Africa: Learning the hard lessons of Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was greeted with ambivalence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Muammar Gaddafi
Some African intellectuals and rulers were supportive of the late Colonel Gaddafi, writes the author [EPA]

Back in December 2010, no one was aware that the suicidal gesture of a young Tunisian street vendor would trigger a tidal wave of unprecedented popular uprisings in his country and others.

The media reverberations have shaken the whole planet. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the impact was more profound than in other continents. There was a spontaneous identification with the popular protests going on in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, etc. not only because of the geographical proximity, but also because of the many similarities as regards the socio-economic and political situations, and the deep-rooted links between the nations north and south of the Sahara.

A glimpse of hope for Africa?

Many Africans were saying in whispers: ‘If they can do it, why can’t we do it too?’

When demonstrators in Tahrir square, Habib Bourguiba avenue, or Al Mahkama square (Benghazi), shouted their anger against protracted dictatorship, resources plundering by ruling party members, the Head of State and the First Lady’s relatives, against sham elections, deterioration of health, education and public services, etc. many Africans felt they had been victims to the same evils for ages. Even those countries with a degree of political and media pluralism coupled with formal electoral competition, were not immune from that identification. Actually, the immediate and more pressing needs of the African populace is neither political pluralism nor fair and free elections, but primarily: decent conditions of living, equitable resource distribution, equality of citizens before the Law, and above all: jobs!

Joblessness, spiralling poverty and hopelessness are made more and more intolerable, in comparison to the unashamed luxurious life-style of the regimes’ cronies.

It was no surprise,then, to see demonstrations, albeit limited, erupting in a dozen of African countries, with open reference to the Arab Spring. Many Africans were saying in whispers: “If they can do it, why can’t we do it too?”

As for the African governments, there was a real sense of anguish and even fear. In Eritrea and other countries, media coverage of the popular protests was officially forbidden. In Zimbabwe activists were arrested for circulating videos of the Arab uprisings. In the republic of Chad, senior military officers and members of the parliament, some of them from the ruling party itself, have been imprisoned [Fr] for months, for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government through an “African Summer” inspired by the “Arab Spring”.

Those were the immediate reactions, but with time, things have evolved in different directions. Those “down under” (“ceux d’en bas“, in French) became concerned about the turn of events in the Arab Spring countries. Interrogations turned into disappointment, disappointment turned into suspicion and, sometimes, outright rejection. On the other hand, the authorities gained confidence about their ability to prevent, or at least circumscribe, any popular movement.

Fears and conspiracies

There are a number of reasons for that negative evolution, the more prominent ones being: the NATO military intervention in Libya, the political pre-eminence of Islamist political parties, the sudden rise of the Jihadist/armed groups in Northern Mali and Syria, and the armed forces interference with the political process in Egypt.

As for Libya, we should bear in mind that late Colonel Gaddafi had gone a long way to assert himself as the champion of African sovereignty and unity in the face of the West. Besides, many believed that the NATO military intervention went far beyond its no-fly zone mandate, and that the bloody showdown in Libya could have been avoided, had the members of the  UN Security Council given a chance to the African Union initiative for a negotiated post-Gaddafi transition.

People & Power – Libya’s Brigades

We must admit that some African intellectuals, particularly those with dogmatic conception of pan-Africanism, not so enthusiastic about any criticism against Gaddafi, tried to reinterpret the Arab Spring phenomenon in an exaggeratedly negative way. Some governmental circles had either encouraged  or directly got involved in the recruiting of mercenaries for the benefit of Gaddafi. They began rubbing their hands with glee, advocating that;  the brutal increase of security threats in Mali and in the Sahel-Sahara region at large, the persistence of militia groups in Libya, as well as the horrid scale of illegal immigration-related humanitarian disasters, are proof that the world without Gaddafi is far from being a better place.

Conspiracy theories started to flourish. For some, the popular movement has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaida organisations with help from Gulf countries. For others, the whole process should be reassessed as a Western scheme, secretly crafted years before the events, aiming at disorganising, if not directly destroying the concerned states, in order to weaken them.

If we add the complaints about the harassment of Sub-Saharan Africans by militia and security operatives in Libya and the mitigated attitude of the Algerian authorities towards the international military intervention against Jihadi groups in Northern Mali, we can assume that there is a serious misunderstanding between the Sub-Saharan Africans and their Arab “brothers”, and that the so much trumpeted Afro-Arab solidarity and cooperation might be seriously undermined.

The way forward

In order to avoid putting the long standing Afro-Arab relationship in jeopardy, the elites in both regions should rise to their historical responsibilities and bridge the gaps that start to take shape.

African democracy advocates must emphasise the most important lessons of the Arab Spring. That being; Bouazizi’s sacrifice and the social and political earthquake it has triggered, is proof that any autocratic regime, no matter how mighty and how bloody, can be defeated by poor, downtrodden, ordinary citizens. Furthermore, the spark thrown around by the heroic people of Tunisia, has not only burnt down the thrones of many a tyrant, but will reshape the whole course of history in the Arab world, in Africa and even in the whole globe; as did the storming of the Bastille prison, during the French revolution, which heralded the historical demise of absolutism and the rise of republics throughout Europe and beyond.

They must also, unequivocally, distantance  themselves from any attempt at depreciating the Arab Spring by instrumentalising the shortcomings and contradictions absolutely unavoidable in such a titanic and complex struggle as the one which the Arab peoples have been engaged in. These shortcomings would turn out as an invaluable gift, if we understand them as an opportunity for the rest of us to draw the real lessons from the mistakes that were made, avoid reproducing them in our countries, thus enabling us to shorten the long and rough road to liberty and dignity.

Arab democrats also should assume their share of the responsibility. They must keep in mind, and make their public opinions understand, that Africa is far from a homogeneous entity. Dictators, only concerned about their longevity in power perhaps even at the price of comprising Afro-Arab solidarity, should not be confused with the peoples. Narrow-minded chauvinists should not be confused with genuine patriots..

The challenges facing us are of the same nature; therefore, understanding and mutual support are central to the success of each of us.

Acheikh Ibn-Oumar is a former Chadian minister of foreign affairs and High Representative to the UN.