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Signs of an African Spring

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Friday, 8 March 2019 21:08, updated on Monday, 11 March 2019 15:38

Algerians gather for a demonstration in Algiers, Friday, March 8, 2019. A festive crowd of thousands of protesters marched through central Algiers to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's hold on power. The protesters are challenging Bouteflika's fitness to run for a fifth term in next month's election. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

When regimes try to reform after years of stasis, they are at their weakest point. They have neither the legitimacy nor the resources to change the policy course.

The mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of young people on streets across the continent demanding economic and political rights challenges traditional oppositionists as much as incumbent regimes. In each case, the demonstrators in Algiers, Bamenda, Harare, Kampala, Khartoum and Kinshasa are taking on systems of vested interests and dysfunctional politics that are holding them back.

They are calling for sweeping change, not just different party colours in the presidency. Even in South Africa and Nigeria or countries where politics seems quiescent or dominated by competition between ideologically identical parties, these new movements send important messages.

First is that the economic downturn has exposed the jobless growth of Africa’s boom years. The demographic reality of the world’s youngest continent means this issue will dominate African politics for the next three decades. Although most policymakers talk of structural reform, very few have a strategy and can implement it.

Second, when regimes try to reform after years of stasis, they are at their weakest point. They have neither the legitimacy nor the resources to change the policy course.

The protesters’ grievances run the gamut of economic and social demands. The main targets are the spiral in youth unemployment, stagnant economies held prisoner by international commodity markets, together with deteriorating provision of education and training – a key ingredient to revive dynamism.

Activists are finding new ways to organise and avoid the attentions of the police. They have brought together students, professionals, and trade unionists of all ages – even feuding family members – into a sprawling movement.

Innovation is key to the organisational power of the new groups. Activists in Algeria are using WhatsApp groups of football fans to mobilise support. It worked. On the evening of 3 March, hundreds of thousands marched through the streets to call on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to refrain from standing for a fifth mandate in April’s elections.

In Sudan and Zimbabwe, the governments have tried to shut down services like WhatsApp, so activists use virtual private networks to share information and send messages to the outside world. All this has prompted easy comparisons with the rebellions that swept across North Africa in 2011.

The protest movements in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia started that way, so the argument goes, but ended in a new autocracy, bloody chaos or frustration and disappointment. There are parallels between today and 2011 but more importantly there are lessons.

Above all, demonstrate in peace, is the message circulating relentlessly among activists in Algeria and Sudan. Many hope the form of the demonstrations themselves, heterogenous with a strong, sometimes majority, participation by women, can shape the political transitions.

This may prove the hardest task: for a popular movement to take on the responsibilities and limitations of political power without betraying its supporters.

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