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In south of the Sahara, echoes of the northern revolutions

In south of the Sahara, echoes of the northern revolutions

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 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.

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.”

In June, while hailing the changes in Tunisia and Egypt as a “new advance” in Africa’s decades-long march towards democracy, Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union Commission urged all African governments to see “the popular uprisings” as an occasion to recommit themselves to the AU’s democracy agenda. In March, just months before she died, Kenyan human rights activist Wangari Maathai declared, “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. Thousands demonstrated in Djibouti to demand ouster of the incumbent president. 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.

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. 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.”

Yet, 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. 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.

From the activist side, Ms. Maathai also advised 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.”

Ernest Harsch, UN Africa Renewal in collaboration with Sierra Express Media

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