Are the Winds of the Peoples Revolution Likely to Blow to Sub-Saharan Africa?

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
By Njoki Wamai

When 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze on 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, never would he have imagined the repercussions this single act could have. 

For it would not only influence the long suffering Tunisian citizens and other oppressed people in North Africa and the Middle East. It would also raise awareness of the ability of ordinary citizens throughout Africa to take charge of their political destinies. Bouazizi, widely renowned as the heroic martyr of the revolution, triggered the onset of some furious winds of change which have since been blowing across Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Scores of citizens from sub-Saharan Africa in Gabon, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Sudan have drawn inspiration from North Africa and organised protests over hijacked elections, oil prices, freedom of speech, rising food prices among other issues. But the question of whether the winds of the revolution will blow south of the Sahara still remains. Although there is a risk of generalization from an analysis of these diverse countries, each with its own narrative, a few patterns have emerged.

These patterns have initiated a number of arguments that have been advanced by experts on why revolutions in sub-Saharan Africa still remain a mirage. They contend that although the winds of change might blow across Africa in the fullness of time, for now we will have to make with revolts instead of revolutions for a number of reasons.

Firstly, most sub-Saharan regimes, unlike Northern African regimes, have continued to hold regular elections, which have ranged from free, fair, unfair and flawed. Although most of the sub-Saharan countries have been holding elections periodically, those elections have rarely led to a change of regime. Recent elections in many sub-Saharan countries continue to raise question marks about the relevance of liberal democracy. There are a number of examples of entrenched dictatorial incumbents and an emergence of reluctant coalitions of the unwilling, such as the case in Kenya, Uganda and likely in Cote d’Ivoire. However despite the existence of pseudo democracies, elections continue to churn in committed leaders, such as in Ghana.

Secondly, many sub-Saharan countries lack credible leadership outside the political realm to organise revolutions. Religious leaders in Northern Africa were significant in providing leadership in Egypt and Tunisia. Sadly, many religious and political leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are divided along ethnic lines. Emmanuel Kisiangani from the Institute of Security Studies argues that most of the Northern African countries with successful revolutions are ethnically homogenous and this has prevented political and religious leaders to use ethnicity as a tool to manipulate.

Thirdly, there is no pan African regional media powerhouse. Drew Hinshaw, a West African journalist, notes that the absence of a powerful regional media network, such as Al Jazeera or CNN, in sub-Saharan Africa, leads to out of context representation. Western media often reduce intractable conflicts such as the Cote d’Ivoire crisis to a “one sentence news blurb at the bottom of the screen”. For Hinshaw, this prevents the type of exposure, attention and assistance from other parties that are necessary in an evolving revolution.

Fourthly, use of social media is less widespread in sub-Saharan Africa compared to the north of the continent. This poses challenges for organising using the “new revolutionary tools”. In Egypt for instance, 70 per cent of the population have access to the Internet through hand held devices. Although some sub-Saharan African countries, such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, have made tremendous progress in the use of mobile phones, the use of the social media is yet to become the norm. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been credited with helping to organise the revolutions, while trans-Middle East media networks, such as Al Jazeera, provided the impetus and encouragement needed from other countries and world leaders for the ordinary citizens who organised the revolutions.

Fifth, Sabiiti Mutengesa, a research associate at King’s College London’s Conflict, Security and Development Group, argues that most of the populations in sub-Saharan Africa are strewn across expansive rural areas. This is in contrast to the mostly urban populations of Northern Africa, who are geographically better equipped to organise revolutions using both traditional means and new tools such as social media. The North African revolutions have come to disprove Samuel Huntington’s thesis that revolutions only succeed when the stage is set in rural areas. He further argued, using the examples of failed urban revolutions in South America, that cities were only a temporary detour on the road to rural revolutions to score symbolic victories and get media attention. The Northern African revolutions are urban revolutions and Huntington was safe to suggest that rural revolutions were on the decrease while urban revolutions were on the increase.

Sixthly, is the youth population issue. Although many commentators have argued that revolutions in sub-Saharan Africa will emerge due to the growing youthful populations without corresponding employment opportunities, Sabiiti has argued that revolutions are more likely to happen if the average age is greater, as in Tunisia. The median age in Tunisia is 28, compared to 15 in Uganda, 18 in Kenya, and 19 in Cameroon. Lower average ages are likely to encourage revolts, such as those in Cameroon over food, but higher average youth age is likely to sustain revolutions such as Tunisia’s.

While popular discontent in many sub-Saharan African countries may never evolve to full-scale revolutions, the desire for change will continue until citizens achieve the change they are craving for. For now we can only hope that the slow winds of change, in the form of popular revolts, lead to the transformation of institutions so that economic development and basic freedoms for many citizens are guaranteed. 


15 March 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell


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Farah Mendjour-Ounissi, The Arab Revolution Spreads to Algeria 

Silvia Colombo, The Tunisian Riots and the Risk of a Domino Effect

Njoki Wamai, Cote d'Ivoire: Watching and Waiting