‘Arab Spring’ stirs African hopes and anxieties

Will popular upsurge in the north help spur reform south of the Sahara?
From Africa Renewal: 
page 12
Sudanese and Egyptian residents in Khartoum, Sudan, celebrated the downfall of the Mubarak governmentSudanese and Egyptian residents in Khartoum, Sudan, celebrated the downfall of the Mubarak government in neighbouring Egypt.
Photograph: Reuters / Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

As the "Arab Spring" of mass protests for democracy that is roiling much of North Africa and the Middle East slips past mid-year, activists and power holders across Africa continue to follow the unfolding revolutions — and ponder their impact on other parts of the continent.

In Africa's remaining autocratic states, young activists armed with enthusiasm and laptops are trying, with mixed results, to emulate the breakthroughs achieved by their colleagues in Tunisia and Egypt. In a number of other countries citizens watch the massive people's movements of the Arab world with great sympathy — but are thankful they do not need to take similar risks because their own political systems are now sufficiently open to allow them some voice.

Whatever the differences among countries, the basic problems highlighted by the North African revolutions are similar: high youth unemployment, rising food and fuel costs, persistent corruption, denial of basic rights and limited participation in decision-making. Addressing African countries in late May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded them that in North Africa it was a lack of freedoms "that led young people to take to the streets demanding change and fulfilment of their legitimate aspirations for better lives." The message is clear, he added: ensure "sustainable political progress."

Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union Commission, gave the same message to the continent's assembled leaders at the 30 June opening of the AU summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. While hailing the changes in Tunisia and Egypt as a "new advance" in Africa's decades-long march towards democracy, he urged all African governments to see "the popular uprisings" as an occasion to recommit themselves to the AU's democracy agenda.

While few African leaders have themselves been so welcoming of the Arab Spring, Mr. Ping did reflect the widespread sentiment of pro-democracy and human rights advocates across the continent. As well-known Kenyan human rights activist Wangari Maathai declared in March, "A wind is blowing. It is heading south, and won't be suppressed forever."

Fanning the sparks

Shortly after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt captured international headlines, groups of militants in several sub-Saharan countries tried to follow those examples. In Sudan, protest calls over Facebook brought hundreds of students into the streets of Khartoum and other towns, although they were quickly dispersed by riot police. Thousands demonstrated in Djibouti in January and February to demand ouster of the incumbent president. In March small pro-democracy protests organized over the Internet were held in Luanda, Angola, but were broken up by security forces.

In Gabon, Nigeria and elsewhere, opposition leaders, trade unionists and other critics frequently spiced their public declarations with North African references, either to encourage their supporters or to frighten the authorities.

Echoes of the northern revolutions featured in several larger-scale movements. In late February students in the Burkina Faso city of Koudougou protested the death of a fellow student following police beatings, chanting "Tunisia is in Koudougou!" and "Burkina will have its Egypt!" Their actions spread nationally and contributed to a succession of labour strikes, merchants' demonstrations and army mutinies that began to wind down only in early June.

In Swaziland, online calls brought thousands of students and unionists out for pro-democracy rallies in various towns in April. Activists were motivated by long-standing local grievances, but also cited the inspiration of North Africa.

In Senegal, the government introduced parliamentary legislation that would have lowered the threshold for victory in next year's presidential election from more than 50 per cent in the first round to just 25 per cent. An alliance of civic organizations and opposition parties promptly organized large, boisterous protests in Dakar and other cities on 23 June. Within hours the president reversed his position and withdrew the bill. "This proves once again that the mobilization of the people is a formidable source of democracy," declared one opposition leader. "The African Spring will begin here in Senegal," said another.

Protesters in SwazilandProtesters in Swaziland, partly inspired by the North African revolutions, calling for political reforms in their Southern African kingdom.
Photograph: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko

Electoral alternatives

Despite such rhetoric, the events in Senegal point to a key difference from the political situation that prevailed in much of the Arab world. Senegal, like numerous other sub-Saharan countries, already has a functioning democratic system, and organized political forces ready to defend it. By contrast, the authoritarian rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries tried to dig in their heels against popular demands for democratic reform — and ended up provoking revolutionary responses.

Thanks to popular pro-democracy movements in the 1990s, most military and one-party regimes were pushed aside in sub-Saharan Africa. A big majority of states now have regular multiparty elections. A dozen presidential contests were held in 2010, and 17 are scheduled this year (see page 15). While some of these systems still fall far short of accepted democratic norms, in quite a few countries elections do offer alternative avenues for political change and expression of grievances. As a result, while citizens may still take inspiration from events in the north, they see less need for confrontational methods.

"For the most part in recent times, we Africans have taken our requests for democracy to the polls, not the streets," noted John Dramani Mahama, vice-president of Ghana, in a commentary about the Egyptian upsurge. Mr. Mahama added, however, that in some African countries elections have "not resulted in any real change. And ultimately, that is what sparks all revolutions: the urgent, non-negotiable need for sustainable change."

Fear of strife

A number of Africa's more authoritarian governments have shown repeatedly that they are willing to resort to severe repression to stave off challenges. Several reacted in alarm at the first hints that some of their citizens might draw encouragement from events elsewhere. In Zimbabwe, a former member of parliament and five others were charged with subversion after a meeting featured videos of protests in Tunisia and Egypt. A journalist in Ethiopia was threatened by police for commenting on North Africa.

In Malawi a lecturer was questioned for referring to the Egyptian uprising, while a number of demonstrators protesting high prices were killed by police in late July.

Under repressive conditions, public challenges can be very risky. And even if a government fails to halt them, the result may not necessarily be a democratic opening, some commentators have noted. There could be a descent into civil war, as happened in recent decades in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the Arab world itself, the spread of unrest from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria, Yemen and elsewhere has sometimes taken a more violent turn — and in Libya and Bahrain led to external intervention — tarnishing the initially peaceful image of the Arab Spring. "What we are witnessing in Libya is the more natural outcome of Africa's sectarian, violent and corrupt politics," Kenyan newspaper editor Charles Onyango-Obbo said. "What happened in Tunisia and Egypt now seems to have been a fluke."

He and others have pointed to Africa's highly diverse ethnic landscape as one factor that can feed into sectarian strife, with Ms. Maathai observing that in sub-Saharan Africa, "movements are extremely susceptible to hijack because of its internal diversity."

Job seekers waiting alongside a road in Cape Town, South AfricaJob seekers waiting alongside a road in Cape Town, South Africa: Inclusive economic growth and job creation must be priorities for all African countries.
Photograph: Reuters / Mike Hutchings

Overcoming hurdles

While fear and social divisions may complicate the development of reform movements, they are not insurmountable, analysts note. For years, many Arab countries were also marked by widespread fear, as well as by ethnic, religious, clan and other cleavages. But those divisions were bridged, at least for a time, during the height of the popular movements, just as they were in sub-Saharan Africa during the anti-colonial struggles and the pro-democracy movements of the 1990s.

Freer flows of information can help. Many reports on the northern revolutions noted how activists used social media and other online technologies to call and build support for protests (see Africa Renewal, April 2011). However, in sub-Saharan Africa, argues William Gumede, programme director of the Africa Asia Centre at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, access to the Internet and to social media is not as widespread. But Internet use is growing rapidly, especially through mobile technologies. "If a revolution is unlikely to arrive in most African countries south of the Sahara via the Internet," says Mr. Gumede, "it may arrive via the mobile phone."

Others argue that however helpful such technologies may be in speeding communications and frustrating censorship, the extent of civil organization may be more decisive. "The most significant political movements in Africa and in other places have occurred independently of social media — the struggles for independence, the struggles against apartheid and racism in Southern Africa," argues Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan political analyst at the University of Oxford. "Where people need or desire to be organized they will do [so] independently of the technology around them."

Nigerian blogger and social justice activist Sokari Ekine agrees. "The strength of trade unions and student movements," she says, can greatly affect "the willingness to persevere not for days, but for weeks on end."

'An urgent reminder'

Whatever the conditions in particular African countries, the underlying problems are not that different from those that contributed to the revolutions in the north, observers point out. People throughout Africa have similar grievances and aspirations.

The time for the continent's rulers to adapt is now, African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka told ministers of finance assembled in Addis Ababa in March. "Events in North Africa," he said, "are indeed an urgent reminder of the challenges of inclusive growth, of job creation, of opportunities for the young, of leaving no one behind." Despite the numerous advances of North African economies, he observed, recent growth did not create enough jobs, while "the predatory, dynastic nature of the state" hindered reform, led large sectors of the population to feel disenfranchised and ultimately sparked revolution.

Echoing that point two months later, the discussions at the AU summit in Malabo were organized around the theme of "accelerating youth empowerment for sustainable development." Noting that youth unemployment and feelings of marginalization contributed to the popular uprisings in North Africa, Mr. Ping, the AU Commission chair, urged governments to go beyond talk to enact "concrete measures" to meet the needs of African youth.

From the activist side, Ms. Maathai also advises the continent's leaders not to be slow in recognizing "the inevitability of change." Africans would much prefer to "have revolutions brought about by the ballot box in free and fair elections." But if that option does not become more widespread, "slowly but surely, even Africans south of the Sahara will shed their fear and confront their dictatorial leaders."