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)


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