t’s a question on people’s lips, consuming many a column inch here. Could the dramatic scenes witnessed in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli be played out in Dakar, Abidjan or Harare? Could the revolutions engulfing countries north of the Sahara spread their way south ?
No consumer of African radio, TV or newspaper has been spared the awe-inspiring stories from their neighbours to the north. They have not missed the desperate symbolism of Mohamed Boazizi's self-immolation, nor the brave, patient and peaceful resistors of Tahrir Square, nor the gallantry of Libyan soldiers refusing to fire on their brothers and sisters at pain of mass execution.
So could it happen here – in Senegal or beyond? You might find reason to think so. Many of the factors attributed to the revolutions in the Arab world are shared in many countries across the continent. Young urban populations lacking jobs or prospects, elites sifting off the nations’ wealth, arbitrary power exercised without accountability, democratic processes weak, manipulated or bypassed.
But looking around, all remains quiet and my straw (and hugely unrepresentative) poll is sceptical that it would, or could, kick off in quite the same way. A stolen election and two months of political stalemate in Cote d’Ivoire sees serious, ongoing and oft-ignored violence, but talk of a popular revolution to unseat Laurent Gbagbo “à l’egyptienne” remains just that. In other contexts where autocrats have misruled and plundered – think Zimbabwe or Congo – uprisings have either been easily suppressed or accommodations made, with the plundering continuing anew.
It’s not easy to explain – just as it’s not clear why the Greeks revolted yet the Irish stayed passive following the financial crash, as outlined in this astounding article – and the answers I’ve been hearing from people here feel a little unsatisfactory. I keep hearing or reading the view, from Africans themselves, that ‘black Africans’ (ie. Sub-Saharan Africa) are too passive, too deferential, to challenge those in power; that they are too pragmatic, too unprepared to throw their own bodies on the line for a cause beyond their own interest.
I don’t think so. To make any generalisations about ‘Africans’ is problematic, to generalise across scores of countries lazy, to assign continent-wide character traits to explain responses to political systems patronising – as if only citizens of richer countries responded to incentives and power structures.
Did people not say the same about Arab populations, who had endured – tolerated? - decades of misrule, until just 2 months ago? And was it not Africans who sacrificed their own lives and livelihoods for decades as part of liberation battles against colonial oppression and apartheid?
To me, generalising along these lines obviously won’t work; probably generalising on any lines won’t work. But at the same time there may be something – sufficiently common histories, political systems, levels of economic development between some groups of countries – that might provide some food for thought, if nothing else. I hope so, because otherwise what follows is crap.
So here are a couple of thoughts – more initial reactions and pub opinions than anything more substantial or researched – that stick out for me. I’d be interested in what you think…
Sub-Saharan African countries that could revolt but haven't are significantly poorer than the North African ones that have. Senegal’s GDP per capita is about half that of Egypt’s. Whilst in some respects this should lead to greater grievance, it lessens it in others. There are young, jobless, disenfranchised graduate populations in Senegal and elsewhere, but probably not on the same scale. There is of course great inequality, but perhaps in many cases it is less stark. There are the aspirant, frustrated populations who know about and strive for the opportunities of the outside world - the ones who led these revolts - but there are also more people simply struggling first and foremost for the basics of food and clean water.
Technology is still playing catch up. Yes, mobile phones are everywhere, and internet access is expanding at a startling rate, but an important digital divide remains. Senegal’s connectivity is less than a third the rate of Egypt’s, so the online organising and community building that appeared to facilitate these movements may have some way to go.
Younger nations, less united. I think there may be some truth somewhere in the clams people make that many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have a weaker sense of nation than you might see in Egypt or elsewhere, or at least perhaps a weaker sense of national unity. Africa does not lack conflict, but the people turning on each other seems to be more common than the people turning against the elite. It is not like no one ever voted for Laurent Gbagbo or Robert Mugabe, not like they have no support in their areas and fiefdoms - perhaps testament to the continued strength in many countries of patronage systems and identity politics. (Interestingly, the struggles against apartheid South Africa may be an exception to this, but equally we might read it as a fight against colonialism, a fight against oppression by perceived outsiders, rather than one seen as oppression from within).
The West doesn’t often notice, doesn’t often care. With rare exceptions (Zimbabwe in the British media for example), the odd bit of repression and massacre doesn’t often make it to Western TV until it is becomes a full-blown genocide. ‘Stand-off in Ivory Coast Threatens to Boil Over into Full-Scale News Blurb’ is how The Onion brilliantly captured it. Just keep an eye out on how often you read about the current crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, or the 13-year conflict in Democratic of Congo that has claimed the lives of over five million people. I follow African news and until recently I had never heard of 100 Cameroonian protestors being shot in 2008 by government troops.
This matters. International exposure provides an important sense of security and solidarity for protestors, and can apply a brake on the wildest excesses (Gaddafi excepted) of regimes under pressure. When we don’t watch, we don’t cry foul.
Luckily there are often (imperfect) alternatives to storming the Bastille. Protestors in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya had no other option; there was no chance of a peaceful handover from regimes grown comfortable and arrogant by decades in power. Yet democracy of some sort exists in most countries in the continent, and is part of a growing trend. They are, of course, often a source of conflict and instability, are frequently deeply imperfect, occasionally farcical, but in a number of important cases do at least allow another way of changing government and influencing power. Failing that, there is always the tried and trusted coup d’état.
Either way it is telling that those being currently thrown out of office are in general some of the world’s longest serving regimes – Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali have had over 95 years in the hot seat, and there aren’t many other African leaders who can match that.
These are some of my guesses, no doubt wild generalisations and wide of the mark. Importantly though, I think many of them will change. Demographics and economics is rapidly creating those young, alienated, educated populations able to lead revolts, and communications are expanding even faster. Nations are getting stronger, and there may be no more unifying thing than overthrowing a hated leader. But perhaps most of all there is a heroic example to the north – the omnipotent have become powerless; the powerless, omnipotent. Fear, intimidation and deference no longer need reign, the scales can fall from people’s eyes.
Revolution in Senegal? I doubt it, and in fact very much hope not. There are serious problems here of governance, corruption, economic stagnation, weakening democratic processes, but no large-scale abuse, and people can – and do – rightly protest and find avenues to express their discontent. That may not be enough right now, the space to do so may be smaller than it should be, the political alternatives weaker than one would hope for, but ultimately there remain non-violent ways of changing government, ways of grabbing back power, ways of strengthening a democracy.
The revolutions we have seen, and continue to watch with awe, are inspirational and could lead to a transformation for people across North Africa and the Middle East. But they are not – in my humble, outsider and irrelevant opinion - for everywhere. Ultimately we should want democratic processes to work in a way that revolutions will neither be necessary nor desirable, and where there exists something to build on, something to strengthen, something to save – like I think there is in Senegal - then save it we should. But a little more of the sprit of Tahrir Square would be no bad thing.