From Burundi to Nigeria: Power to the people in Africa? – By Simon Freemantle
Last month Zedi Feruzi, the leader of the opposition party United for Peace and Development (UPD) in Burundi, was gunned down in the streets of the capital, Bujumbura. Mr Fezi’s murder came as the government continued in its efforts to suppress the violent protests which have emerged in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to flout the country’s constitution and run for a third term in power when presidential elections are held next month. It has been reported that more than 40 people have already been killed in the protests, and between 100,000 and 150,000 have fled the country, yet the president, who was able to maneuver around an attempted coup d’etat last month as well, remains firmly ensconced. Most recently, Burundi’s independent electoral commission (CENI) hastily filled two vacant committee positions in order, the opposition has complained, to ensure that parliamentary elections can take place on June 26, followed by ill-advised presidential elections on July 15. Notably, the vacancies in question were created by the resignation of two of the CENI’s five committee members, one of whom (the former vice-president of the commission) has since fled the country.
This is not a wholly unfamiliar narrative for the continent, nor is it for much of the developing world over the past half century in particular. Leaders, too often gripped by the idea that their authority is ordained, rather than earned, have been belligerently and violently holding on to the levers of power and influence for much of Africa’s independent history. And external support – either in the form of the amorphous and slow-moving “international community”, or regional African authorities (many of which are themselves fearful of democratic change) – are often too deeply conflicted to effectively intervene. To be sure, protesters on the streets of Bujumbura would likely (and wisely) have measured their expectations for President Nkurunziza to be firmly rebuked by either the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the African Union (AU), both of which are currently chaired by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. In fact, speaking on the sidelines of the recently-concluded AU summit in Johannesburg, President Mugabe was quoted as saying that the two-term limit which is being increasingly embedded in national constitutions across the continent constitutes is “a rope around our own neck”, adding that “it is a democracy, if people want a leader to continue, let him continue”. Thus, if the weight of recent history plays out in Burundi we must expect that elections, even if further delayed (as has been requested by the AU Peace and Security Council), will deliver a resounding, albeit pyrrhic, victory to President Nkurunziza, forcing a cowed population to resign themselves to another five years of institutional decay and socio-economic stagnation.
However, this outcome seems far less inevitable than at any point in Africa’s modern history. Quite simply, those protesting against the president in Burundi have new and compelling precedent from which to draw inspiration. As we know, during the 2011 “Arab Spring” some of Africa’s most formidable regimes were driven from power by the force of street-level dissent. Combined, the leaders of Tunisia (Ben Ali), Libya (Muammar Gadaffi) and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) had ruled over their respective countries for 96 years; their access to military and financial muscle was virtually unrivalled on the continent. Last year, in an event which will provide Burundians with even greater succor, the former president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, was hounded from power following weeks of protest – initially in the capital Ouagadougou but thereafter spread across the country’s towns and cities. The spark in Burkina Faso, as in Burundi, was Mr Compaoré’s attempt to tamper with the constitution in order to extend his 27-year rule. Elsewhere, in January this year the Senate in the Democratic Republic of Congo cancelled plans for a national census that would have necessitated a postponement of next year’s presidential elections and allowed President Joseph Kabila the opportunity to extend his term beyond its constitutional limits. The decision by the Senate came after a week of violent protests in Kinshasa against the change. Following the announcement of the vote against the census, Senate president Leon Kenga Wa Dondo was quoted as saying that “we have listened to the street. That is why the vote today is a historic vote.”
This nascent new precedent is supported by various converging trends. The first, I would argue, is that Africa is exceptionally youthful – and it is often young people that stand at the forefront of the most aggressive demands for change. Today, according to the United Nations, Africa’s median age is just 19, compared to a world average of 30. More selectively, the median age today in Zambia is 16.7, compared to 36 in China and 47 in Japan. There are estimated to be 700 million Africans under the age of 25, almost four-times more than there are in Europe. And, though fertility rates are dropping as economies mature and institutions improve, population growth rates are such that this youthfulness is expected to be sustained for much of the next half century. The UN further postulates that, in 2050, Africa’s median age will have moved upwards only marginally to 24. At this time there will be roughly as many people under the age of 25 living in Africa as there are people in China today.
Further, the extraordinary growth of Africa’s towns and cities means that these young people are now, more than ever, living in close proximity to each other. As was so clearly emphasised in North Africa, this allows the spark of protest to gain swift and meaningful mass; for capital cities to be engulfed. The colonial and feudal architecture that so many African governments inherited, whereby national power could often be exerted over a predominantly rural population by virtue of the grip on a thinly populated capital, is being unravelled. Meanwhile, as people converge on cities to participate in the country’s seemingly renewed socio-economic prospects, they encounter the full force of inequality. Most rural households across the continent are similarly poor and disconnected, yet cities, particularly in the developing world where income, though growing, is poorly shared, are home to the types of gross income extremities that fuel frustration and deepen resentment. Since 2000 around 200 million people have been born in or migrated to cities across Africa. It is expected that within the next 15 years a further 300 million will do so.
And people are not simply brought together geographically, but technologically too. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that, by the end of last year, Africa reached a mobile penetration rate of 69%, equating to over 700 million mobile subscriptions across the continent. As a result, mobile-broadband penetration is increasing: by the end of 2014 Africa had a mobile-broadband penetration rate of 20%, up ten-fold from just 2% in 2010. Social media networks played a clear and irrefutable role in the ability of the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia to organise and sustain their assault on the legitimacy of the state. As Merlyna Lim pointed out in her 2012 article “Clicks, Cabs and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004-2011″, in Egypt “social media provided space and tools for the formation and the expansion of networks that the authoritarian government could not easily control. It did so by sustaining both longstanding networks of labour opposition, by facilitating new connections among middle-class youth opposed to the regime, and by supporting the circulation of stories about regime repression and police brutality.” Further, Lim surmised that for several years before even the onset of the Arab Spring protests “the most successful social movements in Egypt, including Kefaya, the April 6th Youth, and We are all Khaled Said, were those using social media to expand networks of disaffected Egyptians, broker relations between activists, and globalize the resources and reach of opposition leaders. Social media afforded these opposition leaders the means to shape repertoires of contention, frame the issues, propagate unifying symbols, and transform online activism into offline protests” (Lim, 2012). Similarly compelling links have been found between protest activity amongst young people in the Middle East (Iran) and Latin America. In Chile, for instance, a study found that Facebook use amongst 18-29 year olds was “positively and significantly related to participation in protests, even after taking into account other known sources of this type of political action” (Valenzuela et al., 2012).
The new precedents being set are not only those in which authorities perceived to be illegitimate are thrust from power by public protest, but also by the very real signs of democratic progress in some of Africa’s largest economies. In Southern Africa these gains are fairly material and established – last year elections were held without meaningful disruption in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi and Botswana – but elsewhere too: in Ghana presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 were exceptionally tight in Zambia last year the death of the former head of state, Michael Sata, was managed with maturity and calm; and in Nigeria, perhaps most importantly, in this year’s elections a sitting president who was contesting elections was removed democratically for the first time in the country’s history. Seeing this, citizens of other countries are growing impatient for similar acquiescence to the laws which those in power have for so long trampled on.
Of course, these trends do not render sweeping protest inevitable. There are still too many ethnic, linguistic and geographical constraints within many of the most problematic African economies to suggest a singularity of purpose (as well as the means to express this) will seamlessly emerge to drive bad governments from power. It would also be wrong to assume that youth protest, or activism, is always a force for good. Or that success when a critical mass is achieved is in any way guaranteed; protesting groups often lack material influence – and momentum can still, as may yet be the case in Burundi, be squashed by force. But swifter and more structurally sound economic growth, together with the seismic demographic, spatial and technological changes taking place across the continent are forcing governments to become more responsive to populations that have greater agency than ever before. Broadly speaking, the immediate choice for governments is an increasingly binary one: allow greater and more legitimate democratic opportunity – in so doing partially placating the thrust of dissent; or ensure, as the Chinese government has been successful in doing over the course of the past two decades in particular, that, in the absence of political freedom, policies are at least aligned to allow new wealth to be better and more swiftly distributed across the population. For slow-growing and natural resource-poor economies such as Burundi, the Chinese model of reform is virtually implausible, rendering the former (that of greater democratic participation) the only viable track to ensure stability and a measure of progress.
Ultimately the trends outlined above have the potential to deliver tremendous gains, but only if government’s respond appropriately. If not, the momentum the continent has recently achieved threatens to be inverted, and protest will draw energy from progress.
Simon Freemantle is a political economist.