African viewpoint: Bread or the ballot?

A Tunisian demonstrator holds his bread stick like a weapon in front of riot police during a protest in Tunis on 18 January 2011

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers whether North Africa's street protests will spread south.

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Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go”

End Quote Fela Kuti Nigerian musician

Fragrant jasmine is the flower of the moment in North Africa.

The Tunisian government's indifference to the plight of the poor and desperate young led Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire when his vegetables were confiscated because he didn't have a permit to sell them.

That is a story all Africans got, it is the pettiness of bureaucracies from the Cape to Cairo, the flexing of absolute power over dignity by the ubiquitous police and military who prop up unpopular regimes.

These are the folk about whom the Nigerian Afrobeat superstar, Fela Kuti, wrote the tune Zombie:

"Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go. Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to thinkā€¦"

The Nigerian singer compared the foot soldiers of his country's military regime in the 1970s to zombies, shells of dead human beings without minds of their own.

And when the record was released, 1,000 soldiers trashed Fela Kuti's house and killed his mother.

Educated and jobless
Tunisia's then leader (l) visiting Mohamed Bouazizi on 28 December 2010 Tunisia's president visited Mohamed Bouazizi in hospital a few weeks before the young man died

Little did the "zombie" who confiscated Mr Bouazizi's vegetables know that his singular act of bullying would set in motion the events that led to the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and Cairo's current malaise and the changing of attitudes, if not of the guard, across large parts of the Arab world.

In Algeria, for instance, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has now promised to lift a 19-year-old state of emergency.

Even as President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali used the occasion of visiting Mr Bouazizi's dying, burned and mummified body for a photo op, the picture does not spare the dictator an accusing glance.

Two weeks into the new year the vegetable seller who set himself on fire was dead, the dictator departed.

Mr Bouazizi's awesome sacrifice practically singed the fear from people's hearts - fear of the police, the army and the state and the spontaneous acts of courage in Tunisia took us all by surprise; and there were reports of self-immolation in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt.

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It's a case of one puppet laughing at another puppet and not seeing the irony”

End Quote Jonathan Moyo Zimbabwean MP

How far will the vegetable seller's legacy reach?

Did it speak only to the Arab part of Africa and the Middle East? And then, as if on cue, Egypt's people rallied to confront their leader and we are still watching the drama unfold.

What does this mean for Africa?

If there is to be a common thread, it is that 2011, after the economic meltdown of the last two years, promises to be more about bread than ballots.

Regardless of life expectancy, generations of young Africans connected to the world via cyberspace, find themselves educated yet jobless, born years after the liberation struggles that chose old men to lead their parents, tired of parroting loyal slogans and in search of freedom to express themselves and reach their aspirations.

Food protests in recent years in Mozambique, Senegal and Sierra Leone are the nearest equivalents to the Jasmine uprisings in Tunisia and, for this reason, governments are slashing prices of basic food to keep the wolf of revolt at bay.

Of course this hasn't stopped African opposition parties from seizing the Egyptian scenario as a warning to their more powerful opponents.

In Cameroon the Social Democratic Front Party warned the other day that events in North Africa could well be repeated if the government does not slash prices.

In 2008, Cameroon food riots were quashed by the army, leaving more than 100 people dead.

Ethnic divides

Over in Zimbabwe, where another octogenarian rules the roost, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was taken to task for publicly supporting the protesters in Egypt and suggesting that such protests could happen in Harare.

A resident of the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya, bleeds from cut to his head after he was attacked by supporters of presidential candidate Raila Odinga, December 2007 Protests in Kenya after disputed elections in 2007 turned into an ethnic conflict

A former information minister accused the Zimbabwean PM of being funded by the very same governments that once supported Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak.

"It's a case of one puppet laughing at another puppet and not seeing the irony," quipped Jonathan Moyo, a politburo member of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

Africans are under no illusion that for now North Africans are western Arabs and the fate of their revolting nations is of great importance in a 21st Century held hostage by terrorism.

Still, their demands have turned the spotlight on African regimes of all shapes and sizes, and the message boards and cyberspace are raw with the question - where next?

When uprisings have occurred in recent times, be it over a disputed election or religious killings, nations have tended to divide along ethnic lines and no mass accumulation of common dissent has been allowed to grow.

What is striking in the Egyptian popular uprisings are all the strands of Egyptian society, and, more importantly, the reluctance of the army to take sides or to shoot on demonstrators.

And in these nations straddling the African continent and the Arab world, the internet and modern communications have been used to powerful effect, pulling together random people to one cause.

Broken bones
A woman walks past a tank as flowers are displayed on it in the centre of Tunis, 18 January 2011 The army's role has been striking in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt

In other African nations the army has been more to Fela Kuti's zombie description - it was the army in Guinea in September 2009 that turned on peaceful demonstrators in a sports stadium, raping women and killing men.

And where elections have occurred, loyalty to the government and an ability to take orders has seen an uncompromising presence of the men in uniform re-educating the population in their own brand of revolutionary zeal, leaving broken bones in their wake.

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The powers of maximum influence - America, Europe - keep calling for an immediate transition to elusive democracy. In most cases, they propped up our worst dictators our longest-running rulers, our heavily financed and over-armed despots”

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Egypt, however, does not seem to be completely out of the woods, as clashes occur between Mr Mubarak's supporters and the demonstrators demanding his departure.

Who is giving orders to the marauding hordes that are shooting and throwing stones? Who will blink in the face-off that is now involving charging camels and snipers from roof tops?

So has this been about democracy and freedom or about bread?

Mr Mubarak, in one of his many televisual tightrope acts, told his people that there is "a thin line between freedom and chaos", and now he fears "chaos" would follow his departure, and is conjuring the spectre of Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood as the devil Egyptians must avoid.

It is difficult to tell if democracy, whatever its raw and undiluted meaning is, has ever really been visited on our continent - men like Mr Mubarak and Mr Ben Ali were always re-elected with unbelievable percentages.

But the death of dictatorship in all its various guises - father of the nation, lion of this or that, defender of the weak, looter in chief - certainly makes us think that the absence of autocratic rule must mean the emergence of democracy.

Meanwhile, the powers of maximum influence - America, Europe - keep calling for an immediate transition to elusive democracy.

In most cases, they propped up our worst dictators, our longest-running rulers, our heavily financed and over-armed despots.

And in the blink of a month their tunes are changing - democracy is once again the rallying call, at the expense of the very men once held up as beacons of stability all over North Africa.

For more on events in Egypt and how the rest of the continent is reacting, listen to the BBC's Network Africa Weekend programme on Saturday and Sunday at 0400 GMT and 0600 GMT.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo' latest column, please use the form below. A selection of views will be published.

Dictatorship in Africa is often aggravated by poverty, religion, corruption, ethnicity and illiteracy. Without addressing these issues properly, democracy will still continue to elude Africa.

Charles, Nnewi, Nigeria

Dear Sevenzo, Mohamed Bouazizi's plight is the plight of every suffering man in the world today. Imagine! As opposed to stealing, someone is struggling to make ends meet by honest mean; and here is a dog barring its teeth, 'You have not got the permit.' Did we give the politicians and their cohorts the permission to steal public funds? It hurts. I do honest job and you take away the little on which I survive. It hurts.

Monychol Akop, Kampala, Uganda

We all should by now already know that nations only have permanent interests and not friends. And if those sit-tight African leaders think their western proppers would continue to hold them up forever, they should have another think coming. The truth is that, come what may, African dictators will be flushed out one day either by the restive masses or by nature. And Africa would find its rightful place in the world - that of the continent of the future.

Chief Bisong Etahoben, Yaounde, Cameroon

The events in North Africa are a wakeup call for the entire continent. You have leaders who cling to power for long stretches of time while they do nothing good for the continent's children, you have a continent blessed with so much but having nothing at the table because everything is been looted by the West and now China follow suit, so you have hungry angry people whose only alternative will be to take to the streets. Our leaders should wake up and work for the people or make way for the young patriotic able citizens who can turn Africa in a success story. Africa should be a leading continent but not a following continent as is the case. You have a continent divided in Euro or Arab centric, Anglo or francophone, it's time for us to choose our true friends and develop our continent as one, stop begging Europe and China and perhaps look at models like South Africa, Brazil and India.

Eli, Windhoek, Namibia

Dear Sevenzo, I will always admire Mohamed Bouaziz, I know he is "alive" and still with the youth. We shall never forget him. This world is never fair to honest people from poor family background, being poor is taken as a "crime". The politicians, presidents and even the people are behind the corruption, nepotism, tribalism, discrimination, marginalisation and suffering of this world, all in the name of satisfying their greed. So painful. For God and my country, Uganda.

Francis Onyilo, Ghent, Belgium

When Spiders unite, they can tie a lion. Mubarak should know that the ropes are painful because Egyptians have been careful to tie it across the wounds of his dictatorship. Worst, the wounds are old... 30 years at least!

Verlumun Kwaghchimin, Naka, Benue State, North-central Nigeria

Africans problems cannot be generalised. North African states including Libya. Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have the problem of Central plan economy that encourages dictatorship and monarchy, West African states practice open market economy that leads to chop I chop, that is corruption with tendency to democracy, Southern Africa had been white vs black economy.In Zimbabwe, the white vs black economy keeps Mugabe in Power. In North Africa, we have dictators and monarchies in West Africa unorganised market economies that are incapable of raising revenues.In southern Africa the, liberation stuggles go on. In final anlysis Africas problem apart from Southern Africa at this stage of development is simply central plan economy vs open market economy,

Sunny Ekwenugo, Berlin, Germany

Egypt's revolution was an important lesson for young Africans. From now on, the people will know that they have the power, that they are the power, that they can give and relinquish power, and finally, that power itself, is not invincible. Such an important lesson will take years for the dictators to erase from young minds. With the internet, it's nearly impossible. So either you African dictators consider democracy as an option, or the internet will come for you.

Innocent Oketa, Toronto, Canada

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