What the Arab Spring can learn from sub-Saharan Africa

The Arab Spring has been inspirational in sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the world’s longest serving leaders. Yet the protagonists of the Arab Spring have more to learn from their sub-Saharan Africa counterparts than the other way round.

There were high hopes amongst commentators and observers that the ‘Arab Spring’ would extend its reach to the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. This has yet to happen; at least in the way it was envisaged. There have been pockets of revolt and demonstrations against incumbent administrations most notably in Malawi, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda. The political atmosphere in these countries remains tense, as the demands of the many citizens of these respective countries have not been met. However we may yet see a revolution of some sort somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

Talk to activists in these countries and you will hear that the majority of them agree that the Arab Spring has been inspirational. This is understandable – sub-Saharan Africa is a home to some of the longest serving and oldest leaders in the world. Yet the protagonists of the Arab Spring have more to learn from their sub-Saharan Africa counterparts than the other way round. The majority of sub-Sahara African countries peacefully did away with one party rule in the 1990s. These countries continue to struggle to solidify their democracies due to the enduring lack of necessary democratic institutions and the prevalence of selfish, greedy and opportunistic leaders.

The failure to acknowledge the difference between struggles in sub-Saharan Africa and those in the north of the continent may well be an issue of prejudice and contempt for the people of sub-Saharan Africa. There is an unfortunate feeling amongst commentators from the majority of the world that people from this region cannot stage any revolt of their own. They have to copy it from elsewhere – the newly liberated Arab states in this case. This suggestion at least has the merit of pointing to the struggle for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, which certainly isn’t lacking in this regard. There is no region in the world that holds more elections than sub-Saharan Africa.

But democracy is more than the right to vote. Demonstrations in Malawi this summer were mistakenly labelled an “Arab Spring in the south of the Sahara”, Malawian civil society organisations and activists may have drawn some inspiration from here, but in fact Malawi offers a perfect lesson for the future to the ‘Arab Spring’ – how to avoid sliding back into dictatorship once the struggle for democracy is won.

Images of happy Tunisian men and women raising ink-painted fingers indicating that they have voted were a great sight. Yet this is not a big issue in countries like Malawi – Malawians have voted since 1994 in what have largely been considered free and fair elections. The country has held four successful presidential and parliamentary elections since its return to multiparty democracy in 1993. The last elections were in 2009 where the incumbent President, Bingu wa Mutharika was re-elected with 66.17% of the national vote – thanks to the success of his agricultural subsidies that tripled maize harvest in fours years. Yet a 2009 Wikileaks classified cable shows that the then USA ambassador to Malawi, Peter W. Bodde acknowledged his fear about Malawi’s democratic future. Bode noted:

“Six months into President Bingu wa Mutharika’s second term, MALAWI’s continued development as a multiparty democracy is slowing. Once lauded as a leader dedicated to development of MALAWI’s democracy, Mutharika’s commitment to democratic norms in now coming into question… The recent legalisation of warrantless searches has raised concerns about civil liberties. Wirth the backing of compliant parliament, President Mutharika’s moves show a disturbing trend line.”

I wrote of my worry about the warrantless searches at the time but it was perhaps too close to President Mutharika’s re-election for a lot of people to pay attention. Also, President Mutharika was overseeing impressive economic growth. This was a perfect moment for the Malawi government to pass legislation that threatens prevailing civil liberties. It was not necessarily the repressive laws that eventually angered Malawians. The July 20th demonstrations that left 20 people dead – killed by national security service – were ignited by a persistent lack of fuel, lack of foreign currency, perennial electricity cuts and of course declining democratic freedoms in the country.

Unlike the Arab Spring however, the driving force behind the July 20 demonstrations in Malawi was not necessarily regime change. People were simply making modest and reasonable demands that every government, not least a democratic one, should meet. The protests exposed the lack of democratic institutions that have allowed Mutharika’s administration to rule with total impunity. Owing, in part, to what the ambassador Bodde’s cable described as “a compliant parliament”.

This shows that democracy is not a one-way street. Once attained, citizens must be on their toes and defend it ferociously. A free vote is most valued by those that have been deprived of it for a long time. This carries with it a danger that people’s excitement makes them blind to the fact that democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. There are some significant differences between the Arab region and sub-Saharan Africa, cultural and geo-political, but the Arab countries must pay attention and draw some valuable lessons on how hard-earned democracy is unraveling in the region despite its record number of votes.

About the author

Jimmy Kainja is a lecturer and seminar leader at London Metropolitan University. He is also an independent researcher and a blogger. Among other publications, he has written for Guardian Development site: poverty-mattersfree African MediaAfrican Executive, he writes on Africa on the blog and blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk