Africa in the news: Burundi, Benin, South Sudan, and COVID-19 updates

Members of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) lift empty ballot boxes at a voting station during the Presidential, Legislative and Communal council elections, under the simmering political violence and the growing threat of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread, in Gitega, Burundi May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana

Elections in Burundi and Benin

Burundi held general elections on Wednesday, May 20 to select its president, national legislators, and local representatives, despite having 42 confirmed cases—including 21 active cases—of COVID-19 in the country. At the time of this publication, votes were still being counted; Burundi’s National Independent Electoral Commission has stated that results will not be available until Monday. Initial results suggest a close race between ruling party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye and opposition party candidate Agathon Rwasa.

The election will mark an end to 15 years of rule by President Pierre Nkurunziza, who announced in 2018 that he would not run for another term. Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in 2015, which his opponents said was unconstitutional, sparked unrest that resulted in at least 1,200 deaths and the displacement of 400,000 people. While no violence occurred during Wednesday’s election, Rwasa has stated that more than 200 of his party’s supporters were arrested during the election and also announced that he may challenge the results if fraud is suspected.

Benin also held local elections on Sunday, May 17, risking further spread of COVID-19; 339 cases of the disease have already been confirmed in the country. According to provisional results, two parties aligned with President Patrice Talon won more than 77 percent of the vote.

Opposition parties were barred from the vote due to a protested 2019 election law that created strict criteria for fielding candidates. As a result, opposition parties called for voters to boycott the polls over both the political situation and the COVID-19 outbreak. Turnout was correspondingly low—estimated at only 25 percent—and was particularly low in opposition strongholds. Final results are expected by Sunday, May 24.

Violence, COVID-19 on the rise in South Sudan

More than 300 people were killed earlier this week in South Sudan’s Jonglei state after violence broke out between Lou Nuer pastoralists and Murle farmers over cattle and land. Among the victims were a Red Cross volunteer and a Doctors Without Borders nurse. Jonglei, one of the country’s largest states, has been a frequent site of conflict since the country’s latest peace agreement in February 2020, which merged the states Fangak, Bieh, and Kobo with Jonglei but failed to name a governor to oversee the expanded territory.

The February peace deal saw rebel leader Riek Machar return as vice president, a post he last held in 2016, but experts worry that the latest violence threatens to derail any progress toward peace and shared rule that has been made. Coronavirus has complicated matters, especially after Machar, who heads South Sudan’s COVID-19 task force, and his wife, Defense Minister Angelina Teny, tested positive for the virus, along with several other members of the task force. A number of other cabinet ministers have tested positive as well.

Conflict and disease have also come at a time when food security is fragile. Initial Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) projections suggested 6.5 million people in South Sudan—over half the country’s population—will be in need of humanitarian food assistance this season, and this number is likely to grow due to rising food prices and desert locusts. In March, the price of wheat increased by 36 percent, while the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) expects the price of white sorghum to be between 54 and 180 percent higher than the average of the previous five years. In March and April, locusts destroyed up to 10 percent of crops in Magwi and Lopa/Lafon counties. The pandemic, locusts, and poor macroeconomic conditions affect South Sudan via other channels as well, as disrupted supply chains across the Horn of Africa lead to widespread food shortages.

Some African economies look to open up while others continue to close down over COVID-19

While Africa has been one of the last regions to get hit by the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the effects—and spread—of the virus will linger. The BBC reports that the WHO recently predicted that nearly a quarter of a billion Africans could contract the novel coronavirus within the next year and warned that between 150,000 and 190,000 could die. As of this writing, Africa has recorded over 100,000 cases of the coronavirus, with 3,105 deaths.

The continent continues to be a patchwork of countries opening up and closing down. Mosques and churches in Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal have begun to open. At the same time, Nigeria is slowing down its economic reopening and even extending lockdowns in principalities where the virus has continued to spread. Botswana, which has seen relatively few cases, has announced an end to “extreme social distancing.” Notably, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, the country has divided itself into “zones,” with checkpoints throughout the country intended to slow or prevent the movement of people.

Earlier this week, Kenya announced it would not be seeking the debt payment standstill offered by the G-20, stating that the terms—especially the rule limiting countries’ access to international capital markets during the suspension—were too restrictive. Also this week, in attempt to stop cross-border spread of the virus, the country closed its borders with Somalia and Tanzania. More broadly, all truck drivers entering the country—regardless of origin—will be subjected to mandatory COVID-19 testing. The government noted that recent days have seen 78 foreign truck drivers test positive for the virus. It also extended its national nighttime curfew by 21 days.

Conversely, Zambia announced it would be reopening its border with Tanzania for cargo such as copper and cobalt exports and fuel imports. The movement of people is still banned. Zambia also announced an easing of lockdown restrictions in the town of Nakonde, but noted that movement restrictions in general will remain in place in order to facilitate health screenings.

In other border news, Tanzania and Rwanda have agreed to not implement a previously announced plan to swap drivers for cargo trucks crossing the border. Instead, goods—with the exception of perishable goods and petroleum products—intended for Rwanda will be offloaded at border points and subsequently escorted to their final destinations. All truck drivers heading to Rwanda will be tested for the coronavirus before leaving their starting point and at designated stopping points along their routes. Drivers with perishable goods and petroleum products—who will be allowed entry—will be tested when entering Rwanda as well.