The Power of Protests in Africa

The Power of Protests in Africa
In the past decade, popular protests in Africa have become an increasingly important tool for youth to speak up against the ineffective and unjust authoritarian leaders often trying to extend their rule. 
These demonstrations and revolutions have a sort of infectiousness to them. This is partly because of social media and the increased ability to organize and communicate that the internet brings. It’s also partly because these protests serve as inspiration for each other.

It began with the Arab Spring

Many trace this new fervor for protests in Africa to the Arab Spring. One man’s self-immolation fuelled the flames of a revolution that would be felt across the continent. The Arab Spring refers to the series of demonstrations that occurred in the Middle East. It started in 2010 as Tunisians protested the 23-year-long rule of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali which was plagued by economic hardship, corruption and oppression.

Similar movements occurred in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Several of these uprisings resulted in overthrowing dictators. Ben Ali fled Tunisia and the country held its first democratic elections in 2011. Similar results occurred in Egypt with the removal of Mubarak, as well as in Libya, where the infamous Gaddafi was executed.

Mixed Success of the Protests

Since the start of the Arab Spring, however, all of these countries have been wrought with political upheaval, a lack of resources and violence. The social and political freedoms the protestors fought for haven’t been realized as many of these countries are still under authoritarian rule.

This illustrates the mixed success of such protests in Africa. As the momentum of popular demonstrations continued, the Senegalese protesters succeeded in preventing their president from bidding for an illegal third term. More recently in Burundi, anti-government protesters aimed to do the same with President Pierre Nkurunziza. Unfortunately, he was able to run and win a third term.

Protests in Africa

Stories of protests in Africa are often very similar. Long-lasting poverty and the lack of economic opportunity is typically present. It breeds the frustration with the ineffective and unjust leadership necessary to spark revolutions. So unemployed and dissatisfied youth turn to the streets to make their demands heard. The increase in demonstrations, says Eleanor Whitehead of Al Jazeera, reflects “growing intolerance for ineffectual leaders with an appetite for extending their time in power.”

Protests in Africa are by no means scarce. Yet these events rarely make their way into mainstream media coverage or academic study. South Africa may be the one exception, but looking at these African revolutionaries can help counteract the Western narrative of Africa.

This same story continues to repeat itself across the continent as protesters continue to demand political reform. The results can feel hopeless as most revolutions don’t lead to any direct change in leadership or conditions. With each retelling, however, and with each new uprising, there are little victories that can provide other opportunities for future reforms. These protests in Africa are mechanisms for the public to begin holding their leaders accountable.

Take the 2017 Kenyan elections. After the incumbent president won, the court annulled the election, saying it was “neither transparent nor verifiable” as noted in an election report by Jason Burke in The Guardian. In the end, this had no bearing on the results of the re-election, but it was a historic decision nonetheless.  

This decision showed the increased strength of the judicial system in Kenya, a system capable of reigning in the power of the president. It set a precedent of requiring fair elections in the future and it can serve as an inspiration to the rest of the continent. However, this ruling probably wouldn’t have been possible without the rioting after the 2007 election and the outcry by the opposition in 2013.

– Liesl Hostetter
Photo: Flickr