More Than Money: How to Address COVID-19 in Conflict Zones in Africa

22 June 2020   ·   Oheneba Boateng

Germany and other EU countries need to address COVID-19 in Africa’s conflict zones with more than just financial support. To approach the situation strategically, they must support regional response and local solutions, promote sustainable ceasefire negotiations, and continue to address underlying causes of conflict. To do this, fostering regional technology-based solutions is key.

While the coronavirus has wreaked havoc in much of the world, Africa has experienced relatively low infection rates – and refugee camps and conflict zones on the continent seem largely unaffected by the pandemic. However, many conflict communities and refugee camps are confronted with similar challenges as those faced by African countries during the initial stages of the outbreak, which include limited access to testing facilities. In addition, conflict communities and refugee camps are often not prioritised in the current measures to fight COVID-19, meaning that some cases may be going undetected. This is cause for concern – the UNHCR fears that, if policymakers and donors do not extend current precautionary measures to conflict zones, these spaces may become the next frontier of the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa. Most vulnerable are populations in Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are home to nearly 10 million refugees, internally displaced persons, returnees, and stateless people. Also at risk are those in areas of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where protracted conflicts threaten famine, have displaced millions, and may drive waves of border crossings which leave both displaced and host populations exposed. Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and other countries that host large refugee populations also face serious economic, political and social risks should the virus spread among refugees. In addition, powerful conflict parties could weaponised the outbreak by denying testing and treatment to opponents, and a continuous outbreak will disrupt political processes even in stable environments.

Increased Challenges for Conflict Zones Already in Distress

Many populations in refugee camps and areas of conflict already lack access to high-quality healthcare and live in overcrowded shelters not suitable for precautionary practices such as physical distancing and hygiene protocols. In the event of an outbreak, these populations would struggle to cope with the various coronavirus containment measures. Despite these challenges, European donor countries, pre-occupied with their own domestic COVID-19 measures, were initially slow to aid in the fight against the virus in Africa’s conflict zones. Some staff from international organization and embassies were evacuated from the African continent, further weakening the possibility of a European response to the spread of the coronavirus in conflict communities. While the EU has listed several African countries among the recipients of its €15.6 billion stimulus package to combat the pandemic, these measures do not speak to the specific needs of refugee populations and those in areas of conflict.

Germany and other EU countries must address the coronavirus in Africa with more than financial support. What is needed are innovative measures that strengthen the capacity of African actors to deliver solutions to populations in unstable environments. The lack of permanent structures for long-term governance in refugee camps and conflict zones suggests that support should ideally be channelled through more politically stable African countries, like Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana, that either have proximity to conflict zones or host sizable refugee populations. Here are three strategies for how German and the EU can offer COVID-19 support in Africa’s conflict zones:

1) Support Autonomy in Emergencies and Strengthen Regional Response Through Local Solutions

The coronavirus pandemic in Europe has shown that donors preoccupied with their own domestic crises are often of little timely help to populations caught in conflict. This shows more than ever that European measures should aim to support African-led solutions to build autonomous resilience and reduce dependence during emergencies. When African states and regional organisations are in command of their own robust response systems, they will be better placed to assist refugees and displaced people.

European states should learn from the approaches of other donor countries, such as Japan, and provide both logistical and technical support to Africa’s national disaster management bodies so they can respond to COVID-19 cases within their sub-regions. A good example of regional support is Ghana’s National Disaster Management Organisation, which has delivered extensive domestic emergency assistance through the country’s COVID-19 response and has often been invited to support disaster relief efforts in neighbouring countries. If recognised and fully utilised by governments and donors, these neighbourhood actors backed by their regional organisations can provide timely support for refugees and those living in unstable areas.

The fear that Africa’s conflict zones and refugee camps might become the next frontiers of coronavirus infection should push European governments to support local production targeted at vulnerable populations in Africa, including those in refugee camps. For instance, some manufacturers in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tunisia have rapidly shifted to commercial production of surgical face masks, hand sanitisers and mechanised hand-washing systems. Given their relative proximity to some conflict areas in Africa, manufacturers from these countries can rapidly supply solutions to vulnerable populations.

2) Support the Use of the Pandemic as an Opportunity to Negotiate Ceasefires

The uncertainty over the trajectory of the virus in Africa serves as a window of opportunity for external partners to, where invited, engage in the facilitation of ceasefire negotiations. In order to achieve this, Germany and the EU must leverage existent good working relations with African states, regional organisations and conflict parties.

A good place to start would be the African Union’s theme for 2020, “Silencing the Guns”, which partly aims at securing ceasefires in Africa’s conflict zones, as well as the UN Secretary-General’s “global ceasefire” appeal, which has been endorsed by some conflict parties in Mali, Cameroon, Libya, Sudan, and South Sudan. Nevertheless, distrust runs deep in these long-standing conflicts. Previous examples show that any gains in ceasefire negotiations can be tenuous and easily reversible. German and EU officials must continue to engage with the AU’s “Silencing the Guns” project, intensify diplomacy to help safeguard existing ceasefire agreements, and before the outbreak is over, help to secure the commitment of conflict parties to future negotiations. European governments can draw such leverage from ongoing bilateral aid and multilateral projects, such as those with the EU Trust Fund.

3) Address the Underlying Causes of Conflict

Germany and the EU must continue ongoing political and economic processes targeted at helping uproot the underlying causes of conflict. To do so, they should invest in job creation, which fits within their current goal to better managing irregular migration from Africa to Europe. The EU should also support technology-based solutions created by Africans in response to the virus, such as ventilators and mobile tracking apps. Scientists in Cameroon, Ghana and Kenya have created prototypes of ventilators that can be used to serve in hospitals across the continent even after the COVID-19 outbreak is over. Other inventions have already been certified by Ghana’s authorities for commercial production. In addition to producing critically needed medical equipment for vulnerable populations in conflict zones, the commercialisation of these inventions will provide viable employment opportunities for vulnerable people, would-be migrants and conflict combatants. Here too, part of the EU Trust Fund and the European Union’s €15.6 billion stimulus package could be directed to expand such job creation opportunities.

On the whole, initial international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic contained no concrete provisions for refugees and communities in conflict. In part, this is because donors were preoccupied with their own domestic situations and thus slow to action, and because financial support alone will not suffice. What is needed is African resilience and the ability of communities in conflict to support themselves and refugees. The African Union and many African countries that host large refugee populations or are close to conflict zones have taken leadership roles in addressing the challenges created by this virus. Germany and the EU can support this process by aligning their support toward national and regional initiatives, helping safeguard ceasefire agreements, and supporting ongoing projects for African technology-based solutions that will contribute to employment for those affected by conflict.

Europäische Union Entwicklungszusammenarbeit Sub-Sahara Afrika COVID-19

Oheneba Boateng

Oheneba Boateng is a Fritz Thyssen Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), focusing on humanitarian action. In his research, he investigates how social accountability affects the success of humanitarian and disaster responses.