Opinion and Analysis

Revolutions a wake up call to Africa

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Opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during a past protest. How leaders handle themselves during final days in office determines their legacy. AFP

Opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during a past protest. How leaders handle themselves during final days in office determines their legacy. AFP 

By Ernest Harsch

Posted  Wednesday, October 26  2011 at  21:55

In Summary

Shortly after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt captured international headlines, groups of militants in several sub-Saharan countries tried to follow those examples.

In Sudan, protest calls over Facebook brought hundreds of students into the streets of Khartoum and other towns.

Thousands demonstrated in Djibouti to demand ouster of the incumbent president.

As the “Arab Spring” of mass protests for democracy that is roiling much of North Africa and the Middle East slips past mid-year, activists and power holders across Africa continue to follow the unfolding revolutions — and ponder their impact on other parts of the continent.

In a number of other countries citizens watch the massive people’s movements of the Arab world with great sympathy — but are thankful they do not need to take similar risks because their own political systems are now sufficiently open to allow them some voice.

Addressing African countries in late May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded them that in North Africa it was a lack of freedoms “that led young people to take to the streets demanding change and fulfilment of their legitimate aspirations for better lives.” The message is clear, he added: ensure “sustainable political progress.”

In June, while hailing the changes in Tunisia and Egypt as a “new advance” in Africa’s decades-long march towards democracy, Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union Commission urged all African governments to see “the popular uprisings” as an occasion to recommit themselves to the AU’s democracy agenda.

In March, just months before she died, Kenyan human rights activist Wangari Maathai declared, “A wind is blowing. It is heading south, and won’t be suppressed forever.”

Fanning the sparks
Shortly after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt captured international headlines, groups of militants in several sub-Saharan countries tried to follow those examples. In Sudan, protest calls over Facebook brought hundreds of students into the streets of Khartoum and other towns.

Thousands demonstrated in Djibouti to demand ouster of the incumbent president.

Small pro-democracy protests organised over the Internet were held in Luanda, Angola, but were broken up by security forces. In Gabon, Nigeria and elsewhere, opposition leaders, trade unionists and other critics frequently spiced their public declarations with North African references, either to encourage their supporters or to frighten the authorities.

Echoes of the northern revolutions featured in several larger-scale movements.

In late February students in the Burkina Faso city of Koudougou protested the death of a fellow student following police beatings, chanting “Tunisia is in Koudougou!” and “Burkina will have its Egypt!” Their actions spread nationally and contributed to a succession of labour strikes, merchants’ demonstrations and army mutinies that began to wind down only in early June.

In Swaziland, online calls brought thousands of students and unionists out for pro-democracy rallies in various towns in April. Activists were motivated by long-standing local grievances, but also cited the inspiration of North Africa.

In Senegal, the government introduced parliamentary legislation that would have lowered the threshold for victory in next year’s presidential election from more than 50 per cent in the first round to just 25 per cent. An alliance of civic organisations and opposition parties promptly organised large, boisterous protests in Dakar and other cities on June 23rd.

Within hours the president reversed his position and withdrew the bill.

Despite such rhetoric, the events in Senegal point to a key difference from the political situation that prevailed in much of the Arab world. Senegal, like numerous other sub-Saharan countries, already has a functioning democratic system, and organised political forces ready to defend it.

By contrast, the authoritarian rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries tried to dig in their heels against popular demands for democratic reform — and ended up provoking revolutionary responses.

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