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African Governments must Consider Police and Military Reform in their Post-COVID19 Plans

In a bid to reverse the economic decline, many African countries have started to lift lockdown restrictions, initially enforced to slow the spread of coronavirus. In early May, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe are amongst those that have decided to relax restrictions despite evidence advising against this.

This will come as a welcome relief for many Africans who rely on the informal economy (up to 85%) for day-to-day living. Beyond this, it could mean a significant reduction in police and military brutality, something that has characterised lockdowns since it began in March.

Security forces flouting increased legal powers that came with enforcing lockdown restrictions has increased public distrust of the police: Eda Seyhan, a human rights lawyer, said that in Nigeria, ‘almost 4 weeks into the lockdown, more people had died at the hands of security forces than from the actual virus itself.’ Security forces killed up to 18 citizens – with no real clarity or justification as to why.

CovidStateWatch, a human rights group set up to ‘monitor and track the abuse of police powers during the lockdown,’ have countless records of those that have experienced or witnessed police brutality. One account, detailed the treatment of two women from a minority group in Zimbabwe who were beaten, detained and ordered to pay a fine for ‘unnecessary movement.’

The impunity security forces continue to enjoy due to Governments’ failure to hold the police to account or impose clear penalties could backfire: the already fragile citizen – police relations are worsening and could serve as a major driver for civil unrest and social instability.

The admixture of police malpractices, economic hardship and the thousands of COVID related deaths, Africans may be hard-pressed to turn a blind eye on this occasion, governments may be greeted with civil unrest as they lift lockdown restrictions and cut palliatives.

Recall, in 2019, protests were already sweeping across the continent and giving way to civil dissonance – the underlying drivers that led are still very much present. This includes political and economic dissatisfaction, calls against corruption, ethno-religious tensions and abuses of human rights to name a few – the wave of protests surfaced in close to every African region.

In Nigeria and Ethiopia, protests over the mistreatment of prominent religious leaders and activists gave way to deadly clashes with the police. In Nigeria, up to 40 people were killed during marches and up to 10 in Ethiopia following clashes with security forces. 

In Zimbabwe and Sudan, grievances over poor economic conditions were the root cause of protests. In Sudan, it later evolved into a pro-democracy movement which leads to the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in office.

The socioeconomic hardship of COVID19 will only compound feelings of dissatisfaction, and governments may be faced with another crisis on their hands. To minimise the risk, policymakers should consider security sector reform as part of post-COVID-19 strategic planning.

NexTier SPD rightfully states that ‘responsible governments usually embark on policy reforms to eliminate anomalies in their security agencies.’ Whilst stabilising the economy is of paramount importance, getting to the root of growing tensions should be considered as equally important.

Some interventions to consider:

  • Transparency and accountability – developing an oversight committee to conduct thorough and independent reviews into breaches of human rights during the pandemic. The committee should be representative of communities that it sets out to serve; citizen contribution is critical. Processes should be transparent and fair so informed decisions and outcomes can be derived. In instances of clear violations, security forces should be subject to sanctions and penalties for their actions
  • Crisis management training – it can no longer be deemed acceptable for security forces to be poorly trained and mismanaged. Effective training should be prioritised to ensure that security personnel are not only able to respond to regional insecurity but also understand how to pivot and adapt during outbreaks. This is inclusive of security personnel taking preventative measures to ensure that they themselves are not infected; a weakened security force would only further put countries at risk that are battling regional conflict. It should also detail ways in which the police and military can enforce restrictions without the need for excessive force. NexTier SPD states ‘police enforcing restrictions of movements and curfews should carry out this function with emotional intelligence.’ This will lend itself well to improving civilian-security force relations.
  • Improving civilian-security force relations – at the heart of this is regaining public trust. This involves a two-pronged approach, that should be backed with political will and might:
  1. Governments must address breaches of human rights and publicly condemn violations (backed with appropriate action); this will potentially minimise the belief that the police and military can continue to act with impunity.
  2. It is no longer acceptable for security forces to be poorly funded and ill-equipped. Governments must ensure that the police and military are appropriately remunerated and funded to minimise extortion and bribes in particular during outbreaks; this should not be viewed as an opportune time to prey on vulnerable communities and groups.

There are a greater number of disenfranchised groups banding together to fight for better conditions and to hold their governments to account. If policymakers ignore the violations that have occurred, they risk worsening tensions with civil society and creating the grounds for another uprising which they may have difficulty containing this time round.

Ola Owojori is an international affairs analyst with 10 years of experience in policy development and project management. She holds a B.A in Politics and Linguistics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and an M.A in Conflict, Security and Development from Kings College London. Ola’s areas of interest include international security, violence and conflict, global health security and governance.

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