Who’s heard of the ‘African Spring’?

If the under or mis-reported uprisings, protests, revolts and changes of regime in many parts of Africa over the past few years have told us anything, it is that politics on the continent does not always, or mostly, take place at the point of a gun.

Clive Gabay
25 July 2012

‘We’ve heard so much negativity, but can you tell us what you are actually doing about it?’ The question came from the back of the hall at the Africa Centre in London, where over 100 people had gathered to hear about the state of contemporary African protest movements from a panel of African activists including Ayanda Kota of the South African Unemployed Peoples’ Movement, Bayo Oyenuga of Occupy Nigeria, Osama Zumam of the Sudanese Communist Party and the respected commentator and political activist Yash Tandon.

It is true that Africa tends to be a continent viewed through a prism of starvation, disease, violence and most of all, corruption. And when the Arab Spring erupted at the end of 2010, it was largely viewed as a Middle Eastern phenomenon, rather than an African one, even though its main protagonists were all located on African soil. Whilst the media gaze therefore fixed on events to the North-East of Tunisia, events to the South were, and continue to be no less tumultuous.

However, these events have rarely been articulated into an African narrative, with the result that western audiences end up being drip-fed stories reinforcing the impression of stereotypical African instability and ‘Afro-pessimism’. Yet if the under or mis-reported uprisings, protests, revolts and changes of regime in many parts of Africa over the past few years (including, amongst others Cote D'Ivoire, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan and Mozambique) have told us anything, it is that politics on the continent does not always, or mostly, take place at the point of a gun. 

By the same token however, it is important to point out that the protest movements we have seen emerge or consolidate over the past few years cannot be reduced to a simple victory for the development industry’s efforts to mainstream western policies of good governance, transparency and liberal democracy in African states. Shrinking the state in Africa (an outcome of these policies as enforced by international donors) has produced the very conditions which protestors have revolted against: corruption, rising utility prices, and growing inequality. African protestors have demanded African solutions to their predicaments, and we should listen carefully if we want to be on the right side of history on the continent. 

Of course, African protest movements do not face an easy route. Confronted with the deregulatory pressures of global development frameworks these movements must contend with mushrooming food and utility prices, and the violence meted out by states when faced with meaningful opposition to neo-liberal economic programmes. Indeed, the negativity questioned by the audience member in London referred to the state-sponsored violence visited upon African protestors which the different protestors repeatedly referred to.

However, whilst it is easy to become disheartened at stories of violence, land appropriation and joblessness, we can interpret such events differently. Indeed, if we are to learn anything from the rapidity with which revolution occurred in Egypt and was then rolled back, it is that social change takes time, and requires a broader social base than just the urban middle class elite which characterised the Tahrir Square phenomenon. What we hear from protest movements across Africa therefore is not negativity, but struggle. And struggle for sustainable indigenous solutions to Africa’s problems requires the kind of mass mobilisation which takes time and effort to build. 

What then are these African solutions? For sure, protestors in any number of the countries which have experienced protests over the past few years have made it clear that they are fed up with the corruption of ruling elites. From Nigeria’s Enough is Enough movement to the protests which rocked Malawi in summer 2011, it has been obvious that the actions of ruling elites, and in the case of Malawi, the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, provided sources of public anger. However, to interpret these protests as an outpouring of anger against singularly corrupt African regimes would be a mistake. Calls for greater democracy in Africa are not framed purely within the actions of specific corrupt ruling elites. Rather it is the relationships between these ruling elites and the agents of global free-market capitalism which are the source of much public anger. It is these relationships which have amongst other things shrunk public services and robbed the continent of the bulk of the profits from its most valuable natural resources. And these relationships have been enabled by international donor policies which have shrunk the state in Africa in the belief that it is the state which has been the source of African’s problems. 

So when international donors and western commentators respond to protests in Africa by calling for better governance and accountability amongst ruling elites, they are missing the most vital aspect of these protests; that they are directed just as much against institutions such as the Word Bank and IMF as they are against the corrupt practices of their rulers. This is because it has long been the case that the policies of the former in widening the space between the state and citizens in Africa (through enforced privatisation and subsequent public service disintegration) has enabled the corruption of the latter by contributing to the breakdown of the social contract that had been established in many African states in the immediate post-independence years.

And so, if we search for images of recent African protests what we will find is not an overwhelming number of crowds with placards calling for greater openness in government, but a set of explicitly socio-economic demands relating to price rises and unemployment, or the withdrawal of affordable public services and utilities, all brought on by the skewed position of Africa in the global economy, and the enforced privatisation of land, energy and other resources which have largely fallen into the hands of foreign profit-extractive companies and their collaborators in the ruling elites of African countries. 

Those then who see in these protests a simple continuum of public revolt against African elite corruption dating back to the post-independence regimes are simply missing the point. These protests are much more about the relationships between African elites and international political and economic elites. This is a fundamental point which is often missed by both sides of the critical divide on Africa. 

African elites are not uniquely corrupt, nor do they exist in a vacuum of African corruption, but neither is Africa a pure victim of contemporary economic imperialism.  African elites are as complicit in processes of resource and profit extraction as the multinational corporations such as Shell Oil who so often come in for the vitriol of social justice and anti-corporate activists. What Africans have been railing against over the past few years then is what Thandike Mkandawire called at the turn of the century Africa’s ‘choiceless democracies’. In other words, Africans want a true choice. It is not enough for international donors to call for ‘free and fair’ elections, only for them to enforce, by dint of the implicit threat of aid withdrawal, a complicity amongst all the candidates with neoliberal economic orthodoxy. This is what we find repeatedly in African elections, and in this respect at least it would be fair to say that African elections differ very little from elections in many other parts of the world, including the UK. 

This points towards a second issue worthy of consideration. Anti-austerity activists in the west need to understand the close relationship between what they are protesting against in countries like the UK and what people are protesting against in parts of the world where they have been at the blunt end of austerity for decades rather than years. African activists have much to teach the rest of the world in resisting austerity, and the many obstacles that lie in the path of such resistance, and it is about time more of us started to listen.

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