Whither the “African Spring”?

“I will eat them like samosas.”

 – Yoweri Museveni describing how he would deal with an Arab Spring-style demonstrators.

Recently, I saw a couple of posts on Facebook encouraging the people of Zimbabwe to rise up against the regime of Robert Mugabe.  That’s great, it really is.  But, if you are serious about encouraging Zimbabweans to rise up against Mugabe, don’t send Facebook posts; send money.  Send guns and people who know how to use them.  Send journalists to document the regime’s abuses and then send NATO air superiority.  But why stop at Zimbabwe.  Why not encourage the peoples of Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Gabon, Sudan, Uganda, Burkina Faso or Chad to rise up against their oppressive regimes.  You won’t run out of dictators in African to overthrow any time soon.

So, maybe the question should be, why, in the face of the successes of the Arab Spring, have we not seen an African Spring?  Well, who says we haven’t?  There have been popular revolutions recently in Madagascar when Adriy Rajoelina street protests ousted the Ravalomana regime and in Cote d’Ivoire, following the stolen elections, the true winner, Alassane Outtarra’s forces (with the support of French troops – see the Libya connection) ousted Laurent Gbagbo’s regime. That’s two examples and in Uganda we see the gathering storm created by the Walk to Work campaign, despite Yoweri Museveni’s recent re-election as president with support of nearly three-quarters of the electorate. The Madagascar and Cote d’Ivoire actions preceded the Arab Spring, but much like the unsuccessful Green Revolution in Iran (and the earlier, successful Cedar Revolution in Lebanon), these popular uprisings have demonstrated to the populations under oppressive regimes that popular movement can galvanize the opposition and possible create change.  But the wave of protest and change that has swept North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco) and Syria has not sparked a similar movement across sub-Saharan Africa.

I’d like to pose a few reasons why we have not seen an African Spring (or at least one recognized as such).  I’m sure that we will see several dissertations on this subject over the next few years but let me take an initial bloggy stab.  Specifically, I am interested on the barriers to the kind of mass mobilization that would spark a popular revolution as we saw in North Africa. Here, in no particular order, are nine candidates (I tried for ten, but ran short):

1. Election violence

In 2007, the presidential elections in Kenya were marred by (correct) accusations of fraud and vote-rigging; those accusations led to violent attacks by supporters of Raila Odinga against supporters of Mwai Kibaki and vice versa.  Odinga and Kibaki had stoked ethnic tensions leading up to the elections and the spasms of violence, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, were committed along ethnic lines (IRIN News).  Since the 2007 election in Kenya, many other elections in Africa (Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Uganda and Cote d’Iviore, to name just a couple) have been accompanied by accusations of vote-rigging and subsequent violence.

These accusations and the associated violence reveal that many leaders (both in government and in the opposition) in Africa have instrumentalized ethnicity as a short-cut for loyalty.  This instrumentalization has polarized African nations to the point where mass mobilization of “the people” against the “government,” as seen in Tunisia and Egypt would be difficult because of the ethnic ties between leaders and followers.  As long as those ties exist (and are rewarded with patronage), leaders can rely on the continuing loyalty of their followers.

2. History of civil war in Africa

After the end of the Cold War, many African nations experienced long civil wars.  In West Africa the conflict complex drew in the nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso; in East Africa the conflict complexes include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia; in Central Africa, the African World War grew out of the Rwandan genocide to involve the former Zaire, Uganda, Burundi, Angola and Zimbabwe.  These wars and the many other conflicts of the last two decades in sub-Saharan Africa have left the continent played out.  The exuberance with which Libyans embarked on their armed uprising against Gaddhafi’s forces would not be seen in countries already suffering from years of war and all of its associated pains.  In North Africa and the Middle East, despite the horrific oppression, the countries of the Arab Spring – Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Syria – have been relatively peaceful.  Note that those Arab countries that have experienced civil war in recent years – Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq – there have been no such uprisings or demonstrations. The absence of conflict has meant that the populations are neither polarized into backing one faction over another; nor have the potential revolutionaries already been brought into other movements. The one exception is Yemen which has experienced many years of low-level conflict and has been an active participant in the Arab Spring. 

3. African Union rules

Not too long ago, as recently as August, the African Union announced that it would not recognize the National Transitional Council in Libya as the official government, despite the fact that the NTC was recognized by members of NATO as the official government (Huffington Post).  This was due to the fact that one of the African Union’s rules explicitly prevented recognition of governments that came to power via coups or other non-democratic methods.  The abdications of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia meant the AU could recognize the interim governments in those states, but because the NTC was seeking to seize power by armed means, the AU would not recognize the NTC (in September, the AU recognized the NTC, presumably under pressure from the US and Western Europe, [BBC News]). 

This rule was put in place to discourage coups and to protect leaders democratically elected.  Okay, many “democratic” regimes in sub-Saharan Africa are pure dictatorships with only thin veneers of electoral validation, but those regimes were the ones to come up with the rule of non-recognition of coup leaders out of self-interest and self-preservation.  The fact that Gaddhafi himself came to power by coup is an example of the inconsistency of the policy, but the rule is still there and it has been used to keep Andriy Rajoelina’s regime in Madagascar a pariah state.  In other words, the rule works when applied and I think the African Union wanted to demonstrate that it would be willing to enforce its policy in the face of external (NATO) intervention.

4. Lack of external intervention

Speaking of NATO, I think external interventions in Egypt and Libya have been key to the success of those revolutions.  When the United States withdrew support for Mubarak in Egypt, he and his supporters quickly fell from power.  When NATO airstrikes stopped the assault of Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi, that started to turn the tide; the continued assistance from NATO in terms of intelligence and air superiority helped to seal the end of Gaddhafi’s rule.  Tunisia is the only Arab Spring state to completely succeed in overthrowing the regime without external assistance and the absence of assistance to demonstrators in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen has kept those leaders in place.  In fact, the external intervention in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen has been (from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and Yemen, from Russia and Iran to Syria) on the side of the ruling regimes.  Similarly, during Iran’s Green Revolution, the absence of external support to the protesters allowed the regime time to re-group and quash the uprising. 

In Uganda, the Walk to Work protests have been going for some weeks and the opposition leadership has been beaten and arrested.  But the US has refused to comment and has provided additional military support to the Ugandan army and government to pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.  This is in addition to the support Uganda receives from the US for sending Ugandan soldiers to Somalia to serve as peacekeepers.  The message to the Ugandan protesters could not be clearer: help is not coming for you.  So even where a potential African Spring event is occurring, the absence of external support for the protesters will likely prevent the uprising from succeeding.

5. Twitter and communications infrastructure

Did you know that Twitter is not available via SMS text messaging outside of Nigeria, Madagascar and Kenya? (The White African Blog).  Twitter was supposed to be available in Cameroon, but Paul Biya’s regime (he has since won re-election and will likely be president for life) banned mobile Twitter use prior to the elections.  Yes, you can use Twitter on computers anywhere in the world, but the ability to mobilize quickly would require remote, mobile phone posts to Twitter, either via a smart phone or SMS text.  If smart phones are hard to come by (simply because of cost), then SMS texts are the way to go, but for nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, that’s simply not possible.  The Twitter infrastructure, such a key to protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, is not available to potential participants in an African Spring.  The fact that Cameroon banned mobile Twitter confirms the fact that Twitter can be a tool for mobilization and its absence is notable.

Internet use in general differs between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa.  In 2007, there were only 3.23 internet users per 100 people in sub-Saharan Africa compared to 13.64 per 100 in North Africa (International Telecommunications Union). More internet users means more people with access to information about protests. Remember, the Wikileaks revelations about Tunisia’s rulers and their corruption helped to spur the Arab Spring protests and without internet access, Tunisians and others would not have been able to share this information quickly. 

6. Religious diversity

The Arab Spring states are not religious monoliths.  Egypt and Tunisia have a wide array of faiths and broad diversity of Islamic beliefs, from moderate to extreme.  Syria is extremely diverse, Bahrain is majority Shia (although the rulers are Sunni), and Libya has a wealth of tribes adherent to a spectrum of Islamic beliefs.  However, the mosques in all of these countries were and are important centers for organizing.  The Friday prayers were often followed by marches and mass demonstrations, presumably following sermons given in support of such actions.  Throughout Arab Spring, one could count on the largest demonstrations and protests taking place on Friday afternoons and with each successive week, the number of participants increased. 

At the same time, the rulers of these countries identified with Islam and professed their devotion and so could not shut down the mosques (as they had done with Twitter and mobile phone networks).  The mosques became centers of protests and allowed potential demonstrators to first come together in a non-confrontational venue, see the solidarity of their fellow potential protesters, and emerge together in a demonstration.  It takes bravery to join a protest; that bravery is helped when you already feel the support of group participation instead of venturing to the demonstration site in isolation. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, a union between Christians (of many, many denominations) and Muslims would be needed to coordinate protests in a similar manner as was done in the Arab Spring.  It’s not impossible, and is happening in Syria now, but the simple difference of Friday prayers versus Sunday services creates a divide in the population.  Whose holy day do you protest on? 

7. Language

The term “Arab Spring” can refer not only to the ethnic origins of the populations involved, but also the language.  From Bahrain to Morocco, the Arabic language is a shared tool for communication.  Al Jazeera broadcasts could be seen and understood by the majorities of the populations of the Middle East and North Africa.  This linguistic alliance eases communication and information sharing.  I do not dare estimate the number of languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa, but I am sure there is no lingua franca throughout the continent.  English may come the closest, although Swahili, French and Arabic may also be contenders.  The language barrier may be more insurmountable for mobilization than ethnic or religious divides: if the leaders of the demonstrations cannot get their message across, they will not attract new adherents.

8. Urbanization

Where people live closer together, the ability of leaders (or opposition) to mobilize the population is much easier.  The average level of urbanization (proportion of population living in cities) in sub-Saharan Africa is 36% (Afribiz); for North Africa (the Africa of Arab Spring) the level is 59%.  Yes, there are some sub-Saharan countries with extremely high levels of urbanization, e.g., Gabon at 85%, whilst Egypt is only 43% urbanized (Cairo does have around 15 million people living in and around the city, making it the largest metropolitan area in Africa, more populous than two-thirds of sub-Saharan African countries, [Wikipedia]).  Communication and transportation are easier in urbanized areas; social networks may be denser; places to congregate easier to locate. 

When populations are more spread out, when countries are less urbanized, mass mobilization requires physically getting people to the demonstration sites and feeding and housing them between demonstrations.  These logistical barriers are not found in urban settings where demonstrators could simply go home after the event, or – as in Tahrir Square – the networks and markets necessary to feed and support the demonstrating populations already existed because they were needed to support the city in the first place. 

9. Educated Youth Bulge

The Arab Spring started when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government office in Tunisia.  He later died of his wounds.  His self-immolation was borne out of the frustration he felt as a college graduate who was forced to work as a street vendor (BBC News).  That frustration is not unique. Across Africa and the Middle East, there are large populations of young men and women who were promised better lives and jobs if they received an education; promises that have not been fulfilled.  In Arab countries the frustration has fueled blogs, websites and Facebook accounts.  In sub-Saharan Africa countries, the same process is happening, but the level of access to the Internet is less than in North Africa and the Middle East (see above).

An African Spring is not entirely out of the question, but the above reasons show the enormous hurdles that would need to be overcome to rid African nations of their dictators.  And Facebook posts won’t get it done.

Michael P. Moore, October 25, 2011.

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