When government leaders across Africa began to impose lockdowns to curtail the spread of the coronavirus last year, many Africans, who were not covered by any form of social protection, began to panic. A mix of high unemployment, poverty and corruption exacerbated the suffering of vulnerable populations during lockdowns across Africa.
Fewer than 18 percent of Africa’s people are covered by at least one form of social protection, compared to 84.1 percent in Europe and Central Asia.
In Nigeria and South Africa, the limited supply of aid was tainted by diversion of relief supplies, theft of food parcels, and — ahead of presidential elections in Uganda — politically-motivated arrests of those who dared to give food packages to families.
In South Africa, too, government officials have been accused of corruption and diverting food parcels. In some communities, destitute residents were asked to pay R5 ($0.31) in order to receive food supplies.
Kavisha Pillay, head of stakeholder relations and campaigns at Corruption Watch, a local anti-corruption NGO, said that the theft of food parcels was a problem from the start. Pillay’s organization tapped radio programs and community media, and created a system for people to report diversion of supplies.
Similar concerns about diversion of relief packages are common in Nigeria. In the Lugbe suburb of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, a tailor and a barber said food distribution in their area in April 2020 resulted in bedlam. “The government officials came with a truck and a Hilux van full of noodles, rice, garri and eggs and when they came people queued up neatly, with men on one side and women on the other side,” a tailor said. “But the officials started saying most of us in the queue don’t look poor and people got angry and there was total chaos.” The officials began to share the food items based on “your tribe” and “your religion,” referring to ethnic origin. “They were picking out people from the queue and segregating based on religion and it spoiled everything,” the barber said. Ultimately, most of the food packages were destroyed by angry youths and the government officials had to flee for their safety, he said.
In Uganda, the distribution of aid quickly took on a political dimension as the January 2021 presidential elections approached. While government deliveries of food aid lagged, President Yoweri Mouseveni outlawed food distribution by opposition politicians or sympathetic citizens. Those who went ahead and distributed food were arrested and charged with attempted murder. The government had argued that unauthorized distributions risked drawing crowds, and spreading the virus. Critics, however, decried the measures as a bid by Mouseveni to dominate the pre-election landscape and shut down political rivals. Among those arrested for providing emergency food was Francis Zaake, a 29-year-old opposition politician. Zaake was held in detention for ten days. He faced repeated torture, with guards telling him to either quit politics or join the ruling National Resistance Movement party, he said. He was denied visitors, including a lawyer, and denied medication he needed, he said.
In Uganda, top officials are facing prosecution for throwing contracts to companies that overcharged for emergency food supplies, while those who received the aid said it was poor quality and would only last a few days for a large family. The corruption allegedly cost the government around 2 billion Ugandan shillings ($544,200).
Citizens were left to grapple with starvation largely on their own, further eroding their trust in government. Pre-pandemic austerity measures, combined with weak administrative structures, slowed the expansion of social safety nets to reach the majority of the people affected by confinement measures, she said.
Samuel Gbaruko, who runs a small barbershop in the Yaba district of Lagos, said he struggled to survive during the lockdowns.
“Sometimes it was just one meal per day and nothing more,” said Gbaruko, who is 25. “It was very, very hard for me.” Gbaruku said that when food packages arrived in his area of Yaba, a suburb of Lagos, they were mainly shared among older people. “They gave older people one loaf of bread, rice, beans and cooking oil and it was shared in such a way that only one older person per household received something, regardless of whether there are two older people in there,” he complained.
In Gulu, northern Uganda, 35-year-old Amina Yot, a widow, lost the odd jobs she relied on to feed her family. “Since corona started, life is really very hard,” she said. Yot said her family had received just 12 pounds (5 kg.) of maize flour from the government between March and September 2020. It was enough for just three or four days, she said.
In Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, 60-year-old Alice Opisa, who hawked cooked beans before the pandemic, said her family sometimes went to bed hungry or begged neighbours for food during the lockdowns.
“I heard them announcing on the radio, I went to register but I have not received that support,” lamented Opisa, who lives in the Dandora slum.