The news of late has been awash with images from the popular uprisings that have been taking place across North Africa and the Middle East, starting with the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia with the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Friday, January 14th after more than 23 years in power. The success of the grass-roots protest movement in this small North African nation (population: 10 million) inspired similar demonstrations in the much larger and more influential Egypt (population: 80 million), leading to the resignation of another long-standing president, Hosni Mubarak, on Friday, February 11th.
These inspiring democratic uprisings have spawned unrest in other countries across the Arab world, from Bahrain in the Gulf to Yemen in the south and, most recently and violently, to Libya, an autocratically ruled oil-exporter sandwiched between Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. Could we – should we – brace ourselves for similar movements south of the Sahara, in black Africa? That’s a difficult and contentious question to answer, but I would like to at least explore it here, and solicit feedback from my readers.
Firstly, is it even a legitimate question to ask? While the recent successful revolts have occurred on the African continent, they are arguably much more an Arab phenomenon than an African phenomenon. We should not underestimate the interconnectedness of the Arab world, from the Maghreb in the west to the Gulf in the east, which is glued together through linguistic and cultural ties as well as political and economic institutions such as the Arab League. All of the countries touched by the recent revolutionary fervor have been Arab countries (save for Iran), and the furthest south the protests have strayed into Sub-Saharan territory are Sudan and Djibouti, both Arab League countries with large Muslim and Arabic-speaking populations.
But that is not to say that non-Arab Africa is (or will remain) untouched. In Harare, Zimbabwe last Saturday, a group of citizens including students, activists, and trade union members gathered for a lecture entitled, “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?” The meeting was raided by police, who detained 46 people and seized their audiovisual equipment. The Zimbabwean government has been attempting to censor all news information from Tunisia and Egypt, but social media has enabled it to filter through.
Similarly, in Uganda, the long-standing president Yoweri Museveni – who was recently “re-elected” in questionable elections last Friday, February 18th – has said in response to his opposition’s call for Egyptian-style protests, “I’ll put in jail anyone who tries to spark an Egyptian-style protest.” The potential protest ingredients are there in Uganda. Like its predecessors, it has significant joblessness and poverty, a large mass of Facebook-connected youth, and a 15-year-standing president who has over stayed his welcome.
But many political analysts and news correspondents view a southern spread of revolutions to Sub-Saharan Africa as unlikely. Phil Clark of the School of Oriental and African Studies cites two main reasons. Firstly, many Sub-Saharan African countries are much more ethnically divided (and to this I can add linguistically divided), making the relatively homogenous mass movements of Tunisia and Egypt less possible (although protests have also occurred in Yemen and Sudan, both ethnically divided countries, and likewise tribalism is an issue Libya). Secondly, many African dictators and autocrats can count on the loyalty of their military, which have been built up from their own personal ethnic group and whose loyalty has been bought off over years of corruption. That makes citizens genuinely and legitimately afraid of their own military – a Zimbabwean can expect to be shot at if he/she protests.
Today, Friday, protests have been re-ignited across the Arab world to express solidarity with the people of Libya, who are at this very moment marching in the tens of thousands toward Green Square. Let’s hope that the citizens of the rest of Africa are listening and following this most recent wave of freedom, and that their undemocratic rulers are watching with fear.