Burkina Faso, African leaders and ‘sit-tightism’

Welcome to the age of the citizen uprising in Africa.

Instability has plagued the continent over the last five decades, writes Ogunlesi [Getty]

When, earlier this week, Zambian President Michael Sata died in London aged 77 – making him the 11th serving African head of state to die since 2008 – an old question resurfaced in social media circles: Why do so many African leaders die in office?

Now, with the happenings in the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso, another question has emerged: Why do African leaders like clinging to power?

While “sit-tightism” is not an exclusively African condition, the list of longest-ruling heads of state is dominated by Africans: Cameroon’s Paul Biya (39 years) followed closely by Angola and Equitorial Guinea and Angola (35), Robert Mugabe (34). Blaise Campaore, until this week Burkina Faso’s president, has ruled since 1987 (three-quarters of his people have never known another leader).

A possible answer may be gleaned from a man who should know: former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who tried, in the final year of his presidency, to get the constitution changed so he could run for a third term, told the BBC in 2012 that African leaders cling to power because of the “fear of the unknown”.

Perks of power

Political power in Africa is generally characterised by the capacity to dispense patronage and sanction without the interference of institutional safeguards like an independent judiciary, and the fear of the loss of that power – its perks, and the ability to deter retribution from opponents – is a strong one.

Burkina Faso: Coup or not a coup?

“If I try to exercise about 40 per cent of the powers that I have, Nigerians will say I am a dictator. When African presidents try to use about 60 per cent of their powers, the whole world will complain that they are dictators,” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said, in a televised chat with journalists in May.

The attractiveness of the presidential office should explain much of the instability – coups and civil wars, all aimed at seizing power – that has plagued the continent over the last five decades. According to one study by the African Development Bank, there were more than 200 coup attempts in sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 2012. West Africa alone accounted for more than half of the attempts.

But, as that AfDB study also points out, coups have been going out of fashion in recent years, for a number of reasons. Where once it was the armed forces or rebel groups that regularly sought to undermine governments, we are now more likely to see bands of ordinary citizens entering the fray, and seeing results.

Since the beginnings of the Arab Spring – the unprecedented 2011 uprisings that brought down the governments of Ben Ali (Tunisia), Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) and Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), three of Africa’s longest serving and most repressive heads of state – a culture of citizen protests appears to be sweeping the continent. Welcome to the age of the citizen uprising.

The year 2012 opened with nationwide protests in Nigeria, on a scale not seen in at least two decades, against the removal of fuel subsidies. About the same time, tens of thousands of youths took to the streets in Senegal, to challenge President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid to run for a third term, in defiance of constitutional limits. (He went ahead to run, losing in the run-off polls to opposition candidate Micky Sall).

‘Sudanese Spring’

In September 2013, Sudan, ruled by the same man since 1985, witnessed ten days of violent protests. Triggered in part by a reduction in fuel subsidies (but also the effect of an accumulation of grievances against a dictatorial regime) they brought tens of thousands of young Sudanese onto the streets. The “Sudanese Spring” was eventually crushed, human rights groups put the ensuing death toll at more than 200.

Regardless of the ambitions, or whether they end successful or not, this culture of mass protests suggest that ordinary Africans are increasing realising the power they have to mobilise against the excesses of their governments.

In all of this, the effect of modern communication technologies has to be acknowledged. The ubiquity of mobile phones and the Internet on the continent (Africa is the world’s fastest growing mobile phone market) has played a key role in raising levels of political and civic awareness in recent years. By bringing Africans in contact with the increasingly-prospering-and-politically-empowered rest-of-the-world, these mobile phones and internet connections serve to not only exacerbate age-old frustrations (arising from persisting unemployment and poverty), but also provide models for reaction.

A clear line of influence may indeed be drawn from the leveraging role of social media in Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election to the efforts by young Nigerians to deploy social media in the 2011 general elections, and from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the Gani Fawehinmi Memorial Park in Lagos (where tens of thousands of Nigerians gathered daily for one week in January 2012, before the government deployed soldiers to take it over). And perhaps even from the shiny glass streets of Hong Kong, only recently emptied of protesters, to the dusty ones of Ouagadougou.

The circumstances in each country will be different, as will the motivations for protest. But underlying them all will be a desire by citizens (mostly young) to register strident displeasure, in a continent in which, until fairly recently, it would have been unthinkable without joining the army or a militia, or clamouring from the safety of exile.

Until Africa’s leaders start to demonstrate respect for their citizens by respecting term limits, and refraining from manipulating the electoral process, and showing greater accountability in the management of resources – the continent will continue to dance on the edge of youth uprising.

This is not the first time that Burkinabes will be taking to the streets against Campaore; previous attempts were all put down. This eventual success will no doubt inspire others elsewhere to keep trying. 

Tolu Ogunlesi is an award-winning poet and author. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, and Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly, among others.