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Traditional Elections Will Test Africa’s Resistance to Coronavirus Pandemic

Africa’s infection rates are still relatively low to the wonderment of some in the Western world who predicted infection rates in the billions.

In fact, African governments in many cases took preventative steps — from closing borders, social distancing, shutting educational institutions and banning mass gatherings.

By April 19, the Africa CDC reported that 34 countries had gone further and brought in night-time curfews or partial lockdowns. Eleven brought in rules requiring people to wear face masks in public.

Still, there is a growing sense of urgency given the acute absence of health care infrastructure on the continent and the prospect of 20 national elections scheduled in Africa during 2020.

With many countries banning public gatherings and restricting people’s freedom of movement, can these votes go ahead as planned?

Denis Kadima of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy shared some worrying thoughts keeping him up at night.

“The big test case is Burundi because they’re holding their election on May 20,” he said. “In the traditional manner of elections, there have been big rallies by the ruling party and the opposition. They have not used the social distance requirements.

“That’s a big test because we don’t know what will happen after a few weeks,” Kadima said. “If after the vote there is an escalation of the disease, that will be a lesson everyone will have to draw.”

Olufunto Akinduro of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance considers the structure of the election itself.

“Let’s start, for instance, with voter registration,” she says. “Most countries still require you to come in person. Countries are doing biometric registration but what kinds of sanitary processes do you put in place?

“In Africa, the only way of campaigning that people know is to bring the crowd around the candidate to pass the message,” Akinduro said. “Who is likely to win? It’s the person who is filling up the stadium!

“I don’t see a political party or a candidate that’s serious about winning not resorting to the traditional ways of campaigning,” she said. “Postal voting or online voting could be a solution in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However in the context of Africa, this would be new, untested and untrusted.

“Does everyone have access to the internet across the continent?” Akinduro asks.

But if a country cancels elections established by the constitution, it could lead to violence, suggests Kadima, “because when the legitimacy of the rulers has run out, then they can’t stand there and tell people what to do.“

Meanwhile, African governments are generally maintaining the pace of testing and contract tracing with a goal of 15 million tests over the next three months. Lockdowns have been instituted, travel restricted, research funding redirected and donations from local and international funders directed to buy medicines, testing kits, ventilators and protective gear.

Upcoming elections within the next 12 months include Tanzania (October), Cote d’Ivoire (October), Egypt (November), Ghana (December), Chad (December), Central African Republic, (December), Niger (December), Guinea, Somalia, Liberia and Gabon.

Global Information Network creates and distributes news and feature articles on current affairs in Africa to media outlets, scholars, students and activists in the U.S. and Canada.

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