Coronavirus Exacerbates Growing Conflict and Insecurity in Africa


Bottom Line Up Front

  • Cases of coronavirus are now reported in most African countries.
  • Several African countries have seen a steadily growing number of cases at the same time that they are struggling to combat terrorist and insurgent groups.
  • COVID-19 can be expected to place pressure on African militaries that are seeing both rising numbers of coronavirus cases and some of the most lethal terrorist attacks in recent memory.
  • Altogether, COVID-19 is not only a health concern in Africa, but it is also likely to negatively impact counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts on the continent, leading to further violence and instability.

Even as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread throughout the world, devastating entire nations and regions in its wake, it is still in the early phases of breaking out across the African continent. At least initially, what insulated certain African countries from exposure to the virus was some of their airports’ lesser international connectivity. In addition, a number of African countries had preparedness and training in preventing infectious diseases from prior experience countering Ebola. The first reported cases in Africa were from Europeans traveling from their home countries to Africa, including diplomats, as well as from Africans in Europe returning home. They began repatriating at a faster pace when multiple African countries announced they would begin implementing quarantine procedures for any travelers arriving from Europe. Such countries included Ghana and Cameroon early on, although procedures have reportedly not been followed nearly as strictly as many governments had hoped.

At least in the initial stages, a disproportionate amount of those infected with the coronavirus in African countries come from higher socio-economic demographics. In Nigeria, 2019 presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar announced his son contracted the coronavirus after returning to Nigeria from the United Kingdom. The aide to the 2019 presidential election winner, Muhammadu Buhari, also contracted the coronavirus after returning to Nigeria from Germany. Further, the governor of Nigeria’s Kogi State has contracted the coronavirus. Although numbers are imprecise, Africa recently surpassed 10,000 reported cases, while many believe the true number is likely much higher. Nigeria stands in the middle of the pack with just over 320 reported cases, while South Africa’s toll has climbed above 2,170. After South Africa, Cameroon has the second most cases in sub-Saharan Africa at around 820, and the Ivory Coast is next with 574 reported cases. There may be hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that are still unreported and, in general, North Africa has more cases than other regions on the continent.

In recent weeks, Mali and Niger have also reported their first cases. Due to poor infrastructure and the lack of medical care, especially in rural areas, countries like Mali and Niger and others in the Sahel will face severe difficulties in treating coronavirus patients if the virus spreads from elite circles into all classes of society. Considering the preexisting security crisis in the Sahel and Nigeria, a further concern is that the coronavirus will hinder ongoing counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts. There have been a number of major attacks in the Sahel and Nigeria over the course of the past several weeks. For example, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), killed several dozen soldiers in a barracks attack in Mali. In northeastern Nigeria, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) also killed nearly 100 soldiers in Goniri, Yobe.

ISWAP’s rival group, Jamaat Ahl al-Sunna li-Dawa wal Jihad (commonly called ‘Boko Haram’), recently killed 92 Chadian soldiers in what was the largest ever attack by the group in Chad. Counterinsurgency operations by French and regional forces, including from Chad, are now aggressively targeting the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), but the threat of the virus complicates these efforts. United States Special Operations Forces have been withdrawn from several key hotspots in Africa, providing militants with the opportunity to rest and rearm. Islamic State fighters in Mozambique have been successful conquering territory in the north of the country. African countries are known for the porosity of their borders, which makes counterinsurgency challenging. Militaries that are already under strain in Africa will now have to be involved in coronavirus relief efforts. Nigeria’s military will be enforcing movement restrictions to curb the virus, for example. The virus may also impact economic productivity, which will further strain resources across the continent. If the virus were to infect soldiers in their barracks, it could also force militaries to significantly scale back operations. Already, the Nigerian military has cancelled several programs as a result of the virus. Altogether, COVID-19 is not only a health concern in Africa, but it is also likely to negatively impact counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts on the continent, leading to further violence and instability.

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