By Lionel Zevounou, Amy Niang and Ndongo Samba Sylla
The threats that are hanging over the African continent with regards to the spread of COVID-19 demand our individual and collective attention. The situation is critical. Yet this is not about mitigating another ‘African’ humanitarian crisis but to diffuse the potentially damaging effects of a virus that has shaken the global order and put under question the bases of our living-together.
The coronavirus pandemic lays bare that which well-to-do middle classes in African cities have thus far refused to confront. In the past 10 years, various media, intellectuals, politicians and international financial institutions have clung to an idea of an Africa on the move, of Africa as the new frontier of capitalist expansion; an Africa on the path to ‘emerging’ with growth rates that are the envy of northern countries. Such a representation, repeated at will to the point of becoming a received truth, has been torn apart by a crisis that has not entirely revealed the extent of its destructive potential. At the same time, any prospect of an inclusive multilateralism—ostensibly kept alive by years of treaty-making—is forbidding. The global order is disintegrating before our very eyes, giving way to a vicious geopolitical tussle. The new context of economic war of all against all leaves out countries of the Global South so to speak stranded. Once again we are reminded of their perennial status in the world order in the making: that of docile spectators.
Like a tectonic storm, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to shatter the foundations of states and institutions whose profound failings have been ignored for too long. It is impossible to list these, suffice it to mention chronic under-investment in public health and fundamental research, the mismanagement of public finances, the prioritization of road and airport infrastructures at the expense of human well-being. All of this has in fact been the object of an abundant specialized research, except that it seems to have escaped attention in spheres of governance on the continent. The management of the ongoing crisis constitutes a most glaring evidence of this gap.
On the necessity to govern with compassion
Adopting the all-securitarian model of ‘containment’ of northern countries—often without much care to specific contexts—many African countries have imposed a brutal lockdown upon their populations; here and there, violation of curfew measures has been met with police violence. If such containment measures have met the agreement of middle classes shielded from crowded living conditions and having the possibility to work from home, they have proved punitive and disruptive for those whose survival depends on informal activities.
Let’s be clear: we are not advocating an impossible choice between economic security vs. health security but we wish to insist on the necessity for African governments to take into account the chronic precarity that characterizes the majority of their populations. Yet, as a continent that is familiar with pandemic outbreaks, Africa has a head start in the management of large-scale health crises. However, it should gird itself against complacency. Should Africa’s attitude be to passively wait, as usual, for help to come from the global North? This is neither possible nor desirable; to give in to fatalism is to renounce intellectual critique, which in turn inevitably engenders political vacuum across the continent. Here and there, many civil society initiatives are gradually proliferating. Despite however the great dynamism of individual actors, these initiatives could in no way make up for the chronic unpreparedness and the structural deficiencies that states themselves will have to mitigate.
Rather than sit idle and wait for better fortune, we must endeavor to rethink the basis of our common destiny from our own specific historical and social context and the resources we have. Our belief is that ‘emergency’ cannot, and should not constitute a mode of governance. We must instead be seized by the real urgency, which is to reform public policy, to make them work in favor of African populations and according to African priorities. In short, it is imperative to put forth the value of every human being regardless of status, over and beyond any logic of profit-making, domination or power capture.
Beyond the state of emergency
African leaders can and should propose to their societies a new political idea of Africa. For this is a question of survival, fundamentally, and not a matter of rhetorical flourish. Serious reflections are needed on the functioning of state institutions, on the function of a state and the place of juridical norms in the distribution and the balancing of power. This is best achieved on the basis of ideas adapted to realities across the continent. The realization of the second wave of our political independence will depend on political creativity as well as our capacity to take charge of our common destiny. Once again, various isolated efforts are already bearing fruit. They deserve to be heeded, debated and amply encouraged.
Furthermore, Pan-Africanism also needs a new lease of life. It has to be reconciled with its original inspiration following years of shortcomings. If progress on continental integration has been slow, the reason has much to do with an orientation informed by the orthodoxy of market liberalism. In consequence, the coronavirus pandemic reveals the deficit of a collective continental response, both in the health and other sectors. More than ever, we call upon leaders to ponder the necessity to adopt a concerted approach to governance sectors related to public health, fundamental research in all disciplines and to public policy. In the same vein, health has to be conceived as essential public good, the status of health workers needs to be enhanced, hospital infrastructure need to be upgraded to a level that allows everybody, including leaders themselves, to receive adequate treatment in Africa. Failure to implement these reforms would be cataclysmic.
This letter is a small reminder, a reiteration of the obvious: that the African continent must take its destiny back into its own hands. For it is in the most trying moments that new/innovative orientations must be explored and lasting solutions adopted. The present letter is addressed to leaders of all walks of life; to the people of Africa and to all those that are committed to re/thinking the continent. We invite them to seize the opportunity of the coronavirus crisis to joint efforts in rethinking an African state in the service of the well-being of its people, to break with a model of development based on the vicious cycle of indebtedness, to break with the orthodox vision of growth for the sake of growth, and of profit for the sake of profit.
The challenge for Africa is no less than the restoration of its intellectual freedom and a capacity to create — without which no sovereignty is conceivable. It is to break with the outsourcing of our sovereign prerogatives, to reconnect with local configurations, to break with sterile imitation, to adapt science, technology and research to our context, to elaborate institutions on the basis of our specificities and our resources, to adopt an inclusive governance framework and endogenous development, to create value in Africa in order to reduce our systemic dependence.
More crucially, it is essential to remember that Africa has sufficient material and human resources to build a shared prosperity on an egalitarian basis and in respect of the dignity of each and everyone. The dearth of political will and the extractive practices of external actors can no longer be used as excuse for inaction. We no longer have a choice: we need a radical change in direction. Now is the time!
About the authors:
Lionel Zevounou (Université Paris Nanterre: firstname.lastname@example.org), Amy Niang (University of the Witwatersrand: email@example.com), Ndongo Samba Sylla (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org)