The coronavirus pandemic is challenging governments in Africa, just as it is around the globe. Many Africans already assess their public officials skeptically, wary of corruption, coercion and inadequate care for ordinary people’s physical, social and economic welfare, as our research on citizens’ experiences and evaluations shows. How African governments respond to this crisis — whether with compassion and respect or corruption and coercion — will influence their citizens’ trust in government for years to come.

The rule of law vs. reality

In general, Africans see their governments as legitimate. In Afrobarometer Round 7, which collected data from more than 45,800 respondents across 34 African countries between late 2016 and late 2018, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of respondents said that people must always obey the law, including majorities in all 34 countries. This suggests a fundamental inclination toward complying with the wave of new covid-19 restrictions implemented across the continent.

Citizens may be especially willing to tolerate restrictions, at least temporarily, to protect their health and safety. When Afrobarometer asked respondents about their willingness to tolerate limits on freedom of movement when public security is threatened, majorities endorsed the trade-off.

But hundreds of millions of Africans live in households with limited reserves of money, food and water, and may be unable to feed themselves while observing a sustained lockdown. For these citizens, the new restrictions can mean a choice between protecting public health and ensuring their own daily survival.

Will governments step up to help citizens manage both? Their past record is not reassuring. Only 52 percent of Africans said their governments are doing fairly or very well in improving basic health services. Nearly 4 in 10 (38 percent) reported that they or someone in their family had to go without medical care in the past year. Just 44 percent rated their governments’ provision of clean water and sanitation positively, and fewer than one-third said government efforts to improve living standards for the poor and ensure food security are effective.

Enforcing coronavirus restrictions with compassion or coercion?

African governments face a choice between responding to the coronavirus crisis with compassion and respect for their citizens, or resorting to coercion to enforce restrictions. Civic activists are urging governments to avoid one-size-fits-all decrees and instead work with communities to develop flexible and realistic responses. So far, the record is mixed. Ghana, South Africa and many other countries have worked to strengthen safety nets by waiving utility bills, offering wage subsidies and food programs, and increasing social-welfare grants. At the same time, security forces in some countries have beaten, arrested and even shot citizens for violating lockdown orders.

Developing and effectively implementing workable solutions is more likely when citizens trust their governments. But fewer than half (46 percent) of Africans said they trust their elected leaders “somewhat” or “a lot,” as you can see in Figure 1 below. In Tanzania (68 percent) and Burkina Faso (67 percent), relatively high levels of popular trust can help governments respond to the pandemic effectively. But in countries like South Africa (33 percent) and Nigeria (32 percent), the trust deficit will make it much harder for leaders and citizens to work together.

As the figure also shows, more citizens trust their nonpolitical leaders, especially traditional and religious leaders (57 percent and 69 percent, respectively). Governments may wish to engage these leaders to support two-way communication with their citizens.

Unfortunately, many governments have seemed more inclined to turn to their security forces to deliver their messaging. In fact, Africans trust their armies (64 percent) more than their presidents (52 percent), their parliaments (43 percent) or their local government councils (43 percent). At the same time, only 53 percent said the military usually “operates in a professional manner and respects the rights of citizens.” And reports that security forces in Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa, Uganda and elsewhere have used excessive force while imposing lockdowns are unlikely to build public trust in either military or elected officials.

Using coronavirus resources accountably or corruptly?

Corruption can undermine public trust and destroy a government’s legitimacy in its citizens’ minds. We saw this during the Ebola outbreaks, when many Africans believed that the disease was a scam manufactured by corrupt officials.

Both distrust and corruption are likely to hurt African governments’ efforts to limit the coronavirus’s spread. Across 34 countries, nearly 4 in 10 respondents (38 percent) said they believe that “most” or “all” government officials are corrupt. And among those who sought care at public clinics or hospitals in the previous year, 13 percent reported that they had to pay a bribe, a proportion that soars to more than 4 in 10 in Liberia (43 percent) and Sierra Leone (50 percent), as you can see in the figure below.

What’s more, international and humanitarian aid that will arrive to combat the coronavirus pandemic will provide unscrupulous officials a multitude of opportunities for diversion, price-fixing and other forms of corruption. That will not be lost on the ordinary citizens who will pay the price.

Will governments emerge from this crisis with more legitimacy or less trust?

But history does not have to be destiny. Governments have the opportunity to respond to the pandemic in ways that build their legitimacy rather than squander it. Responses that are compassionate rather than coercive, and that use funds with transparency and accountability rather than corruptly, could build trust and strengthen governments while keeping citizens alive.

E. Gyimah-Boadi (@gyimahboadi) is board chairman and interim CEO of Afrobarometer.

Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is director of analysis for Afrobarometer.