Autocratic governments are using coronavirus as a pretext to clamp down on opponents

Musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, at a news conference in Kampala, Uganda, on June 15, about the government handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)
Musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, at a news conference in Kampala, Uganda, on June 15, about the government handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)

Last week, Zimbabwean security agents raided Hopewell Chin’ono’s home, arresting the journalist for allegedly “inciting public violence”. Chin’ono’s reporting uncovered corruption in the government’s pandemic response and led to the ousting of the health minister over allegations of contract fraud. Security forces also arrested opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume and more than 100,000 others, charging them with violating coronavirus-related regulations.

While the scale of the repression in Zimbabwe captured the attention of advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and the U.S. Embassy, it’s not the only country undertaking politically motivated crackdowns in the name of public health. For autocrats, the coronavirus has lowered the cost of repression by allowing them to justify actions as necessary responses to the crisis. We call this “opportunistic repression”.

Our preliminary analysis of actions in Zimbabwe and Uganda suggests autocracies are selectively applying repression to subdue their political opposition.

Here’s how we did our research

To examine how the Ugandan government’s pattern of repression has shifted since it adopted coronavirus-related restrictions, we used several open-access data sets. By repression, we mean instances in which the state’s security sector engages in violence targeting civilians to prevent or suppress dissent. To count the number of events in which the government repressed civilians, we use the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s (ACLED) data, which tracks reported political violence and protest events. We used the ACLED measure for repression events, defined as state forces using violence against its civilians.

To identify opposition areas in Uganda, we used data collected by the nongovernmental Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) on the percentage of votes that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won in the 2016 election. We consider districts with less than the median level of votes for Museveni as opposition districts, and pro-government districts otherwise.

As part of a national strategy to fight the coronavirus, Museveni instituted a national lockdown on March 18. We compare how many repression events we found in pro-government and opposition districts before and after the implementation of the lockdown. In our analysis, we controlled for levels of poverty, the level of ethnolinguistic diversity and population density.

Government repression went up in Uganda, especially in opposition areas

Government repression increased following Uganda’s national lockdown, across both opposition and pro-government districts. Different districts saw different degrees of repression. Until March 2020, the degree of repression in Uganda was more or less the same across districts that voted for the incumbent and those that did not. This changed in March 2020. That’s when the government seriously tightened its coronavirus restrictions, banning the use of public transportation and restricting commerce and any public gatherings.

Figure: Don Grasse, Mel Pavlik, Hilary Matfess, and Travis Curtice. Source: Data from ACLED and HOT
Figure: Don Grasse, Mel Pavlik, Hilary Matfess, and Travis Curtice. Source: Data from ACLED and HOT.

The image above shows that after Uganda shut down for the pandemic, state violence increased much more in opposition districts than in those that voted for Museveni in 2016.

Could opposition areas be refusing to comply with coronavirus protocols more than pro-government areas? How security forces responded to political party meetings suggests that this repression is not focused on enforcing public health measures. Security forces reportedly used tear gas to break up an opposition party gathering this month, arresting opposition party members. However, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement has been allowed to gather and operate as before.

What does opportunistic repression look like in Zimbabwe?

We analyzed ACLED data from Zimbabwe alongside results from the 2018 elections, collected from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Again, we considered opposition districts to be any district that received below the national median of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s vote share. In the months since Zimbabwe’s first reported coronavirus case, more than three-quarters of the times that security forces attacked civilians, they did so in opposition districts.

Harare and Bulawayo saw the largest increases in repression since March. Those districts also recorded some of the lowest rates of support for Mnangagwa in the last election. The increase in government repression in these areas includes arrests and attacks on journalists and opposition parties. Several of these coercive events overtly repressed opposition groups.

The ruling party has politicized public health crises during previous epidemics, as well. In his book on the 2008-2009 cholera crisis, political scientist Simukai Chigudu found that the government’s response deepened political divisions in ways that hamstrung the public health response.

Opportunistic repression as another autocratic tool

Undemocratic governments often preemptively suppress challenges to their authority, frequently in the lead-up to a national election or during significant events such as independence days. Sometimes they will target ethnic minorities or areas with a strong history of protest.

Opportunistic repression is a form of preemptive repression, giving autocrats cover to punish and discourage dissent under the guise of responding to an internationally recognized threat.

The pandemic is just one such opportunity. Autocrats have also been able to take advantage of other events, such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, to opportunistically repress dissent.

Even if a vaccine does soon alleviate the risk of the coronavirus, there is no such panacea for human rights abuses.

Don Grasse (@donplyr) is a PhD candidate at Emory University. His research focuses on the political economy of development. Mel Pavlik (@mel_pavlik) is a PhD student at Yale University. Her research examines political violence and repression strategies. Hilary Matfess (@HilaryMatfess) is a peace scholar fellow with the U.S. Institute of Peace and a PhD candidate at Yale University, where her research focuses on gender and political violence. She is the author of “Women and The War on Boko Haram” (Zed Books, 2017). Travis Curtice (@travisbcurtice) is the U.S. foreign policy and international security fellow at the Dickey Center at Dartmouth College. His research examines the politics of policing and political violence.

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