Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change – Interview with the authors

AfricaUprisingAfrica Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly, is a new book recently published in the African Arguments series. We asked the authors 7 questions about protest movements in Africa.

  1. Reading Africa Uprising it often feels not simply like a description or analysis of how protest movements have operated in Africa, but also a study of both the political economy of protest and also how the state has reacted to such “˜uprisings’. Is the major interest in African protest movements what they tell us about the composition of society, rather than what they achieve “˜politically’?

Protests are fascinating to study not only because they are exciting moments when old regimes fall and new orders arise, when the power of the people takes to the streets, but also because they are a window onto broader social and political questions. Our approach was not to limit our analysis of protests to the structural conditions amidst which they arise, though we were certainly interested in those, but rather to focus on the dynamics of protests as they unfold. Put differently, our question is not why some countries experience popular protests while others do not, but, rather, what the political role of protests is and what that tells us about the broader relationship between peoples and governments in Africa today.

  1. What do the recent “˜failures’ of protest movements in Nigeria, Uganda and Sudan tell us about both the nature of the societies in which they developed, and the nature of the regimes whose actions they sought to alter?

We try to get away from the idea that, because these protests failed to achieve their stated objective of unseating the incumbent, the protest movements themselves were failures. Instead, we are more interested in how protests throw open novel political possibilities that until recently might have been inconceivable. We are interested in the transformations in political imaginations occurring through protests, more than transformations in formal political institutions. For example, in Sudan, it is true that the protests failed to overthrow the Bashir regime. But it is important to remember that most young people have only known a single leader their entire lives, and what the recent protests have done is to allow a new generation to imagine a post-Bashir Sudan in ways impossible just a few years ago. So for us, it is essential to understand how protests, even when immediately unsuccessful, can still transform the political context and have repercussions that become apparent only months, or even years, later.

  1. Are governments in Africa becoming more effective at countering protest movements, even if the desire to protest may be increasing?

Absolutely. And in this way, African governments are very much in line with trends unfolding elsewhere across the world. Everywhere, it seems, protests are increasingly seen not as a basic form of democratic political action but rather as a threat that must be controlled. What we’ve seen are African governments adopting a wide variety of strategies, in particular militarization and disciplinary development policies, that have helped manage, prevent, or shut down protests. Yet, the fact that African governments must revert to increasingly coercive measures demonstrates that protest remains a potent form of political action for African peoples.

  1. What role does the mantra of unity and prosperity through “˜developmentalism’ have on the success or otherwise of protest movements, or the willingness to oppose actions of the state?

In some cases, such as Uganda, it is clearly the failure to effect substantive change in the living conditions of the urban poor that helps give rise to protest. In other cases, states have adopted developmental policies to quell protest – Ethiopia is the key example, which put in place an intensive developmental program as a response to the 2005 popular uprising against Meles Zenawi’s regime. However, this is authoritarian developmentalism, in which jobs and infrastructure go hand-in-hand with a tremendous expansion of the state security apparatus throughout society. Thus, whether today’s authoritarian developmentalism can actually address popular grievances or whether it is just keeping a lid on increasing popular frustration is uncertain – but we would note the continued eruption of minor protests throughout Ethiopia’s urban areas even in the face of state repression.

  1. Is a fear of the disorder following an overturning of the state through protest (and violent uprising) a major conservative force in societies that have both “˜civil’ protests and violent uprisings with little cooperation between the two.

Yes. In both the Sudanese and Nigerian cases we write about, we see how certain key groups””labour in Nigeria and opposition parties in Sudan””break from the broader protest movement due to exaggerated fears of instability, and in doing so undermine the protests’ political power. It is true that political society protest often demands more radical solutions than the reformist approach preferred by unions and opposition parties. Yet, looking historically, we see that it is when movements can bridge these internal divisions that they are most likely to achieve their objectives. Considering that labour unions and opposition parties possess the organizational structures necessary to give coherence and durability to popular protest, the onus is on them to understand the real reasons for popular anger instead of trying to co-opt these energies into more self-interested agendas.

  1. Why have sub-Saharan African popular protests been so ignored in recent analysis of global protest movements when the continent displays a rich and varied history of popular uprising? For example, Alex de Waal points to the fact that Sudanese popular protest effectively removed two governments (1964, 1985) years before the “˜Arab Spring’.

Outside of the North Africa and South Africa, the continent remains a real blind spot for the left. In researching this book, we were struck by how even the most thoughtful commentators on the global protest upsurge frequently mischaracterized protest in Africa as a mere echo of the “˜Arab Spring’ or ignored it altogether. There are probably many reasons for this, including the continued perception of Africa as too rural, too poor, and too trapped by tribalism to engage in popular, non-ethnic politics. Sadly, many on the left seem to have bought into these stereotypes, stereotypes we hope to dismantle with our book. The other major misconception we want to dismantle is the “˜Africa Rising’ narrative, popular among neoliberal commentators. This narrative holds that a rising middle class and elite will lead Africa’s democratization. We reject this view as well in favour of a vision that puts the agency of Africa’s urban poor at the centre of future political change.

  1. Is there a country in sub-Saharan Africa which you see as being ripe for an effective protest movement to challenge either the overall power of the state, or a particular policy?

What we were most struck by in the book is the way that many in Africa have lost faith in democratic elections as the solution to structural problems. Across the continent, protests have unfolded in countries spanning the democratic spectrum – often, the formal political institutions matter little in determining where protest will take place. We understand this popular disillusionment as part of a broader crisis of political legitimacy in Africa characterized by the increasing distance between state policies and popular demands. By this standard, few African countries are not vulnerable to popular protest, and in fact we document over 90 major protests in the past decade occurring in over 40 African countries. As the conditions that give rise to protest are perpetuated by national and international political and economic inequity, we fully expect the ongoing wave of protests to continue.

Questions by Magnus Taylor, Editor of African Arguments.

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