Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

African awakenings: Hope for the future

Firoze Manji charts the revolts and rebellions that have been occurring not just in northern Africa but across the whole continent

December 22, 2011
10 min read

A demonstration in Senegal’s capital Dakar

The bursting of citizens onto the streets of Tunisia and Egypt early in 2011 and the ensuing overthrow of the dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak has attracted widespread international attention. Concurrent with these north African uprisings, but largely ignored by the mainstream international media, there have been growing protests, demonstrations and actions by citizens in numerous other countries across the continent. It is not possible to recount the entirety of this ‘African awakening’ here. However, these examples provide a flavour of a continent-wide phenomenon which, looked at as a whole, provides hope for the future, as well as insight into how that future is being created today.

In South Africa, the ‘rainbow nation’ so frequently held up as a developmental model for Africa, police have conservatively measured an annual average of more than 8,000 ‘Gatherings Act incidents’ since 2005 by an angry urban populace, to say nothing of the demonstrations and occupations by homeless shack dwellers such as Abahlali baseMjondolo (see Natural Born Rebel, page 36), the Landless People’s Movement, the Western Cape Anti Eviction Campaign and so on.

In Senegal there have been a series of demonstrations against attempts by the government to fix the voting system with measures that would allow the incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, to win with just 25 per cent of the vote and enable his son to become the next president. Popular mobilisations against these measures led to a retreat by the government.

Gabon has been experiencing a popular revolt against the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo and president since October 2009. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Libreville, on 29 January, where they faced violent suppression from Ali Bongo’s troops. Protests spread to other cities, and the crackdown against them became increasingly fierce. Protests on 5 and 8 February were both suppressed with tear gas.

In February 2011, protesting dock workers in Mauritania clashed with riot police in Nouakchott, the nation’s capital, leaving many workers injured and several killed.

Madagascar has witnessed major uprisings against the government since 2009. Protests have continued, with students organising widespread strikes and demonstrations at several universities during 2011, as well as protests by grass-roots organisations opposed to land grabbing.

As the Tunisian uprising rolled into its third week in early January, Algerian youth were rioting in the streets protesting against exclusion and demanding social justice. The riots, which broke out in more than 20 provinces, resulted in five protesters being killed, several hundred wounded and more than 1,000 arrested.

During February Benin saw mass protests, with people demanding a delay of the elections planned for 27 February as 1.4 million voters were missing from the electoral roll. Benin’s constitutional court ruled in favour of the country’s opposition – backed by crowds of protesters – and delayed the presidential elections to 13 March in order to expand the electoral roll.

Mass protests in Djibouti in February against President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh were brutally put down.

In Burkina Faso , the day after the death by torture of the young Justin Zongo on 20 February 2011, violent demonstrations in Koudougou left two dead as the regime attempted to cover up the murder by proclaiming he had died of meningitis. The demonstrations grew but were met with brutal repression that led to further deaths, bringing the number of Burkinabe youth killed while demanding justice to six. Since then, the Burkinabe people have taken to the streets on several occasions. The regime closed all schools for more than a month and arrested opposition leaders of the Union for Resistance/Sankarist Party (UNITE/PS) at Kaya on 11 March 2011.

In Botswana , during May 2011, schools were closed as a result of public service strikes to demand increases in salaries and reinstatement of sacked staff. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) declared its solidarity.

In Uganda , in August, the ‘Walk to Work’ campaign resulted in widespread repression but led to the freeing of jailed opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Following his re-arrest, the campaign again took to the streets in October.

In June 2011, social movements of the disenfranchised in Kenya led protests under the banner of the ‘Unga Revolution’ against rising food prices.

In Swaziland thousands protested against the monarchy, with a series of mass demonstrations in September 2011 and threatened general strikes winning support from COSATU.

Malawi , a country that has been held up as a model of success by aid agencies, experienced a series of demonstrations in June 2011 that were met with violence and repression of freedom of expression in the media. A series of public service strikes followed.

Throughout 2011, Zambia has experienced a series of protests against declining living standards by workers and other sections of society.

In 2010, mass protests in Mozambique against rising food prices forced a number of concessions by the government to provide short-term subsidies for the public sector. Protests by workers in April 2011 were met with strong repression. With subsidies for food and other services still being cut, further protests are likely.

The roots of revolt

The mass uprisings and protests that have erupted across Africa and in the Middle East share similar causes and origins. Whatever one might say about the shortcomings of the post-independence governments in Africa, we have to acknowledge their extraordinary achievements over a relatively short period of time in terms of the provision of universal healthcare, education, social infrastructure and so on – improvements that manifested themselves in dramatic improvements in life expectancy and maternal, child and infant mortality rates.

Over the past 30 years, countries in the global South, particularly in Africa, have seen the systematic reversal of these gains. Almost without exception, the same set of social and economic policies – the so-called ‘structural adjustment’ programmes – have been implemented across the African continent, under pressure from the international financial institutions to ensure that African countries serviced their growing debt.

Photo: Zoe Leigh Smith

The creditors used the debt crisis to open up avenues for capital expansion through the extreme privatisation and liberalisation of African economies. The state was declared ‘inefficient’, despite its considerable achievements in the short period since independence, and public services were first run down before being sold off cheaply to the private (for which read oligopoly) sector. The state was barred from subsidising agricultural production and investing in social infrastructure, with prohibitions on capital investment in health, education, transport and telecommunications, until eventually public goods were taken over by the oligopolies. Tariff barriers to goods from the advanced capitalist countries were removed, access to natural resources opened up for pillaging, tax regimes relaxed and ‘export processing zones’ established to enable raw exploitation of labour without any regulations from the state or trade unions. Over time, privatisation was extended to land, agriculture and food production and distribution.

The effect was to reduce the state to a narrowly prescribed role in economic affairs, with precious little authority or resources for the development of social infrastructure. Its primary role was to ensure an ‘enabling environment’ for international capital and to police the endless servicing of debt to international finance institutions. Economic policies were no longer determined by citizens and their representatives in government but by technocrats from the international finance institutions such as the World Bank, with hefty support provided by the international aid agencies.

Not only had there been a systematic dispossession of the resources and wealth created by citizens, but they were also politically dispossessed. African governments became more accountable to the international financial institutions, corporations and development agencies than to the citizens who elected them.

Many criticise the structural adjustment programmes, and their successors, as being the product of ‘bad policy’ – neoliberal policies that are said to be dogmatic and an expression of market fundamentalism. But, as the Indian economist Prabhat Patnaik has argued recently, the policies that are being insisted upon by the international finance institutions are the result of the structural needs of financialised capitalism in the present era. Finance capital has become international, while the nation state must bow before the wishes of finance.

Across the continent we face a process of massive dispossession: dispossession of land through land grabbing, dispossession of the value of our wages, dispossession of our ability to produce what we, rather than what international finance capital, wants. It is this dispossession that citizens are resisting.

Bankrupt capitalism

The sweeping away of Ben Ali in Tunisia and of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt took the imperial governments completely by surprise. The response to the uprisings has been, in essence, to establish in Tunisia Ben Ali-ism without Ben Ali, and in Egypt Mubarak-ism without Mubarak. But what we have witnessed so far is but Act 1, Scene 1 of a long struggle that may take many decades to reach a transformative conclusion. Revolutions don’t happen overnight.

We are living in a period, as the Egyptian economist Samir Amin suggests, of wars and revolutions similar to those brought about by the financial crisis of capitalism in the 1870s that led to the carving up of Africa into colonies, and ultimately to the destruction of the first and second world wars – but also resulted in the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions and the rise of the anti-colonial movements in Africa. In the present era of the crisis of capitalism, which began in the 1970s, we have witnessed the re-emergence of the barbarity of capital, with military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire and just recently in Libya.

While capital will seek the triumph of might, albeit sometimes under the banner of the ‘ballot box’, citizens must be creative in confronting barbarism and in determining how we democratise our societies – who determines what is produced, how it is produced, by and for whom it is produced and what is done with the product? There is a bankruptcy in financialised capital’s capacity to resolve the quagmire of its contradictions. This provides an opportunity for generalising experiments such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in Latin America and the Caribbean, for building on solidarity among the growing numbers of oppressed and exploited internationally. We will sustain our hope for the future by taking on the challenge of building today the kind of society we want to live in with dignity, creativity, and solidarity.

Firoze Manji is editor of Pambazuka News and commissioning editor of Pambazuka Press. He is also co-editor of African Awakening: the emerging revolutions (Fahamu Books, December 2011)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


9