Sex, whistles and shutdowns: Inside Africa’s non-protesters’ protesting toolbox
How to subvert the system from the safety of your home.
What is a protest? The image that usually comes to mind is one of huge crowds marching down a street, waving banners and chanting slogans. “Make your voice heard” and “stand up and be counted” are typically the leading calls to action.
Often however, exclamations of dissent soon turn to whimpers and those who stand up can expect to be swiftly knocked down. Marches and demonstrations in countries led by insecure, repressive governments come with huge risks. Moreover, a noisy march may not always be the best way to shine a light on an issue in a sustained and effective way.
But rallies and explicit criticism are not the only ways to show dissent and solidarity. And particularly in the last few years, citizens in Africa fed up with the status quo have found creative ways to protest without “protesting”. They have developed strategies for expressing opposition through means that may be less visible and direct than traditional methods, but are still powerful, subversive and effective in their own way.
Below is a partial list of just a few of these methods. It is far from exhaustive, and we invite readers to help us fill in the gaps by commenting below.
Blowing the whistle
Ahead of Chad’s 2016 elections, civil society groups demanded a fair election and wanted to speak out against injustice, impunity and nepotism. But with the government ramping up its restrictions on rallies and free speech, protesting on the streets was a dangerous option.
As an alternative therefore, protesters came up with the “citizen whistle”. From the safety and anonymity of their own homes, people were encouraged to all whistle as loudly as they could for 15 minutes at 4:30am and then again in the evening. In previous years, Chadian activists had done a similar thing but by banging pots and pans.
“Express your anger from your home, without the risk of violence,” read a statement from the Enough is Enough coalition. “With your ‘citizen whistle’ you become the referee of change.”
Through much of the second term of Benin’s President Yayi Boni, there were suggestions he wanted to amend the constitution to allow him to extend his rule. Many were not best pleased by this prospect and so decided to show their discontent in a way that was peaceful and non-confrontational yet still crystal clear and sustained.
The Mercredi Rouge (or Red Wednesday) movement was born. From July 2013, residents of the capital Cotonou donned bright red clothes every Wednesday. Many engaged in marches on these occasions too, lighting up the streets with a flash of their vibrant reds, but others simply wore the now politically-charged colour on the day – sometimes surreptitiously – to express support for the movement.
Boni’s derivative counter-campaign – White Friday – failed to capture nearly the same level of support. And in September 2013, the proposed amendments were rejected by the National Assembly’s law commission, with a number of the president’s former allies joining those opposing his plans.
In many other instances, activists have adopted potent symbols (e.g. flags) or gestures (e.g. crossed arms) as expressions of dissent. Governments have often responded to these emblems by banning their usage, but it’s much harder to outlaw a colour.
— Mercredi Rouge (@MercredisRouges) August 7, 2013
Coming like a ghost town
Strikes and blockades are well-known forms of protest, aimed at deliberately crippling one sector or section of a country. But across Africa, demonstrators have recently been taking it a step further by urging people from all walks of life – from officer workers to street vendors to the unemployed – to simply stay at home for the day.
Known as the Ville Morte or Stay Away or Ghost Town or Shutdown, these protests can create the eeriest of effects as usually bustling streets lie abandoned and the town comes to a silent halt. The economic effect of paralysing a town can be grave, while the symbolic power of large sections of a city’s population boycotting the status quo and staying at home – even if just for a day – can be devastating.
Recently, these protests have been held to varying degrees of success in Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Chad and elsewhere.
“This is what we all needed, something that we can all do together,” said Pastor Evan Mawarire, after a largely effective stay away in Zimbabwe in July 2016.
— Christopher Farai (@ChrisCharamba) July 6, 2016
Those calling for change are usually quite far from the levers of power. But, sometimes, they happen to be close associates of the men – and it is almost always still men – whose actions they are trying to influence. Occasionally, they are so close they share a bed.
On numerous occasions in the past few years, the wives and girlfriends of African leaders have tried to make their men see sense. And if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, they have mobilised according to the working hypothesis that the way to his brain may be a little further south.
Perhaps most famously in Liberia in 2003, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace conducted a sex strike as part of their attempts to pressure the warring factions to engage in peace talks.
In Kenya in 2009, thousands of women withheld intercourse from their partners – and said they’d compensate prostitutes who joined them – in a bid to force President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to end their feud.
And in Togo in 2012, women belonging to a coalition of civil society and opposition groups called for a sex boycott against the rule of President Faure Gnassingbé. “To go on a ‘sex strike’ is…a way to freely vote against dictatorship, in the secrecy of one’s bedroom”, said the collective.
The extent to which these actions were successful can be debated. In Togo, the effects were not immediately clear. In Kenya, the two quarrelling leaders were holding talks by the end of the week. And in Liberia, a peace deal was eventually signed under pressure from activists. But Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee has always been clear in her judgment, insisting that the 2003 sex strike “had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention”.
Change, and not of the small kind
Over the past few years, relations between the Ethiopian government and the country’s Muslim population have been tense. Muslim groups have accused the government of interfering in their affairs to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on them against their will and have engaged in large protests in retaliation. Some of these demonstrations have been violently suppressed, while several Muslim figures have been arrested and imprisoned.
In 2015, however, campaigners decided to try a different tack. Instead of making noise on the streets, they started quietly hoarding coins. People angry with the government were encouraged to simply stop spending this particular currency in an attempt to effectively take large amounts of cash out of circulation.
Activists and economists seemed to disagree on the possible monetary effects of this withdrawal. But the idea that large numbers of people taking the same small sustained action would eventually culminate into some macro-economic impact – or at least some medium-sized headaches for the government – caught many people’s imaginations.
Call me maybe
Protesting in a country ranked amongst the worst in the world for freedom of expression is no easy feat. That’s why Eritrean activists need to be amongst the most creative in the world, and inside the country, protesters have employed a range of tactics to show dissent, including sticking up posters in the dead of night calling for change.
Another strategy though, employed by the movement known as Freedom Friday (Arbi Harnet), has been to mobilise allies in the diaspora to simply pick up the phone, dial an Eritrean number, and start talking. “We have a phone catalogue and called random numbers [in Eritrea] every Friday, telling them to stay at home and think about problems in our country,” explained one activist to IBTimes.
As the plan developed, protesters even turned to automatic-dialling technology to spread the same taped recording to thousands of phones in a short space of time. In the absence of other avenues, this modest act – repeated thousands of times each week – allowed activists to spread both information and solidarity in a safe but sustained way.
— Meron Estefanos (@meronina) November 21, 2016
It is hard to say what direct effect any of these actions has had. The same can be said of most marches and demonstrations. But one impact of protests is that they engender a sense of solidarity and agency amongst participants and can be part of a potentially powerful transformative process, even if the effects of individual actions are not immediately apparent.
What have we missed? Help us add more creative non-protesting protest strategies by commenting below.
James Wan is editor of African Arguments. Follow him on twitter at @jamesjwan.