Africa’s Peace and Security: The Pressures of COVID-19
Africa’s Peace and Security: The Pressures of COVID-19
Speech / Africa 16 minutes

Africa’s Peace and Security: The Pressures of COVID-19

In a 14 April 2021 address to Off-The-Record, Crisis Group's Interim Vice President and Africa Program Director Comfort Ero analyses the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on Africa to date and examines the biggest challenges facing the continent in its aftermath.

I would like to thank Off-The-Record for inviting the International Crisis Group to address its members.

The International Crisis Group is an independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world. Crisis Group aspires to be the pre-eminent organisation providing independent analysis and advice on how to prevent, resolve or better manage deadly conflict.

Over a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, the dramatic numbers of infections and deaths that some observers predicted for the African continent have yet to emerge. As of 4 May, the global COVID-19 death toll stands at an estimated 3,217.281, among which – accurate reporting remains a challenge – Africa has recorded 82,259. The relatively low number of virus-related deaths on the continent, whichever of many possible factors are driving it, provides a sense that Africa is resilient. Polishing this positive image is the fact that almost all countries, except Benin, Burundi and Tanzania, took vigorous isolation measures when the outbreak started, responding much quicker than Europe and the United States, and consequently averting much of the devastation the disease has wrought there.

All this good news could turn bad, however. Caseloads are on the rise and have been since January 2021. The spread of a new variant in South Africa is raising alarm – it is the worst-affected country with the highest death rate (54,511), but it has a better testing regime and public health strategy than most African states. Meanwhile, an economic storm is gathering due to virus-related restrictions on movement of people and goods. What the pandemic means for a continent whose population is growing at 2.7 per cent a year – if national GDPs cannot match that fast growth – is unclear. More concerning is what it means for Africa’s fragile or conflict-affected societies.

In March 2020, Crisis Group began examining the pandemic’s long- and short-term consequences for deadly conflict. We assessed the potential for COVID-19 to cause enormous damage to fragile states and trigger unrest. We judged that COVID-19’s reach, its impact on public health, the economic downturn it would precipitate and the social disruptions it would leave in its wake would shape conflicts and crises around the world. We argued that women, children, refugees, the internally displaced and citizens of countries suffering from crisis mismanagement would bear the brunt of the pandemic’s knock-on effects.

A year on, the jury is still out on the pandemic’s impact on international peace and security.

A year on, the jury is still out on the pandemic’s impact on international peace and security. COVID-19 has been a complicating factor in various war zones, but conflict resolution has fared no worse than before; indeed, conflict prevention and resolution were struggling before the pandemic. Globally, the pandemic worsened relations between the U.S. and China and dented multilateralism, but those trends were already notable before the virus spread. Whether things will improve with a new U.S. president is unclear, but thankfully Joe Biden has signalled a return to a broad approach to international cooperation.

In Africa, the pandemic has neither altered nor worsened the conflict landscape, but it has often proven distracting. The need to contain the pandemic threw off course the African Union’s (AU) work on “Silencing the Guns” – an ambitious goal to end conflicts on the continent by 2020. The organisation has extended this project’s deadline by ten years. The AU was right, of course, to pivot to address the pandemic and it responded effectively. Led initially by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – an institution created in 2017 as a result of lessons learnt from West Africa’s Ebola crisis in 2014-2015 – the AU reacted swiftly, establishing the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus with its CDC and the WHO, guidelines and standards for government responses and helping distribute test kits and protective equipment. The AU and CDC are now playing a major role in rolling out vaccines to the AU’s 55 member states.

In Africa – like elsewhere – the pandemic gave great advantage to strongmen who sought to further tighten their grip.

A year ago, we wondered whether various national leaders would exploit COVID-19 for political purposes. In Africa – like elsewhere – the pandemic gave great advantage to strongmen who sought to further tighten their grip. Leaders in Angola, Burundi – Pierre Nkurunziza, who led the country for fifteen years and died a month after stepping down from office, from what many speculate was COVID-19 – Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe used pandemic regulations as an excuse to further close the political space and enforce social distancing rules through heavy-handed security forces. In the lead-up to Uganda’s presidential election in January 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused authorities of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions “more strictly to curtail opposition electoral campaign activities in a discriminatory fashion”. Diplomats from seven Western countries warned Zimbabwe in late August not to use COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict citizens’ fundamental rights. 

Nor can one ignore the situation in Tanzania, which was led by a president who denied the pandemic’s very presence. He, too, died recently in murky circumstances. Assuming the cause of death was COVID-19, the virus has completely altered Tanzania’s political landscape by ushering the country’s first female president into office who also appears more willing to contain the pandemic.

But even Africa’s more democratic-leaning governments (eg, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) have seen instances of police using unnecessary force to enforce lockdown rules, though a recently released survey showed South Africans were prepared to sacrifice certain rights to stop the spread of COVID-19, and that black South Africans seemed the most willing in that regard among the country’s different population groups.

At its start, the pandemic looked like it would prove to be a particular threat to countries facing political turbulence or delicate transitions. It additionally looked like it would worsen major crises on the continent. Indeed, COVID-19’s arrival may have been a complicating factor in some instances, though things were hardly great before it arrived.

Take Ethiopia, for example, one of the continent’s major powers. The country is at war in its Tigray region in a contest between Nobel Laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the former ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party. Prime Minister Abiy’s decision to delay elections slated for August 2020 and focus on the pandemic was the right move. Yet he made it with insufficient sensitivity to opposition concerns. He instituted a state of emergency, but then delayed the polls indefinitely amid the opposition’s complaints that the government was using the pandemic to cling to power. The TPLF organised regional elections, despite the federal decision to postpone polls due to COVID-19, arguing that the constitution did not permit such delays. This decision in turn led to confrontation with the federal authorities.

The pandemic likely exacerbated tensions and may have accelerated confrontation between Tigray and the federal government, but both were already beating the war drums. Since 4 November, fighting between federal and allied forces (neighbouring Eritrea’s troops and Ethiopian Amhara militias), on one side, and Tigray forces, on the other, has resulted in thousands of deaths. It has also displaced up to a million people internally, according to Ethiopian authorities, and sent more than 60,000 others fleeing as refugees into neighbouring Sudan, which is facing its own delicate transition following the April 2019 ouster of President Omar al-Bashir. There are increasing reports of ethnic cleansing, rape and potential crimes against humanity, as well as numerous other human rights violations. Up to 4.5 million people in Tigray, a region of only 6 million, are in acute need of emergency food supplies. Outside pressure prompted the federal government to promise humanitarian agencies access to Tigray, which may lead to more relief into areas under its control.

The pressure the pandemic might have imposed on Africa’s warring parties to stop fighting turned out to be strikingly low.

Meanwhile, the pressure the pandemic might have imposed on Africa’s warring parties to stop fighting turned out to be strikingly low. Initially, some armed groups heeded UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s 23 March 2020 call for a global ceasefire. In Africa, there were offers of cooperation and endorsements by some groups in the Central African Republic and Cameroon, as well as announcements of unilateral ceasefires by the government and most armed groups in Sudan. But globally, the ceasefire call lost momentum. The more potent jihadist fighters in Nigeria’s north east and the Lake Chad basin, as well as the Sahel, never embraced the call and continued to fight.

The same is true of Somalia’s Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency. It has oscillated in its COVID-19 response, sometimes displaying pragmatism while blaming outsiders for the pandemic. It labelled COVID-19 as a problem exported to Somalia by “crusader forces who have invaded the country”, referring to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops in the country. But the group has undertaken local measures to prevent the pandemic’s spread, probably to avoid the disastrous repercussions it suffered when it refused outside humanitarian assistance during the 2011 famine, which contributed to the loss of 260,000 lives. Al-Shabaab has also rejected the AstraZeneca vaccine. It may fear that the government would capitalise on the vaccination campaign by providing a service that the insurgents could not match. It may also have been loath to allow populations to travel to government-controlled areas, or government actors to enter its areas, which would have posed a security risk from the group’s perspective. Curiously, however, Al-Shabaab has left the door open for other “safe and effective” vaccines.

COVID-19 also did not deter insurgents from escalating their fight with government forces in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The region has been restive since 2017, and the U.S. recently sanctioned the insurgency, designating it an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate. Before the arrival of COVID-19, the country was already grappling with multiple health crises, including outbreaks of cholera and malaria, and was in need of humanitarian assistance due to climatic shocks linked to several years of drought, cyclones and floods.

As for peace processes, the pandemic neither enabled nor blocked them, though it did slow down mediation efforts and fulfilment of peace deals in some countries.

As for peace processes, the pandemic neither enabled nor blocked them, though it did slow down mediation efforts and fulfilment of peace deals in some countries. Take South Sudan, for example, a country celebrating its tenth anniversary of independence from Sudan, eight years of which have seen it fighting a civil war. The pandemic may have slowed down, for several months, implementation of the 2018 peace deal that brings the country’s main warring parties into a ceasefire and unity government. Several of the country’s five vice presidents contracted the virus and government was focused on responding to the health crisis. But the peace process was not moving that fast to begin with.

The pandemic appeared to hinder efforts to resume peace talks between the government and Thomas Cirillo’s holdout rebellion in Equatoria after both sides agreed to a cessation of hostilities in Rome in January 2020. Coronavirus travel restrictions and the limits of virtual diplomacy undercut mediation. But other salient factors undermined the talks, which only resumed in October. The Rome ceasefire was breached in April. It is not clear who broke it, but President Salva Kiir used it to launch major offensives in Central and Western Equatoria, further undermining Cirillo’s trust in the process. He already rejects the main 2018 peace deal on the grounds that it does not address his people’s grievances, including the push for greater decentralisation. The project of ending rebellion in Equatoria requires both sides to abide by commitments they made to respect a ceasefire.

COVID did aggravate peace operations in some of Africa’s conflicts. Troop rotation was initially halted for AMISOM in 2020 but has since resumed. The UN mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) restricted its troop rotations and undertook patrolling and other peacekeeping activities only cautiously. The pandemic complicated external interventions in the Sahel, which were forced to adapt, hibernate or freeze activities. It disrupted the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the EU missions and the deployment of Operation Takuba, established by European states to reinforce French efforts and support the Malian army in its fight with jihadists. It also slowed development initiatives by introducing new restrictions on meetings and travel; staff had to work remotely. Meanwhile, development projects faced similar restrictions and donors had to suspend some projects or redirect, for good reasons, part of their funding to help stop the virus’ spread and underwrite the Malian health ministry’s COVID-19 action plan.

Overall, however, amid the dramatic transformations that COVID-19 has wrought, much remains unchanged for peace and security on the continent. The virus cannot be blamed for lack of progress in addressing a number of pressing conflicts. We need to guard against the risk of ascribing problems to COVID-19 – a narrative that if pushed too far could distort analysis, let actors off the hook and lead to erroneous policies.

Where we do need to remain attentive is the pandemic’s economic fallout for the continent. Efforts to counter COVID-19 could reduce the funds available for bilateral and multilateral organisations to deal with the crises that may result. The strongest example of the former is the UK’s aid cuts of £4.1bn for 2021, amounting to a 25 per cent reduction. Some of Africa’s international partners may lack the bandwidth, funds or appetite to focus on the continent, given the depth of their own crises brought about by COVID-19. Urgent measures are thus necessary to relieve the pandemic’s economic distress in fragile or conflict-affected societies. Global economic factors have tended to contribute to conflict risks in many countries, a trend that the pandemic could aggravate. The economic jolts resulting from the pandemic are worrying and will leave a number of the poorest countries in the world facing the prospect of five to ten years of depressed development.

The economic jolts resulting from the pandemic are worrying and will leave a number of the poorest countries in the world facing the prospect of five to ten years of depressed development.

For Africa, the future looks ominous. After South Asia, Africa is the continent with the biggest population projected to plunge into extreme poverty, with around 495 million – 70 per cent of the world’s poor people – expected to be still living in those conditions by 2030. Worryingly, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa Vera Songwe notes: “Africa’s buffers in 2021 are thinner than pre-pandemic”. A long bout with the coronavirus will be damaging for the continent’s youthful and fast-growing population. COVID-19 is testing not just Africa’s poorest countries but also its biggest economies. It has further aggravated Nigeria’s youth unemployment. The latest figure of nearly fourteen million out of work may have motivated the government to finally roll out its long-awaited special works program for the young. As for South Africa, while it appears to be recovering from COVID-19’s economic fallout, unemployment rates and inequality are rising there as well.

International efforts to help African states mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic may not be enough. The G20 countries agreed this month to extend initial suspension of debt service payments from June 2021 for another six months to December 2021 for more than 40 of the poorest countries – including Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. But this relief is only temporary and it will not solve the continent’s critical debt problem in the long run. More than 30 per cent of revenue for a number of African governments is directed at debt repayments. The recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank spring meetings put the spotlight on managing divergent recovery both among and within states, but given the growing disparities and inequalities, wealthy countries should “take the long view and act boldly to forgive the debts of poor countries and expand emergency financial assistance”. President Biden’s decision to reverse Trump-era opposition to increasing the allocation of special drawing rights (SDRs) – a form of supplementary monetary reserve – from its last expansion after the  2008 global financial crisis is a major boost to developing countries. The new $650 billion agreed to with other G7 nations may help poor countries cope with the pandemic’s economic shocks, particularly if rich countries channel excess SDRs to poorer ones.

Ensuring that Africa has equitable access to vaccines will also be crucial to the continent’s economic recovery.

Ensuring that Africa has equitable access to vaccines will also be crucial to the continent’s economic recovery. The challenge of vaccinating people in Africa’s most fragile states or those in conflict will complicate rollout plans. Poor logistics, negligible storage infrastructure and underfunded health-care facilities will disrupt those efforts. The continent is also at the periphery of the global scramble for supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and has almost no vaccine manufacturing capability. Its efforts to inoculate its citizens will largely depend on international good-will. Hence, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access – COVAX facility – a global  mechanism funded by donors to help guarantee access to vaccines, especially for poor and lower-middle-income countries, is important for Africa.

The AU secured 670 million vaccine doses at the start of 2021. The head of Africa’s CDC, John Nkengasong, wants to vaccinate up to 60 per cent of the population by 2022; other more conservative estimates don’t expect most people to have been inoculated until at least mid-2023. With the initial slow pace of vaccine supply from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca – the latter is widely available through COVAX, but halted in many countries due to safety issues – African states have turned to China and Russia to secure reliable vaccines, though recent news suggests that the former’s vaccine has proven less effective than alternatives. The race to help Africa inoculate its 1.3 billion citizens has created a vaccine contest, with Ankara, Beijing and Moscow vying with Western partners to strengthen their respective influence in parts of the continent.

Indeed, a number of external powers have seized the opportunity offered by the pandemic to advance soft power diplomacy across the African continent. At the start of the pandemic, China’s image on the continent was greatly enhanced when the Jack Ma Foundation sent each African country batches of medical equipment, including thousands of masks and testing kits. Beijing then burnished its credentials by sending additional equipment and donating vaccines to several African countries, including Zimbabwe. By signing up to the G20 efforts to suspend debt payments, China also participated, for the first time, in a multilateral debt relief effort. Turkey has also dispatched thousands of masks along with other medical equipment to 45 African countries, including Niger and Mali. In Sudan, the Gulf states, Turkey and Egypt delivered personal protective equipment with a good amount of publicity, clearly aiming to build the profiles of these countries in Sudan at a time when Khartoum is reconfiguring its foreign policy.

Beyond the dire economic forecasts and concerns about the vaccine’s reach, the news is not all bleak. Some of Africa’s leaders have moved fast to put in place important social protection measures to help protect jobs, protect the vulnerable and provide some other safety nets.

Can they do more to relieve COVID-19’s pressure and to ensure it doesn’t worsen the conditions of fragile of conflict-affected societies?  The AU has played a central role in managing efforts to limit the contagion’s impact. The AU Assembly Bureau, traditionally an administrative body, began to take on a more political role in 2020. Made up of five heads of state, one from each African region, it began meeting on the African response to the pandemic. Under the then AU chair, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, it worked decisively to support the AU Commission and the CDC to launch a number of initiatives.

Crucially, the Bureau appointed six prominent and distinguished Africans as special envoys, including Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, the newly appointed director-general of the World Trade Organisation, to mobilise financial resources to support national health responses and assist in the recovery of economies. An AU COVID-19 Response Fund was established in March 2020 by the AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat. By October 2020, it had raised $44 million and made plans to raise a further $300 million. The African Continental Free Trade Area, which began operating on 1 January 2021, will open up a vast single market that could significantly boost regional trade and offset the economic shock dealt by COVID-19.

Other initiatives included medical supplies platforms to assist AU member states with access to affordable medical supplies and equipment, and technical assistance on case detection and containment. The Africa CDC also rolled out mechanisms to strengthen testing capacity. As noted, it has also led on acquiring vaccines, but it wants to coordinate vaccine trials and explore the potential for vaccine manufacturing on the continent – it held a two-day meeting on the latter subject on 12-13 April.

AU members need to extend the robust COVID-19 coordination to more effectively respond to the continent’s crises at a time when external partners may be reluctant or unable to continue funding the AU at existing levels.

But AU members need to extend the robust COVID-19 coordination to more effectively respond to the continent’s crises at a time when external partners may be reluctant or unable to continue funding the AU at existing levels. Given how badly the pandemic has hit the Global North, we should expect Western governments to become more insular and inward-looking. We should expect a deficit of attention and less focus on overseas conflicts that do not impinge upon what Western leaders see as their national interests. South Africa’s President Ramaphosa was right to state in his handover note to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi as AU chair that “conflict and war on the continent remains a grave threat to our developmental aspirations”. Member states have agreed to monitor implementation of the newly extended roadmap for silencing the guns every two years. The pandemic places tremendous pressure on Africa’s leaders to tackle its debilitating effects and they have acted quickly. That same rapid reaction is necessary to address the continent’s worse crises.

Thank you.

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