Africa braces for Covid-19

Pat Sidley, JohannesburgWednesday 10 June 2020

Pic: A policewoman arrests a man for failing to comply with Covid-19 regulations in Burgersfort, South Africa, 23 April 2020. Mukurukuru Media/Shutterstock

The pandemic is yet to hit the continent as hard as many fear it will, but, as African leaders introduce special measures, threats to rule of law and human rights are a clear and present danger.

Most countries in Africa, as elsewhere, have introduced controls on their populations in the hope of dealing more effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has not yet hit the continent as severely as it has, for instance, the United States and several countries in Europe.

The burning question is, however, whether the controls are being used purely to deal with the pandemic or whether, at times, in certain countries, they’re being used to crack down on dissent or other human rights.

If the latter is the case, will rulers give their new powers up at some stage when, or if, the pandemic is brought under control? According to Mark Heywood, a prominent South African human rights activist, ‘They will keep the new powers. That is the danger of the whole thing.’ Heywood believes that the pandemic and its effects will be around for several years to come and in some countries only a ‘pushback’ by an active opposition stands a chance of removing repressive means used in the pandemic.

The powers introduced vary among the different countries and in many are legally ambiguous, according to the Johannesburg-based Southern Africa Litigation Centre, established by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa in 2005. Some countries have introduced states of emergency, with others calling on disaster management acts or similar. States of emergency give wide-ranging powers to override certain laws, while the disaster management laws tend not to override existing rights. But the use of either set of rules and regulations has not necessarily toned down the ‘crack of the whip’ when it is felt necessary, often by the armed forces or police.

South Africa left in place its highly-regarded Constitution with its Bill of Rights, and did not declare a state of emergency, but called on its Disaster Management Act instead. However, President Cyril Ramaphosa also ordered 73,000 troops onto the streets along with police, to enforce an early, and very strict, lockdown with an alcohol and tobacco ban in place. The army used its force with unexpected brutality among the poor in townships, many of whom lived in small shanties unlikely to hold a family of ten indoors for more than a few minutes.

Thankfully, the other institution left intact in South Africa has been its independent judiciary. After soldiers beat an unarmed man, who was eating lunch in his backyard, to death, the family took the issue to the High Court, which, in a far-reaching judgment, appears to have stopped the rampage, at least temporarily.

It may not look like dissent was crushed, but the regulations make it an offence to spread ‘fake news’ with stiff penalties and a criminal record to follow. This has been criticised internationally by press freedom organisations.

South Africa is not alone among African states in cracking down on the media in the name of the pandemic. Mozambique has a security crisis in the northern province of Cabo Delgado where an Islamist insurgency has prompted action against journalists. However, in an interesting twist, some human rights organisations see the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity for young people to assert themselves and begin the process of getting more power.

Journalism has been a victim in several African countries, with the pandemic used as an excuse for harassment and legal action against journalists.

IFEX, a global organisation of NGOs working on freedom of expression issues, reports on the case of one journalist in Ethiopia who was charged under a Covid-19-inspired hate speech law. Yayesew Shimelis was accused of spreading misinformation in a Facebook post stating that 200,000 graves had been dug in expectation of the pandemic’s likely death toll. The charges were then escalated to terrorism, but thrown out after legal action – however he was still in jail at the time of the IFEX report.

Botswana, long believed to be a peaceful democracy, has enacted some tough laws to deal with the pandemic and has cracked down on its critics and media. The new laws give the president sweeping powers to rule by decree for a six-month period. One of the provisions criminalises the publication of false information about Covid-19, punishable by five years in jail or a $10,000 fine.

They will keep the new powers. That is the danger of the whole thing

Mark Heywood
South African human rights activist

Violence since the imposition of regulations in various countries has taken various forms. In Uganda, the opportunity has been used to harass members of the LGBTQI community. In one instance a security force claimed a raid on a shelter for homeless members of the LGBTQI community had been conducted to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The 19 people who were arrested have not had access to lawyers. Homosexuality is against the law in Uganda, and the law is pursued vigorously.

In Nigeria, some 18 people have been killed by security forces enforcing lockdown provisions. This is in addition to detentions, the seizure of properties, gender-based violence and a host of other abuses, reports IFEX. IFEX states too that in addition to Nigeria and South Africa, Kenya has recorded reports of ‘police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighbourhoods.’

The Zimbabwean government, never a shining example of democracy at work, stands accused of abducting, raping and torturing three female members of the main opposition party, at least one of whom was a member of parliament. When they were eventually released, President Emmerson Mnangagwa linked the incident to Covid-19, stating that the lockdown would be adhered to for an indefinite period. The women had been abducted at a protest meeting organised by the opposition party which said the government had failed to put in place measures to mitigate the hardships of the lockdown.

Tanzania and Zambia too stand accused of using their powers to suppress human rights. Protests have been violently quashed and characterised as obstacles to dealing with the pandemic, while journalists in Tanzania have been jailed.

Pat Sidley is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at