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IDEAS

Will coronavirus be fatal for some democracies?

Several African leaders are using COVID-19 as an excuse to delay elections and consolidate power.

Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, a Ugandan singer turned politician, arrived at the headquarters of his new political party, the National Unity Platform, in Kampala on Aug. 21. He plans to run for president in 2021 against Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, but the incumbent and his backers have called for delaying the election.
Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, a Ugandan singer turned politician, arrived at the headquarters of his new political party, the National Unity Platform, in Kampala on Aug. 21. He plans to run for president in 2021 against Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, but the incumbent and his backers have called for delaying the election.SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images

KAMPALA, Uganda — At Arua Park, the main bus terminal in this sprawling capital, a few residents recently met up secretly hiding in plain sight — to discuss the future of their country ahead of presidential elections that are scheduled for early 2021 but might be delayed.

They spoke about how they want to see President Yoweri Museveni, who has controlled Uganda since a coup in 1986, replaced by 38-year-old Bobi Wine, a popular reggae star who is also a member of Parliament and the leader of the opposition National Unity Platform.

“We are tired of Museveni’s rule, it’s now time for change,” Leonard Muhwezi, 25, who is a motorcycle taxi driver, told me. “Museveni has ruled this country longer than I have been alive — and it’s time for him to relinquish power to the young.”

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Museveni is the only leader a majority of Ugandans have ever known. That is not an unusual phenomena in Africa, though. Equatorial Guinea’s leader, Teodoro Obiang, has ruled since 1979. Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been in power since 1982.

In much of Africa, what raises eyebrows is the passing of the so-called democratic torch.

That isn’t to say that folks don’t wish it were otherwise — or that they never succeed at democratic change. Muhwezi’s desire for new leadership in Uganda is shared by millions of other young voters, even though the political playing field is tilted toward the regime. These voters have been upset by a slowing economy and the lack of political freedom, and the way Museveni has exploited anti-virus measures to tighten his grip on power is further tipping the sentiment against him.

For example, on March 30, Museveni announced a nighttime curfew, banned mass gatherings, closed all bars and court hearings, forbid the use of all private vehicles, and closed shopping malls. Those measures could have been seen as legitimate measures to contain the coronavirus — until he directed police to arrest opposition politicians who were distributing food to the hungry.

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And it gets worse: Police dispersed opposition gatherings, beat and shot civilians attending those gatherings, and arbitrarily arrested others. Meanwhile, ruling party politicians including Museveni hold campaign rallies and distribute food relief.

In May, Museveni sought to postpone the 2021 elections by a year. Now, Parliament is seeking to suspend all elections for five years. “To have elections when the virus is still there . . . it will be madness,” the 75-year-old Museveni said in an interview with NBS Television.

COVID-19 is a problem, no question. But many other countries, including the United States and Poland, have held elections this year with higher rates of transmission and death. Uganda, a nation of 42 million people, has recorded roughly 4,000 cases and 46 deaths since March, according to data from Johns Hopkins University’s tracking portal. Few people in Uganda appear to buy the regime’s argument that election delays of a year or longer are borne out of public safety concerns.

Still, this playbook is being used all over Africa. For example, the much-heralded reform-minded Ethiopian government indefinitely postponed elections that were scheduled for August. Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, the Seychelles, and Tanzania are likely to follow.

“COVID-19 period has seen African leaders including Museveni amassing sweeping new powers to intimidate and brutalize opposition leaders and their supporters,” Philip Nying’uro, a professor of international relations at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, told me recently. “The presidents' power cannot be questioned during COVID-19 period because [governments] will say they are fighting the virus. The situation will obviously pose risks for democracy and basic fundamental rights and freedoms in the continent.”

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All these countries face socio-political and economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, and Nying’uro fears that postponing elections could tip those tensions over into violence. “We might have revolutions and military coups in Africa if leaders continue to play with democracy,” Nying’uro warned. “Leaders should make sure that they respect the rule of law by holding regular, free, fair and transparent elections.”

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame’s regime has become more brazen in attacking its critics: This month, it arrested Paul Rusesabagina — portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as the hero who saved 1,200 lives during the country’s 1994 genocide — on terrorism charges.

Still, as many African leaders attempt to use the pandemic to tighten their grip on power, they should heed the lessons of the past few years, when voters finally rose up in the Gambia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and elsewhere to throw off their longtime dictators. Those voters recognized that even as Africans had cut themselves loose from the chains of slavery and colonialism, we remained shackled in the prisons of entrenched poverty, disease, corruption, and political repression, run by Black masters now.

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Wine, the opposition leader in Uganda, understands this. He told me that “Ugandans will rise up if (Museveni) rigs or manipulates the vote.” Similar sentiment is coming out of Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Meanwhile, government officials across the continent are being investigated for using their positions to siphon off funds intended to tackle COVID-19. For example, in Kenya, the cabinet secretary for health and other officials in his department are accused of looting more than $100 million in foreign aid while hospitals experience severe shortages.

But COVID-19 electoral delays could make judgment day a long way away in many countries.

Tonny Onyulo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi. Follow him on Twitter @TonnyOnyulo.