CSO’s encouraged to safeguard democratic space in the wake of COVID-19

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) recently held a webinar under the topic ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic: An Opportunity or Challenge for Civic Society Organisations (CSO’s) Democratic Support’.

CSO’s provide critical social services by defending collective interests and increasing accountability.

There’s now need for CSO’s to adapt and device new ways to safeguard the democratic space in the wake of COVID-19. This comes as there’s concern to protect constitutional freedom.

Participants were in one accord citing that the COVID-19 pandemic had compromised constitutional freedom and the democratic space. 

Furthermore, participants mentioned that COVID-19 created a constitutional crisis thus threatening livelihoods and creating the need for civil society groups to develop ways to protect the democratic space.

The government has not yet given any indication on when the suspension of elections would be lifted.

The webinar and online discussion panel was comprised of executive director of Yiaga Africa based in Nigeria, Samson Itodo, executive director of Botswana Centre for Public Integrity Putsetso Morapedi, head of secretariat at the Liberia Election Observation Network (LEON) Augustine Tamba and Zesn chairperson Andrew Makoni.

“One of the things that the pandemic did was to bring to the fore and question the legitimacy of our governments.

“Legitimacy in terms of how the government can provide goods and services in the midst of a crisis,” Itodo said during the virtual discussion.

“One of the most glaring impact of the C0VID-19 lockdown was the ban of political gatherings.

“Whilst there is a pandemic that affected our country, the state has also taken it as an advantage to restrict the democratic space, freedom of assembly and association, even freedom of expression,” Makoni said during the virtual discussion.  

“What COVID-19 has done is to highlight the inadequacies of our states to protect our democracy,” Morapedi said during the virtual discussion.  

“The pandemic has an impact on democracy because it forced authorities to change what is constitutionally set in a crisis,” Tamba said.

A Zesn report presented during the discussion highlighted some key challenges and findings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Other human rights violations that worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown included freedom of association as political gatherings were totally banned, torture, abductions and arrest of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe,” the report read.

These challenges provided opportunities for CSOs to adapt to the new situation and to ensure that engagement with democracy continued, particularly through the use of technology.

The pandemic became an opportunity for civil society to further open up and address structural barriers. An example given is that of investing in building strategic partnerships with the business sector.

It was noted that even if many African countries had the best Constitutions on paper, this alone did not guarantee democracy in reality.