AD439: Corruption, mistrust, and praise? Assessing governments’ management of the COVID-19 pandemic in West Africa

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Dispatches
2021
439
Aminatou Seydou

African governments have won praise for their rapid action to limit the spread of COVID-19, which may have helped the continent avoid, so far, the massive death tolls experienced elsewhere. (Bearak & Paquette, 2020; Smith, 2020). Many also provided some assistance to help businesses and vulnerable families weather the pandemic (Zane, 2020).

But lockdowns and other restrictions, often implemented within days of the first recorded COVID-19 cases (Goitom, 2020), and sometimes harshly enforced by the police and army, have also drawn criticism and, in some countries, large-scale protests (Carothers & Press, 2020; Africa News, 2020a; Ben Ahmed, 2020).

Moreover, democracy watchdogs charge that some African leaders – perhaps most blatantly in Uganda – have used the pandemic as an excuse to restrict democratic rights, limit political competition, and consolidate their power (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Freedom House, 2020; Gargard, 2020; Repucci & Slipowitz, 2020; Africa News, 2020b).

How do ordinary Africans, who have borne the brunt of both the pandemic and measures to contain it, see their governments’ performance?

New Afrobarometer surveys in five West African countries (Benin, Liberia, Niger, Senegal, and Togo) show that people found it difficult to comply with lockdowns and thought school closures dragged on too long, but they generally supported both measures as necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19. Government assistance eased lockdown-related difficulties for only a minority of citizens; Senegal is the only surveyed country where a majority received such support.

Majorities in all five countries reported that assistance was distributed unfairly, and that a substantial share of resources intended for the COVID-19 response were lost to corruption. In addition, majorities don’t trust their governments to provide reliable statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths, or to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.

Despite these negative assessments, majorities in all countries gave their governments positive marks for their management of the COVID-19 response – a seeming contradiction that may reflect low public expectations of government or a sense that COVID-19 was an unusually difficult challenge.

When it comes to whether people will accept trade-offs between preserving political rights and measures to protect public health during a pandemic, majorities in most countries endorsed the use of police and other security forces to enforce public health measures, but views were more mixed on postponing or limiting election campaigns and censoring the media. 

Except in Niger, majorities said their government should invest more in preparing for health emergencies like COVID-19, even if it means fewer resources are available for other health services.