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Aspiring to Tahrir

Justin Pearce asks when African hope will translate into real change

December 23, 2011
5 min read

Ever since protests in Egypt brought down one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, activists in places as far apart as Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia have been declaring their own ‘Tahrir Squares’. People have taken to open spaces in African capitals to protest against corruption, poverty and leaders past their expiry dates. So far, the ‘Tahrir’ label represents an aspiration rather than an accurate description. Protests south of the Sahara have mainly numbered in hundreds rather than many thousands, and there is no prospect just yet of any change of government, even if the grievances that drove the protests of the Arab Spring are familiar to many Africans elsewhere on the continent.

As someone who studies African politics, I keep being asked whether the protests in north Africa will have an impact south of the Sahara. It’s a tough question, not least because of the problems of generalising about a continent that is home to a billion people with diverse histories and political traditions. If there is a common African experience, it has to do with the continent’s incorporation into the world economy on terms that have remained unfavourable and the way in which social and economic relationships within Africa were forever changed by the experience of colonialism.

A new book by two African academics (Politics in Africa: a new introduction, Zed Books) suggests that the end of colonialism in Africa was not so much a grand march to freedom as a deal stitched up between the departing Europeans and local elites answerable to nobody. Nana Poku and Anna Mdee argue that political legitimacy in independent Africa, as much as in colonial times, depends on force rather than a social contract. The advent of multi-party democracy in the 1990s reshuffled the elites rather than introducing a representative mode of politics.

No one expects very much from their government, and this is reflected in the cynicism with which people speak not only of their rulers but of politicians in general. ‘Voting doesn’t fill the belly,’ a Mozambican journalist told me after the 2004 elections, when dissatisfaction with the government was manifested not in votes for the opposition but by record low voter turn-out. ‘Radical’ and ‘moderate’ in Africa were little more than labels that leaders adopted to signal their belonging to one or other global club of nations in the cold war. So it’s no surprise that many people are sceptical about ideological claims.

Another legacy of colonial rule is violence. Memories of violence may nurture fear over decades. In Angola the violent reprisals that followed a coup attempt in 1977 were cited until recently as a reason why people were reluctant to criticise the government. Just like anywhere else, though, African states are most likely to wield the boot when their ability to rule by consent is under threat.

Politics is the art of rulers convincing the ruled that they share the same interests. Tales of anti-colonial liberation remain a powerful ideological tool, particularly in countries where memories of white rule are recent. It is no coincidence that anti-imperial rhetoric has re-emerged at a time when economic globalisation and the pressure on African states to accept unfavourable terms of trade have undermined the capacity of African leaders to renegotiate the terms of their country’s position in the global economic system. Instead, anyone attempting to challenge the ruling party has to defend the charge of being counter-revolutionary.

‘Tribalism’ is an accusation that non-Africans use to write off African politics as irrational. It is more accurate to say that local ties are strong in parts of the continent, and that some leaders have done well out of stoking regional or ethnic rivalries. Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi was notorious for this. Kenyan politicians still think out strategies in terms of building ‘ethnic coalitions’. A political culture that puts regional solidarity above all else – implying common interests between, say, a peasant farmer and a local politician-cum-businessman – is an obstacle to organising on class lines around issues of national importance.

Trade unions were important in the Egyptian revolution, and unions have also long been a base for political organisation in many countries further south. But formal employment in Africa is becoming rarer, and informal sector workers have yet to find effective ways of organising. Michael Sata’s election as president of Zambia – even if Sata, 74, hardly represents political fresh air – demonstrated that labour issues can still be a rallying point, at least in countries where mining and manufacturing are important.

Sata also demonstrates how long the founding generation of African statesmen seems determined to stick around. But the causes for optimism in Africa are to be found in the young ages of the street protesters: a generation that may lack political direction but that at least maintains a healthy scepticism towards the myths and fears of the past. Technology is on their side. Internet access is uneven across the continent but is getting better. Social media fanned this year’s protests, and YouTube has helped show supportive diaspora communities what’s going on back home. The real change may come once smartphones are as ubiquitous as Nokia 1100s are today.

Justin Pearce is a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London

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