Beyond Cairo: Prospects for Revolution South of the Sahara


Protesters in the Ivory Coast – REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

I am sure most of you are following events in Egypt with particular interest, especially those of us that are interested in Middle Eastern history and politics. We saw the downfall of Tunisia’s long time dictator, Zine Abidine Ben Ali after almost three decades in power. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was ousted amidst waves of protests that captivated audiences across the world. As these events continue to reverberate in the media, I cannot help but think about the possibilities of something similar happening in many countries in sub Saharan Africa. I came across a few articles alluding to this, and I thought I should share some of them with you all.

But before going further, the most important question to ask is whether it is feasible, even remotely that an Egypt/Tunisia styled revolution can occur in Africa, south of the Sahara. The answer to this I do not know, but thinking about it raised more questions in my mind, especially as the political situation in the Ivory Coast continues to deteriorate. Protests to get rid of their dictator who refuses to leave power even after losing an internationally certified election have all but grounded to a halt. Yes, I know the circumstances that led to these protests are different, but their respective populations suffer similar prospects, i.e. massive unemployment, economic stagnation, high food prices, and long time dictators refusing to leave power.

Here are some questions for you all to think about: What is the difference between the “revolutions” in North Africa, and the political crisis in the Ivory Coast (Some might argue that the situation in the Ivory Coast is not a revolution)? Why has the Ivorian “revolution” fizzled, resulting in the current stalemate? Does the ruthlessness of the dictator in power matter (i.e. Zimbabwe, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola etc)? How about the political awareness of the people? Are Africans making things worse by appeasing dictators with power sharing deals that never seem to resolve the structural and economic problems some of these countries face (i.e. Zimbabwe, Kenya)?

What is interesting though is that I am not the only one who feels this way. John Campbell, a Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations tries to answer some of these questions, and suggests why revolutions in Sub-Saharan Africa might not work. According to Campbell:

Sub-Saharan African leaders, particularly those with less than stellar records of accountable governance, are certainly wary of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt. Some governments are all too willing to fire into crowds, and a weak national identity means people are not ready to die for their country. In other places, government is so weak, ineffective, or irrelevant to most people that they prefer to rely on their social networks as the state withers away…….

In an editorial from the popular Nigerian daily, NEXT, the editor went on……….

 The Ivorian military stands ready to kill its own citizens; the Tunisian army refused to shoot its own people. Many African leaders seem to have discovered this path to political eternity, by remaining in power only by stamping the lives of their subjects with poverty and misery.

However, is this always the case? In Guinea for example, the military gave up a bid to impose itself on the people after relentless pro democratic protests drove them to organize elections (though hundreds of civilians were massacred in the process). For those of you who are interested in sub Saharan African politics, I would really like to know what you think.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Author: Colin Powell School

"Social Thought with a Public Purpose" The Colin Powell School houses the activities in the Social Sciences at the City College of New York, connecting education and research to critical public concerns. Rooted in the Harlem community, the school is global in its diversity, outlook, and reach.

6 thoughts on “Beyond Cairo: Prospects for Revolution South of the Sahara”

  1. I think your article is a great one and creates a good setting for important discussions regarding power inter-play and challenges to pro-democracy movements in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have also wondered almost continuously, over the past few weeks, on whether there is a possibility of the Egypt-Tunisia type protests being replicated in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that are facing similar issues to those that led to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

    However, after some thinking I have realized that this question is probably too inadequate and has to be contextualized if it is ever to be answered. Maybe, we should first start by asking whether there have been pro-democracy revolutions (excluding anticolonial movements) in Sub-Saharan Africa. If there have been what form did those revolutions take and why did they or not take the manner of Egypt-Tunisia type revolutions? If there have not been, why has it been so? Definitely the later question is practically unnecessary but the former one has a keen relevance to the question we are handling now. I think that any accurate assessment will probably yield the one answer to our question; that, it is highly unlikely that Sub-Saharan Africa is going to respond (at least not soon) to the tunes emanating from Egypt and Tunisia. This answer is not pessimistic in any sense. It is in fact realistic and rising out of controlled optimism.

    I am not saying that Sub-Saharan Africa is not prepared for a revolution at the moment. If the recipe for a revolution is high youth unemployment, political plutocracy and authoritarian governance, then a revolution is certainly overdue in Sub-Sahara. My point is to simply note that there have been unending revolutions in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, such revolutions have not and may not morph into the Egypt-Tunisia type because they are always up against a common factor that is only sparingly present in Egypt and Tunisia. As some of the writers you quoted have alluded, the problem that revolutions in Sub-Sahara have faced is lack of homogeneity of the masses. Most of African nations in the Sub-Sahara, save for a few tiny ones, are extremely diverse in manners that are able to lead to conflicting political opinions and stances. There’s no gainsaying that issues like religion and ethnicity are likely to divide people’s opinions even when they face same conditions that they would logically get rid of if they decided to unite.

    In Sub-Saharan Africa, that problem has been even deeper and politicians know how to use it to their advantage. That is not to say that there is no definition of national interests in those nations. There is, and most citizens strive to foster the national interests, only that when it comes to the extreme circumstances, for instance, of a revolution; it becomes difficult to summon a sustained unity of purpose. As such revolutions in Sub-Saharan African have often been frustrated into sectarian confrontations and civil wrangles. The idea of homogeneity accounts for the reasons why countries like Lesotho and others that are less diverse have remained united and stable. Let’s not point to Somalia because it’s a special case. In Egypt and Tunisia, the key to success of the revolts lay on the many aspects of homogeneity among the masses, in terms of religion and culture. That’s just my opinion.

    In countries like Kenya and Nigeria where ethnic and religious jingoism often plays out into theatre of the absurd, it is highly unlikely that there would be a united front for an overdrawn mass revolution. It has nothing to do with the people; it is an expected phenomenon of human behavior that only softens with time. The same feelings that endear people to their nation in the form of patriotism are the same ones that endear them to their ethnic communities and religions, and sadly against the collective advantage of the nation. However with the generational transformation it is inevitable that in the coming future, new kinds of revolutions will overtake Sub-Saharan Africa and overtake in their wake, the forms of revolutions that are occurring today and that will still continue to occur in the near future.

    So is the question answered? Are we to expect street protests in Kenya next week? Absolutely NO! Not next week, not next month. We will have to be more patient; Kenyans, Nigerians, Zimbabweans and Cameroonians will have to be more persistent.

    W. Okumu Owuor.

    1. Hi Wilson,

      Your comment was very thoughtful, and you raised some very important points. There have been many “revolutions” in Sub Saharan Africa; whether they were/are pro democracy is a whole other argument. However, one thing they do/did have in common was/is the rhetoric of ending corruption, creating jobs, and bringing democracy etc. Many a-times, these were just smoke screens for even more repression, and the result is what we see across much of the continent today.

      Deep down, I think you do have a point that we are not prepared for a cohesive, civilian led, non violent, pro democracy movement along the lines of Tunisia/Egypt, or the former Soviet bloc countries for that matter. This I attribute to a myriad of structural problems that range from political, sectarian, and ethnic divisions to education and the political consciousness of the people. More importantly, the “vampire” regimes will do anything, kill, maim, and even plunge their countries into civil war if that what it takes to remain in power. The perks that power provides are too important, too good, and too easy than say, building democracy, allowing dissent, or building a progressive state. These incentives have trumped national unity and national interest.

      However, being the optimist that I am, I believe that we can get there, only we have to crawl first before we can run, and this takes time, patience, education, building of a strong middle class and civil society etc. There is always a price to pay for freedom and democracy so we need to move away from being mere spectators, not get caught up in the old ways of doing things, and take our own destiny/future in our hands.Just as the Egyptians/Tunisians used social media to effect change, we can also innovate “our own ways/means” to meaningful change, not just the mirage we were led to believe in decades past.

  2. Dear Friends,
    1) I think it is very important to not Romanticize Revolution, even though I appreciate enthusiastic discourse.
    2) Although I favor of course civil disobedience, practically speaking, there is always a cost to global security while any government transitions, i.e. Poland during the early ’90s and its then Soviet neighbors, plus then East Germany et al. (Ask General Powell.)
    3) I love to read meaningful dialogue, but we must remember generally, we are not ‘over there’ as Egyptian/Tunisian citizens, looking out our windows during mobs while trying to feed our children.
    4) My brother was in all of Sub-Saharan Africa doing clean water resourcing for several years after the Peace Corps there, during my time at Lehman College.
    5) He is buried in rural Botswana.

  3. Hi Maria;
    The idea here is not romanticize revolution;(although I also feel there would be no danger in doing that) rather our point is to try to draw some lessons and observations from the events in Egypt and Tunisia. It is true that we do not need a revolution in Tunisia to begin discussing about democratic movements in Sub-Saharan Africa, but as often the case, triggers such as the Egypto-Tunisian (pardon my lingo) revolution always provide better grounded pedestals to launch and expand our debates because they offer upfront real-case scenarios. Such events make our debates less abstract and rule out the need for mere academic rationalizations. Thus it is important to seize the ‘opportunities’ created by those events as well as use them to shape our dialogues and evaluate existing paradigms.

    Obviously revolutions are risky and in some cases, they have caused more problems than they have solved. One reason is because radical revolutions are often less creative and sometimes the revolutionaries often find themselves confused at the end, asking the most unexpected questions such as; Why did we revolt? What next? But even with those possible undesired consequences, I don’t think there is ever any safer alternative to a revolution because a revolution comes when there are literally no other safer alternatives other than the revolution itself.

    So all in all, I think it is perfectly legitimate and even vital for us to open all kinds of discussions that are relevant to the Egypto-Tunisian revolution even if they are mere gossip or speculations.

    W. Okumu Owuor.

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