Story | 10 Feb, 2021

Pan-African Response to COVID-19: New Forms of Environmental Peacebuilding Emerge

CEESP News: by By Ousseyni Kalilou, Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao & Fakunle Aremu *

Early predictions about COVID-19’s impacts on Africa suggested that the continent would be a disaster zone marked by weak medical systems collapsing under strain and undemocratic states failing to provide social services to destitute populations. These predictions did not come to pass. The second order effects of the virus have been significant, however.

content hero image

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo Credit: Volunteers at the Lagos Food Bank Initiative in Ikotun, Lagos, Nigeria, courtesy of Oluwafemi Dawodu,

Many countries across the continent stepped up early on to join the world in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. Despite the low numbers of infections and deaths, lockdowns and the decline of a large percentage of informal trade and commerce in Sub-Saharan Africa have sent the region’s economy into recession, with increased inflation rates, widespread unemployment, and increased food insecurity. It’s within this context that collaboration (internationally and within the continent, between governments, the private sector, and local communities) to protect the environment—and by extension enhance livelihoods, promote sustainable development, and achieve enduring peace—has taken new forms.

COVID-19 and Intersecting Crises

Besides posing a major global health challenge, COVID-19 has exacerbated intersecting crises.  Economic hardship, price hikes, and substantial gaps in the food supply chain have created a “hunger pandemic.” Natural events, such as locust swarms and flooding in East Africa, devastated some African regions, exacerbating the hunger pandemic. The lockdown and movement restrictions prevented the international community from quickly responding to these emergencies, leaving vulnerable communities at great risk. Instead, local organizations, such as the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), are stepping up to try and meet the basic food, water, and sanitation needs of their people.

Increased crime, violence, and illicit economic activities were reported, with women and girls most affected. An example is the re-emergence of a criminal group called “One Million Boys” in Lagos State, Nigeria during lockdown. The wider Lake Chad region also saw the escalation of conflict between soldiers and Boko Haram. Similar concerns about increased criminality have also threatened natural environments and wildlife in protected areas across the continent as decreases in tourism—and associated income—have left large areas unmonitored. In the face of intersecting crises, COVID’s potential to wreak havoc in the region’s fragile and conflict-affected states is extremely high. 

While many considered the outbreak of COVID-19 in conflict zones an opportunity to make peace, reality has proven otherwise. Not only has the pandemic limited the activities of peacebuilding groups, the politics of the pandemic have also promoted conflict and violence rather than deterring them. It has paralyzed sources of livelihoods in fragile communities by further limiting access to natural resources and wildlife due to travel restrictions and fear of exposure to zoonotic diseases. 

Social distancing has made communities (especially youth, Indigenous peoples, and women) more vulnerable at a time of crisis. According to Peace Direct, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated responses are exacerbating the underlying roots of conflicts. Longstanding inequality and community tensions have multiplied. Isolation, blaming others for the spread of the virus, and restrictions on movement and congregation are breeding tensions among religious, business, and other social groups. 

Local peacebuilding efforts often rely on in-person gatherings and people-to-people approaches. However, social distancing undermines many such existing peacebuilding efforts by restricting in-person dialogue and cooperation. Peacebuilders need support in adapting their efforts to maintain social cohesion while still preventing the spread of COVID.

Turning to African Cultures

As the global approach of imposing lockdowns on businesses and human movement is compounding crises in most African countries and destabilizing health, economics, natural resources, and politics in other ways, several countries on the continent have devised culturally innovative methods to not only reduce the spread of the virus but also reduce panic, mental health problems, and possibly violence and social unrest, while maintaining socioeconomic activities. In Nigeria, the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force set up a cultural branch that uses behavioral change approaches, such as cultural messaging and comedy to increase awareness of safety guidelines and to promote peacebuilding. Ghana deployed more than 1,000 government workers to disinfect over 130 food markets in the capital city of Accra. The goal was to ensure continuous access to food, trade, and commerce without compromising health standards.  

Shutting down airports and borders to prevent an influx of infection meant African countries reduced their reliance on foreign goods. To compensate, local production was stimulated. Young people, entrepreneurs, and nongovernmental organizations seized opportunities and developed innovative enterprises to support COVID-19 infection control and prevention. They included locally-made face masks, herbal medicines and natural supplements to boost immunity (based on Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge), hand sanitizers, online and community campaigns for social distancing, as well as instructions on how to identify the symptoms of COVID-19. African artists also fought the COVID-19 pandemic with songs they performed in collaboration with bodies such as UNESCOUNICEF, Innovation for Policy Foundation, or i4Policy to launch initiatives such as #DontGoViral. These approaches made a difference at the community level, bridging the gaps that warlords and extremists may have otherwise used to escalate prevailing conflicts in parts of the continent. 

A Pan-African Challenge to Innovate

While the virus itself may not be the most deadly threat to the continent, its compounded economic, social, and political consequences add to already intersecting crises in a number of ways. First, the pandemic is increasing poverty and hunger, creating new migration dynamics, and escalating insecurity. This could exhaust the capacity of already fragile African states and that of humanitarian and peacebuilding communities.

Second, COVID-19 is increasing distrust of those seen as outsiders, whether it’s people from cities, other communities, or other countries. What’s more, as social distancing becomes the rule, new safe ways of building peace between individuals or groups will be needed. 

Third, the restrictions on mobility are also making it harder to educate people, raise awareness, and share information.  Meanwhile, militarized police states, rising death tolls, surveillance technologies violating human rights, and abuse of social media to spread fake news have increased. This raises the risk of misinformation and stunts efforts to enhance transparency and accountability, which may also erode regional security, peacebuilding efforts, and governance in Africa.

In our pandemic-shaped world, environmental peacebuilding in Africa has expressed itself in new ways with small-scale innovations and revitalized Indigenous, nature-based solutions. These community-driven solutions give shape to a new Pan-African identity of ingenuity and adaptation. Perhaps it’s time to rethink what Pan-Africanism means for environmental peacebuilding in Africa—or African environmental peacebuilding.

* This article is part of a series co-hosted by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association on the implications of COVID-19 for the field of environmental peacebuilding.

Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao is a Global Challenges Fellow at the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) and Research Affiliate with the University of Rwanda’s Center of Excellence on Biodiversity and Natural Resources (UR CoEB).  She is also Co-chair of the IUCN CEESP Theme on Environment and Peace.

Fakunle Aremu is a Senior Agricultural Economist at Cedro International Ltd. with a focus on agribusiness, resilience, and private sector development.  

Ousseyni Kalilou is a Co-Chair of the Forest Interest Group of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association (EnPax), who received the 2019 Environmental Peacebuilding Award for Best Student Paper.  

Sources: Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Atalayar, Brookings, Business Day, Chatham House, CNBC, Foreign Affairs, Modern Diplomacy, ReliefWeb, Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative, The Africa Report, The Guardian, The New Humanitarian, The Star, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Health Organization, #DontGoViral.