All Change Please: Africa’s long Summer

By Patrick Smith in Tunis
Posted on Wednesday, 28 December 2011 13:08

Calls for political change have swept from Egypt to Uganda and Angola, as young urban activists demand education, jobs and freedom

Presidents and prime ministers meeting at the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa in January 2012 will face a clear choice: respond substantively to the growing demands for political change or try to undermine and repress them. This latest wind of democracy is the most serious challenge to the principles of the AU – and its determination to break with past tolerance for authoritarian rule – since it was founded in 2002.

With the Arab League having backed a no-fly zone in Gaddafi’s Libya and expelled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from its ranks, regional organisations are raising the bar in the face of pressure for change. The ousting of three leaders in North Africa by popular resistance movements in the past year has indirectly influenced politics in other regions. African activists have organised popular and predominantly non-violent protests in 15 countries in a bid to wring concessions from incumbent regimes.

In 2012, 30 African parliamentary and presidential elections are due to be held, some of which, in countries like Senegal, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Kenya, are likely to be highly contested. In many of the other polls, incumbent parties look likely to lose power if the elections are free. Attempts to steal elections may well be met with stronger opposition than ever.

At the heart of the new power of pro-democracy politics in Africa is the popular desire to oust autocratic and incompetent governments. Sweeping economic and social changes, such as growing urbanisation and better communications, are bolstering this ‘people power’.

A decade of economic growth and the shift of global power eastwards have produced new reference points. Activists want to see Africa achieve the economic progress of East Asia, albeit with its own traditions of accountability and democracy. Movements demanding political change and social reform are mobilising well beyond the authoritarian regimes of North Africa, in Angola, Uganda, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When North African populations took to the streets, their demands for free elections and an end to personal rule and corruption repeated the ­clarion calls of democracy activists in much of the rest of Africa two decades ago. Then, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, activists organised national conferences to hold presidents to account and forge a new era of ­multi­party politics.

In countries like Ghana and Zambia, political pluralism has taken root and there is growing pressure on governments to be more accountable; in states such as Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Kenya, the transitions have been much more troubled. Whatever the shortfall, a new spirit is in evidence. “Young Tanzanians are talking about the Arab Spring and it seems the demos in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia motivate many young people in Tanzania,” says Zitto Kabwe, MP for the opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo party. “The government of Tanzania must learn a lesson from this and take measures to address issues of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. I am not saying the kind of revolutions happening in the Arab world will happen in Tanzania, but I can’t rule it out.”

Although Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni insisted “there will be no Tahrir Square in Uganda” – particularly during the heavily contested national elections in February – many others agree with Kabwe about the indirect effects of the North African revolutions on the rest of Africa.

The ousting of leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali undercut “the viability of autocratic governing models”, according to a late 2011 study by the US-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). It argues that Egypt, going back to the Free Officers revolution of 1952, had provided a model of “military rule morphing into an ostensibly civilian-run government, though with the military retaining enormous influence.”

It was a model tried and rejected in Nigeria but which has survived in Chad, Gambia, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Congo – all authoritarian states with poorly performing economies. What changed in Egypt was that, in the face of popular protest, the military refused to recognise Mubarak’s legitimacy.

The denouement in Cairo on 11 February, when army chief General Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak’s departure, must haunt President Omar el-Bashir’s National Congress Party regime in Khartoum, more than 1,600 kilometres to the south. How serious are the rumblings of discontent in Khartoum’s army? Given that two-thirds of it are from marginalised areas such as Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, northern oppositionists such as Yasir Arman, who leads Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, take seriously reports of growing dissent in the security services.

To read the full article, plus a map of the political changes happening across the continent, pick up the December 2011-January 2012 edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, by print subscription, or via our digital edition.

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