The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor in December 2010 triggered a wave of protests across Tunisia that brought down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and spread across North Africa and the Middle East. What western media dubbed the “Arab Spring”, toppled dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and sparked conflict in Syria and Bahrain. The aftershock was felt as far as Morocco, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Although reasons for the mass uprisings differ from one country to another, the Arab Spring occurred mostly because of rampant corruption in governments, rising unemployment and the many challenges of everyday survival: putting bread on the table, being able to afford fuel, clothing and even shelter. Politically, decades-long one-man rule had become unbearable and the prospect of familial succession provoked increasing public anger.
Many people had hoped that sub-Saharan Africa would follow suit, and that there would be an “African Spring”. To the surprise of many, there has been no revolution of any sort so far, or even a protest wave close to what we saw in Northern Africa.
Although we have similar circumstances – corruption, embezzlement of public property, unemployment, worsening economic hardship among citizens, and in some countries, overstayed regimes – why have we not had our “spring” as of yet?
Elections, succession and conflict resolution
The most important reason why there was no African Spring is that Africa south of the Sahara has experienced a fast-moving series of democratic transitions in the 1990s which saw the advent of multi-party democracy in some previously single-party regime countries such as the Ivory Coast, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola etc. In South Africa, apartheid had just ended.
This toned down the fervour of African revolutionaries in academia, politics and civil society. It provided hope that revolutionary transformation can happen through peaceful democratic processes which will guarantee the change and succession of governments. This eased revolutionary pressure and the need to remove regimes through protests and force.
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Now, in many African countries south of the Sahara there is a clear system and schedule of democratic elections and more open and inclusive parliamentary democracies where people have a chance to air their views compared to the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, for example.
Furthermore, a number of African countries have successfully conducted internal conflict resolution through negotiations, which has set a precedent and a trend. Two opposing sides would sit on a round-table and adopt some power-sharing mechanisms which would provide opportunities for peaceful reconciliation with a commitment to establishing a lasting democratic process.
We saw the signing of a deal between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga in Kenya, or what was termed a “power accord”, which ended post-election violence in Kenya after the December 2007 elections and created a coalition government. In Zimbabwe after the 2009 election, a government of national unity was also negotiated with the opposition. This style of negotiations and agreements between those in power and those in opposition has become the order of democracies in sub-Saharan Africa and is yet to be adopted by countries in North Africa.
Issues of mobilisation
Another major reason for an African Spring not happening is the absence of some factors for mass mobilisation. First, many countries in sub-Sahara Africa have a much smaller urban middle class than most of the countries in the Arab world where the Arab Spring was experienced.
As the middle class expands, its political and socio-economic ambitions grow as well. That is why the core of anti-regime protests is often the dissatisfaction of a middle class unable to realise its desires for upward mobility or expansion. Young men and women of middle class backgrounds tend to be more easily drawn into political activism and are more effective at it, given the material resources available to them.
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One of the key mobilisation tools of the middle class – technology – is also not so readily available in sub-Saharan Africa. The limited access to technology in most countries on the continent has made it difficult for modern communication channels like email, Listservs, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp to be used to share information and mobilise people for mass protests.
A major player in a number of the Arab revolutions was the army. In most countries in Africa south of the Sahara, the military and security establishments are loyal to the central government, which means that they are unlikely to back anti-government protests. Although the 1960s and 1970s saw many military coups and army officers taking over political power, in the past two decades, the military forces in sub-Saharan Africa have been, for the most part, depoliticised.
Another factor to consider is the rather weak civil society and fragmented political scene which has precluded the formation of a wide, united front against a ruling government in sub-Saharan Africa. In North Africa, civil society and opposition forces had been mobilising themselves well before the regimes were prepared to face mass protests; there were sporadic protests across Arab Spring countries well before 2011.
By contrast, most African countries have not seen organised protests with such frequency in the past decade. What is more, when Arab revolutions erupted, this immediately rang alarm bells across sub-Saharan Africa, where governments had the time to learn from Arab leaders’ mistakes and take measures to prepare for such an event.
Although looking back, no one predicted the Arab Spring, many scholars of the African political landscape find it inevitable. We did not witness an African Spring, but that does not mean we are safe.
We have our own generation of corrupt and autocratic leaders and bureaucrats, or what George Ayittey named the “Hippo Generation“. There are growing inequities, rising rates of unemployment, and an unbearable cost of living. We also have an active youth that constitutes a huge chunk of our population, as well as a rapidly expanding literate and urbanised middle class.
So will we have an African Spring in the very near future? Let us keep our fingers crossed that it never happens, and if it does, let us pray that it will take a peaceful course, lest we repeat the dark history of endless African wars.
Hamisi Kigwangalla is a Member of Parliament in the Parliament of Tanzania representing Nzega Constituency and he chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Regional Administration and Local Government. He is currently writing his dissertation towards a PhD in Public Health at the University of Cape Town. He holds a Doctor of Medicine (University of Dar es Salaam), a Master of Public Health (Karolinska Institutet) and a Master of Business Administration (Blekinge Institute of Technology).
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