African viewpoint: Rocked by revolt

Rebel fighters scramble away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi near Bin Jawad, 6 March 2011

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo looks back at 2011 and its impact on Africa.

There may have been other years in other centuries whose impact on the collective memory had their own Richter scales, whose tremors rumbled on through generations, rewriting history in blood.

But those years lacked the immediacy of 2011 - with its visceral instant news, its wall-to-wall coverage, its televised revolutions, its public executions, its fragile finances and its Biblical natural disasters.

This time last year, few of us had any idea that a man who set himself on fire after being hassled by authorities while selling fruit and vegetables - not oil or diamonds - would leave the top half of our continent ablaze in flames of rebellion.

All year long we have grappled with thoughts of revolution in the most unexpected of places, and wondered how much further beyond those desert nations revolution would reach.

Relatives of Mohamed Bouazizi holding up portraits of him in Tunisia, November 2011 The vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight, has become a national hero in Tunisia

So how were we to interpret these momentous events?

A "Jasmine Revolution", someone had fragrantly imagined it to be.

Then these events were called the "North African Revolts" as presidents south of the Sahara warned their people "not to be inspired by Egypt".

Governments around the desert nations - Algeria, Morocco - rushed through legislation abandoning long-standing states of emergency and put on their kindest make-up while hoping the howling winds would pass them by.

Inspiration, meanwhile, landed where it willed and it did not land on Malawi or Zimbabwe or even the Democratic Republic of Congo, but flew instead to the rest of the Arab world and the winds of change changed course.

'Western plot'

It was telling when the African geographic reality of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was abandoned in media descriptions as 2011 became the year of the "Arab Spring", because much of the Arab world scrambled for new manuals on governance and maintaining power in the wake of this North Africa-inspired "spring".

Start Quote

Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of another pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go”

End Quote James Baldwin From The Fire Next Time, 1963

The demise of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the man who had done so much to forge ties with black Africa weighed heavily on governments from Pretoria to Addis, and the Libyan revolution made its mark by the sheer intensity of its violence.

Throw into this mix the deplorable treatment of black Africans - which had every human rights organisation calling for National Transitional Council restraint in the way detainees were being treated - the humiliation meted out to the African Union as it tried to broker a ceasefire and a peace no-one wanted; the perceived manipulation of UN resolution 1973 from no-fly zone to effective regime change, then it becomes easy to read why Libya's "liberation" is being seen by Africans as a Western plot.

Libyans, however, showed in their eight-month war that they had rejected the colonel, and by extension his friends from black Africa, and there is now much more than the Sahara dividing Africa's north from her south.

It is right that revolutions for change should fill us all with hope.

It is too early though for the kind of triumphant skip through liberated Tripoli we saw at one stage from Mr David Cameron and Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy, the UK and French leaders respectively.

The new Libyan regime has adopted its flag from a monarchy deposed by Col Gaddafi, and while showing a slavish appreciation for Nato's bombs with hints of oil and water contracts, it has given us no sign as to its democratic intentions - not to mention how it means to unite a people divided by the kind of war and killings that foster thoughts of revenge.

And if the death of Col Gaddafi is any way to judge how Libyan law will now work, no amount of oil will make this country's transition a smooth reality.

Patience rewarded

And then there was Egypt, whose brave citizens were still losing their lives in martyrs' squares months after those hopeful February days.

Start Quote

An SPLM-North fighter points toward an Antonov plane flying overhead moments before bombing the area in Kurmuk region of Sudan's Blue Nile state on 6 October 2011

South Sudan was born in July and seems to have grown up so fast it has dispensed with nursery school and gone straight back to playing with guns”

End Quote

I was reminded of the African-American writer James Baldwin's words: "Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of another pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go…" - and Egypt's collective military has been their 2011 pharaoh.

These then were the biggest headlines in a momentous year.

In other news, Ivory Coast was delivered from her impasse when Laurent Gbagbo learned that he had thumbed his resistance at his former French masters once too often and the International Criminal Court promptly delivered him to The Hague.

The ICC also continued its pursuit of Omar al-Bashir, and threatened little Malawi for not arresting the Sudanese president, even as a Sudanese general was touring Syria to assess human rights abuses on behalf of - wait for it - the Arab League.

South Sudan was born in July and seems to have grown up so fast it has dispensed with nursery school and gone straight back to playing with guns as border disputes and rebel factions multiply.

We had elections in DR Congo, which observers claimed favoured the incumbent, Joseph Kabila; and armed men surrounded a stadium where Mr Kabila's presidential opponent threatened to swear himself in as head of state.

Nobel Peace Prize 2011 laureates Liberian "peace warrior" Leymah Gbowee, Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledge the crowd from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo on 10 December  2011 after receiving their prize during an award ceremony at the city hall Liberia's Nobel Peace laureates flank their Yemeni counterpart in Oslo

We saw Michael Sata's patience in opposition rewarded with victory in the Zambian elections and we were told just this month that the man who has run Zimbabwe for 31 years may be about to run in another election in 2012.

Flowering economies

It has been more of the same on some fronts.

The African economy, though - I am reliably informed - is growing at a massive rate.

Direct foreign investment has increased five-fold from 2000 to 2010, and as Portugal's debt crisis deepens, 98,000 Portuguese citizens have applied at Angolan embassies to try their luck in Luanda's oil boom.

A car burns at the scene of a bomb explosion at St Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla, Suleja, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja, 25 December 2011 The Christmas Day bombing was the latest in a series of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria

And what is more, the Nobel Prize committee got over their star-struck idiocy and gave the peace prize not to a newly elected African-American president fighting wars on many fronts, but to two deserving African women and an Arab one.

Meanwhile as Osama Bin Laden - the man whose face once adorned T-shirts, kitchen towels and flannels from Algeria to Zanzibar in the wake of 9/11 - met his bloody end back in May, 2011 marked perhaps Africa's worst year for the kind of violence associated with the Islamist groups al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

From their respective images as obscure crackpot fanatics, these groups grew with alarming speed.

Kenyan troops have joined the African Union forces and are in pursuit of militants who allegedly have no qualms over kidnapping disabled tourists from Kenyan territory and dragging them into Somalia.

Boko Haram has graduated from shoot-by murders on motorcycles in Maiduguri to organised bombings of UN compounds, federal buildings and Christian churches on Christmas morning near Nigeria's capital city.

We can only hope that 2012 will let us catch our breath, if we have breath to catch.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination

Comments 5 of 9


More Africa stories



Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.