In DepthThe QuestionEditorial: Where next for the African street?


Posted on Tuesday, 01 February 2011 11:12

Editorial: Where next for the African street?

By Patrick Smith

People can now at least agree on the vapidity of official Western announcements on African politics.

History broke the speed of sound for seven days in January. Tunisians overthrew an autocracy with dynastic ambitions; more than 90% of Southern Sudanese voted on becoming a new country; and Laurent Gbagbo consolidated his grip on power in post-election Côte d’Ivoire in the face of opposition from the African Union and the UN. “Where next?” asked a senior African politician. It was more rhetorical point than quest for information. Political change is accelerating in the wake of diplomatic failure.?

“We are all Tunisians now!” wrote an exhilarated correspondent in Cairo. It isn’t hard to forecast the flashpoints after that epoch-making week. Activists cheered across the Maghreb and the Gulf at the flight of the Zine el Abidine Ben Ali clan on the obligatory private jet to Saudi Arabia, celebrations tinged only with frustration that the regime’s main beneficiaries would not face trial for murder and theft of state assets. After former backers in the West refused him asylum, Ben Ali may now live out a protected exile in Jeddah. His son-in-law and heir presumptive, Sakher El Materi, had discreetly flown to Dubai days earlier.?

Hours after the fuite et fin of the Ben Ali clan, more young Africans set themselves ablaze in tribute to the young unemployed graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose fiery suicide in Sidi Bouzid on 17 December inspired Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. They did so on the streets of Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania.

?Pressure is mounting too on Sudanese President Omer el Beshir’s regime in Khartoum, where oppositionists called for mass protests if recent food and fuel price increases are not reversed. The regime responded by arresting its in-house dissident, 79-year-old Hassan al-Turabi. A month earlier it had sent agents to kill Mariam el Mahdi, the daughter of former President Sadig el-Mahdi; men with iron bars broke her arm in 14 places. President el Beshir has threatened to crush dissidents after having presided over the partition of Africa’s biggest country and being the first sitting president to be indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.?

A decade of its economies growing at more than 5% will not innoculate Africa from political tumult in a year when its governments are organising more than 20 elections. Apparent economic efficiency doesn’t dissipate outrage at gross inequality. US diplomatic reports, beamed around the world by Wikileaks, that El Materi fed his pet tiger Pasha five live chickens a day, fuelled fury from the jobless struggling to feed and educate their families.?

No one can pretend to have foreseen that Tunisia’s oppositionists, their sheer courage combined with new technology, would change the script so quickly. The acclaim greeting Tunisia’s secular democrats will encourage scepticism about an inevitable move towards theocracy in North Africa and the Middle East.

?Yet the military’s role was decisive: the army’s refusal to back the regime and its secret police sealed Ben Ali’s fate. The regime’s internet policemen failed to outwit innovative local engineers who shared their mastery of social networking sites.

?Soldiers and democrats are far from natural allies elsewhere. It is the support of the 17,000-strong army and 3,000 special forces that allows Laurent Gbagbo to defy the demands of regional leaders and the UN Security Council. It is that same army and its popular support that makes regional leaders think twice about their threat to oust Gbagbo from the presidential palace in Abidjan.

?People can now at least agree about the vapidity of offical Western pronouncements on African politics. Last year the World Bank pronounced Tunisia to be “far ahead in terms of government effectiveness, rule of law and control of corruption and regulatory quality”. Two years earlier France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy opined that Tunisia could be proud of having embarked “on the path of progress, on the path of tolerance”.

?More honesty all round would do much to encourage a credible route to progress.

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of The Africa Report.

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