COVID-19: In Kenya, social media are aflame

One rule for the ruler…

The Kenyan Twitterverse turned into a furnace on 15 June after the Kenyan opposition leader, Raila Odinga, displayed his Covid-19 test results on social media and appealed to the people to take tests, sanitise and observe social distancing.

Some commentators reminded Odinga, one of the country’s major political figures, that the negative result did not show that he was immune to the coronavirus. Dr Lukoye Atwoli, associate professor at the Moi University College of Health Sciences, said the negative result meant that “the virus was not detected in the samples collected from an individual at a particular time”.

On that basis, he noted that the COVID-19 “negative certificate” was worthless beyond confirming that the person, at the time of testing, was unlikely to be infected. The Twitterfever had hardly tapered off when State House said four staff members had contracted the disease. However, “His Excellency the President and the first family are safe and free from Covid-19.”

The Twitterfever had hardly tapered off when State House said four staff members had contracted the disease.

To reinforce the outbreak’s containment measures, State House spokesperson Kanze Dena Mararo said auxiliary access protocols for State House staff and visitors had been introduced. But the announcement soon set another Twitterfire burning as Kenyans mocked President Uhuru Kenyatta for breaching the basic guidelines included in executive orders aimed at taming the spread of the deadly disease, especially as regards restrictions on movement.

Most political leaders seem to have adhered to the movement restrictions. However, people dear to the president’s circle continue to disregard the rule of law, as well as Ministry of Health directives on Covid-19 by holding public gatherings across the country. Currently, many governments are restricting gatherings, based on the understanding that up to 80% of infections result from so-called “super-spreader” events, which are “mostly … indoor gatherings in which lots of people from different households [a]re in close, extended contact, such as religious services, birthday parties, and choir practices”, according to one report.

People dear to the president’s circle continue to disregard the rule of law, as well as Ministry of Health directives on Covid-19 by holding public gatherings across the country.

At State House in Nairobi, for instance, the president recently conducted two separate meetings with members of the National Assembly and the Senate. He seemed to want to reprimand “errant” members of these bodies for apparently inclining to his deputy, William Ruto. The latter is thought to have “disrespected” the president by focusing on continuing his campaign for the 2022 general elections instead of focusing on serving the electorate. A third session, bringing together the governors of the county governments, deliberated on ways to combat the pandemic.

Ironically, on 10 June, the same day governors converged on State House, a warrant of arrest was issued against former Kakamega Senator Dr Boni Khalwale, an ally of Ruto, for “breaching” the government’s guidelines on public gatherings by distributing food to the vulnerable in western Kenya. This reflects a drift toward “one rule for the rulers, another rule for the ruled” that one sees occurring in other countries around the continent, as reflected in the other blogs in this series, for example.

This reflects a drift toward “one rule for the rulers, another rule for the ruled” that one sees occurring in other countries around the continent.

In early June, the senior coordinator of the Africa Bureau of the US Agency for International Development, Christopher Runyan, warned that some African governments were using the coronavirus pandemic to erode democratic freedoms. He pointed to “disturbing” trends, including the muzzling of the media, the cancellation or postponement of elections, targeted crackdowns on key population groups, and increased gender-based and criminal violence. [Editor: Check out Reporters without Borders’ Tracker_19 for an updatable map of repressive measures against the media.)

It is worth remembering that in the wake of the coronavirus disease outbreak, Kenya came up with drastic measures to confront it. As at 16 May 2020, President Kenyatta had addressed the country six times, reiterating the state’s determination to cushion the people against the dreadful effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

He pointed to “disturbing” trends, including the muzzling of the media, the cancellation or postponement of elections, targeted crackdowns on key population groups, and increased gender-based and criminal violence.

The president has implored Kenyans to stick to the guidelines provided by various government agencies. It may be that the guidelines — a product of various directives, policies and laws on public health, fiscal policies, social status and the administration of justice — have played an important role in managing the spread of the disease in Kenya since the first case was reported on 13 March, 2020.

According to the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, the infection rate would have been far higher than the current 3.14%. As at 15 June, Kenya had recorded 3,727 positive cases, out of 118,701 samples, with 1,286 recoveries and 104 deaths.

Appreciating that “the virus is unforgiving, and its rate of growth if not arrested is exponential”, Kenya has come up with a number of legal notices that restricted the movement of people. To supplement the executive’s directives, the judiciary, too, issued circulars on the administration of justice to facilitate smooth operations in courts.

But these guidelines, supported at they are by a range of legislation, have been perceived as applying to some, but not others. Aside from the State House assemblies, politicians who enjoy the president’s political warmth — among them Cabinet Secretaries Fred Matiangi, Sicily Kariuki, Joe Mucheru, Eugene Wamalwa and James Macharia — have also been roaming across the country “launching development projects”.

Politicians who enjoy the president’s political warmth have also been roaming across the country “launching development projects”.

At these gatherings, “big” people appear exempt from protocols such as social distancing and the wearing of masks. Meanwhile, reports indicate that the police are arresting, harassing, brutalising and extorting bribes from members of the public for petty matters, such as “inappropriately fitting” face masks.

This selective application of the law has brought the executive into increasing conflict with the country’s judiciary. Law Society of Kenya President Nelson Havi has argued that “toxic” advice by the Attorney General to the executive has helped this selective approach to the law to gain currency during the Covid-19 crisis. On June 8, Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya, David Maraga, bluntly criticised President Kenyatta at a press briefing for thinking that he could “cherry pick judges”.

Clearly angry, Maraga said the government had formed the bad habit of “routinely disregarding court orders”, citing the eviction of more than 1,000 families from the Kariobangi area in Nairobi, “all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic”. President Kenyatta, he added, had adopted an attitude of “what will you do about it?” The head of the state had no choice but to respect the laws of the land because he had sworn “to defend and uphold the Constitution and the laws of Kenya”, Maraga said.

Will the president, his government, and its various agencies, including the police, heed these warnings? Time will tell.

 

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Mark Kapchanga is a senior economics writer for the Standard newspaper in Kenya and a columnist for the Global Times, an English-language newspaper in China. He is pursuing a PhD in investigative business journalism at the University of Nairobi.

C-19: In South Africa, rule of law questioned

Disaster regulations declared unconstitutional

The tenth of April 2020 was a warm autumn day, and Collins Khosa, 40, was sitting in his yard at his home in the Far East Bank of Alexandra township in northern Johannesburg, enjoying a glass of beer. But then South African National Defence Force members tasked with enforcing the lockdown found him.

When the government declared a lockdown on 27 March – under a declaration of disaster, rather than a state of emergency – it introduced additional measures, among them a total ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. What happened next would lead to Khoza’s death and heighten concerns of the fragility of law and order in the country, under pandemic conditions.

What happened next would lead to Khoza’s death and heighten concerns of the fragility of law and order in the country.

Khoza was sitting in his own yard. However, his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango was with him. Within minutes, Khoza and Muvhango were being accused of violating the lockdown.

Additional soldiers were called and beers confiscated from the house. Witnesses say an argument ensued when one of the soldiers slammed the garden gate on Khosa’s car. An Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) report quoted witnesses who said the soldiers said they wanted to “prove a point” and “deal with” Khosa and Muvhango because they had “an attitude”. The report also found that five metro [city] police officers had failed to intervene.

Witnesses claimed the soldiers poured beer on the two men and held Khosa’s hands behind his back while they choked him, slammed him against a cement wall, hit him with the butt of a rifle, and kicked, slapped and punched him. But an SANDF board of inquiry exonerated the soldiers and said “the force used was pushing and klapping [slapping]”, and intended to get the men to go into the house. (From the reports, it appears that the soldiers thought that they should be inside the house.) It also claimed that “Mr Khosa was conscious and healthy when the security forces left”.

Witnesses claimed the soldiers poured beer on the two men and held Khosa’s hands behind his back while they choked him, slammed him against a cement wall, hit him with the butt of a rifle, and kicked, slapped and punched him.

North Gauteng High Court Judge Hans Fabricius found otherwise. Referring to the founding values in section 1 of the Constitution, which include the rights to human dignity and equality, as well as the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law, the judge ordered the immediate suspension of the soldiers and ordered a proper investigation of the incident.

The court noted that people need to be able to trust the government to abide by the rule of law, make rational regulations, and not intrude on the rights of those subject to the law. It was, in many ways, a turning point for South Africa. The country was paralysed by fear and succumbing to a willingness – until then – to tolerate curtailments of personal liberties and of the rule of law in the interests of the greater good.

The court noted that people need to be able to trust the government to abide by the rule of law.

Khosa was not the only person to be assaulted. There have been at least 11 deaths at the hands of security forces. Meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of people on their way to the shops being subjected to arbitrary humiliations by members of the security forces, including being forced to do push-ups, and of women being manhandled.

Following the tragedy of Khoza’s death, which was widely reported, the country saw a growing pushback against the lockdown. By late May, Minister of Police Bheki Cele reported almost 230,000 cases for contraventions of lockdown regulations. In addition, cases of gender-based violence have also increased.

There have been at least 11 deaths at the hands of security forces.

“If the country doesn’t get this right, it’s not going to win the fight against COVID-19,” wrote Cathleen Powell, Associate Professor in Public Law, University of Cape Town. The confusion, resistance and violence accompanying the current lockdown are an object lesson on the value and necessity of the rule of law, she said.

But South Africans find refuge in their courts, as the pushback against state capture has shown. From the start of the lockdown there were court applications against aspects of the lockdown – the first, in week one, by a private citizen who wanted exemption from the travel prohibition to attend a funeral.

Since then, a queue of individuals, non-governmental organisations, faith-based organisations, business groups and, of course, political parties have marched to the courts. Their applications have ranged from questioning the ban on alcohol and tobacco to those wanting to prevent the re-opening of schools.

President Cyril Ramaphosa says he welcomes these court challenges as a natural function of democracy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa says he welcomes these court challenges as a natural function of democracy.

It is not unusual to excuse excesses of law in the name of security. South Africa’s constitution is the ultimate arbiter and it recognises the possibility of suspending the law in conditions of emergency. But our history is reflected in the constitution, which means that the president has only limited powers to suspend the normal rule of law, and these can only occur during a state of emergency under Section 37 of the Constitution. Even then, the purpose of any such suspension must be to restore “peace and order”.

But, as noted, we are not in a state of emergency, but operating under a declaration of disaster. And a high court has found that “an overwhelming number of regulations” promulgated under the state of disaster are “unconstitutional and invalid”.

Should individual rights be trumped by a public health emergency? After all, the right to life is a paramount individual right. Surely anyone would be willing to give up some rights for the right to life? We have already given up our right to freedom of movement, assembly and trade. Section 36 of the constitution makes it clear that laws restricting individual rights should be proportional to the harm identified. And any measures they include must be carried out in a way that does not encroach on other rights.

Should individual rights be trumped by a public health emergency?

While issues relating to the implementation of the lockdown have caused concern, so too has the way in which the lockdown is being managed. Commentators have questioned a blurring of legal lines, given that the National Coronavirus Command Council has effectively been governing in the place of a constitutionally mandated cabinet.

President Ramaphosa has largely framed South Africa’s response in terms of constitutionally guaranteed rights – particularly the right to life, dignity and access to health care. The president has so far done well in terms of rule of law, writes Mark Heywood, editor of Maverick Citizen, an online news publication focusing on human rights and a former director of Section27, a public interest law centre.

But the SANDF’s apparent readiness to condone deadly violence by its members raised a red flag. Whether the government comes down on “the right or wrong side of human rights”, as Heywood puts it, remains to be seen.

 

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Paula Fray is a leading media trainer and coach who works across Africa and the Middle East. The former regional director for Inter Press Service Africa, she is the CEO of the pan-African communications company frayintermedia, which has worked to improve the quality of journalism in Africa since 2005.

COVID-19: A pandemic unfavourable to journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic came with its own set of rules and regulations, which anyone who chose to disobey, did at their own risk. Many of these rules infringe on rights, across the board. Governments appear to have taken advantage of the crisis to prohibit or restrict all manner of things, including public gatherings.

The pandemic has also ushered in a difficult time for journalists, who have to try to do their jobs in the face of a new, unspoken rule: “Thou shalt not criticise thy leaders.” Between March and May this year, for example, there were no fewer than 10 reported assaults on journalists in Nigeria. Journalists have also lost their jobs.

The pandemic has also ushered in a difficult time for journalists, who have to try to do their jobs in the face of a new, unspoken rule: “Thou shalt not criticise thy leaders.”

On 26 March, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State in Nigeria’s south, sacked Vincent Ake, general manager of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation. No reason was given, but it has been reported that Ake had published a report on the first case of COVID-19 in Rivers State without getting approval from the taskforce on coronavirus set up by the state government.

Next door, in Imo State, Angela Nkwo-Akpolu, of Leadership newspaper was assaulted and her iPad seized on 28 March by personnel from the Department of State Security. According to a statement by the Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Nkwo-Apolu was attacked while taking pictures of a hotel in Owerri where guests had been forcibly quarantined – allegedly because the hotel had not complied with government directives on checking the spread of the coronavirus.

Further south, the chairman of the Delta State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michael Ikeogwu, and Mathew Omonigo, a journalist with the Daily Post, were beaten up on 1 April by members of the state Environment Task Force. This happened as they were monitoring the stay-at-home order aimed at curtailing the pandemic’s spread.

Michael Ikeogwu and Mathew Omonigo were beaten up on 1 April by members of the state Environment Task Force.

Ikeogwu said they were held for more than 45 minutes by overzealous officials. “It took the swift intervention of the chairman of the Environment Task Force … to free us,” he said.

On 2 April, police arrested 12 journalists filing their COVID-19 reports at the NUJ secretariat in Adamawa State in Nigeria’s north-east. They were accused of breaking lockdown rules. The state NUJ chairman, Ishaka Deden, said he was “very shocked to see three trucks loaded with armed policemen coming to disrupt the peace of the journalists who were on assignment waiting for an update from the disease control centre.”

On April 22, Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, south east Nigeria, barred two journalists from state functions for life. In a live state-wide broadcast Umahi alleged that the journalists habitually wrote negatively about the state. He said he didn’t know why his officials had allowed the journalists to do this, and added that: “You have the pen, we have the koboko. Let’s leave the court alone.”

“You have the pen, we have the koboko.” – Governor Dave Umahi

These are threats reminiscent of Nigeria’s military dictatorship era. The koboko is a whip made of cowhide, and during the military dictatorships it was used by military officers “to discipline the unruly.” The governor’s remarks were greeted with wide condemnation which forced him to  soft pedal, describing the dissension as a case between “a father and his son,” and unintentional.

Kufre Carter, a journalist with XL 106.9 FM, in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State, was arrested on 27 April and arraigned in court two days later on a charge of defamation. He had called out the state’s health commissioner, Dominic Ukpong, on Facebook for mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic. Ukpong had questioned the number of cases confirmed in the state by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Carter was detained for a month by Nigeria’s State Security Services (SSS) and denied access to his lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, and his family. Effiong secured a High Court order to reduce his bail from N3 million to N200,000, supported by a “surety” from a prominent person within the jurisdiction of the court. He was eventually released on 27 May after the authorities had ignored a court order to free him on bail.

Carter was detained for a month by Nigeria’s State Security Services (SSS) and denied access to his lawyer.

The next day, on 28 April, Emma Bricks Oko, publisher of the online magazine brickswrite.com.ng, was arrested by members of the COVID-19 Joint Task Force, which includes members of the police. Oko was spotted filming their violent enforcement of the lockdown on commercial motorcyclists in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. He was charged with obstructing the work of the task force. A magistrate sentenced Oko to three hours’ community service and a N5,000 fine.

The authorities’ brazen disregard for the law has been condemned by civil society organisations. For one thing, it was clear that the relevant authorities had failed to adequately communicate the status of journalists to their members, says Maxwell Kadiri, a senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is part of the Open Society Foundations network, founded by George Soros. Journalists, he noted, play a vital role in disseminating information, especially in the context of public communication on the pandemic.

Journalists play a vital role in disseminating information, especially in the context of public communication on the pandemic.

Kadiri’s organisation advocates for the adoption and effective implementation of freedom of information laws across Africa. Commenting on Ake’s firing, he said there had been some cases where information provided by the NCDC had to be withdrawn after challenges from state and other government organisations. Journalists were within their rights to publish NCDC figures, given the fact that the NCDC has primary responsibility for such issues, he told Africa in Fact.

Worryingly, some government organisations see fit to accuse journalists of disseminating disinformation and misinformation. Apparently, it is convenient to make such allegations when the government is shown in a bad light, as with the case of Carter in Akwa Ibom State. If allowed to continue, this could become a trend beyond the pandemic, Kadiri says.

Nigeria’s legislation only covers issues relating to false information, and does not address disinformation – information disseminated with the deliberate intent to mislead – Kadiri adds. “I don’t know of any law that speaks to the exact language of disinformation. So, we don’t even have clarity from a legal standpoint.” The onus should be on the state to prove any claims of disinformation, he argues.

“When journalists become afraid, and when the government is allowed to get away with this level of highhandedness, the chances are that there will be severe adverse consequences for freedom of information across the board,” he told Africa in Fact.

“When journalists become afraid, and when the government is allowed to get away with this level of highhandedness, the chances are that there will be severe adverse consequences for freedom of information across the board” – Maxwell Kadiri

One outcome of this approach would be that, the only information allowed would be that, which shows the government in a good light. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) clearly stipulates that “the media has a responsibility to hold the government accountable to the people.” This is supported by further provisions of the FOI Act.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has noted that the pandemic has brought about a wave of human rights violations around the world. It has brought “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering,” he said, appealing for “an all-out effort to end hate speech globally. The virus threatens everyone. Human rights uplift everyone.”

The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC) and Human Environment Development Agenda Resource Centre (HEDA) have jointly condemned the acts noted above, as well as others. “Independent journalism, citizen reporting, open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19,” they said.

Will the Nigerian government heed these calls and help to ensure that the pandemic does result not in journalists becoming an endangered species in Nigeria?

 

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Adie Vanessa Offiong is an award-winning journalist in Abuja, Nigeria, with experience in investigative, science and development journalism. She is member of the Health Systems Global, African Investigative Publishing Collective and of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism. Vanessa was the winner of the 2019 Africa Media Development Foundation (AMDF) Journalists of the Year Award and was the only female finalist of the 2019 Continental Journalism Awards on the African Union Charter.

Ethiopia faces a ‘perfect storm’

A few months ago, security agents intercepted five of Ethiopia’s opposition figures at Addis Ababa airport and took them to a place where individuals contracting the coronavirus were isolated and treated.

They had been on their way to attend a political summit in a northern town, the seat of an increasingly restive regional state, but they were kept under quarantine and prevented from attending. Reportedly, they were detained before they joined a meeting called by “federalist forces”.

The incident showed that the COVID-19 public health crisis could not have come at a worse time for Ethiopia. For those following developments in the country, the polarisation in Ethiopian society is reaching a point of grave concern. Unity of purpose and action remain elusive in the face of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 public health crisis could not have come at a worse time for Ethiopia. The polarisation in Ethiopian society is reaching a point of grave concern.

Since my last blog, the virus has started spreading like wildfire through the country. The death toll is also on the rise, although the mortality rate from COVID-19 remains half the global average. More than 200,000 people have been tested, representing 0.0014% of the population. A little over 3,700 people tested positive for the virus, of whom nearly 850 have since recovered.

In response, Ethiopia’s authorities have closed schools, compelled members of the civil service to work from home, closed borders, and discouraged mobility between the regions. But Tigray Regional State in the north, was the first to declare a state of emergency, ahead of both the federal government and other regional states.

A little over 3,700 people tested positive for the virus, of whom nearly 850 have since recovered.

The declaration, in response to the spread of the virus, appears to be as good as a poison pill for the country’s fraught political process, and the result is a profound constitutional crisis.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is celebrated across the world as a rare African leader to have won a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, now, he finds himself in difficulty, without the electoral means to stay in power. Officials in Ethiopia have declared that they are unable to administer national elections scheduled for August this year, fearing that such a large-scale enterprise could help the virus`s spread.

It must be noted that this is not unusual: across the globe, some 52 countries have put elections scheduled for this year on hold due to COVID-19. However, in Ethiopia’s case postponing elections may leave the country without a legal government.

In Ethiopia’s case postponing elections may leave the country without a legal government.

Unfortunately for the prime minister, the Constitution limits the terms of both chambers of the legislative houses to five years; there is no provision for allowing an extension. The framers of the Constitution clearly abhorred a power vacuum, and were determined never to let any incumbent overstay their mandate. The terms for the current legislative houses end in the first week of October this year, so the mandate of Abiy’s administration to govern will end soon.

Constitutionalism and the rule of law have dominated the airwaves in the political discourse. Ethiopia does not have a constitutional court, while its Supreme Court does not have the power to resolve constitutional disputes. So far, though, this has not helped Abiy in his quest for legitimacy.

Ironically, three days before the House of Federation’s 153 members began deliberations to determine whether the Constitution can be interpreted as supporting a further lease on life for the incumbent Prosperity Party, the Speaker, Keria Ibrahim, resigned in protest against a government that she says “not only endangers the constitutional political order, but also the very survival of the country”. A senior leader of the TPLF, which governs Tigray Regional State, she accuses Abiy of governing in an “unconstitutional and dictatorial manner”.

Tigray has declared its intention to conduct a provincial election of its own, in defiance of a decree from the federal government. Its leaders appear to take the view that the central government’s management of the threat of the coronavirus may prove to be a threat to the viability of the Ethiopian state. They have urged the international community not to sit by idly, or to let the Horn of Africa “fall apart”.

Tigray has declared its intention to conduct a provincial election of its own, in defiance of a decree from the federal government.

What lies behind this is the fault lines in Ethiopia’s “shifting political landscape”, as René Lefort and William Davison put it. Whereas earlier regimes were shaped by a unitarist vision of the Ethiopian state with a “one country, one flag” mantra, more recently the disagreements are between different views of federalism.

On the one side, there are disagreements between those who abhor a multiculturalist form of federalism and support “geographic” federalism, while others emphasise self-determination and autonomous rule in the regional states. On the other side, there are those who support a “softer federalism with a strong central government” and those who support stronger regions.

It is a safe bet, then, that the views of the “federalist forces” whose summit was disrupted a few weeks ago did not please the government in Addis Ababa.

The COVID-19 induced political confrontation in Ethiopia is escalating by the day. However Abiy responds, it will likely only add to a myriad of problems that the country faces, which could only be described as a perfect storm.

 

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Tamrat G Giorgis is the managing editor of Fortune, which covers mainly the economies of Ethiopia and Africa. He has over 28 years experience in nearly every aspect of publishing with more than 11 various publications. He is a member of the Alumni of the University of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Policy and regularly contributes to specialised international publications.

In Cameroon, the wearing of face masks is mandatory – but not for Mr President

Cameroon occupies a prominent position on the list of countries in sub-Saharan Africa badly hit by the coronavirus. By 15 June, the country had surpassed the 10,000 mark in terms of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 275 deaths.

Like other countries, Cameroon has been struggling to suppress the spread of Covid-19, while grappling with the resulting effects. In a bid to protect lives, and at the same time livelihoods, the country has adopted different sets of measures which restrict freedom of association, movement, religion, trade, amongst others – all guaranteed by the Constitution.

The country has adopted different sets of measures which restrict freedom of association, movement, religion, trade, amongst others – all guaranteed by the Constitution.

On April 13, on the instructions of the president, Paul Biya, the wearing of face masks in all places open to the public became compulsory. Even though by that time face masks were scarce and unaffordable for many, people still made efforts to wear them as police carried out arrests and levied fines.

But Biya has not led by example. When he last received the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the UN Regional Office for Central Africa, François Louncény Fall, on 13 May and the French ambassador to Cameroon, Christophe Guilhou, as well as the outgoing South Korean ambassador to Cameroon, Bok-Ryeol Rhyou, on 5 June, he did not bother to put on a mask. Yet, these audiences were held at the Unity Palace and opened to accredited pressmen as well as the president’s aides.

The country’s lawmakers also seem to have copies of the playbook from which Biya is reading. In March, both the lower and upper houses of parliament – the National Assembly and Senate – met in ordinary session, despite the prohibition of gatherings of more than 50 people. They are repeating the same for the June session.

In March, both the lower and upper houses of parliament – the National Assembly and Senate – met in ordinary session, despite the prohibition of gatherings of more than 50 people.

Back then, the speaker of the National Assembly, the Hon. Cavayé Yéguié Djibril, was just arriving back from France (a high-risk country), where he had been treated for an undisclosed illness. He did not quarantine for 14 days as stipulated by health ministry guidelines, even though ordinary citizens were forced to quarantine.

It would be natural to wonder how officials could expect the “common man” to obey the law when they themselves do not. You’d think that everyone should be seen to respect the rules. What is good for the goose, should be good for the gander.

What is good for the goose, should be good for the gander.

Yet the president has also violated the Constitution and flouted rules aimed at guaranteeing the separation of power in other ways. Following national and international calls to decongest prison cells amid the spread of the coronavirus, Biya signed a decree on 15 April commuting and remitting prison sentences. Article 8 (7) of the Constitution of Cameroon empowers the president to exercise the right of clemency “after consultation with the Higher Judicial Council”. But Biya does not appear to have consulted the Higher Judicial Council, despite the fact that the Constitution makes it obligatory and not optional.

Moreover, some coronavirus rules caused confusion. Initially, the government ordered bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other leisure spots not to operate after 6PM. Then, later, it lifted the ban. But people are required to wear face masks while boozing and to observe physical distancing in restaurants, bars and nightclubs. This seems naive. When alcohol is involved, people are less likely to obey rules.

The government’s coronavirus regulations and directives have sparked questions about their appropriateness and proportionality to the threat. Cameroon has relied on legal provisions applicable in ordinary times to combat a pandemic in extraordinary times – and in the process, mixed some measures that are legally binding with others that are not, argues Dr Éric-Adol Gatsi Tazo of the Faculty of Laws and Political Science at the University of Buea.

Cameroon has relied on legal provisions applicable in ordinary times to combat a pandemic in extraordinary times.

Legally binding measures rely on “legislative provisions which make these administrative authorities the guarantors of public order in their respective jurisdictions” and include declarations making it obligatory to wear face masks (city of Bertuoua) and regional prohibitions against alcohol consumption in public (Littoral region), the transport of corpses and unsanctioned donations to fight the virus (Lekie division).

The non-legally binding measures include closing the borders, the schools and universities, bans on gatherings of more than 50 people, closing drinking spots, restaurants and other places of leisure from 6PM (lifted on 30 April, 2020), restrictions on urban and inter-urban movements, as well as the requisitioning of private health facilities, hotels and vehicles and the requirement to wear face masks in public, according to Tazo.

Some of the latter look like emergency measures, but are enacted under ordinary law, he says. Already, they have been used to close shops, impound cars and to justify the use of force to dispel gatherings of more than 50 people, although they have “no legal basis”.

It would have been natural, also, to conclude that Tazo is arguing that the fact that the authorities had not felt it necessary to adopt legally binding measures suggests that they might do so in future, in matters unrelated to the pandemic – thus undermining the rule of law. But the situation is worse than that. “Covid-19 does not threaten the rule of law in Cameroon since it is almost permanently threatened,” concludes Tazo. “It is only a pretext for the perpetuation of the common practices in Cameroon.”

 

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

COVID-19: In South Africa, a constitutional crisis and even worse inequality

Flattening the curves

When President Cyril Ramaphosa stepped up to the podium on 15 March 2020, to announce a National State of Disaster, 10 days after the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the country, there was a collective sigh of relief.

He was calm, his plan detailed and his team well-qualified.

The Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, had the health and political experience and was drawing on lessons learned from devastating impact of the denialism that characterised the government’s approach to HIV for the COVID response.

By March 23, the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) had decided on a national 21-day lockdown.

A day after the lockdown started, days after middle class South Africa had cleared supermarket shelves of toilet paper, pasta and tinned foods, social media platforms were abuzz with scenes from townships of long queues that showed no signs of social distancing.

Social media platforms were abuzz with scenes from townships of long queues that showed no signs of social distancing.

This was South Africa: the suburbs firmly ensconced behind high walls, and the working poor — newly paid and finally free of work obligations — queueing for their lockdown supplies.

The police and army were already on the streets with arbitrary punishments and arrests. These arrests are only some of the constitutional issues that have arisen – including the role of the NCCC itself. On 2 June, a damning High Court judgment declared invalid and unconstitutional most of the lockdown regulations issued by Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in terms of the Disaster Management Act. The minister had 14 days to review, amend and republish the regulations.

The police and army were already on the streets with arbitrary punishments and arrests. These arrests are only some of the constitutional issues that have arisen.

For all the planning, the press conferences and the late-night addresses to the nation, implementation relies on systems fragile from years of apartheid with minimal redress in the years thereafter.

This is South Africa.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa won initial praise for his handling of the crisis, he has also been criticised for subsequent decisions. The debate has become polarised.

The old adage to never let a crisis go to waste is not unnoticed. But the pandemic has only brought to the fore long-known issues and has exacerbated the existing crises.

South Africa’s inequality is one. Unemployment, now further battered by Covid-19, is another.

But the pandemic has only brought to the fore long-known issues and has exacerbated the existing crises.

At the end of 2019, the unemployment rate was 29.1%, or five times the rate for other parts of the world. The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that unemployment could rise to 50% as a result of the pandemic.

The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that unemployment could rise to 50% as a result of the pandemic.

For some, there have been positive changes. For many, it is not enough.

As the president himself has acknowledged, mistakes have been. It is clear that the relief measures for the poor are not enough.

Our Covid-19 choices – social distancing versus opening up the economy – have been presented as a matter of life and death. For many South Africans already excluded from the economy, the debate is moot.

We have been warned that the coronavirus will have a second wave. The true challenge for this leadership is not whether we can flatten the curve of the spread but whether we use this moment to flatten the curve of inequality.

Because this is South Africa.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Paula Fray is a leading media trainer and coach who works across Africa and the Middle East. The former regional director for Inter Press Service Africa, she is the CEO of the pan-African communications company frayintermedia, which has worked to improve the quality of journalism in Africa since 2005.