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PSC Insights - COVID-19 compounds security threats in West and Central Africa

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Dealing with COVID-19 while continuing to fight terrorism and stemming other conflicts is a huge challenge for many African countries.

Despite low infection rates at first, Africa has seen, for a few weeks now, a rise in the number of people infected with COVID-19. Some experts predict that the peak of the pandemic is yet to come.

African countries have been alerted about the risk if they do not tackle the problem head on. Faced with this pandemic, the challenges on the continent are known: poor sanitation; weak or non-existent healthcare infrastructure, not only to prevent the spread of the virus but also to treat it; lack of resources to prevent the spread of the virus (e.g. access to clean water); and difficulties in effectively implementing measures to restrict movement (such as partial or total lockdowns).

COVID-19 not only complicates the existing peace and security challenges in many countries but also constitutes an additional security problem for those already dealing with crises. As of 13 April 2020, West Africa had recorded the second highest number of people that tested positive for COVID-19 in Africa, after North Africa.

Elections go ahead

In West Africa, Guinea and Mali held elections in spite of the political and security situation in both countries, compounded by the imminent threat of COVID-19. In the first case, calls to annul contested legislative elections and a problematic referendum to amend the constitution were not heeded by the government of Alpha Conde. The polls took place on 22 March. Conde (82) has faced strong opposition to his plan to remove the constitutional clause that prevents him from running for a third term.

In Mali, legislative elections went ahead on 29 March despite the fact that many areas of the country remain highly unstable. Only three days before the elections one of the country’s main opposition leaders, Soumaïla Cissé, went missing with his team while campaigning in Mali’s central region. They are still missing and are said to have been kidnapped by armed groups.

In both countries the number of people that tested positive for COVID-19 has since risen. To prevent the spread of the virus, Mali imposed a curfew four days before the legislative elections while Guinea declared a state of emergency four days after the controversial elections and referendum, which were marred by violence. Although Guinea and Mali are not the only countries in the world to have held elections in the shadow of the virus, political or electoral considerations superseded concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

These elections could face a serious challenge in terms of the legitimacy of representatives elected in polls with a reportedly low turnout. Questions will also arise about how the elections may have contributed to the spread of the virus, given the seeming inability of governments to ensure that people adhere to prevention measures, including respecting social distancing and providing water and/or hand sanitisers at polling stations.

Meanwhile, Burundi is set to hold presidential elections on 20 May. President Pierre Nkurunziza, who controversially ran for a third term in 2015 and has since clung to power by cracking down on dissent, is likely to be replaced by the ruling party’s candidate, Evariste Ndayishimiye. There has been no indication that the elections will be postponed.

Fighting terrorism in Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger

Despite United Nations (UN) calls for ceasefires across the world to halt the spread of COVID-19, fighting has not stopped in many parts of the continent, nor have terror attacks. On 23 March, Boko Haram reportedly killed around 92 Chadian soldiers and wounded 47 people in the village of Boma, in Chad’s Lake province, near the border with Nigeria and Niger.

On the same day Nigeria’s army is also believed to have suffered a heavy blow, with 70 soldiers killed.

In retaliation, Chad launched a massive military offensive – operation colère de Boma – which, it says, has dislodged Boko Haram from the Lake Chad area. The Chadian army got permission from the governments of Niger and Nigeria to track Boko Haram on their national territories. By all accounts, this appears to be a full-on military offensive to try to annihilate Boko Haram.

Burkina Faso, the country with the third highest number of COVID-19 cases (as of 15 April 2020) in West Africa, has also not had any respite from terrorists. It remains the target of terror attacks and has tried to quell threats throughout the month of March. Among the latest reported events, 19 people were killed in an attack carried out on 28–29 March.

Niger has not been spared either. The country suffered and countered several terror attacks during March.

Bigger worries for Central Africa?

Places with ongoing conflicts are probably where the virus could strike the hardest, given the chaos, poor sanitation and the absence of healthcare systems. The Central African Republic (CAR) is, from this point of view, probably the least able to offset the possible spread of the pandemic on its territory, including in its capital Bangui and surroundings. In addition, as COVID-19 made its way onto Central African soil, fighting between rival armed groups continued to rage in the country.

Another exposed country, Cameroon, has the highest number of COVID-19 cases (as of 15 April) in both West and Central Africa. Yet the conflict in its north-west and south-west regions has known no reprieve. While the Southern Cameroons Defence Force agreed to an initial 14-day ceasefire, the Ambazonia Governing Council, which leads the Ambazonia Defence Forces, refused to suspend fighting.

Similarly, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been prey to instability and conflict particularly on its eastern flank, where it has also battled the Ebola epidemic for the past two years. Although the arrival of COVID-19 in the country coincides with the impending end of the Ebola crisis, an ongoing measles epidemic has caused over 6 000 deaths in the past year, according to the World Health Organization. On the other hand, the DRC might be able to leverage its experience in fighting viruses, particularly given that it has appointed the head of the Ebola response team, Prof. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, to lead the fight against COVID-19.

More ominous for the broader Central Africa region is that oil-producing countries, which had slowly been recovering from a slump caused by a dip in crude oil prices in 2014, will again be hit by the recent dramatic drop in oil prices. This is going to make it much harder not only to contend with the pandemic in the coming weeks but also to absorb the economic aftershock of COVID-19.

Strong continental action needed

COVID-19 thus constitutes an additional security challenge for many countries in West and Central Africa. Dealing with this pandemic while continuing to fight terrorism and stemming other conflicts is a herculean task.

The continent is now mobilised to find a common strategy to fight the pandemic and come to the rescue of Africa’s most vulnerable states, including those facing crises in the Sahel. Ultimately, in this fight Africa cannot afford to wait for salvation to come from abroad. In addition, the continent’s collective response will only be as good as the commitment of individual governments and other national stakeholders to tackle the issues at home.