The winds of change that swept aside Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have swiftly blown east to test the long-serving leaders of Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan.
Yet if these winds can blow east across North Africa to the Middle East, can't they also blow south to sub-Saharan Africa? Surely there are plenty of dictators in Africa's other countries who have outworn their welcome after 20-plus years in power?
Perhaps, but different societies respond to the same conditions in very different ways, and the 53 countries of the African continent each has its own social structure and attitudes toward those in power. Here are four reasons why, despite the massive protests in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa remains silent.
Why Tunisia's Winds Of Change Aren't Blowing South To Sub-Saharan Africa
CSM, 31 Jan 2011
Weakness of civil society
Regime change is common in Africa, but it tends to come from the barrel of a gun and not because of street demonstrations, says Achille Mbembe, an historian at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. This means there are few organizations with the power to challenge the authority of rulers, to organize dissenters, and to articulate alternative ideas of government that ordinary people would be willing to give their lives for.
“Civil society organizations are often weak because they are divided along ethnic lines, and many nongovernmental organizations are simply revenue-generating activities, so they are not very helpful in building the values of a deep civil society,” says Mr. Mbembe.
The current debate among Ivorians over how to handle the current leadership crisis in Ivory Coast between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and apparent election-winner Alassane Ouattara is a typical example of how many members of African civil society look for their answers from international organizations like the United Nations and the African Union, and not from within their own societies.
“In Ivory Coast, the debate is whether there should be a military intervention to overthrown Gbagbo. They are all wanting foreign intervention to solve the problem. If we start resolving election disputes, the whole of the continent will be at war with itself, because each election is contested bitterly. People want someone to give them freedom, not to pay for it themselves.”
Lack of education spurs class identities
The protests in Tunisia and Egypt sprang from the salons and discussion groups of educated Tunisians and Egyptians. Better education among the citizens in those countries, and better involvement of citizens in civil society organizations, made it possible for those ideas and critiques to spread. (Social media such as Facebook and Twitter can play a role in the way ideas are transmitted, but those ideas come from a rigorous involvement of citizens in their societies, not from the buttons of a cell phone.)
Tunisians and Egyptians, then, have done a better job of organizing themselves around group identities and even around ideologies, factors that are often missing in the ethnically and linguistically divided nations toward the south.
“In the absence of strong class identities, many African oppositions fail,” says Professor Mbembe of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. “If people identified as dispossessed and poor, then of course the majority would rebel against many nations of Africa. But people identify with ethnic affiliation, and so they remain quiet, or they rebel on a smaller scale and are easily dealt with.”
African rulers use ethnicity to divide and rule
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where there is more homogeneity among the mainly Arabic speaking Muslim populations, sub-Saharan African nations are often deeply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Many voters choose their leaders from their own ethnic or even kinship groups, hoping that someday they can draw on their own ethnic ties to have government improve their lives.
“Often political activists align along ethnic lines, they are not ideologically based," says Corinne Dufka, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch in Dakar, Senegal.
Ethnicity as an organizational tool is used by parties that see themselves as socialist, and those that are more brazenly nationalistic and ethnic; it is used by ruling parties and opposition parties alike. Since very few countries in Africa are clearly drawn along ethnic lines – South Africa, for instance, has 11 official languages – ethnicity is often a divisive tool. This makes nationwide movements in ethnically diverse countries like Senegal or Zimbabwe – whether in campaigns against polio, or in protest against a president – all the more difficult.
Ethnic divisions are “instrumentalized” and perpetuated by many African rulers, adds Professor Mbembe. “To a large extent, the answer to why other nations in Africa fail to do what the Tunisians have done is because of the reality of ethnic divisions, instrumentalized by those in power,” says Mbembe. That keeps ordinary people reliant on ethnic leaders to represent them at the table of power.
Poverty makes many Africans risk-averse
Economic conditions fueled the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but these were not pitchfork-and-torches peasant affairs. Instead, the marchers are mainly urban, middle-class, and well-educated – the kind of people who are shielded from extreme poverty.
Consider this fact: In Egypt, 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (2005 estimate); in Zimbabwe, that figure is closer to 75 percent. Yet despite having a fractured coalition government and a weak economy, Zimbabwe’s streets are quiet, and Egypt’s are practically a war zone.
Extreme poverty is often thought to be like powder kegs for a revolution, but in reality, a man who doesn’t know where his meal is going to come from is less likely to spend a day marching in the streets than a man who has a decent chance of coming home to a cooked meal.
“In some of the countries of Africa, the people are so poor that they don’t have the economic cushion to go out and protest,” says Ms. Dufka of Human Rights Watch. “They’re much less willing or able to take risks in political disputes.”