Beyond Cairo: Prospects for Revolution South of the Sahara


Protesters in the Ivory Coast - REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

I am sure most of you are following events in Egypt with particular interest, especially those of us that are interested in Middle Eastern history and politics. We saw the downfall of Tunisia’s long time dictator, Zine Abidine Ben Ali after almost three decades in power. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was ousted amidst waves of protests that captivated audiences across the world. As these events continue to reverberate in the media, I cannot help but think about the possibilities of something similar happening in many countries in sub Saharan Africa. I came across a few articles alluding to this, and I thought I should share some of them with you all.

But before going further, the most important question to ask is whether it is feasible, even remotely that an Egypt/Tunisia styled revolution can occur in Africa, south of the Sahara. The answer to this I do not know, but thinking about it raised more questions in my mind, especially as the political situation in the Ivory Coast continues to deteriorate. Protests to get rid of their dictator who refuses to leave power even after losing an internationally certified election have all but grounded to a halt. Yes, I know the circumstances that led to these protests are different, but their respective populations suffer similar prospects, i.e. massive unemployment, economic stagnation, high food prices, and long time dictators refusing to leave power.

Here are some questions for you all to think about: What is the difference between the “revolutions” in North Africa, and the political crisis in the Ivory Coast (Some might argue that the situation in the Ivory Coast is not a revolution)? Why has the Ivorian “revolution” fizzled, resulting in the current stalemate? Does the ruthlessness of the dictator in power matter (i.e. Zimbabwe, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola etc)? How about the political awareness of the people? Are Africans making things worse by appeasing dictators with power sharing deals that never seem to resolve the structural and economic problems some of these countries face (i.e. Zimbabwe, Kenya)?

What is interesting though is that I am not the only one who feels this way. John Campbell, a Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations tries to answer some of these questions, and suggests why revolutions in Sub-Saharan Africa might not work. According to Campbell:

Sub-Saharan African leaders, particularly those with less than stellar records of accountable governance, are certainly wary of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt. Some governments are all too willing to fire into crowds, and a weak national identity means people are not ready to die for their country. In other places, government is so weak, ineffective, or irrelevant to most people that they prefer to rely on their social networks as the state withers away…….

In an editorial from the popular Nigerian daily, NEXT, the editor went on……….

 The Ivorian military stands ready to kill its own citizens; the Tunisian army refused to shoot its own people. Many African leaders seem to have discovered this path to political eternity, by remaining in power only by stamping the lives of their subjects with poverty and misery.

However, is this always the case? In Guinea for example, the military gave up a bid to impose itself on the people after relentless pro democratic protests drove them to organize elections (though hundreds of civilians were massacred in the process). For those of you who are interested in sub Saharan African politics, I would really like to know what you think.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.