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  • Ilya Vencjuns

Africa: The Long Walk to Freedom

With Covid-19 opening deep fractures in the fabric of African democracy, there is much uncertainty about the continent’s future.

It is true that all our lives were greatly disrupted by Covid-19. Schools were closed, exams were cancelled, and with the nation under effective house arrest, many were restricted from seeing their latest Tinder engagement. But there was one group of individuals served a rare gift – the autocrats and strongmen of Africa.

Armed with the pretext of Covid-19, African dictators began devolving themselves expansive executive powers in a gung ho bid to consolidate power. With this brought five successful military coups and widespread examples of excessive force by security services. In the nations where tyranny and democracy vie for domination, power has begun flowing decisively back into the hands of autocrats.

Yet it has not always looked so bleak for the continent. Great strides towards democracy had been made in recent years, growing from three democratic nations in 1985 to twenty-two three decades later – encompassing a significant 40% of all people. This was particularly pronounced in the nineties, with large swathes of power shifting away from despots and towards multi-party democratic frameworks. Such a change is perhaps best recognised in South Africa through the ending of racial segregation and the nation’s first universally-free election in 1994.

However, much of this progress has been lost over the past decade. Come 2020, over three quarters of Africa’s nations were under non-democratic governments. Alongside this has been the ominous growth of ‘hybrid’ states, where the veneer of democracy coexists with widespread restrictions on human rights.

The growth of such nations have been greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 virus. Petty despots have weaponised the global pandemic and sought to use restrictions as a tool of control. Highly repressive laws passed with little scrutiny as human rights were widely subverted.

Actions taken by Egypts authoritarian ruler Abdel Fatah al-Sissi highlight this. Fatah al-Sissi wasted little time in ushering through more expansive ‘emergency laws’, which Human Rights Watch rightly labelled as a cover for deeply repressive powers. Despite the Egyptian Government citing such measures as necessary in the war on Covid, just five of the eighteen amendments giving al-Sisi more executive powers were directly tied to public health. This was further ratified by a Bill giving the Egyptian President power to issue large fines to social media users and journalists who spread ‘false news, disturb the public peace, harm the public interest or stir up terror among people’. The near absence of a sunset clause has many human rights activists rightfully worried.

In a similar vein has been the rapid growth of despotism in Tanzania. President John Magufuli criminalised the sharing of non-governmental information in the name of public health and naturally extended these powers against opposition voices in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential Election.

Similar upheaval has been seen in Ethiopia. Government troops were deployed to the northern region of Tigray in order to crush protests against the suspended General Election, sparking widespread genocide fears. This tragedy is a testament in how easily the voice of democracy can be shut out by the throes of tyranny.

However, as dark as the prospects for Africa may seem, there is a glimmer of hope. Malawi, known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ for the friendliness of its people, has emerged from Covid-19 with its democracy firmly intact. Their strong institutions faced a mortal test with an election in 2019 later found to be fraudulent. However, democracy reigned supreme and new elections were held the following year. The success of Malawi’s democratic structures were duly rewarded by The Economist naming it as the Country of The Year for 2020.

South Africa has similar reasons to be proud. The former President, Jacob Zuma, was sentenced to prison by an independent court, alongside the arrests of several high-level corrupt officials. This highlights how in even the most troubling of times, the power of an independent judiciary and freedom of media allows justice to prevail.

While international organisations need a more active role in ensuring freedom triumphs amidst the vast undermining of civil liberties, nations such as Malawi and South Africa reiterate how only through strong democratic institutions can democracy be safeguarded against the creeping hand of tyranny.

The continent of Africa stands firmly at the Rubicon of autocracy. We all ought to hope it doesn’t cross into the throes of despotism.


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