Africa’s growing activism: Taking down the autocrats, one at a time

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Monday, 5 April 2021 13:01

Sudan protests
A Sudanese woman celebrates in the streets of Khartoum after ruling generals and protest leaders announced they have reached an agreement on the disputed issue of a new governing body on Friday, July 6, 2019. (AP Photo)

Some politicians on the continent can seem eternal. But from the #EndSARS movement, to the Arab Spring, to Bobi Wine, there is an endless drive for change, too. Africa has a long history of protests and activism in support of better governance, fairer economic systems and development.

Tunisia kicked off a decade of revolutions in Africa in December 2010, with its ‘Jasmine Revolution’ that resulted in the end of the regime of President Zine al-Abidine at the beginning of 2011. Events in Tunisia were a catalyst for the Arab Spring.

Ten years later, ordinary African citizens, particularly the youth, continue to push for change in the archaic political climates of the various countries, attempting to take down Africa’s autocrats one at a time.

Protesters chant slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Youth leading the way

Modupe ‘Moe’ Odele, a lawyer who gained social-media popularity for providing legal aid to arrested #EndSARS protesters in Nigeria put it well: “Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations in the world – we are more than them.”

This applies to much of the continent, with almost 60% of Africa’s population under 25 years of age and the political classes overwhelmingly older than the citizens they are supposed to represent.

Protest movements have been successful to varying degrees with the toppling of long-standing regimes and creating policies that better suit citizens.

The Arab Spring was a series of pro-democracy uprisings led by the youth in several countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco.

The goals were to put in place a government that supports: democracy, fights corruption, allows for freedom of speech and expression, and guarantees equality for everyone. But using these objectives as a measure of success, most of these revolutions fell short of the end goal.

  • Although Egypt’s economy is growing, it has returned to an even harsher form of authoritarianism.
  • Since the ousting of Libya’s longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, feuding militias have fought for control, splitting the country in two, setting off a violent civil war. Only now has a fragile unified government been put together. 
  • Although Tunisia has a democratically elected government and is undergoing economic reforms, protests remain frequent in the face of renewed police brutality and perceived government corruption.
  • In response to the protests that erupted in Morocco, King Mohamed VI engaged in a series of political, economic, and social reform projects that put an end to the short-lived movement.

Even though the odds may seem stacked against them, activists continue to organise for the days when the regimes of presidents overstaying their welcome in office and using their power to enrich their families and allies will fall.


The Hirak Movement, also known as the Revolution of Smiles, erupted on February 2019 in Algeria. Protesters first marched on a national scale on 22 February 2019, and continued every Friday until the pandemic was declared.

It succeeded in ousting longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after he announced he would be running for a fifth term in the country’s 2019 presidential polls.

Since then, the new government led by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in the delayed 2020 polls, has not met the demands repeatedly echoed by Hirak.

Although the movement today is suffering from internal divisions, the protesters’ dedication to consistency is something to be admired, and something that is needed to overthrow long-standing governments.


In 2020, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was overthrown in a military coup. The military put in a place a transitional civilian government, before general elections would be held.

However, it seems that military personnel close to the coup-leaders have been appointed to key positions in this mixed government, while Malians continue to struggle to make themselves heard.

The Malian example though, proves that the military can be crucial in the success of a social movement. In other countries, such as Nigeria, where the military was with the government against the citizens, the results were a lot less successful.


In 2020, Nigeria saw a refuelled appetite for protest by the youth, once again against police brutality. The #EndSARS campaign targeted the Special Anti-Robbery Squad division of the police, known for unfounded arrests, beatings and other crimes against citizens.

The government reacted with force, opening fire on innocent peaceful protesters on 20 October 2020. The youth have continued to take to the streets despite thinly veiled threats by the government.

A demonstrator carries a banner during a protest demanding police reform in Lagos, Nigeria October 20, 2020. REUTERS/Seun Sanni


As of late, there has been a revival of youth activism in Senegal. Macky Sall has been forced to retreat a bit as protesters have rallied around Ousmane Sonko, the opposition leader. Arrested on 3 March 2021, Sonko is the catalyst for unprecedented popular protests.

The government, much like that of Nigeria, has responded with arbitrary arrests, live ammunition, and other forms of repression.

Senegal is calling for President Macky Sall to answer for his crimes, and to step down. It still remains to be seen whether he will do this, or simply continue to use excess force to silence the opposition.

South Africa

The #FeesMustFall student protest movement has been going in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

However, in October 2015, demonstrations began again at Wits University when a roughly 10% hike in tuition fees was proposed for 2016. This resulted in the closure of some of the country’s top universities, and the president at the time, Jacob Zuma, was prompted to order a freeze on fees for one year.

In September 2016, a repeat happened. The government proposed a hike of about 8% for 2017, and students reacted by calling for the government to make good on its post-apartheid promise of free education for all students, something the administration said it could not afford. In December 2017, Zuma announced a fee-free tertiary education plan for students from low-income backgrounds.

LISTEN Popular anger in South Africa, Sudan and Algeria

In March 2021, students still demonstrated, showing that nothing has changed. However, it also proves the determination of the youth – they will continue to demand for what they deserve from those they voted into power to ensure their wellbeing.


The 2019 pro-democracy revolution in Sudan overthrew the 30-year-strong brutal dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.

Under Bashir, the government was accused of grand corruption, bringing the economy close to disintegration, and committing serial human rights abuses, including war crimes and mass murder in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the now independent state of South Sudan.

But against the odds and most predictions, Sudan’s young protesters built a peaceful and disciplined movement to oust one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

In place of the former regime, a hybrid military and civilian government has been running the country – in what is meant to be a transition to free elections in one to two years’ time.

Although there are questionable elements in the transitional government carried over from the Bashir-era, protesters continue to push for change, most recently being in the Darfur region, ahead of the elections.


Born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, musician turned presidential candidate Bobi Wine was already a household name in Uganda before he gained global popularity. His music drew inspiration from the likes of Buju Banton and Bob Marley, artists who turned their fire on corruption politicians.

Bobi Wine first used his music as a platform for politics, before diving into direct political action as a presidential candidate. Since then, he has remained a thorn in President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation has been tasked by Museveni with counter-intelligence and surveillance of the opposition, with the most serious clashes taking place last year in the lead-up to  elections following the arrest of Wine.

Wine’s supporters went onto the streets across Kampala and other cities to protest his arrest, while army and police officers opened fire. After two days of clashes, 54 people were killed.

Following his questionable loss after the elections in January, Wine and his supporters are considering their next move, but the protesters succeeded in making their plight for change resonate across the international community.

Bottom line

Although Africa’s political class is still overwhelmingly old and not a good representation of the populace, the youth are not losing steam. Since the first mass protests took to the streets in 2011, we have witnessed a decade of the youth organising peaceful movements across the continent despite violent repression by the very governments who refuse to listen to the overwhelming majority in their countries.

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