or peace, and selecting a spokesperson to articulate their views.
The first fellow to speak, Kundai Mtasa of Zimbabwe, highlighted how COVID-19 had disrupted governance. “The key disruption that we decided to speak about is corruption, which is not a new disruption, but it has been emphasized because of the increased need for resources,” she said. “COVID-19 has shown that every restriction on movement or economic activity has created a favorable market for those who can find a way around official controls through bribery, smuggling or other activities. Lockdown has provided an opportunity and an income to those who are already engaged in activities such as corruption. And corruption during COVID-19 has largely been as a result of the mismanagement of resources that were supposed to go to the mitigation of COVID-19.” This, in turn, Ms. Mtasa said, has led to large parts of the population being deprived of access to health care and water and sanitation hygiene facilities and systems of cash stimulus to cushion the blow on low-income households.
Ms. Mtasa cited cases in both Kenya and Zimbabwe where citizens had innovated to make up for official lapses. “In the context of Kenya, the COVID-19 funds meant to improve health care infrastructure have been highly mismanaged, and this has resulted in a lack of beds to cater to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Consequently, Kenyan youths have taken matters into their own hands by making and providing beds. In the case of Zimbabwe, we have seen how sanitizers, masks, and gloves have been made within universities, such as the University of Zimbabwe. This has been in response to the lack of sanitizers and basic COVID-19 infrastructure available to the rest of the population.”
As for the future, Ms. Mtasa argued that the achievements of university students in Zimbabwe making their own hand sanitizer and young Congolese students creating masks and sanitizing booths were examples of youth response that ought to be encouraged. “It also highlights the importance of investing in higher institutions of learning for current and future development within African society.”
Ms. Mtasa said her group concluded that COVID-19 has actually shown the potential of African solutions to African problems. African leaders need to look for inward solutions and invest in their own countries, particularly the youth who drive the majority of the innovations in Africa. This is an example of how the youth play a crucial role in creating the sustainability of resilient and peaceful societies.”
Tabitha Mwangi of Kenya chose the subject of security and listed a number of security issues that had been adversely affected by the pandemic:
- Accountability: “We have had emergency powers invoked by many governments;”
- Transparency: “There’s a lack of disclosure on how funds are being used by governments to deal with the pandemic;”
- Rule of law: “It has been neglected with police and other security agencies doing what they want;”
- Participation: “Decisions are now being made by elites, mostly men, given the structure of government in most countries, and they do not consult experts, such as doctors, with many recommendations being made that are not directly compatible with what medics are prescribing;”
- Responsiveness: “Regulations are out of touch with the reality of people’s lives, like lockdowns in low-income areas where people are unable to stay at home because they need to make a daily wage;”
- Effectiveness: “Security forces have to do things outside their scope of work like escorting expectant women in distress to health centers after curfews;”
- Diversion of attention from real security needs: “The fact that there’s a pandemic going on doesn’t mean that violent extremist groups are going to take a back seat;”
- Human rights abuses: “They have been on the rise because of increased sexual and gender-based violence. We have had a higher incidence of rapes and female genital mutilation happening;”
- Police brutality: “Police use excessive means to enforce curfew and lockdown regulations;” and
- Xenophobia: “Foreign nationals have been targeted because of the perception that COVID-19 came from the outside. So if you see a foreigner, then they’re likely the ones who brought the disease to your home.”
Ms. Mwangi mentioned several instances in which African governments and citizens had acted to address security disruptions. In Kenya, she said, the president apologized for the actions of officers who had used excessive force to enforce curfews. The African Union held a virtual conference on the joint response to COVID-19, and governments had adopted different approaches to cushioning the most vulnerable, like tax reductions and easing of lockdowns to allow people in the informal sector to continue working. In Kenya, we have had money transfer cuts so it’s now cheaper for people to transact to avoid having to use physical cash.”
She said too that various countries were working together to ensure that they speak with one voice so that when a global vaccine is found, “they will not be left behind.” Among the homegrown innovations she mentioned were decongesting prisons, integrating trade within the continent to enhance food security, and involving the local population in “matters of security and accountability to ensure transparency in the use of funds.”
Going forward, Ms. Mwangi said that COVID-19 “presents an opportunity to build better by bridging the inequality gap and prioritizing health and human security, ensuring that security officials respect the rule of law and human rights and continue training and increased community-law enforcement dialogue and engagement, and empowering and auditing oversight bodies to ensure that they deliver justice.”
Essa Njie of The Gambia, the last current fellow to speak, focused on peace and noted that the African Union said at the outset in February that COVID-19 was a direct threat to peace and security on the continent. “That is certainly what we are seeing today,” he said. He reported that the pandemic had diverted the attention of both national and international actors from ongoing peace processes, closed national borders, and also provoked instances of police brutality and security force repression on the ground that were compounding the fear that people already felt from the menace of the disease. “We have seen cases of excessive peacekeeping use of force in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa where the threat from law enforcement is more immediate than the threat from the virus itself.”
Mr. Njie said that countries like Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan were facing the twin dilemmas of rising COVID-19 cases and stepped up terrorist group activity. “We have also seen peacekeeping operations facing challenges, especially as critical operations and rotations have been delayed or canceled due to military forces and police forces being quarantined. Some of them have to be quarantined when they arrive.”
Mr. Njie said the pandemic had created opportunities by spurring online conversations to advance peace processes and enabling governments and individuals to get food and funds to needy communities. But a significant downside was the rise of authoritarianism with “authoritarian regimes using the pandemic as an opportunity to stifle dissent and to violate human rights, as others have pointed out, with excessive use of force.” He noted that 24 elections had been postponed since March, costing governments credibility and heightening the allure of armed opposition groups. “People have started questioning whether COVID is, in fact, real, whether it exists, because the government has lost that level of confidence or that support from the people. I think it’s a result of the corruption allegations, the fact that politicians are using this as an opportunity to gather more money and misuse public funds.” He recounted that local rights groups and societal actors had “embarked on online sensitization on COVID and domestic violence against women.” He added, though, that he had seen several reports of femicide during lockdowns, notably in South Africa. “Governments and private individuals have also responded to the financial impact vis-à-vis poverty by providing food packages and funds to vulnerable families and individuals, for instance, in The Gambia and in Nigeria where the private sector has been effectively engaged in that.”
As examples of moves that governments have made that should be carried forward, he cited actions in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire making short-term provisions for free electricity and water through suspension of bill payments to protect citizens from financial pressures brought on by the pandemic. “These measures prove that governments in Africa can provide substantial and universal social protection measures, especially in crisis situations,” he said. “The pandemic has necessitated governments to each look to their own and not look outward for help.”
Dennis Jjuuko, an alumnus of the African Leadership Centre, commented that the pandemic was telling Africans not to neglect the value of their homegrown capacities. “We have always had innovations happening on the continent that we have chosen to be silent on, for a certain reason. COVID-19 actually lays bare the traditional context that we’ve always thought about, and opens us to emerging realities from academia, youth innovations, and inventions on the African continent.”
Mr. Jjuuko, who is now a doctoral student of global governance and human security at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, touted “African solutions to African problems, looking inward into Africa and harnessing our potential. Though we’ve always chosen to push aside and look towards the West for solutions, Africa as a continent is ripe for ideas that are worth harnessing.” He asked, “Are we seeing a leadership ready to harness these innovations in their kind of governance? How do we then ensure that governance guarantees the harnessing of these efforts? I think academic institutions and think tanks and civil society have a role to play in this kind of governance.”
Another alumnus, Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Complex Threats in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa, said that while violent extremism had risen to the top of the security agenda across Africa, strategies to combat it were dated and failing. “If we look at how we’ve been addressing this very serious problem of violent extremism, it’s usually with the use of force, but we know that for more than a decade now, this particular approach has not really been effective. So, maybe we need to explore other paradigms that might be uncomfortable, that might actually challenge the way we do things, and see how that works for Africa. When we speak of dialogue, it’s not only about dialoguing with the combatants or with violent extremist groups or those other insecurity actors, but also about engaging with communities too. I was glad when the panel mentioned something about the responses of citizens, the local communities. To what extent are we really consulting them, trying to get their insights on how we solve these problems?”
Dominique Dryding, a former fellow who is now Afrobarometer Project Leader for Southern Africa, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa, cited the mention by Mr. Njie of the rise of femicide in South Africa during the pandemic and asked why it was not being prioritized as a threat to peace. “We have a government that is quite capable of responding to crises, in creating emergency measures, from instituting a lockdown to ensuring that people have social protection, but gender-based violence, which is an absolute slap in the face to a notion of peace, is not prioritized by our government, so again when we think of peace, what are we talking about? And how do we bring peace back to an individual person who is stuck in a marriage where they get beat up, when being at home in a lockdown is not keeping you safe, but actually endangering your life?”
Mr. Mahmoud moderated the discussion.
Other group members included Ivy Nyawira Wahito and Alexandra Lukamba for governance, Ikran Mohamed Abdullahi and Ibrahim Machina for security, and Chimwemwe Fabiano and Margaret LoWilla for peace.