On the 12th of May 2021, the Electoral Support Network of Southern Africa (ESN-SA), hosted by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) hosted a virtual public meeting via the ZOOM platform on the topic “The COVID-19 Pandemic: An Opportunity or Challenge for CSOs Democratic Support?” The meeting focused on the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic and its implications on political, economic and social developments in Africa, with a bias on democracy. The panel consisted of Mr. Samson Itodo the Executive Director of Yiaga Africa (Nigeria), Putsetso Morapedi, Executive Director of the Botswana Centre for Public Integrity, Augustine Tamba, the Head of Secretariat at the Liberia Election Observation Network and Mr. Andrew Makoni the Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network. The meeting was moderated by Grace Tikambenji Malera, a Human Rights and Gender Expert from Malawi. Panelists were required to give their perspective on the implications of COVID-19 on democracy in their respective countries and in the region.
Panelists noted that the COVID 19 Pandemic has brought both challenges and opportunities. In Botswana the pandemic was declared a state of emergency, and became a test for the strength and functionality of democratic institutions. In Zimbabwe, the pandemic hit the country really hard, resulting in restrictions of movement, curfews, and the indefinite postponement of bi-elections and on the health front, the loss of many people including senior prominent people. During the same time, many Parliamentarians and Local Authority Councilors also lost their seats through recalls. This resulted in a serious assault on the state of Democracy in Zimbabwe. In Liberia, the pandemic also took Democracy by surprise as the country had to postpone elections. In Nigeria, the pandemic brought about a humanitarian, political and economic crisis which crippled the already ailing health system and resulted in a loss of legitimacy for the state. At the peak of the confusion, the Federal states were no longer consulting with the central government. According to all panelists, another result of the pandemic was the worsening of cases of Gender Based Violence, a result of couples spending more time together because of the imposed lockdowns. This resulted in many marriages breaking down because of the violence.
Other human rights violations that worsened during this period included that on freedom of association as political gatherings were totally banned, torture, abductions and arrests of human rights defenders (for example, the arrest of Hopewell Chin’ono in Zimbabwe), crumbling service delivery in many sectors including public education. However, participants also noted that these challenges provided opportunities for Civil Society organizations to adapt to the new situation and to ensure that engagement with democracy continued, particularly through the use of technology, for example online platforms like ZOOM, Skype and Whatsapp. The pandemic became an opportunity for civil society to further open up and address structural barriers.
When the discussion opened up to the floor, many participants echoed sentiments that the COVID 19 pandemic did not only threaten democracy and create a Constitutional crisis, but also threatened livelihoods in Africa, where most people are informal traders. During the pandemic, most governments struggled to strike a balance between saving lives and preserving livelihoods and economic development. The non-replacement of officials(for example, a Vice-President in Zimbabwe), the banning or minimizing of activities like political gatherings and sporting activities, the increase in social ills like Gender Based Violence, Child Marriages, and early pregnancies all pointed to a worsening of problems that had always existed.
Asked what solutions can be proffered to sustain democracy and prevent resorting to a place of powerlessness, Mr. Andrew Makoni gave an outline of how the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) has adapted to the “new normal” and continues to engage stakeholders in spite of the change of environment. He noted that ZESN and other civil society organizations in Zimbabwe have continued with efforts to ensure that the democratic space remains open. He noted that ZESN submitted a Draft Electoral Amendment Bill to Parliament, among other electoral reform proposals. He also gave an account of how civil society contributed to the debate on the Constitutional Amendment Bill number 2, and how it reacted to its passing. Mr. Makoni also outlined how ZESN plans to contribute to the upcoming Delimitation exercise in Zimbabwe.
By way of recommendations, panelists suggested that there be ways of rethinking and re-imagining the civil society in order for its work on democracy to remain sustainable. An example given is that of investing in building strategic partnerships with the business sector. It was noted that even if many African countries have the best Constitutions on paper, this alone does not guarantee democracy in reality. Another proposal was that there is a need to address economic inequalities as these also contribute to a reduction in support for democracy. Civil Society organizations were also tasked with the rebuilding of trust among citizens and other stakeholders. It was also suggested that there is a need for civil society to have a clear vision of what change that needs to be seen in society.
In conclusion, the meeting agreed that the COVID -19 crisis brought about many challenges, but was also an opportunity to become more innovative, and to learn to leverage on Technology. The meeting was attended by about 40 people on ZOOM, and was co-streamed on 9 Facebook pages including 263 Chat, CITES, thezimbabwenewslive, 912, NY Television, Sly Media TV, Bandit TV, ZESN and Mpumalanga Broadcasting TV (South Africa). On the ZESN Facebook alone, the meeting reached 13 707 people and on the Sly Media page the debate garnered over 4 500 views at the time of writing of this report.
Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)