Does Africa need an Arab Spring?

  • 24 January 2012
  • From the section Africa
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Anti-riot police use water cannons, with pink water, against opposition supporters in Uganda
Image caption Uganda's government has survived protests over the cost of living

As the people of Egypt and Tunisia mark the first anniversary of the revolutions which toppled their long-time leaders, leading to popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, Malawian academic Jimmy Kainja asks: Is it time for an African Spring?

Regimes have been shaken, dictators toppled and revolutions televised in ways most people thought was not possible a mere 12 months ago in North Africa and the Middle East. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world's longest-serving and most autocratic leaders - and that is exactly what residents of some Arab countries have been fighting against.

Yet an African Spring in the exact fashion of the Arab Spring would signify a step backwards - not a step forward.

In fact, it would make a mockery of all that the majority of African countries achieved in the late 1980s and the early 1990s - when they did away with dictators and presidents-for-life in favour of multiparty democracies.

I previously argued that "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-Saharan African countries peacefully did away with one-party-rule in the 1990s."

And now there is no region in the world that holds more elections than sub-Saharan Africa.

'Selfish, greedy leaders'

However, the vote alone is not enough - and democracy does not begin and end with the ballot box, as recently "liberated" Egypt and Tunisia are starting to find out and countries south of the Sahara have known for a long time now.

These countries continue to struggle to solidify their democracies - because of the enduring lack of necessary democratic institutions and structures of governance.

And, of course, because of the prevalence of selfish, greedy and opportunistic leaders: Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Paul Biya in Cameroon, to name but a few.

Indeed, some of these leaders got extremely nervous in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions last year.

A political science lecturer at the University of Malawi was summoned for "questioning" after he allegedly compared the social and political situation in Malawi to that of Egypt.

And in Zimbabwe a group of activists are still on charges that originally carried the death sentence but have now been reduced - for allegedly plotting an Egyptian-style revolution in that country.

So, the struggle for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa is certainly not lacking.

But these struggles are very different to what we have seen in parts of the Arab world.

Freedom to protest

These ones are mainly focused on forcing governments to become more accountable and to provide populations with the basics that they need to survive.

The July 2011 demonstrations in Malawi, for instance, was not organised to overthrow the government or to demand that President Bingu wa Mutharika step down.

The protests were about the lack of democratic institutions that have allowed the current administration to rule with total impunity.

In Uganda the "Walk to Work" protests were about exorbitant fuel prices - it was not about overthrowing the government or forcing the president to go.

Nigeria is the same - aside from the separate issue of the recent Boko Haram bombing campaign.

Nigerians have been protesting about the withdrawal of fuel subsidies - they are asking their government to be more considerate but they are not calling for a revolution.

Not one of the Arab countries had such freedoms to protest or even question their government prior to the Tunisian revolution on 14th January 2011.

So why then the calls for an African Spring?

This failure to acknowledge the difference between what is happening south and north of the Sahara may well be a matter of distorted historical perspectives - mainly by Western commentators who were caught off-guard by the Arab Spring and are now eager to spot the next possible spark.

And there is an unfortunate perception that people from sub-Saharan Africa cannot stage any revolt of their own. They have to copy it from elsewhere - in this case, the Arab Spring.

Rather, the growing number of protests and increasing political dissent in sub-Saharan Africa - whether tolerated by respective governments or not - could yet be an indication of a mature democracy. And a sign that the region does not need such a "spring".

It is worth remembering that most of these countries attained democracy only 20 or 30 years ago.

Image caption Zimbabwe's government moved swiftly against any attempts to organise street protests

All these protests were unheard of before the dawn of democracy.

Today, ordinary citizens are demanding more of their governments than they have ever done before - and they are refusing to accept any form of mediocrity.

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues in The End of History and the Last Man that the striving by citizens for liberal democracy arises as a part of the soul that demands recognition.

"As standards of living increase, as populations become more cosmopolitan and better educated," he says "and as society as a whole achieves a greater equality of condition, people begin to demand not simply more wealth but recognition of their status."

These are exactly the social changes happening in Africa today. Progress has been made - and it can only get better.

These demands and the eagerness by the people to be heard - to hold their governments to account - can only be addressed by developing strong democratic institutions - and not simply by getting rid of presidents and their governments.

This is what is necessary in the next stage of Africa's democracy - not an African Spring in the mould of the Arab Spring.

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