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Just or Unjust? Securitisation of COVID-19 and Police Brutality in Africa

Heavy-handedness has characterized the responses of some African countries towards addressing the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the early stage of its spread, most governments resorted to stringent measures, including lockdowns and deployed security agencies to ensure that citizens complied with regulations. Taken together, these approaches are examples of securitization, the process of framing issues as existential security threats to convince an audience that extraordinary and sometimes illegitimate behavior to counter these threats is warranted.

Image by Charles Nambasi from Pixabay © 2020

The novel coronavirus has been classified as a threat to human life, economic progress, and national security. The World Health Organisation’s Director-General called it an “enemy against humanity.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, an American physician, also referred to the virus as a “formidable foe” that must be subdued. Some African governments have alluded to COVID-19 as an existential threat that must be tackled with wartime rhetoric, policies, and actions. Therefore, African countries such as Ghana and South Africa tout their strategic response to the virus as a “fight” that requires a concerted effort to win. National emergency regulations have overridden constitutional processes that uphold rule of law and guarantee rights and freedoms.

Consequently, these countries have prioritized public health through full or limited suspension of human rights and freedoms. In an attempt to combat the virus and safeguard public health, law enforcement agencies in some African nations have resorted to curtailing fundamental rights and meting out unmerited sanctions. Pseudo-authoritarian policies such as the imposition of restrictions on movement and social gatherings, curfews, states of emergency, and heavy policing have given way to harsh and illegitimate means of law enforcement. Lockdowns, for example, disrupted life and livelihoods. Because 86% of Africans work in the informal sector and depend on daily wages, the impact of these lockdowns went largely unnoticed. Moreover, weak social welfare systems have been unable to mitigate socioeconomic effects.

The problems have been compounded by law enforcement officers who have killed people faster than COVID-19. In Kenya, a police officer murdered a 13-year-old boy on his balcony; in another incident, four policemen were accused of using lethal force, teargas, and batons against civilians. Nigerian policemen killed a teenager in Lagos and a 20-year-old boy in Anambra during its lockdown. At the time of its first coronavirus death, Ugandan forces were accused of killing at least 12 people while enforcing curfews. Violations and deaths have undermined justifications for implementing drastic prevention measures to protect people.

These incidents are puzzling because African countries were not the only ones that imposed lockdowns; the United Kingdom and some U.S. states also did. However, the methods of enforcing compliance were characteristically different. Rather than enforce curfews with physical force, U.S. law enforcement agencies supported civil authorities with public and medical services, complementing stimulus packages to minimize the impact of restrictions. Authorities in the UK employed fines and prohibition notices to punish residents who flouted stay-at-home rules. However, in most African countries, considering the challenges associated with zip code systems and judicial capacities, fines were impractical as a disciplinary measure. Instead, many governments resorted to deploying security personnel to ensure compliance. 

Instances of police brutality during lockdowns have been openly documented thanks to citizen and professional journalism in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria. According to Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, Nigerian security personnel murdered at least eighteen civilians while enforcing lockdowns. Under the pretext of combating COVID-19, Zimbabwean authorities have enacted policies stifling freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The difficulty of implementing containment measures in a properly coordinated manner has resulted in their arbitrary enforcement. Accounts of violations have caused an uproar from activists and the populace. Moreover, excessive use of force has proved counterproductive as protests against these harsh measures defy social distancing protocols.

The viral killing of George Floyd has resonated with victims of police brutality in Africa. While the diaspora is fighting for an end to systemic racism and police injustice, Africans have simultaneously taken to the streets in solidarity with them. Aside from publicly denouncing police brutality in the United States and holding memorial services, African nations petitioned the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold an urgent debate on racism and police brutality on June 17, 2020.

It has also been a day of reckoning for standing against the continent’s own law enforcement atrocities exacerbated within the COVID-19 context. For example, a South African coalition is documenting violations and calling for prosecution while social media activism is happening in Nigeria. While African Americans and their allies are calling for an overhaul of their systems and institutions worldwide, Africans are also increasingly calling for reforms that will transform the culture of policing. There have been demands to dismantle forces, establish accountability mechanisms, strengthen capacities, enhance mutual trust and collaboration.

These incidents and reactions have highlighted the need to put human security at the center of all discourse on promoting international and national security. Disassociating individual or human security from national security inadvertently condones the use of excessive force and extrajudicial measures in law enforcement and citizens’ compliance.

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Dorsina Dwamena-Aboagye

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