Never doubt the enduring possibility of an African Spring

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By Antony Mutunga

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has – Margaret Mead

The year is 1848, the spring of Nations. A revolution like none before takes place in Central and Western Europe. Its cause? The people had grown tired of the endless degradation in the economy as well as the increasing cost of living that threatened their way of life. The revolution became a famous point in time as it revealed the power of a united people. In 1968, yet again a similar event takes place: the citizens of Prague rise up against the unfair control by the Russians in what is famously known as the Prague Spring.

Recently in 2011, history repeated itself once again as North Africa and the Middle East witnessed one of the largest revolutionary waves this world has ever seen – the Arab Spring. The countries involved all experienced activities from non-violent protests to civil wars. The genesis was Tunisia when a man by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the authorities treated him unfairly and destroyed his business.

Despite having different cultures, most, if not all, countries in Africa seem to be facing the same problem: chronic unemployment, especially among the youth, high levels of corruption, increasing costs of living and limited participation in decision-making. These are the exact same reasons that caused the revolutionary Arab Spring and the resulting Arab Winter.

Despite experiencing the same challenges, some countries were not able to rise up and follow in the steps of the Arab Spring. Most people were expecting the Arab spring to eventually turn out of control and degenerate into a violent African spring but most countries, especially those south of the Sahara, were able to get by without any major incidences.

Why so?

In many countries where protests had just starting to pick up, the authorities acted fast and put the police on the streets to disperse the gathering crowds before things could get out of hand. For instance, in Senegal the youth were already starting to protest but the police were quick to repel them. These incidences also took place in other African countries but because they were minor protests, they had little to no effect as compared to those in the Arab countries – there was unrest in Western Sahara, Djibouti, Sudan, and Uganda.

As a result of the Arab Spring, governments elsewhere became wary of the same happening in their countries and therefore undertook measures to control citizen’s actions. Most decided to offer the public concessions in order to divert their minds from protesting and/or revolting. For example, the Kenya government issued fuel subsidies to relieve the pressures of inflation on the public.

Technology played a big part in the start of the Arab Spring; the protestors used social media to plan and conduct the protests and to make sure that they reached as many people as possible. This was the key to the event’s extensive mobilisation. Some governments south of the Sahara learnt from this and decided to shut down social media for the public. For instance, in 2011 the Ugandan government shut down both Facebook and Twitter so that citizens would not communicate and plan protests. Some went as far as abolishing the use of some of the words – example are “people power” – when it came to instant messaging.

The military as well played a major role in the revolutionary war. Most countries involved in the Arab spring were still at the stage of army generals always trying to take over political control through military coups. When the Arab Spring erupted, many governments were exposed, as they did not have the full backing of their armies; it was easy for the protestors to prevail.

However, the case was much different for countries south of the Sahara. Most of the nations had already experienced military coups in the past and thus had come up with ways to depoliticise the army. This ensured that the ruling government had a military force that was loyal to them so that in case of any revolutionary wars, they were assured of support and protection.

The main reason there was no revolutionary war in most countries of the south of the Sahara was because democratic transitions were taking place. Different countries had adopted multi party democracy after being victims of single party regimes for a long time. This provided the people with the option of democratically changing regimes they were not pleased with. This structure gave the assurance of an open system that allowed the people to be able to air their views, and diminished the need for (violent) revolution.

Lessons  

All these events are evidence that the mobilisation of the people is a formidable source of democracy as people can take charge and fight against governance and societal ills, including those involving the ruling government. Besides, it is motivation for regimes to make attempts to live up to citizen’s expectations to ensure their own safety.

Notwithstanding that there has been no African Spring yet, political leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, indeed the whole continent, need to learn from what happened in the Arab world starting 2011. The same problems that led to the Arab spring have only gotten worse all over Africa and the people are tired of empty promises. Things have changed and now more than ever, African leaders need to be wary of the late Wangari Maathai’s words: “A wind is blowing. It is headed south and it won’t be suppressed forever.”
2016 was full of surprises; 2017 might surprise even more.

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