As protests against authoritarian rule spread throughout north Africa and the Middle East, I’ve been asked whether similar pro-democracy protests could take place in sub-Saharan Africa too.
At first glance, the conditions appear ripe. Many sub-Saharan Africans also struggle daily with the consequences of poor governance, stagnating economies and dehumanising poverty, and rampant violations of human rights.
It’s difficult for an outsider to know the local reasons why people in any society finally decide they’ve had enough of their leaders and rise up against them. It’s also dangerous to assume that revolutions occurring simultaneously have the same root causes. But certain factors do help explain the volatility in north Africa and the relative quiet to the south – and why that may not persist indefinitely. The first is the idea of the nation itself, along with regional identity. Because the great majority of peoples of north Africa and the Middle East are Arabs, their ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural connections provide a degree of solidarity within and across national boundaries. The majority think less along ethnic and more along lines of national identity. Al-Jazeera provides a wealth of information in the region’s common language, Arabic, and allows one country’s news to reach a broad regional swathe practically instantaneously.
Many in the younger generation are well-educated professionals, eager to make their voices heard. And in Tahrir Square, we heard the protesters chant: “We are all Egyptians,” no matter where they came from in Egypt, their social status, or even their religion (Egypt has a small but significant population of Coptic Christians). That sense of national identity was essential to their success. But that national spirit, sadly, is lacking in much of sub-Saharan Africa. For decades, under colonial rule and since independence, many leaders have exploited their peoples’ ethnic rivalries and linguistic differences to sow division and maintain their ethnic group’s hold on power and the country’s purse strings. To this day, in many such states, ethnicity has greater resonance than national identity.
Instead of encouraging inter-ethnic understanding and solidarity, leaders have set communities against each other in a struggle for resources and power, making it difficult for citizens to join together for the national interest.
A second factor is the role of the military. The Egyptian army’s decision not to fire on protesters was key to the success of the February revolution. Sadly, we couldn’t expect the same in sub-Saharan Africa, where in many – if not most – nations both police and army are sources of instability and rancour. Quite often soldiers are hired, paid and promoted by the man in power. As a result, their first loyalty is not to the nation, but to whomever is in the state house.
In addition, the majority of the army’s recruits may be drawn from the leader’s ethnic group, especially if the leader has been in power for many years. Since it isn’t likely that the soldiers’ micro-nation (tribe) would be demonstrating in the streets, it can be relatively easy for them to open fire on protesters with a certain sense of impunity.
More tragic evidence of this was provided last week when unarmed women expressing their opinion about the disputed election in Ivory Coast were mown down by troops loyal to the incumbent president. Not only was this a clear violation of human rights, but evidence of recklessness and impunity, and the extreme lengths to which leaders will go to protect their power.
A third factor is the flow of information. North Africans’ geographic proximity to Europe and the ability of significant numbers to travel or study abroad have exposed them to other influences and horizons. Many have access to the latest technology and the wherewithal to use social media to communicate and organise to great effect.
But the large majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to the same levels of education, or information and technology. It may be that their media are controlled by the state, or independent voices are so worried about being harassed or shut down that they censor themselves or shy away from politics altogether. These constraints make it difficult for ordinary citizens to understand how their governments operate, and less able to calibrate the power of a united and determined people.
Finally, oor people tend to tolerate poor governance and fear both their perceived lack of power and their leaders. This year in north Africa enough people shed their fear of losing jobs and property, of reprisals, detention, torture and even death. Until a critical mass does the same, it’s unlikely sub-Saharan Africa will emulate the kind of “people power” we’ve seen in the north.
Even so, many sub-Saharan leaders must be paying close attention and asking themselves: “Could it happen here – my people rising up against me?” Some will make changes, perhaps cosmetic, to appease their populations; others may take bigger steps. One lesson I hope all will draw is that it’s better to leave office respected for working for what they believed was the common good, rather than risk being driven out, repudiated and humiliated, by their own people.
Even though internet-organised pro-democracy protests earlier this week in Luanda, Angola’s capital, were broken up by security forces and the protesters threatened with harsh reprisals by a senior member of the ruling party – tactics we have seen used in numerous African regimes over the years – the truth is that people are not rising up without reason. They are unhappy with how they are being governed and have tried others methods to bring about change that haven’t worked.
A wind is blowing. It is heading south, and won’t be suppressed forever. In Ivory Coast, despite last week’s brutal attack, on the eve of International Women’s Day hundreds of women marched to the spot where their colleagues were killed, a clear demonstration that, slowly but surely, even Africans south of the Sahara will shed their fear and confront their dictatorial leaders. The women’s bravery will be an inspiration to others in Africa and elsewhere.
Eventually the information gap in sub-Saharan Africa will be bridged, partly because the world is not closed anymore: al-Jazeera, CNN and mobile phones – all available in sub-Saharan Africa – mean information can be transferred instantly. There is no doubt that those in the south are watching what’s happening in the north.
I also hope that the extraordinary events in the north encourage all leaders to provide the governance, development, equity and equality, and respect for human rights their people deserve – and to end the culture of impunity. If its member states are slow to recognise the inevitability of change, let us hope that the African Union encourages heads of state to acknowledge that Africa cannot remain an island where leaders continue in office for decades, depriving their people of their rights, violating their freedoms, and impoverishing them.
In conflict and war, Africa and all its peoples lose. It would be so much better to see Africa awake and have revolutions brought about by the ballot box in free and fair elections, instead of by tanks and bullets.
By Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement.