As lockdowns started in response to the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, it was clear that flattening the curve would require quick action, including massive data collection and the implementation of quarantine laws. However, it was also apparent that some governments would use the pandemic as an opportunity to clamp down on dissenting voices. This presented a dilemma for human rights and data protection advocates, who demanded that all actions taken by governments restricting individual liberties be lawful, proportionate, and necessary. My organization, Paradigm Initiative, documented the problematic measures taken by governments around Africa in the name of combating COVID-19 in our annual digital rights and inclusion report, Londa.
Several African governments used the pandemic to restrict political rights and repress opposition parties. For instance, Ethiopia passed state-of-emergency legislation that permitted the “suspension of rights . . . to counter and mitigate the humanitarian, social, economic, and political damage that could be caused by the pandemic.” This authorization to restrict the rights of citizens raises many red flags in a country with a record of political repression. Across the continent, Cameroon’s minister of territorial administration demanded that telecommunications providers MTN and Orange close the mobile money accounts of an opposition party fundraising to support citizens affected by the pandemic. Meanwhile, Togo launched a digital financial assistance program using its electoral database rather than its complete registry of citizens, thus excluding activists who had refused to vote in the elections in protest of the autocratic regime and depriving them of welfare during the pandemic.
Beyond conventional political repression, Africa witnessed an increasing amount of digital repression during the pandemic. Nigeria is a case study of these trends. The minister of communications and digital economy announced that the government was mining SIM card registration data without user consent to identify the poorest Nigerians in order to direct financial aid during the pandemic. Officials also announced plans to apportion relief funds using biometric information linked to bank accounts and confidential data provided to mobile networks, violating the digital privacy of citizens.
In Kenya, there were numerous allegations that the government was tracking the mobile phones of citizens subjected to mandatory fourteen-day COVID-19 quarantines. In one complaint, a citizen under quarantine received a call from a National Intelligence Service (NIS) official warning her as she was walking toward a local market to turn around and return home. She reported that “COVID-19 patients live in constant fear while in private confinement and do not have an assurance about the protection of their privacy.” This example illustrates the pervasiveness of monitoring in Kenya carried out by the NIS in conjunction with health agencies.
Other nations across Africa have used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on online media and freedom of expression. In April 2020, Zambia’s Independent Broadcasting Authority canceled the license of an independent television station after it refused to broadcast the government’s COVID-19 messaging for free. Tanzania’s government similarly suspended Kwanza Online TV’s license after its Instagram account shared information from the U.S. embassy about the elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 in the country. Zimbabwe’s government enacted even more sweeping measures, restricting freedom of expression and enabling defamation lawsuits against journalists and individual citizens.
Such repressive actions during the pandemic have not been unique to African countries. However, the introduction of vague provisions targeting dissenting voices, the suspension of independent media licenses, and the implementation of politically and digitally repressive measures are all indicative of broader trends that shrink civic spaces in African countries. As they begin to plan for life beyond the pandemic, it will be important to avoid a scenario in which the new normal preserves laws silencing dissenting voices or actions targeting civic spaces in the name of public safety.