Protests in sub-Saharan Africa

It’s little noticed by the media, but popular unrest and electoral problems have roiled sub-Saharan Africa.

Ivory Coast protest

Beyond the gaze of the international media, popular unrest has swept across many countries in sub-Saharan Africa this year.

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While protests and unrest have taken place across the continent for different reasons, many of the grievances have revolved around issues around democratic rights, including freedom of association and expression as well as frustrations around poor service delivery and continued social and economic conditions.

The biggest stand-off took place in Ivory Coast, where incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down from power for months after Allasane Ouatarra won a run-off election. 

Gbagbo was finally arrested on April 11 after a lengthy standoff with Outarra’s supporters, aided by French and United Nations troops. 

Several other countries have had their share of  turmoil as well. 

In Benin, supporters of an opposition presidential candidate claim he was cheated out of a victory; in Gabon, thousands of protesters staged rallies against what they believe was a massive electoral fraud.

In Swaziland, ordinary people protested against the ruling monarchy in late July, while in September there were demonstrations Guinea as opposition rallied against Alpha Conde, the president, who is accused of mishandling legislative elections due to take place later in the year.

Click on a highlighted country in the map at right for more details about what’s happening there.

Note: This page focuses on recent unrest in sub-Saharan Africa. For Al Jazeera’s coverage of the unrest in North Africa – where uprisings have swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Algeria – check our Arab Awakening page.


Since mid-February, rumours had been circulating in the Angolan capital Luanda, of a possible North African style revolution against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos who has been in power for the past 32 years.

Rumours have been circulating of a popular
uprising against Jose Eduardo dos Santos,
Angola’s president [GALLO/GETTY]

But as activists organised and hatched plans online, Angola’s military police were quick to thwart any sign of demonstrations by prompt arrests of those involved in talking of an impending revolution.

Three journalists, a rapper known for inflammatory lyrics against the current president and 12 others were arrested in an overnight raid in early March. The protests planned for March 7 in Luanda’s May 1 Square were promptly postponed.

A Facebook page called “The Angolan People’s Revolution” had called on Angolans to march at midnight with posters “demanding the departure of Ze Du (Dos Santos’ nickname), his ministers and his corrupt friends.”

Many dismissed the anonymous call to protest as a charade.

Along with Nigeria, Angola is the continent’s largest producer of crude oil but the majority of its 18 million people continue living beneath the poverty line.

Moreover, life expectancy and infant mortality are among the worst ranked in the world, topping of lower socio-economic conditions, which journalists say, is rapidly breeding discontent.

Angola also ranked 44 out of 48 sub-Saharan countries, as a result of poor participation and human rights and human development in the Ibrahim Index of African governance, one of the leading assessments of governance on the African continent.

At the same time, the 2008 elections saw more than 80 per cent of the electorate voting the new presidential party into office in the first elections since the end of its 27-year civil war in 2002.

The new constitution, confirmed in 2010 has cultivated an authoritarian character to the political system that has created new concerns.

Selecting the president and vice president will now be determined by the party that performs the strongest in parliamentary elections.

Experts say Angola shares many of the economic and social issues that sparked uprisings in several north African countries. But an uprising – so soon after the civil war ended, is highly unlikely.

Chad has also been calmer, even as opposition candidates boycott presidential elections in April, in what they condemn as a “election circus”.


It is being compared to the current impasse in Ivory Coast; a crisis borne from an election that both parties claimed to have won, and it is not hard to see why.

Supporters of presidential candidate Houngbedji refuse to accept the results of the 2011 poll  [EPA]

Benin is currently experiencing growing unrest over the re-election of Boni Yayi for a second term following presidential elections on March 13. Yayi has been in office since 2006.

Supporters of opposition candidate Adrien Houngbedji claim their candidate was cheated into losing the election. They claim that voters were denied the chance to cast their ballot and that the electoral commission received unsealed ballot boxes from polling stations.

Houngbedji polled 36 per cent of the vote while Yayi secured 53 per cent of votes cast.

Despite the claims of irregularities, the constitutional court confirmed the election result on March 30.

Moreover, ECOWAS, West Africa’s regional block, said Benin’s presidential election was mostly free and transparent. And ECOWAS chairperson, Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president, urged citizens of Benin to accept the results and if aggrieved, to persue the matter through the legal route.

“But I would expect that in this case, there should be no grievances. But people have to obey the laws,” he reportedly said.

Despite the constitutional court ruling, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Cotonou, the commercial capital, at the beginning of April, alleging electoral fraud. Police used tear gas and batons to break up the protests.

But with Houngbedji insisting that he will not accept the election results, there are fears of further violence in the small west African country.

The chaos and confusion during the run up to the poll have not helped. That the election was initially postponed and electoral rolls were incomplete have sown seeds of suspicion, though actual voting on March 13 passed without any major incident.

Benin has had a history of peaceful polls and smooth transitions of power between ruling and opposition parties. But the current tensions, coming amid mass instability in the region, have many worried.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso’s president appointed a new prime minister following days of riots and protests involving soldiers, police and students in the West African country in February.

Luc-Adolphe Tiao, Burkina Faso’s ambassdor to France, was named as prime minister late on Monday, three days after his predecessor, Tertius Zongo, was dismissed by president Blaise Compaore.

Earlier, Burkina Faso’s state TV said students had burned down the ruling party headquarters and the prime minister’s house in the central city of Koudougou, according to the Associated Press.

In the northern town of Kaya, soldiers and paramilitary police fired shots in the air, torched the home of an army regiment chief and ransacked that of a regional officer, residents told the AFP news agency by telephone.

The incidents follow a mutiny by soldiers that started in the capital, Ouagadougou, and spread north and east.

Ivory Coast

It is a crisis that started at the end of November when Allasane Ouattara won the presidential run-off election, but incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to vacate office.

Click for Al Jazeera’s special coverage on the crisis

Following the election certified by the UN as free and fair, and meant to mark the end of a peace process that began at the end of the civil war in 2003, Gbagbo had the results changed in his favour, while Ouatarra declared himself president and barricaded himself in a hotel in Abidjan.

Clashes between rival supporters began spreading across the country as ordinary Ivorians came out onto the streets to show their support for their respective leaders.

The odds were stacked against Ouattara since Gbagbo controlled state television, the ports and the army. But he got a boost when former rebels (Forces Nouvelles de Côte d’Ivoire) took up his cause in a bid to remove Gbagbo from power.

The AU sent delegation after delegation to negotiate between the warring sides, but both sides refused to budge.

The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) suspended Ivory Coast from all decision making bodies and issued an ultimatum threatening intervention if Gbagbo did not step down.

The violence continued over December and January and reached a crescendo in late February and March when clashes between the two sides intensified, pushing Ivory Coast on the brink of another civil war.

With hundreds of ordinary Ivorians caught in crossfire and hundreds of thousands internally displaced and more than 70,000 fleeing to neighbouring Liberia and Ghana, the situation in March was fast sliding into a humanitarian disaster of mammoth proportions.

Under a UN mandate (resolution 1975), French forces launched an offensive against Gbagbo in early April in an attempt to reduce civilian casulties. The airport was taken over, military camps were bombed and Gbagbo spent the first two weeks of April in a bunker under his residence.

Gbagbo was eventually arrested on April 10, and taken to Ouattara’s headquarters where his fate is yet to be decided.

Meanwhile, Ouattara is due to take up office, but with stark divisions between Gbagbo-supported south and Ouattara-supported north still unresolved, it is unclear if the battle is over just yet.

Moreover, with forces belonging to both Gbagbo and Ouattara accused of gross human rights violations, following the discovery of mass murders in a number of towns across the country, it is still unclear if the new president will be held accountable, and how this might affect the transition of power over the next months.


Though mostly ignored by the media, Djibouti witnessed protests between January and March that some say are part of the ongoing revolutionary protests taking place in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Voters went to the polls in the tiny Horn of Africa state on April 8, 2011 [AFP]

Though the current president Ismail Omar Guelleh has only been in office for the past 11 years, his move to amend the constitution, facilitating a third term raised the ire of many.

Guelleh’s People’s Rally for Progress party has ruled since independence in 1977.

Protests began on January 28 when hundreds demonstrated against the president in Djibouti City.

When protests moved to a stadium on February 18, thousands of demonstrators demanded that Guelleh step down. They were met by security forces wielding batons and firing tear gas.

Clashes intensified thereafter between anti-government protesters and security forces, resulting in at least one death.

Protest leaders were promptly arrested, though opposition leaders from the UDA, the Djibouti Party for Development, the Union for a Democratic Movement and the Movement for Democratic Renewal were released later.

The opposition movement is said to have lost momentum after leaders failed to turn up for a meeting on February 24 in preparation for a mass protest the next day.

Renewed attempts to stage protests in March were also foiled by the security forces.

Guelleh won a fresh term in presidential election held on April 6. He defeated Mohamed Ali Wersama, an independent candidate backed by the opposition.


The small West African country of Gabon with just 1.4 million people experienced a tide of protests in January and February when allegations of fraud regarding the October 2009 elections resurfaced.

Opponents of President Ondimba accuse him of electoral fraud in the 2009 elections [EPA]

Opposition supporters organised rallies against President Ali Bhongo Ondimba, accusing him of claiming a victory that was laced with fraud. Opposition leaders formed a breakaway government on January 26, and Anre Mba Obame, an opposition candidate, declared himself president.

Thousands took the streets in Libreville, and faced ferocious suppression from the armed forces. Nevertheless, protests spread across the country.

Also fuelling resentment was a documentary by Michel de Bonnecorse, the former chief of the African Division of the French Presidential Office, that aired in early 2010.

The documentary claimed: “We have information that Obame got 42 per cent and Ali Bhongo 37 per cent, and that the results were practically inverted.”

Meanwhile, Bhongo amended the constitution in late 2010, that allowed him to extend his presidential term indefinitely in times of emergency rule.

With thousands protesting, early February saw two governments existing in Gabon, with the claimant Obame seeking refuge in UN offices for almost two weeks.

But by mid-February, the Bhongo administration was able to shut down the opposition government and security forces had suppressed most of the protests.

Though Gabon had tried to develop a strong sense of multi-party democracy from the early 1990s, it is difficult for observers to forget that before Ali Bhongo took over in 2009, his father, Omar Bhongo, had ruled the country for 42 years. It remains till date the longest reign by a non-monarch the world over.


Civil society groups in Malawi called for a series of demonstrations across the country beginning on July 20, 2011, in protest against high fuel prices and general mismanagement of the economy.

Mutharika has also been under pressure to solve a diplomatic dispute with the UK [AFP]

The protests were organised by the Human Rights Consultative Committee, a collection of more than 80 rights groups. Demonstrations took place in Lilongwe, the capital, and the commercial centre Blantyre as well as in the northern cities of Karonga and Mzuzu.

The protests turned violent and participants resorted to looting and rioting, when police tried to disperse the crowds reportedly using tear gas and live ammunition.

At least 18 people were killed and 41 others were injured over the two days of violence.

Malawi has been suffering a series of shortages since 2009, and on July 14, the UK withdew “general budget support” after failing to address concerns over its economic management and governance.

The opposition has denounced Bingu wa Mutharika, the Malawian president, for failing to smooth over the diplomatic row with the UK. Both countries have since withdrawn their ambassadors.

On Thursday 21 July, Mutharika called for calm amid the unrest spreading across the country.

“Stop the rioting and let’s sit down to discuss,” he said in on state radio broadcast. I have a responsibility, based on the powers vested in me by the constitution to bring law and order.”


Ruled by one party, Frelimo, since gaining independence in 1975, Mozambique witnessed a fresh bout of police brutality on April 6 when the Rapid Intervention Force, a branch of the police, cracked down on a group of demonstrators protesting against exploitation by their employer.

The scale of the police brutality was shocking and can be gauged from this video posted on YouTube.

One protester succumbed to his injuries later, while many others were badly injured., quoting independent television station, STV, said the injured were taken to detention centre instead of hospital.

The protesters alleged that their employer, the Group Four Security – the world’s biggest security company – resorted to arbitrary deductions from their salaries and withheld payment of holiday bonuses and overtime.

The Liga Moçambicana de Direitos Humanos [Human Rights League] in a statement demanded investigation into the shocking incident and the firing of General Binda, the commander of the Rapid Intervention Force.

But the police brutality on display was not new in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

In September last year, at least 13 people were killed and more than 500 injured after the police opened fire on protesters during violence over steep increase in food prices. Subsequently, the government was forced to reverse the hike in bread price.

The periodic eruption of violence is blamed on grinding poverty, high unemployment and rising frustration.

In recent years Mozambique has seen a rapid economic growth but the vast majority of its population still lives below the poverty line. According to World Bank estimates more than half of country’s people live in poverty.

Eric Charas, the owner of one of Mozambique’s largest newspapers,  spoke to Al-Jazeera about recent police brutality against protesters, government pressure on the media and the overall human rights situation in Mozambique. To read the interview click here.


Protests broke out in Dakar, the capital, on 23 June over proposed changes to the constitution which demonstrators argue would allow Abdoulaye Wade, the existing president, to retain power in elections in early 2012.

Thousands chanted “Leave Wade” and “Don’t touch my constitution” and police reportedly used water cannons and fired tear gas as the peaceful protests plunged into clashes between protesters and the police. It was reported that the protests were the biggest and most threatening in Wade’s 11-year presidential rule.

The proposed changes mean that the president would require just 25 per cent of the ballots to win the first round of votes in February 2012, as opposed to 50 per cent as per required by the existing law. Effectively, the 85-year old Wade would be able avoid a second round of voting with a smaller margin needed to obtain a majority and hence avoid a run-off. Reports also emerged that Wade sought to secure the presidency in an attempt to warm the post for his son, Karim to take over from his aging father.

Karim holds multiple ministerial positions – heading up the Ministeries of Energy, Infrastructure, transport and international cooperation. However, Karim has since denied these allegations that he is being groomed for the presidency.

The bill was initially adopted by the ministerial cabinet but was immediately condemned by civil society and opposition parties.

Protesters victorious

Following the protests of June 23, Wade abandoned the proposal, signaling a victory against Wade’s attempt to consolidate power.

A week later though, on 28 June, protesters burned buildings in the capital and in the southern city of Mbour as a new spate of protests began in response to extended power cuts in the country. Government buildings were set on fire as thousands descended on to the streets in the capital to vent their frustrations with poor service delivery and the high cost of living.

Wade has suffered criticism over the past few years for failing to tackle poverty and larger socio-economic issues and the victory in the protests a week earlier is said to have given further impetus for change.

A month later, on 23 July, both supporters and opponents of the president took to the streets in a pair of major rallies in the capital.

Anti-government protesters claimed that the president’s attempt to run for a third term was unconstitutional since a two-term limitation has been placed back in 2001. Wade’s supporters countered that there had been no limit when he took over the presidency in 2000, and therefore the new rule did not apply to his first term.

On 26 July, a youth group “Y’en a Marre” or “We’re fed up” urged supporters on Facebook to protest in Dakar after a rapper and activist Omar Toure, was arrested and detained a night earlier, for allegedly describing the president a ‘liar’ and “too old to govern’. The group, made up of artists and journalists have also urged the youth to register to vote. Though civil society are adamant that Wade should not run for a third term, opposition parties are fractured and experts say it is difficult to see a united front challenging Wade in the forthcoming elections.


Hundreds of people took to the streets in Swaziland protesting against poor governance which has led to a shortage of essential medical supplies in sub-Saharan Africa’s sole absolute monarchy.

More than 500 people demonstrated in Mbabane, the capital, on July 27 while nearly 1,000 protested in the western town of Siteki.

AIDS groups warned of an imminent shortage of anti-retroviral drugs in a country where a quarter of the people between the ages of 15 and 49 are believed to carry HIV.

The protests followed those staged in April against the rule of King Mswati III, who has ruled the small landlocked southern African country for 25 years.

Protesters in Swaziland have been angered by the alleged use of public funds to finance the ruling family’s lavish lifestyle [Reuters]

In March, efforts to cut salaries of civil servants sparked the biggest protests seen in the country.

Barnabas Dlamini, Mswati’s prime minister, had declared the April protests illegal.

“This then renders the protest illegal. We do not therefore expect any individual to participate in any such proposed protest action,” he said.

“Government accordingly strongly warns those organising and intending to participate in the protest action to refrain from doing so and continue with their normal day-to-day business,” Dlamini said in a statement.

The protesters say their key goals include ending the monarchy and introducing a multi-party democratic government. Political parties have been banned in Swaziland for 38 years.

Swaziland, with a population of around 1.2 million, is dominated by the service and agricultural sector. More than 60 per cent of the population earn less than $2 a day.

The country is said to have one of the highest HIV rates in the world, which has undermined economic growth and social stability.

Despite gaining independence in 1968, Swaziland is an absolute monarchy with King Mswati’s lifestyle often described as being grossly disconnected from his people.

In preparation for previous marches, security was significantly beefed up at the border with South Africa, and there were roadblocks on highways. Several activists were reportedly arrested.

Student and union leaders had vowed to go ahead with the demonstrations, arguing that that they did not need to seek permission for the marches after winning mass approval for the demonstration.


Uganda became the latest nation to be hit by the wave of protests sweeping across the continent with the country’s leading opposition figure taking part in a march on April 11. It was organised by a pressure group calling itself Activists for Change (A4C) amid rising food and fuel prices.

 Kizza Besigye had threatened to stage Egypt-style protests if the February 18 election was rigged [Reuters]

The march, called “walk-to-work”, was aimed at highlighting the plight of ordinary Ugandans, who could not afford fares and had to walk to work.

Kizza Besigye, who came in a distant second in the February presidential election and had threatened to stage Egypt-style protests if the election was rigged, said he was only answering the call by A4C to take part in the protest and that he had the right to do so.

His own party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), had nothing to do with the march, Besigye said.

Apparently the government feared Besigye’s popularity in Kampala, the capital, and discontent over high food and fuel prices would encourage people to join him and spark a wider protest.

Police acted swiftly and arrested Besigye before releasing him a day after.

Other opposition politicians, one of whom was a presidential candidate in the February elections, were also arrested by security forces but were freed.

On April 14 protests broke out in different parts of Kampala and the wesbite of the New Vision, Uganda’s leading semi-official newspaper, carried a picture of Besigye with his right hand in a bandage after he was hit by a rubber bullet. A woman was also shot and seriously injured in Kajjansi, 16km southwest of Kampala.

Besigye, who has lost to president Yoweri Museveni in three elections, has been accused by critics of seeking political capital by blaming high fuel and food prices – caused by the conflict in Libya and the recent drought – on the government instead.

A reader’s letter in one national newspaper pointed out that Besigye did not cut fuel prices at his own filling station in Kampala and yet he was protesting.

But he said Ugandans “can no longer afford to have even one meal a day” and are “walking from homes to town every day”.

“We are just trying to walk with them in solidarity. They are already walking anyway,” Daily Monitor quoted him as saying.

President Museveni, who has been in power for 25 years, has maintained a firm grip on power and banned political parties for 19 years.

In 2005 the ban was lifted, but parliament – where his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) enjoys a majority – removed term limits, paving the way for him to run for president as many time as he wants.

Urban middle class dwellers are angry at runaway corruption, which reaches ministerial level, and poor delivery of social services and high unemployment.

The crackdown on protesters is likely to intensify as the government is apprehensive of an Egypt-style protest that Besigye would be happy to see going from strength to strength.


Zimbabwe continues to be eventful as it has been for the past decade. The shaky coalition between Robert Mugabe (Zanu-PF), Morgan Tsvangarai (MDC-T) and Arthur Mutambara (MDC-M) that was arranged in 2009 is scheduled to end this year, but observers are not sure whether elections will take place later this year without hindrance.

Zimbabwean president Mugabe has been seen to have largely sidelined his political rivals after a 2008 power sharing deal [GALLO/GETTY]

For most, Mugabe is seen to have usurped the coalition government, and marginalised his rivals in the power sharing agreement.

By no means has the power sharing agreement meant civility between the leaders, nor has it opened the playing field to more political freedom or freedom of expression, as events of the past few months have illustrated.

It is little wonder that the revolutions in North Africa have inspired a generation of activists into engineering new modes of solidarity and envisioning a brighter future using the Internet. Since February, Zimbabwe has already seen a spurt in online activism and subsequent state repression.

On February 19, police arrested 46 people on charges of treason, in Harare, as they watched videos of protests in Egypt and Tunisia and discussed possible demonstrations in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has been in power for 31 years.

On March 16, Samuel Kudya, a high court judge, released six of the 40 arrested, with bail of $2,000 each. Kudya said that though the accused faced treason charges, even possible execution if convicted, the case against them appeared very weak.

“I see no iota of evidence that any Zimbabwean ever contemplated any Tunisian- or Egyptian (style) revolution,” he said in his bail ruling.

Earlier in March, a Facebook group tried to organise a mass demonstration that was largely unsuccessful.

Not only has the security regime targeted Facebook activists, several leading opposition figures and MPs including Elton Mangoma, the energy and power development minister, have been arrested.

Observers say that Mugabe’s bullying tactics of opposition ministers and political activists are an attempt to bring down the coalition and force early elections before a new constitution is devised and a road map for political transition is drawn out that would level the playing field.

It is a given that the Zimbabwean security forces back Mugabe and opposition supporters say that only a regional or UN sanctioned observer mission might be able to save the coalition and ensure that the constitutional review takes place before elections.

Source: Al Jazeera