How disease is killing democracy, aiding despots in the Horn of Africa

Monday October 26 2020
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Today, in the Horn of Africa, as elsewhere, Covid-19 carries eerie echoes of past epidemics as a killer of democracy. Covid-19 brings to mind the Great Plague of 430 to 427 BC that ended Athens’ s democratic polity and culture.

The disease was partly responsible for Athens’s defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), and the consequent rise of authoritarian undertows in the post-war Athens.

Thucydides’s book, History of the Peloponnesian War, depicts epidemics as killers of democracy and forebears of tyranny. While writing about war and disease, the Greek war historian was concerned with the practical and moral weaknesses, fractures, fissures and societal decay that the Great Plague exploited to claim one-third of Athens’s population (nearly 100,000 people) – including its great general and statesman Pericles, his wife and their two sons.

Thucydides was concerned with Athens’s poor urban planning and mismanaged health system, the selfishness, cowardice, obsessive fear and self-interest of Athenians, which the disease preyed on to take lives and destroy the city-state.

The historian bemoaned the fact that the epidemic pushed people into lawlessness, insolence and incivility. But Thucydides was clear that epidemics are not solely responsible for people collapsing into immorality, chaos and anarchy. Epidemics don’t make character; they reveal character. Instead, they embolden ‘hitherto concealed immorality’ in human beings.

As in Athens, Covid-19 has preyed on the turbulent Horn of Africa’s endemic fragility – violence, armed conflict, terrorism, persecutions, human rights violations and abuses, the adverse effects of climate change and natural disasters and moral decay – to push democracy to the margins and propel an authoritarian surge.


Here, as elsewhere, the virus has provided cover for tyrants to claim special powers beyond what is reasonably necessary to protect public health, to silence critics, muzzle the press, and postpone and disrupt elections.

From below, incipient political movements of modern-day “Robin Hoods” are exploiting the devastating economic impacts of the epidemic, within the context of populism and ethno-nationalism, to erode the pillars of democracy and sponsor violence.

This threat to democracy is exemplified by responses to democratic elections. To be sure, some countries decided to hold elections on schedule despite the pandemic. Burundi held presidential elections as scheduled on May 20. It was among at least 74 countries and territories worldwide that decided to hold elections in 2020 despite the virus.

Among these are Tanzania and the Central African Republic, which hold general elections on October 28 and December 27, respectively.

The third scenario comprises countries where elections have been postponed for Covid-related reasons. In Somalia, Abdullahi Farmaajo’s government announced that legislative elections were postponed until February and presidential polls until August 2021, practically stretching his stay in power by six months, citing Covid-19 concerns.

However, broad-based consensus involving stakeholders repudiated this divisive edict, fixing legislative elections for December 1 and 27, and presidential elections for February 8, 2021.

The worst case scenario is where countries have postponed elections indefinitely, citing Covid-19 as the reason. Ethiopia is one of some 73 countries across the globe that have postponed national elections, referendums and subnational elections due to the virus between February and October 2020.

The national electoral board of Ethiopia postponed indefinitely parliamentary elections scheduled for August 29. Later, the Ethiopian House of Peoples Representatives voted to postpone federal and regional elections and to extend the term of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the national assembly “until international health institutions have deemed the threat from coronavirus to be over”.

And Abiy’s government did not see the urgency to build a broad-based consensus on the legality of continuing to hold power after the expiry of its constitutional mandate in October.

A triple détente of Abiy’s Ethiopia, Mohamed Farmaajo’s Somalia and Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea, coalesced around the proposed Horn of Africa Cooperation, signifies the authoritarian surge in the Horn of Africa.

Finally, the economic impact of Covid-19 is feeding new divisive politics of ethno-nationalism and populism, now poised to roll back democracy.


Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive Africa Policy Institute