Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, where our biweekly Afrobarometer Friday series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life, and other critical topics.
As COVID-19 blighted East and West last year, many African governments moved fast, ordering lockdowns — sometimes enforced with truncheons — and announcing plans to provide assistance to vulnerable families and businesses.
Some analysts credit this rapid action with helping the continent avoid the massive death tolls experienced elsewhere. But in some African countries, people took to the streets to protest seemingly unbearable restrictions.
How do ordinary Africans see their government’s response to the pandemic? Afrobarometer surveys in five West African countries (Benin, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo) show widespread approval of decisive government actions, including lockdowns.
At the same time, majorities said that officials distributed assistance unfairly, stole resources intended for the pandemic response, can’t be trusted to provide accurate COVID-19 statistics or ensure that vaccines are safe, and are using the pandemic to increase their own power.
Citizens praised government performance, overall
In face-to-face interviews across these five West African countries, most citizens said their governments were doing “fairly well” or “very well” in managing the response to the pandemic (67%) and in keeping the public informed (81%), as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Managing the COVID-19 response and keeping the public informed| 5 West African countries | 2020/2021
In the four survey countries that experienced lockdowns or curfews, between 70% and 90% of citizens said compliance with the restrictions was “difficult” or “very difficult.” Senegal and Niger reported clashes between protesters and police. [Benin did not institute a full lockdown, but opted to restrict movement in and out of major cities.]
Overall, two-thirds (66%) of survey respondents nonetheless considered the lockdowns/curfews necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus, ranging from half (49%) of Senegalese to 83% of Liberians and 78% of Togolese (see Figure 2).
Nationwide school closures — ranging from about six weeks in Benin to 15 weeks in Liberia — also won strong approval in Benin (77%), Liberia (71%) and Togo (68%), though opponents outnumbered supporters in Senegal (50 vs. 45%) and Niger (53 vs. 44%). And majorities in all countries said the schools remained closed for too long.
Figure 2: Support for lockdowns and school closures | 5 West African countries | 2020/2021
Percentage who “agree” or “strongly agree” that lockdowns were necessary, and percentage who “somewhat support” or “strongly support the government’s decision to close schools to limit the spread of COVID-19. Source: Afrobarometer.
But many voiced concerns about unfairness and corruption
In contrast to these largely favorable assessments, questions about specific parts of the national response to the pandemic elicited far more negative perceptions.
While all five governments provided some support to help vulnerable households and businesses weather the pandemic, Senegal is the only country where a majority (71%) of citizens reported receiving such assistance. Fewer than one in 10 Liberians (9%) and Beninese (4%) said they benefited from pandemic relief.
The demographic profile of recipients varied widely across the five countries. Senegal stands out for prioritizing poor, older and rural citizens. But even in Senegal, a majority (52%) said government assistance was distributed unfairly, a sentiment voiced by larger majorities (58 to 83%) in the other countries (see Figure 3). In all five countries, perceptions of unfair distribution were considerably more common among respondents who had not received government assistance. But even among those who received assistance, a majority (56% on average) thought the distribution wasn’t fair.
And large majorities — 67% on average — believed that corrupt government officials had stolen “some” or “a lot” of the resources earmarked for pandemic assistance. In Liberia, eight in 10 respondents (81%) held this view (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Perceptions of unfair aid distribution and government corruption | 5 West African countries | 2020/2021
Moreover, on average, most citizens said they don’t trust their government to provide accurate statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths (62%) or to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are safe (68%). These views may contribute to vaccine hesitancy: Across these five countries, 60% of respondents said they are unlikely to try to get vaccinated.
Worried about democratic rights
A final concern aligns with charges by democracy watchdogs that some governments are scaling back political rights or restricting political competition under the guise of fighting the pandemic. Large majorities in Senegal (70%), Togo (65%) and Niger (59%) said they were worried that politicians would use COVID-19 to increase their power, and about half of Liberians (50%) and Beninese (46%) agreed.
What measures did African citizens see as justified during a pandemic? Strong majorities in four countries endorsed the government’s use of the police and other security agencies to enforce compliance with public health mandates, ranging from 65% in Senegal to 84% in Liberia. The exception was Niger, where 56% disagreed.
Views were more mixed on whether postponing elections and limiting political campaigns are justified during a public health emergency. While substantial majorities in Liberia (82%) and Togo (65%) endorsed such measures, only minorities agreed in the other countries. Support was even weaker for media censorship during a crisis (46%, vs. 49% opposed), though it still won majority endorsements in Liberia (71%) and Benin (56%).
Are there lessons to take forward?
While these findings provide useful pointers for governments analyzing specific aspects of a pandemic response, there are perplexing questions. If a litany of fairly sharp criticisms — on important issues of fairness, corruption and trust — adds up to a positive overall performance review, is that because people’s expectations of their governments are quite low, or because they are willing to cut their leaders some slack in a particularly difficult situation?
Either way, governments may hear some encouragement in these citizen views, as well as a challenge to do better.
Aminatou Seydou is a senior majoring in international relations and comparative cultures and politics at James Madison College, Michigan State University. Find her on Twitter @AminatouSeydou.