Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy: The Impact of COVID-19 on Democracy in Africa

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana (2011–2014)

Director, Centre for Democracy and Development; Nonresident Senior Associate, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor of Economics and John S. Hinckley Fellow, Weber State University; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution


President, American Jewish University; Coauthor, Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa's Advantage; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the impact of COVID-19 on democracy in Africa, including suspended elections and lockdown measures sometimes used to target opposition groups and the media, as well as steps some countries are taking to safeguard civil liberties during the pandemic.

The Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy is held in memory of Darryl G. Behrman, who was originally from South Africa and had an abiding passion for Africa and international peace. The annual lecture is funded by members of the Behrman family.

This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

HERBST: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy, “The Effect of COVID-19 on Democracy in Africa.” This meeting is also part of the Council’s Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation Project on the Future of Democracy.

I am Jeffrey Herbst, president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Welcome.

Even before the pandemic hit in March of 2020, there had been a democratic recession in Africa. The number of “partly free” and “not free” countries, to use the Freedom House terminology, now outnumbered the number of free and partly free countries, a change in the pattern of the past where there had been greater democratization across the continent. Authoritarians have developed a playbook to stay in power, including Internet cutoffs, harassment of opposition officials, and a fine calibration of what the international community will accept with regard to the quality of elections. There has been a deterioration in the degree of political liberalization, even though polls reveal that a majority of citizens across African countries favor democracy. Of course, the effect of something as great as a pandemic on all facets of African life was going to be significant, and there’s a special concern about the effect on democracy. The immediate effect of the pandemic, of course, was economic—widespread lockdowns, a decline in raw material prices—which have now recovered—disruptions in international trade, and a sharp decline in international tourism. The public effects of the pandemic are still coming into view. There had been optimism in the beginning of last year that the effects on Africa might not be as great, partly because of the continent’s relatively youthful population and partly because of hard-earned lessons on how to deal with other contagions. There’s less optimism now. As reported in the Johns Hopkins University COVID situation report, the WHO Regional Office for Africa last week estimated that only about one in seven COVID-19 cases is being detected on the continent and suggested that overall incidents was about fifty-nine million cases across Africa, and not the eight million in official reports. Only about 5 percent of the total African population is vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, with only 30 percent of the continent’s fifty-four nations having fully vaccinated 10 percent of their population.

To help us understand the effects of the pandemic on democracy, the Council has assembled an impressive panel.

Michelle Gavin is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council and former U.S. ambassador to Botswana.

Idayat Hussein—I’m sorry, Idayat Hassan is director of the Center for Democracy and Development and is nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And John Mbaku is the Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor of Economics and the John S. Hinckley fellow at Weber State University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

I’ll ask the panel some questions for the first thirty minutes, and then we’ll look to you, the audience, for questions so that we can continue the conversation.

Michelle, let me pose the opening question to you and then follow up with the other panelists. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, what did you expect the impact on democracy across Africa to be? And what has been the result? What have been the surprises? What has met your expectations?

GAVIN: Thank you for that, and it’s a pleasure to be here with these other distinguished panelists. I know I’ll be learning from them.

At the start of the pandemic, you know, I think many people anticipated that this could be really a gift to authoritarians, right? It creates an easy pretext for shutting down demonstrations, and that kind of civic engagement, popular protest has been on the rise throughout the continent. It allowed for delays of elections, although, in some places, elections went forward and that was problematic, too, because then opposition leaders had to decide between asking their supporters to take very real health risks or participate. So it was clear that essentially the restrictions inherent in the initial response to COVID would be closing political space and that that could be easily manipulated. And I expected there to be a problem of public trust, right, because polling has shown us for a long time that there’s a lack of trust in government institutions in many, many African countries, and of course, public trust is the lifeblood of a public health response.

And what I didn’t see coming so clearly is the kind of vicious cycle around trust that we’ve seen develop wherein heavy-handed security responses to enforced curfews or lockdowns have only worsened trust in those institutions and a sense that the state is there to protect citizens; even more so, though, the incredible array of examples of malfeasance and the siphoning off of funds intended to respond to this crisis and to the economic hardship that it has unleashed. I mean, in country after country, you have indications—and of course, it’s important to know: This is not limited to Africa. You see the same scenario playing out in other places. Brazil’s a great example right now. But in country after country, you have hundreds of millions of dollars going missing that was intended for personal protective equipment, for ambulances—audit after audit that sort of reveals that in this time of terrible crisis, right, senior officials of the state have chosen to enrich themselves, rather than to protect their citizens. So this—in one sense it lays bare the deficits of democracy, the deficits of accountability, right, in systems where citizens don’t really have an opportunity to hold leaders’ feet to the fire in a meaningful way. But as that distrust builds, it’s also created opportunities similar to those we’ve seen in our own society for misinformation. So there’s, you know, a tremendous amount of COVID-19 information is spread on social media; this is more so than radio or television, and there is a great deal of misinformation that circulates on the continent, as it does in our society. Some recent Afrobarometer polling showed some really worrying trends around vaccine hesitancy. So we have this huge problem about the inequities in vaccine access, and that is very real. But we also have problems where citizens simply don’t trust their governments to ensure that these vaccines are safe.

So for me, these issues of trust and of accountability, which are kind of inherent in these questions about democratic governance, really come to the forefront in the context of this pandemic.

HERBST: Idayat, what did you expect eighteen months ago, and what have you seen? What surprised you?

We may have—

HASSAN: Hello? Can you hear me?

HERBST: We can hear you now.

Why don’t we go to John? I’ll ask my Council colleagues if they can unfreeze Idayat.

John, what did you expect eighteen months ago, and what—

HASSAN: OK. Thank you very much.

HERBST: Oh, you’re back. OK, great.

HASSAN: I’m back.

HERBST: Go ahead.

HASSAN: Thank you very much.

Yeah. I think at the beginning of the pandemic I was actually very, very—(audio break)—opportunity to (rebuild ?) the governance system and trust in particular because this was a pandemic that broke out with citizens likely not believing its existence. Many felt that it was another opportunity for the rulers to actually loot their commonwealth. But at the same time, African leaders were really worried. They were worried and grappling with the economic implication and their ability to actually provide for the people.

Then, secondly, the death tolls that was being witnessed, in particular in Europe, was home to the people, so they could feel it. And they knew that that could actually create more of a law and order problem which affects the elites this time. So you may have food, you might get infected, but you could not actually leave with the law and order—with the breakdown of law and order. Because right here in Abuja, where I sit, it’s very, very simple to be overrun by people who live in the satellite camp.

And being a collective action problem and trust being the first challenge that was actually identified, we all felt trust and in particular state capacity to cope. You know, the inexistence of health facilities, a robust welfares came, so it was like, oh, this is the time for government to bridge the—what do you call it—the distrust between the governed and the government. But instead of doing that, actually, I think two things immediately happened. It was a very heavy securitized response to the pandemic, of course which ended up restricting the civic space at the same time, violations of right(s). And I think I want to highlight some very important rights which we often—we’ve not emphasized and how it has actually impacted citizens again.

So when we look at it, the World Bank did a rapid-form survey during that period using Uganda and some other countries as example, and even Senegal. What came out was that people in the informal sector, particularly in the urban, were the most affected. In countries like Nigeria, you got—unemployment skyrocketed by more than 11 percent during this period. And food insecurity and food wastage, which is a perennial problem in the Sahel, and food wastage across Africa itself, rose such that many countries became very, very—they had no food. Like, I think Togo had more than 270,000 people. Also had Burkina, Niger, and Mali, who have always been food-insecure, became more food-insecure. But the link is the most important thing.

The fact that the freedom of movement that was curtailed either through COVID-19 response or border closure actually impacted on the livelihood of people and their ability to survive aside from those fundamental rights that we talk about in terms of the freedom of movement itself. And this impacted across the continent between March and June 2020, such that in places like Congo, Gabon, Guinea, people—farmers could not actually take their produce out of the country. In places like Cameroon, tomatoes rotted because they could not move either to arrest it or the local markets could not even take up this whole—that whole harvest in itself. Somehow, people got—(inaudible).

Aside from the restricted civic space which we saw, such that instead of emphasizing that this is a collective action problem which needs trust to actually be built, which needs strategic communication, and which needs some form of social intervention—which, of course, was impacted with lots of corruption earlier mentioned, it was more of a securitized response which led to the death of eighteen at the point where COVID had killed just twelve in Nigeria. In places like Kenya, three killed and even a 13-year-old. And over 200,000 arrested by—in South Africa. The heavy use of security on policing duties, of course, was—it also coincided with the worldwide (theme ?) around George Floyd of police brutality at that point in time, with elections impacted. But the real rights, those inherent rights of citizens, were trampled upon.

And nothing—and I think my last point is that nothing could more detrimental to somebody being killed for having a glass of beer—for allegedly having a glass of beer in his own courtyard. And these were the kinds of rights violations we saw during the enforcement of COVID-19, particularly March to June 2020. And it has not ended, but more have actually emerged in these last couple of months.

HERBST: Thank you.

John, what were your expectations and how do you evaluate the trajectory of democratic performance?

MBAKU: Well, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this important program.

When COVID came, I was of the opinion that it offered two trajectories. Given the fact that many African countries at the time COVID came were already burdened with a lot of problems—for example, many countries were suffering from significant levels of extreme poverty, income and wealth inequality, terrorism, religious extremism, military and institutional coups and, perhaps more importantly, a significant reduction in trust in government. I had thought that with COVID this would open an opportunity for governments that were willing to to actually prove to their citizens that they were interested in improving governance in making government more participatory so that they could—they the government—could have an opportunity to consult with citizens and figure out the way forward. On the other hand, I was also suspicious that authoritarian governments would use this opportunity to declare a health emergency and pass laws that would allow them, the government, to become even more authoritarian.

So what happened? What were the results? What I saw happen is that in countries such as Cameroon and Uganda, for example, the government combined emergency laws to fight COVID with existing laws against terrorism to become even more exploitative and more oppressive of the citizen, so much so that in these countries, whenever the government failed to do something—for example, if the government failed to improve health facilities for certain sectors of the population the government’s excuse was that it was overwhelmed with COVID and did not have any resources to devote to that particular—to those particular services because COVID was consuming a lot of resources that were needed for the government to, for example, provide for primary education and other areas. So governments were now using COVID as an opportunity to plunder national resources for their own personal benefit, and so ruling parties were in the position to improve their health care system to look for resources to provide opportunities for people to help themselves during COVID but they were not doing so because it was very easy for them to simply say the reason we are not able to help is because the money that we have, this small amount of money that we have, is being devoted to COVID. So any instance of corruption was—the excuse made was that the money was being used to fight COVID. In cases where you had extrajudicial killings, where security forces, as the case was in Cameroon, had become even more brutal than they were before, the government’s excuse was, we are trying to prevent people who are running around spreading COVID from doing so and so we are using these techniques because we don’t have any choice but to prevent people from running around spreading COVID. So COVID essentially became a gift to—as was mentioned earlier, became a gift to authoritarian regimes such as those in Cameroon to oppress local people and make it much more difficult for them to function.

It is important for us to see here that a lot of people in African countries engage in formal activities that require a lot of travel. Women, for example, have to go to their farms, harvest crops, and take them to the urban areas to sell them. Young people have to do what they call in Cameroon hustle on the streets in order to provide for their own—for themselves and their own families. Because of the lockdowns, this was not possible for them to do so, so people who were already extremely poor were now being forced to live in situations in which they simply could not meet their basic needs, and unfortunately, their governments were not making any effort to assist them.

Finally, something that I feel is very important for us to mention here is that we have to recognize the fact that in many African countries—not all of them but in a lot of African countries the governments are usually ethnic or ethnocultural ruling alliances or ruling coalitions. So when you look at governments in many countries you see that the ruling governments are made up of various ethnic groups together. And so what happened during COVID was that many people around the country felt that the government was favoring those people who belonged to the president’s tribe. This was very evident in Cameroon where people who were members of the president’s tribe were usually favored and the government paid very little attention to other parts of the country. So that further created a significant distrust in the government. And so it was very difficult for the government to actually go out to the population and tell them that COVID was a serious pandemic, was a serious problem because many people no longer had any trust in what the government was telling them because of the things that the government had done in the past that had proven to be very opportunistic and not in the interests of the general population. So COVID did open an opportunity for governments to prove to their populations that participation was the way to move ahead, that democracy was important because it would have allowed the government to listen to the people and be able to come up with solutions that would have benefited people not only economically but also politically. But unfortunately, many African governments did not take advantage of this opportunity; instead, they engaged in opportunistic programs that allowed them to entrench themselves politically and continue to benefit financially.

HERBST: I’d like to thank all three panelists for the rich set of initial observations, which provided both important generalizations and a lot of nuance across fifty-four countries.

There was a spotlight in all three comments on government performance and how citizens were looking to government and, in many cases, government failing. Before the pandemic began, there was a debate about the efficacy of authoritarianism versus democracy in Africa. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, for instance, had argued that authoritarian governments like his could deliver better. Do you think, given that the data’s only partially in on how governments have responded, that the Kagame case, with Chinese performance in the background, for authoritarianism versus democracy has been strengthened or weakened in Africa, or is the jury still out?

Whoever wants to respond.

MBAKU: I can start, if that is OK.

HERBST: Please.

MBAKU: We in economics argue about this approach to public policy a lot and that is, which policy is more effective, the authoritarian approach or the democratic approach, and what people often argue is that democracy, which involves participation, takes too long and increases the cost of contracts, that if you are a multinational company going to Africa what you want is simply to negotiate with one individual—for example, if you’re able to negotiate with one individual who has the authority to make the decisions, that will make it easier for you to go in and provide the kinds of job creation that is necessary for economic development. So a multinational company would prefer an authoritarian system because of the fact that you don’t have to worry about consulting civil society, consulting or making the contract open to digestion by members of the public, and so on and so on.

So this was the argument that was being given by Rwanda in that since the president was in a position to make all the decisions, without any need for consultations, those decisions could be made very quickly and so efficiently. But the problem with that approach is that it assumes that the president is a benevolent individual who knows everything about what is happening in the country, which is usually not true. And so in the long run, what happens is that that approach is going to collapse eventually and place the country in a worse position than it would have been. So it may work in the short run to solve this COVID problem, primarily because of the nature of COVID. But other problems that are going to come up in the future, in terms of economic development, in terms of human development, would require the kinds of time and place information that the people at the center simply do not have.

If you want to develop a country, you must be able to consult the citizens, to consult the people, and have an opportunity to be able to gather the kind of information that allows you, for example, in Nigeria to find out what is happening in the Niger Delta, as opposed to what is happening in Kano or in Cameroon, what is happening in the Francophone area of the country because of their different historical experiences, as opposed to what is happening in the Anglophone part of the country, where the Cameroon—where you see in Cameroon now, the government is suffering simply because the government cannot understand why Anglophones want common law instead of French civil law. The government has had a difficult time understanding that, or why Cameroonian—Anglophone Cameroonian prefer to speak English rather than French, where the government says French is a superior language and it’s a better language for you, and the Anglophones are saying no, we want English. So those kinds of things are things that require for us to understand why democracy participation, civil consultation, the ability for individuals to participate in decisions that affect their own lives is very important, and so this approach to COVID that many dictators in Africa are arguing is not a very good way to run the country, primarily because when you have a group of individuals who were brought together involuntarily by colonialism, when you have those kinds of people together, brought together, you have to understand that the best way to manage diversity is to allow for more participation at the local level so that policies are bottom-up as opposed to top-down.

HERBST: Idayat—

HASSAN: Thank you.

HERBST: Your thoughts on—please, go ahead.

HASSAN: Yeah. Thank you very much.

I think that Kagame is a good example. But I think by now we should know that Kagame, Rwanda or no Rwanda, what the COVID pandemic has done is it gave even other so-called democratic leaders rights to become more authoritarian. And this happened in lots of ways and across different parts of the continent.

One and the first was, of course, the introduction of emergency laws. These emergency laws gave opportunity—under COVID protocol or real law passing gave opportunity for people to clamp down on rights. So human right defenders have been arrested for disturbance to public order, incitement to revolt, violence against law enforcement agencies—sit at home, different of these actually led to the infringements of rights. And there were lots of emergency laws that we also promulgated. Ghana is an example. (Audio break)—Africa. But we saw during this period to the imposition of restriction acts, March 2020, introduced with no end dates or mention of COVID-19 in spite of the fact that that country already has got an emergency powers act, this.

During that period also, because of the law and continuous, it’s allowed people—it’s allowed the executive to cut short power without necessary oversight, crippling the legislature and judicial, and flagrant breaches of the rule of law. In fact, continental principles—I’d like to talk about the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance only from the African Charter on Democracy and Elections. Using this, we saw how Alpha Condé, now deposed, was able to grapple and (schemeingly ?) undertake a referendum, even organized elections during this period. In fact, it was well-utilized to ensure that opposition could not campaign in Chad, in Uganda. The case of Bobi Wine is a point—it’s one that, of course, still reverberates with us.

Then, again, in other places you had crackdown on protest or even assembly, but selectively utilized at the same time. So you have Chad, immediately the late Idriss Déby finished his campaign, he actually closed (internal now ?) all in the guise of COVID. So there represents only a celebration of the End SARS in Nigeria. End SARS was also (practically ?) cracked down on in the enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines and protocols. So that was one. That is just one out of several.

Problematic polls is also something that we must actually note. During this period, we’ve had more than twelve elections across the continent and most of these elections have come out contested. It’s come out contested because some were shabbily done; some were shabbily organized; and oppositions, of course, were clamped down and not allowed. There was no level playing field. Movements, rights, I think in all involved—beyond Kagame, that we should say Rwanda adopted these—most of the leaders have utilized COVID in one prism or the other, either to securitize response, violate rights, freedom—infringe on freedom of assembly. In fact, freedom of expression, where we had a very critical voice in Prime TV in Zambia, and radio, stopped from broadcasting under the guise that they were not playing pro-COVID advertoria but instead asking the government to pay what it was actually owing them. That was a very critical station giving voice in Zambia at that point in time.

So all this kind of infringement has happened. And it has taken us back to several years—several years behind, where we see already that democracy is declining. And in countries where there have actually been faulty elections, some, of course, we have seen what has happened with Kenya and Mali. We are paying for it. But others have also cemented leaders or rulers that will continue to infringe on citizens’ rights. And some of the laws that were introduced have refused to be—they have not taken those laws away. So Nigeria today, if you watch online, you will see that people were dispersed while trying to protest. We’re still talking about COVID-19, aside from the fact that they are fearful of this, again, turning into another carnage like the October 20 End SARS protests. So I think we should just conclude, from my own point of view, that it has further led to a decline in democracy.

HERBST: Thank you.

Michelle, let me go to you and then go to questions. Has the focus on government performance strengthened the Kagame case, if you like, for authoritarianism?

GAVIN: So I very much appreciate the comments of the other panelists. And I would say, for every Rwanda you can point to another example of a highly centralized authoritarian system that has failed miserably to protect its population in the context of this pandemic. And one does not have to look far. We can take a case of Burundi and the late president Nkurunziza, right, who essentially denied that COVID was a problem. And, you know, probably it was COVID that took his life in the end. But there is, you know, a denialism, essentially, you know, leaving is population completely vulnerable.

In Tanzania, which had been moving in a more and more authoritarian direction under President Magufuli, whose popular appeal really did speak to this idea of an authoritarian development model. He was going to slice through red tape. He was going to bulldoze over corruption. He was going to get things done for people. But there again, you had an element of COVID denialism, right, an unwillingness to even publish or share statistics—so really undermining the entire region’s public health response. And he too appears to have been victim to this disease. But his population, right, was incredibly ill-served by a government that, critically, is not actually accountable to them.

And that’s, I think, what it all boils down to. And the fundamental problem with this model is that it depends upon sort of the benevolence of this authoritarian, and the wisdom of this authoritarian. And if you find that they’re not making the mark in these areas, there is no actual recourse for the citizens. And so it’s—I don’t think the model holds much appeal if you look throughout the region.

HERBST: At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Irving Williamson.

Q: Thank you very much. Appreciate all that you’ve offered us.

But I was wondering, could anybody tell us—give us an example of some leaders in some countries that did a good job of responding to COVID? What about a place like Botswana that’s had, you know, a long democratic tradition? Thank you.

HERBST: Michelle, you were—(laughs)—you have a special knowledge of Botswana, which was referenced. Do you want to start?

GAVIN: Sure. I can give it a try, which is to say it’s a mixed bag. Initially Botswana did look like an example of a place that was responding very well and every effectively. There was—you know, there’s a very good public health infrastructure in the country that was mobilized. The messages coming from the very top around the importance of following the public health guidelines were powerful, and that you saw the president again and again going into isolation, self-quarantining when he had, you know, been made aware that he’d been in contact with someone who’d been exposed to COVID.

But, you know, there has been some very serious flaws in the government’s approach to vaccination. Botswana was one of the countries actually hit hardest by the pandemic in the sort of third wave that swept through southern Africa. And there’s a lot of frustration with government, in that, you know, as an upper-middle income country I think there was an expectation that they would be able to secure more vaccines more quickly than they were. There’s an element of perhaps relying on COVAX in a way that didn’t pan out for a lot of states. So it’s a mixed bag.

I would say that, you know, there are certainly examples of some pretty impressive regional coordination and African leadership in the context of raising in international fora the importance of addressing the economic costs to Africa, addressing issues of debt burdens, et cetera. But it’s hard to find sort of textbook cases of the best possible way to respond to this, in part because Africa has been at the back of the line for access to vaccines and therapeutics that are sort of the measure now of whether or not you could turn the corner on this or not.

The last thing I would just say is that you have some interesting examples too from Senegal of government working with civil society, pop culture figures, really kind of tapping into this idea of public trust, who is trusted, and trying to work together with some, you know, nongovernmental entities that are voices of authority for significant sections of the population. I think that’s an example of something that worked well.

HERBST: Idayat and John—thank you—examples of success that you’d like to highlight?

HASSAN: OK. Thank you very much.

I think that, yes, there are examples to highlight, but it’s important to say that it’s actually a mixed bag. The early response by African governments, particularly when you look at Nigeria, the fact that we already have an epidemic, we were high on the—on Lassa fever. We had the infrastructure to do tracing. All these were quite useful—Nigeria, Ghana. The daily briefings that the governments were having, the early rollouts of campaign, partnership—which is also key, because I must say that at the Center for Democracy and Development we support the primary health care and the National Orientation Agency, not just on countering fake news but also in terms of driving vaccine uptake with stakeholders. So there were, like, positives like that.

The Economic Sustainability Plan is also a positive one that Nigeria immediately built, and they also had all these stimulus packages in some countries. But this way, like, yes, in the real implementation of it, challenges arose. So Uganda is an example. They came up and said: We have a $30 one-off we are going to give people. How many people eventually got this $30 stimulus package? And many are not even aware of the existence of such. It’s the same in Nigeria, where the private sector in collaboration with the government then came up and set up a COVAX facility, again, in terms of ameliorating the suffering of the people.

During the End SARS campaign we were treated to these goods. All the foods that should have actually been given to Nigerians who were hungry were found stored in a warehouse. They were already getting most way spoiled, and a lot of corruption that has actually been recorded in this process. So there were critical steps, commendable in terms of addressing the pandemic even from Liberia, Sierra Leone, where they already had a history of treating Ebola. They used all this infrastructure to address the pandemic. But the issue of rights, of course, became a bigger issue in its implementation.

HERBST: John, any successes you’d like to highlight?

MBAKU: Well, I was going to talk about Senegal, but that has already been mentioned. What I would like to say is that at the beginning there were several African countries that—like Kenya, for example—that were going the right direction. But the problem that they run into—the government run into is this problem of trust. Once many citizens began to realize that foreign governments were likely to provide additional resources to local governments—I mean, to African governments to help in the fight against COVID, many of these citizens became suspicious that, like any foreign aid program, the government was going to embezzle the money and use it for other purposes.

And so what happened in Kenya, for example, was that the government at the beginning was seen as being interested in trying to help the people understand what COVID was and making sure that it did not unnecessarily impact people. But once local communities began to see that a country like the United States and the European Union were likely to provide additional help in terms of money, many people no longer trusted the government in what the government was saying because there was a fear that when the money arrived it would be corruptly allocated. And so that made it much more difficult for the government that has started going the right direction to be able to implement the policies that they intended to implement.

HERBST: Thank you. Why don’t we go to the next question?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Valentina Barbacci.

Q: Yes. Hello. Can you hear me?


Q: Wonderful. Thank you. My name is Valentina Barbacci. And I’m a term member based in London.

My question to any of the panelists that might want to answer it is, you know, I—it seems that there might be some countries—perhaps South Africa, I think I read most recently—considering vaccinate mandate policies. I’m not sure of the latest. Forgive me, I haven’t read up on it. But I would be grateful for your thoughts on how vaccine mandate policies that we’ve seen, for example, in the U.S. and on some other countries mandating the vaccines could potentially hinder various African nations, or benefit if that’s the case. And what lessons we should be drawing from this in terms of international policies that might prevent members from African nations trying to travel, for example, to the U.S. and other countries where vaccine mandates exist.

And in that similar vein, what systems are in place, or could be put in place, or could be—how we could support African nations to put in place systems that help people report injuries and other adverse effects of the vaccines more accurately than some nations have managed to do? Thank you for your thoughts.

HERBST: Thank you very much. I’ll hand it to any of the panelists who want to start.

MBAKU: I would like to say something, if that’s OK. Yeah, vaccine mandates are very critical, if they are accompanied with other programs. For example, if you mandate—if you impose a policy saying you mandate the wearing of masks, or you mandate vaccination, those mandates become totally irrelevant if people do not have access to the vaccine either because the vaccine doesn’t exist or because the vaccine exists but is currently—it is currently being distributed. Or within the country, there arise fake vaccines that are being sold by irresponsible businesses. And so if you are going to impose a mandate on the wearing of masks, you want to make sure that the masks are there, and they are affordable and accessible to the people. Otherwise, the policy becomes a punitive policy that selectively effects especially poor people.

And the second issue is that if you are going to do a mandate, you have to consider the economic consequences of the mandate. Here in the West when mandates were imposed, they were also accompanied by significant financial subsidies to households that were no longer able to go to work because of the pandemic. In Africa, countries either don’t have the resources to subsidize their citizens or they have the resources but because of corruption in government the resources are not going to end up going to the people who need them. And in many villages in Africa, travel is very important.

Without travel, people would simply starve to death. In addition to that, travel is also important for the spiritual life of local people, especially in rural areas. During Christmas, for example, Africans who live in the urban areas go home. And that going home during Christmas or during the new year is very critical to the maintenance of the family system. And so if you are going to place those mandates, you need to ask yourself how are we going to be able to deal with these issues that come as a result of whatever mandate you are imposing on the people.

You can’t simply just go in and impose a mandate and forget about the social consequences, the economic consequences. What about the idea that—I remember talking to someone on Zoom a couple of weeks ago. And he was telling me that he had to cancel his marriage because he couldn’t do his traditional marriage without everyone in the family participating in the marriage. And so the government was telling him: If you want to get married, just go to the courthouse and the two of you, you and your wife, will get married in front of a judge. And his argument was that that marriage cannot go on because, in my—in his tradition he has to go to his village, and the entire village has to attend to the marriage. But because of COVID issues, they cannot do that.

And so if you are going to impose a mandate, you have to look at all these associated issues and make sure that you provide avenues for people to resolve these conflicts before you impose the mandate. Otherwise, the mandate will simply not work.

HERBST: Idayat or Michelle, any thoughts on the question?

GAVIN: I guess I would just say very quickly that, you know, I frankly wish this were the issue of concern right now, as opposed to just access to the vaccines writ large, right? This is—vaccine access remains totally inadequate, utterly insufficient. Which, of course, endangers the entire world, right? Because as you have this virus continuing in circulation you get new variants that can come and harm us all. So it’s—you know, we’re kind of a distance from having to consider this.

But I guess I would just say that, as we’ve seen in our own society, right, these issues of public trust are never more front and center than in debates around vaccine mandates. And the same kind of networks of disinformation that have undermined trust for political purposes in our country, in the United States, and elsewhere, are active as well abroad. And I see, you know, frankly, a lot of opportunity for those kinds of actors to gain traction. And there are very good reasons in many African states to have a lack of trust in government, in government telling you that something is safe, and the international community telling you that something medical is safe, because there are very real historical examples of totally inappropriate drug trials in Africa, et cetera.

So I am worried about it. I think the trust issue is important. And I know also that there’s been a tremendous amount of anger on the continent around some things like the U.K.’s red list, a sense of being sort of ostracized from the international community of, you know, economic and professional life being that much harder, when it’s certainly no fault of Africans’ own, right, that there is such unequal access to vaccines. The system that was supposed to be set up to address this is not working the way it should, and in part because of individual deals that richer countries have made.

So one of—the last thing I would just say is in this whole discussion I do see, you know, these glaring, global structural inequities that are going to, I think, increase tensions and force a conversation around some changes in global governance as we look at the very raw deal that African societies have been given.

HERBST: Idayat, on vaccine mandates?

HASSAN: Yes. OK, thank you very much.

I think what is very important is that at this point it’s not the—people are not even thinking really about the vaccine equity. It’s vaccine uptake that is actually the real problem for Africans, because when you look across the continent not up to 3 percent of the people have been vaccinated. And these vaccines are readily available. They are readily available. Maybe we’ve not given as much incentives to people as possible to take the vaccine.

One thing that is also driving this hesitancy, one is the response at the beginning, the fact that it was not context-specific. We started talking about social distancing when we’ve just been told that we are very—so much a very social-aligned close community and group. The reality of the life of the people who are out, can do social distancing, who live in the bedroom with, like, ten people. So even keeping them at home is actually much more dangerous than asking them to go to work, by not adopting a lockdown measure itself. So the response (out of the gate ?).

Two, of course, is the trust, which has started—(inaudible). And this trust, again, is riding on these influential figures, who people see as the trusted sources, helping to drive disinformation around vaccine itself. So the vaccine challenge is coming really from religious leaders, public leaders who deny that this is not important. So look at the Catholic church just right here. How many have actually spoken to vaccine? The Anglican churches. What is making people to get vaccinated is actually the—(inaudible)—which is saying to go to the U.K., you have your vaccination certificate, maybe things become better. We are seeing pastors beginning to say, OK. They say, I have to do the work of the lord, then I can actually get vaccinated.

But these very important figures who are saying that you do not need to be vaccinated, the blood of Jesus can actually help you in keeping you safe, and the fact that we have not seen people die. So when you tell people about COVID, people are not wearing masks but they are not dying in those numbers. Yesterday we had one. Nigeria recorded only one death. That one might be, like, maybe thirty or even a hundred, but people do not also know because they’ve not tested adequately. And the history of the past comes in, where there has actually been vaccine trials that have gone bad. The Pfizer vaccine—polio vaccine is an example here just in northern Nigeria, where children were guinea pig(s) and they never actually benefited from it.

So the discourse, I think, should be balanced. Right now equity, while very important, what the elites are thinking of that? Because they do not want the breakdown of law and order. I think that’s what people are more fearful about, aside from being infected, because that constituted a very—serious challenges to them. But it’s the uptake that is the problem, and how to drive this uptake using people who are well-trusted themselves, bringing them onboard: the religious leaders, not the political leaders who, of course, nobody actually believes in, particularly with the way they have actually managed the response. The corruption, the clampdown on the civic space have not actually helped in selling this forward.

And of course, the world is a global village, which tells us about global governance. There is no vaccine disinformation that is around Bill Gates or cheap that is not here or adapted in local contexts. So it tells us that, again, the world is a global village. But COVID has also helped us to redefine how we engage, and to actually bring about new voices and even leaders.

HERBST: We’re approaching the hour. I think we have time for one last question. And I’ll ask our panelists to be as succinct as possible.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our last question from Michael Pelletier.

Q: Hi. Good afternoon. I’m at the Institute of Global Engagement at University of Houston.

And I’ve certainly seen during my career the elements that you’re talking about—the corruption, which leads to or contributes to the lack of confidence. But I wondered if you could comment briefly on what I think of as the sort of third element, which is incapacity, the lack of capacity. Even with the best will in the world, the lack of capacity of the health care system in so many African countries leads to then assumptions that corruption is at fault, when sometimes it’s actually simply a lack of capacity. Thank you.

HERBST: That’s important. And I’ll ask my colleagues to be very succinct, as we’re running up against a time limit.

Idayat, do you want to take this?

HASSAN: Yes, please. Yeah. I think that’s the most important challenge, actually. And that was what we thought would be the opportunity, the lack of capacity—the lack of capacity, not just in terms of infrastructure but also the workforce. And one thing we learned with COVID was even just doctors were not the most important, actually. They were quite important, but they were not as important about the secondary health workers who has worked hard to actually provide this health care. The absence of primary health-care system itself became very, very obvious.

And the breakdown of local governance, which is the root and actually maybe the solution in terms of addressing this COVID-19 pandemic, being the unit of government that is actually closest to the people either as municipal or local government in different parts of Africa, came up. So states’ capacity.

And also one very important thing is that we saw that different countries had varying states at capacity. Even within countries like—a federation like Nigeria, the issue of federalism also came up with varying capacity at the state level to actually engage and to address responses in itself.

HERBST: Last few seconds, John or Michelle, any concluding—

MBAKU: Yeah. I understand that capacity’s a problem in virtually every African country. But we have to be careful with this idea, because the lack of capacity is also associated with the lack of political will to develop that capacity. And so when you look at Cameroon—I’ll use Cameroon as an example. Cameroon has a very bad health care system. And part of the reason has to do with the fact that over the years, since 1961, many people in government go abroad for health care. The president is notorious for that. The president spends many, many months in Switzerland getting health care for himself and his family, and has no interest in providing the capacity that we need locally for the health care system. So people have confronted him on this many, many times, and he hasn’t done anything.

The second problem has to do with the fact that a lot of Cameroonians who are educated, who train in medicine, do not stay in Cameroon because of the political situation and the lack of opportunities to practice as a doctor. So if you look at—if you go to the Middle East you see a lot of Cameroonians, a lot of Nigerian nurses, pharmacists, doctors, and so on living abroad because they believe that it is easier for them, and more financially beneficial for them to be abroad. And so that lack of capacity has a lot to do with the nature of the government that you have in the African countries, not just because of the lack of money to develop the capacity.

HERBST: Thanks very much. And, Michelle, a final word?

GAVIN: Final sentence, really. Which is just to say that those issues are real, but it’s also the case that we have seen that even in countries with very scarce resources, in the context of Ebola and other serious infectious diseases, a very impressive, actually, capacity to undertake massive public health campaigns. So it’s certainly not a lost cause. There have been some interesting innovations in mobilizing community health workers—so not people who need medical degrees. Ghana’s a good example of that. And then just finally to say I think Africa itself is moving toward trying to address some of these issues with the African CDC, with the African Medicines Agency, you know, coming on board to try and address some of these regulatory issues and hopefully build trust. So I do see, you know, African action trying to address those gaps.

HERBST: I’d like to thank my colleagues today for a wonderful panel on a very complex set of issues and a rich set of observations. I’d like to also thank the audience for joining in this virtual meeting. Please note to that the audio and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted soon on the Council on Foreign Relations website. I’m Jeffrey Herbst. Again, thank you to my colleagues, thank you to the audience for this important discussion.


Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*