WEST AFRICA: The security implications of widespread lockdowns

WEST AFRICA: The security implications of widespread lockdowns

Countries across West Africa were quick to implement restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their countries. But the implementation and enforcement of the measures have been disorderly and deadly in some instances. Furthermore, there are growing indications that protracted lockdowns will fuel civil unrest, which will increase the overall security outlook.  

Non-compliance with some of the measures, such as social distancing, was in large part due to poor public awareness, undermined by misinformation and rumours. Complacency and corruption may be other reasons. On 27 March, Cameroonian police arrested 50 female sexual workers who had been visiting foreign clients who were in isolation at dedicated hotels in Yaoundé. 

Lack of compliance is also likely due to the large informal economies of the region. The World Bank estimates that 80 per cent of workers in Sub-Saharan Africa are in informal employment. If they do not work, they do not eat. Most informal dwellers stay in poor urban areas, with high density of people and high exposure to health risks. The lost income and restrictions on mobility due to the lockdowns has prompted residents – many of whom qualify as ‘urban poor’ – to agitate, often with violent responses by the security forces. 

Since the beginning of April, hundreds of angry residents have marched in several locations in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria against the government’s lockdown measures and restrictions on public gatherings. Three people were killed in violent unrest in Nigeria’s Sapele, Delta state, after the governor there imposed a lockdown on 13 April. Days before, local media reported that a Lagos-based gang went on a robbery spree in the high-density areas of Agege, Ogba, and Ojodu in Lagos, which has been under lockdown since 30 March. 

This followed similar reports from Côte d’Ivoire, where angry residents in Abidjan’s popular Yopougon area tore down a testing centre for COVID-19 following rumours that sick patients would be treated there. Over 750 people have been arrested since Côte d’Ivoire locked down the commercial hub on 26 March. 

In parallel, there is a growing number of reports of human-rights violations committed by the security forces. On 13 April, Bissau Guinean human-rights advocacy group Liga Guineense dos Direitos Humanos told German outlet Deutsche Welle that it had received 100 complaints of human rights abuses committed by the security forces since the beginning of April. The National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria on 16 April claimed that extra-judicial killings by police enforcing the restrictions had led to 18 fatalities, compared to 11 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 nationwide. In Ghana, there was public uproar after a Ghanaian soldier was caught on camera forcing a civilian to do squats, apparently after said person had claimed they were exercising during the first days of Ghana’s lockdown of Accra and Kumasi.

Xenophobia is also on the rise across the region, with Chinese communities being particularly exposed. These intensified after reports of African migrants being mistreated in China during the lockdowns in the southern industrial hub of Guangzhou. This has attracted rare but strong official statements by governments in the region and fuelled Sinophobia. On 16 April, Nigerian media reported that angry youths had set fires to the facilities occupied by an unnamed Chinese company in Ogun State, which surrounds Lagos, reportedly because management had locked its staff indoors despite the government’s stay-at-home order. There is a growing probability that Western expatriate staff could also be specifically targeted if the longer the lockdowns continue, or if there is an exponential surge in cases across the region over the coming month. At present, there are indications the spread of the disease is slowing. 

Coming out of the lockdowns and normalising business activity

Without robust testing for COVID-19, it will be hard for governments to shape empirically based policies, forcing them to impose sweeping lockdowns rather than targeted responses. Such data is critical for assessing whether the risk of infection has decreased at the end of the lockdowns, but also to increase public awareness and buy-in from local communities. 

As such, it is safe to assume that policy making in the sub-region over the next two months is likely to be haphazard and highly politicised, given the complications in mobilising testing kits. This suggests that civil unrest is likely to intensify around such efforts. Corporate security departments with a duty of care for staff deployed in the region should regularly liaise with their in-country workers to ensure they have everything they need, including food, toiletries, and running water to wash their hands, while informing them of the threats they could face should they violate the lockdown measures.  

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE April 2020 EDITION OF THE SUB-REGIONAL INTELLIGENCE MONITOR FOR central & west AFRICA

Also in this edition:

WEST AFRICA: Resilience of health care systems and viability of government strategies

WEST AFRICA: The severe economic downturn caused by COVID-19 lockdowns likely to delay implementation for new continental free trade area