JOHANNESBURG - The novel coronavirus has complicated the election-year calendar for Africa, as elsewhere, prompting some polling delays, suspensions and uncertainties. It also has created openings for leaders to exploit fears and tighten their grips on power, political observers say.
At least nine African countries – including Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe – have postponed elections at some level because of COVID-19 infection risks, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems reports. Ethiopia has indefinitely delayed national, parliamentary and regional voting originally set for Aug. 29, though the Tigray region's ruling party defiantly said it would go ahead.
A handful of African countries – including Guinea, Cameroon, Mali, Benin and Burundi – already have held balloting since COVID emerged. Though critics complained of health risks, there has been no indication of voting-related outbreaks.
But, among the first four countries, "voter turnout seems to have suffered," the Royal African Society's African Arguments magazine reported May 20. That was the day Burundians stood in long lines, many in close contact and without masks, to choose a new president in a race that has since been contested.
The pandemic – imperiling health, devastating economies, and heightening risks of hunger and instability – has created space for political surprises in Africa's elections and general governance, says Christopher Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute think tank.
"As if the COVID-19 wasn't sufficient, I dare to say that we probably would face multiple political storms in the course of the second half of this year" that could influence or disrupt voting, Fomunyoh, the institute's Central and West Africa regional director, said during a May forum on democracy.
The storms already have started, says Human Rights Watch's Africa director, Mausi Segun.
Governments have declared states of emergency and imposed lockdowns to halt the spread of infection. But some have used restrictions to crack down on perceived enemies, she told VOA.
In Guinea's capital, Conakry, "we have seen it used against political opposition. Many are being arrested in their homes under the cover" of COVID-19 restrictions, Segun said. "We've seen them [governments] use it against journalists in Somalia, Rwanda and in Nigeria."
She also noted crackdowns against the LGBT community in Uganda, where a presidential election is expected early next year – and where longtime leader Yoweri Museveni has hinted at a possible delay. "It will be madness" to vote while COVID infection risks lurk, Reuters reported him saying in a local television interview last month.
Lockdowns have weakened opposition forces – including minority political parties and civil society groups – across the continent, Fomunyoh says. He points out they are unable to hold public meetings. Without rallies, it's harder to mobilize support – especially in countries where communications technology is limited.
The COVID-19 crisis already is sparking political instability, with opposition parties and civil society groups accusing government security forces of abuse and attacks in South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
Push to protect health
In campaigning and polling, health experts have called for coronavirus safeguards.
"It is very important to keep that physical distance and assuring these events do not become an occasion for the virus to spread further into the population," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, was quoted by the AFP newswire.
South Korea has been held up as a model for protecting this fundamental democratic exercise. In its April 15 parliamentary elections, voters respected social distancing in polling lines, wore masks and gloves, and used hand sanitizer, a VOA reporter observed.
The country had its largest turnout in nearly three decades in giving the ruling liberal party a victory, CNN reported. With a population of 51 million, South Korea had almost 11,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 273 deaths as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Precautions against COVID-19 infection were far less prevalent in the central-east African country of Burundi, where leaders permitted large political rallies and unrestricted movement before its May 20 vote. In campaigning, retired General Evariste Ndayishimiye, the ruling party's presidential candidate, downplayed fears, saying, "God loves Burundi, and if there are people who have tested positive, it is so that God may manifest his power."
Burundi's election commission named Ndayishimiye the winner with 69% of the vote, an outcome that leading opposition candidate Agathon Rwasa has challenged in the constitutional court.
Crowds also have turned out in Malawi, where a rerun of last year's contested presidential vote is set for July 2 but may be moved up to June 23. As of Wednesday, 358 COVID-19 cases and four deaths were confirmed in the landlocked southeast African country of 18 million.
Especially in countries with upcoming elections, Fomunyoh says he sees two opposing currents. The first is what he calls "authoritarian opportunism." The second is "democratic resilience."
With authoritarian opportunism, leaders "use the cover of the pandemic and COVID-19 to shrink political space even further," he says. They "tilt the playing field for elections in a way that would favor either themselves or their preferred candidates."
"The strongest arm of government, as we see right now, is the executive branch, in most countries," Fomunyoh says. "And so, it's an imbalance that existed in the past but that has now been aggravated by the crisis."
Democratic resilience, the second current that he sees flowing from the COVID-19 situation, is positive.
"Despite these challenges, political leaders, electoral officials, civil society, the media and all of the progressive forces that we continue to see across Africa are going to work collectively," he says, "to make sure that the emerging democracies that we see on the continent come out of this crisis stronger."
Ideally, the analyst says, leaders will resist the temptation to stifle critics and will go beyond "patronage networks" to consult other stakeholders when making important decisions. They'll choose accountability and transparency rather than use coronavirus as an excuse for secrecy. But, he says, "it's a long shot. Old autocratic habits die hard."
Fomunyoh encourages all political parties to engage with citizens. Otherwise, he says, "the electoral process could become a very hollow process, and whoever gets declared as the winner may not have the legitimacy to be able to govern."
Carol Guensburg contributed to this report, which originated in VOA's English to Africa Service.