Coronavirus might bring us small, small democracy

Wednesday March 11 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Coronavirus this week continued to sow havoc. On Monday, oil prices saw their biggest single-day fall in nearly 30 years. Other commodities were hammered, with dire predictions that African countries would feel the hit hard.

Stock markets around the world cratered, with trading on the New York Stock Exchange halted for 15 minutes after a very sharp fall. Airlines are reeling. Tourism is kaput. China, where the virus first broke out, is projected to see its economic growth this year slashed by 0.4 percentage point to 5.6 per cent.

Uganda, like Kenya, has suspended all international conferences that were scheduled to take place in the country because of the threat of coronavirus.

Against that background, regional weekly The East African, reported that China’s Exim Bank, has once again rejected Uganda’s latest application for a loan to finance the standard gauge railway (SGR). The main sticking point is whether Kenya’s SGR will come to the two countries’ common border and link up with Uganda’s.

Rightly, the Chinese don’t think the Ugandan (and Kenyan) SGRs make dollar sense as stand-alone, and should go back to the spirit of the colonial Kenya-Uganda Railway to pay their way.

With coronavirus hitting both China’s economy and those of its many client African states weakened further by the coronavirus blowback, Beijing is definitely going to stop handing out the candy it has been giving African governments.


We could be in for hard economic times. However, in these things, someone or something somewhere always wins.

The firm clampdown on wild game meat in China in the wake of indications that the virus broke out in a wet market in the city of Wuhan in the central part of the country, for example, has been seen by some as a big boost for conservation.

That action means millions of animals poached to feed Chinese appetites will now live. No amount of conservation activism would have got China to do, in this regard, what coronavirus has.

Likewise, if easy Chinese money dries up for Africa, the economic crisis it could trigger could well be good for democracy.

The Ugandan leadership and others in Africa, have been praising the Chinese to high heavens, partly because they impose little or no “conditionalities” on their loans and grants, and don’t “interfere in [their] international affairs.”

The Chinese don’t insist that African governments respect the human rights of their people, hold fair elections, open up equal opportunities for women, and meet high environmental standards like those meddlesome fellows from the West, the World Bank, and IMF.

Additionally, as President Museveni has said more than twice, when “his” oil is flowing and his Treasury is full, he will totally not listen to lectures about good governance from wazungus, who think they know better than Africans. It’s a sentiment that underscores an oddity in African politics. By and large, most countries in history have, over time, become more open and democratic the richer they grew.

Africa is not rich, relative to Europe or North America, but it has made tremendous economic progress since about 1991 – on the back of economic reforms and liberalisation.

However, the progress of democracy (or call it civil rights and freedoms like that of association), have not improved at the same pace. In the last 10 years, they have regressed by most measures.

Though conditionalities are vilified, and the impact on economies of liberalisation on economies in Africa is uneven, a lot of these things like independent electoral commissions, regular elections, women’s rights, more transparent budgets, minimally independent central banks and revenue authorities, even presidential term limits in some countries, still resulted in varying degrees from Western donor conditionalities.

Weighed down by debt, bankrupt treasuries, restive growing populations, and no easy alternatives, governments (including Uganda’s) made concessions.

As their economies improved, revenue collections spiked, and new wealth was generated by the private sector, they became less beholden to mzungu money, and less responsive to their threats. They increasingly went back to their bad old ways, with China writing them relatively easy cheques where they needed them.

The coronavirus could be contained very quickly, or it could hang around causing mayhem well into the last half of the year, no one is sure. It’s likely, however, that we will soon have African countries queuing up again outside the World Bank/IMF doors (in fact several are already doing so).

There will again be the conditionalities, though perhaps fewer than in the 1980s and 1990s. However, you can expect that “good governance” (ending corruption, stopping wanton widespread human rights abuses etc.) will be on the cards.

And governments will have to release a few political prisoners, take some measures to stop rampant corruption, and steal elections less openly and crudely. Things could improve a little a bit. For that, we will have coronavirus to thank.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site