The novel coronavirus, more commonly known as COVID-19 has not (as of yet) caused the devastation to public health predicted in Africa by the World Health Organization at the dawn of the pandemic. Nevertheless, its socio-economic and political repercussions are of greatest concern to experts, analysts and civil society in West Africa. In recent weeks, intellectuals, religious and community leaders, political opponents and citizen movements have been leading several street protests against police violence and authoritarian drifts of "pseudo-democratic" regimes hiding behind the COVID-19 emergency to tighten the noose of repression around the necks of their own population.
While the health response of governments in the region has lived up to the challenge of the pandemic, some restrictive measures to contain the virus – such as the "western" lockdown, night curfews and partial suspension of the informal sector, which according to the World Bank employs 85% of the workforce in sub-Saharan Africa – have inexorably affected already fragile and polarized economies. In many countries of the region, in fact, social inequalities, which even before the outbreak of the global epidemic attracted mass criticism and mobilizations, are dangerously increasing. This is an opportunity for the citizens' movements in the region to revitalize social claims that have been hatching under the embers of popular dissidence over the past years.
According to the Senegalese economist Ndongo Samba Sylla, the current situation is crucial: "The virus has only made even more visible the contradictions of a distant political class, alien to the real problems of its people, authoritarian and copy-paste of the western political and socio-economic elites". As the young researcher of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Dakar recounts, COVID-19 is catalysing dissent – political, religious and social – against a ruling class perceived as increasingly distant, not only from the grassroots base, but also from the cultural intelligentsia as well as the growing (and increasingly dissident) middle class in the regional capitals. The signature by a hundred influential African thinkers, including the Nobel Prize Wole Soyinka, of a powerful open letter addressed to African rulers at the end of April is attributable to this trend. The letter, written by Ndongo Samba Sylla along with two other intellectuals of the region, is just one of many examples of the recent manifestos, slogans, posts and messages that from different countries and inspiring spirits continue to circulate in the continent.
In the view of African social movements, the disproportionate use of security forces – police, military and secret services – by governments in the management of the health crisis underlies a potential fracture, the risk that the fragile social peace of the concerned countries may be overthrown. An example of the symbolic significance of such a moment is the night when curfews were imposed by military patrols during the last months in almost all West African countries. In Bamako as in Abidjan or Ouagadougou this form of social containment has immediately brought back to the memory of the citizens the coups, the terrorist attacks and, more generally, the latent insecurity perpetrated by the cyclical crises – food, climate, migration or terrorist – managed by governments as an instrument of control and repression.
In Ivory Coast, Human Rights Watch reports that over 450 people are currently being detained for violating curfews. In recent months the internet connection has been controlled and restricted in several countries in the region, officially to contain the dissemination of fake news. Amnesty International recently reported the arrest of two citizens in Niger for sharing messages: Amina Maiga, an employee of the Niamey Court, was sentenced to three months in prison for a private conversation in which she criticized the government's management of the COVID-19 pandemic, while civil society activist Mahaman Lawai Mahaman Nassourou was arbitrarily imprisoned in Maradi for denouncing the shutdown of mosques by the executive power.
In West Africa the dissent towards bad governance, corruption and the violent repression of civil liberties perpetrated by the ruling class finds strength above all in the religious identity. In Mali as in Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso, protests have broken out in recent weeks against certain forms of social restriction, such as the prohibition of assembly or worship. The unlucky coincidence of the lockdown with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (23 April - 23 May 2020) has exacerbated pre-existing frictions between central power and religious elites, dangerously deepening the rift between the Muslim community and the political classes of constitutionally secular countries.
Specifically, the decision by some governments (Senegal and Niger, for instance) to ban access to mosques during Ramadan has outraged many Muslims, a largely majority component in this region. Fueled by imams and religious leaders blowing on the fire of popular discontent to collect important political payoffs from governments in power, citizens protested in Bamako, Niamey, Dakar, and Ouagadougou, demanding more individual rights and freedoms.
In Mali, despite the government's decision not to close the mosques, on Friday, June 5, after midday prayer, a huge crowd called by the Wahhabi Imam Mahmoud Dicko – with the blessing of Nioro's Chérif, a highly respected figure in the country – challenged the ban on parades, repeatedly reiterated by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). A mass of about 20,000 people (according to the American Embassy in Bamako) gathered in Independence Square, in the city center, asking for the resignation of the IBK, judged no longer suitable to govern the country.
In a video posted on his facebook page, the influential and controversial Malian Preacher Mahmoud Dicko called for his countrymen to mobilize, "from Kayes to Kidal", in the name of freedom of thought and speech. “So the masks have fallen off, we want to stop people from talking and reporting. Where is the meaning of democracy if all rights are violated, even the freedom of expression? […] Now we're moving on to the hard way: repression. All those who speak out are kidnapped, with hoods on their heads and chains on their feet. Everything possible is done to silence people. We can't accept that”. The conclusion of Mahmoud Dicko's incendiary speech, increasingly followed by the young Malians, is crystal clear: “Bad governance is often a source of violence. When a country is not well governed, it is prone to violence, to the frustration of the masses. […] This case is about religion, about defending our social values”.
The extraordinariness of the current situation offers opportunities for the exploitation of popular discontent against the regimes in power by actors who are reaching a wide following. This is also the case in Senegalese society, where the leaders of the Sufi confraternities, who are far more influential than politicians, have challenged the central power by disobeying the ban on receiving believers in mosques for collective prayers. It happened in Touba, a place sacred to the Murid Brotherhood and the second city most affected by COVID-19 after Dakar. It happened in Médina-Gounass, in the far south-east of the country, feud of the Tijanniyyah. It also happened in Léona Niassène, south of Dakar, where on May 8 thousands of believers answered the Imam's call to prayer (who was later arrested and immediately released), before being dispersed by police’s tear gas and sticks.
The Senegalese President Macky Sall, who originally decided on March 19 to close the public markets as well as all places of worship (including churches), would later succumbed to pressure from imams, and on May 11 reopened mosques and reduced the curfew window to 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (previously 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.). At the same time, his government finds itself shaken by a scandal linked to the alleged corruption of President brother-in-law, current Minister for Community Development and Social and Territorial Equity Mansour Faye, suspected of mismanagement of hundreds of million euros of public funds allocated to bring food aid to vulnerable people. One of the anti-COVID-19 devices flagged by the government to come to the aid of the population.
At the beginning of the epidemic, the antagonist movement Y'en a marre (“Fed up”) was aligned with government dictates aimed at containing the spread of the virus. They have more recently resumed their fight, actively supporting the nightly curfew riots that broke out all over the country as well the protests of the transporters, affected by the almost three months of suspension of activities. Even the political oppositions, initially called into a "sacred union" against the external enemy by Macky Sall, are beginning to make their voices heard again, promising a new burning season of struggles.
What the COVID-19 epidemic is revealing in West Africa, in various forms and claims, is the need, expressed by intellectuals, artists, dissidents and ordinary citizens, to seize the historical moment to redefine the social contract that binds the rulers and governed. Starting from the welfare forms of protection of the poorest pockets of the population and standing against corruption, police violence and vexatious policies, seems to be the path traced by movements active in the region to redefine the outlines of today's society. An old challenge that COVID-19 has strongly revived, not only in West Africa but in the world at large.