Could sub-Saharan Africa have its own Arab Spring?
Driving south from central Cairo along the corniche that hugs the east bank of the Nile, there's a giant billboard for Mercedes-Benz's newest toy. A gleaming, red, gull-wing sports car -- which hovers ostentatiously above the dusty road, not a quarter-mile from where beggars and street children mingle with haggard vendors hoping to pull in a few Egyptian pounds -- is framed by a simple, penetrating message: "Have it all or nothing." While many more Egyptians still have nothing today than have it all, things get substantially worse as you travel further south along the Nile, from the iconic heart of the Arab Spring into the heart of Africa.
In the last decade, give or take, the African continent has experienced tremendous economic expansion, clocking in at an average 5 percent annual growth in the 10 years before the 2008 economic meltdown. But as growth has accelerated, bestowing tremendous wealth on the fortunate -- and more often, the corrupt -- so has the gulf between those who drive fancy sports cars and those who must walk beneath them.
Driving south from central Cairo along the corniche that hugs the east bank of the Nile, there’s a giant billboard for Mercedes-Benz’s newest toy. A gleaming, red, gull-wing sports car — which hovers ostentatiously above the dusty road, not a quarter-mile from where beggars and street children mingle with haggard vendors hoping to pull in a few Egyptian pounds — is framed by a simple, penetrating message: “Have it all or nothing.” While many more Egyptians still have nothing today than have it all, things get substantially worse as you travel further south along the Nile, from the iconic heart of the Arab Spring into the heart of Africa.
In the last decade, give or take, the African continent has experienced tremendous economic expansion, clocking in at an average 5 percent annual growth in the 10 years before the 2008 economic meltdown. But as growth has accelerated, bestowing tremendous wealth on the fortunate — and more often, the corrupt — so has the gulf between those who drive fancy sports cars and those who must walk beneath them.
In South Africa, which had 111 protests last year, according to a Johannesburg-based independent local government research group, inequality is actually worse than it was at the end of apartheid. The country’s Gini coefficient of 0.65, a measure of income inequality, makes it the second-most unequal country on the planet. Not surprisingly, this revelation didn’t stop the 40 biggest companies on the Johannesburg stock exchange from increasing the median salary of their executives by 23 percent last year, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
But robust growth and the conspicuous consumption that inevitably follow can be risky when there are few political safety valves. The result, as we have seen in Egypt and elsewhere, is that authoritarian regimes that have allowed their economies to open up have become ripe for revolution. As John Githongo, chief executive of Inuka Kenya Trust, argues in the New York Times, “inequality, unlike poverty, is far more easily politicized, ethnicized and militarized.… It is also far more combustible because it creates an identifiable enemy — a class that benefits disproportionately because of its unfair access to those who wield power.”
Across the African continent this dynamic, coupled with more concrete concerns like rising fuel and food costs, has driven people into the streets in almost a dozen capitals. Here is a look at where the Arab Spring is turning into a long, hot — and potentially incendiary — African Summer.
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Protests have roiled this landlocked east African country since last Wednesday, July 20, when long-simmering resentment over the country’s economic problems finally came to a boil. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital, and other major cities, decrying fuel shortages, lack of foreign currency, and the rising cost of living. President Bingu wa Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who has become increasingly unpopular as a result of his mishandling of the country’s finances, responded with all the artfulness of a typical strongman — ordering the army to crush demonstrations in three major cities and killing at least 18 people. “The bodies had fractured bones, deep cuts, broken ribs, and lost a lot of blood,” said Health Ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali in an interview with the AFP news agency.
Mutharika’s response to the unrest has won him international condemnation. On Tuesday, in response to the violence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) suspended a $350.7 million grant to improve electricity supplies. The MCC spokesperson expressed “deep concern” over recent events, drawing special attention to the president’s less-than-stellar record on “political pluralism, human rights, and the rule of law,” according to Bloomberg. Earlier this month, before the outbreak of protests, Britain suspended aid to Malawi as a result of, among other things, persistent human rights violations and “ever more autocratic” tendencies, according to a leaked British diplomatic cable.
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The small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, known principally for punching above its weight in the arena of global narcotics trafficking, has been hit with a wave of protests in the last two weeks. According to AFP, a coalition of 13 opposition parties is behind the demonstrations, which drew more than 10,000 into the streets on two separate occasions. Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., who is widely suspected in a string of political assassinations in 2009, is the primary target of the protesters, who are demanding that he step down.
Former president Joao Bernardo Vieira and army chief Gen. Batista Tagme Na Waie were assassinated in a span of less than 12 hours in March 2009, and two other prominent politicians were killed a few months later. Investigations by the current government have turned up nothing, however, fueling suspicions that Gomes himself was behind the killings.
Negotiations on Tuesday, July 26, between Guinea-Bissau’s President Malam Bacai Sanha and opposition leaders have reduced some of the tensions — for the time being, anyway. As Braima Sori Djalo, leader of the country’s main opposition party, told AFP, “The president asked us to give him time; we will take a break. But if nothing is done we will carry on with the marches.”
Protests have been ongoing in the Senegalese capital city of Dakar since June 23, when President Abdoulaye Wade proposed constitutional amendments that could ease him into a third term. (Senegal’s Constitution only permits a president to serve two terms, but the term length was reduced from seven years to five years during Wade’s tenure, prompting his supporters to argue that he is entitled to a third term.) Wade proposed reducing the threshold for victory in the first round of presidential elections to just 25 percent of the vote, down from 50 percent, and establishing a vice-presidential post — widely expected to be filled by his son, Karim — that would automatically succeed him in the event of his death. The president’s critics charged that the amendments would virtually guarantee Wade’s reelection while clearing a path for his son to succeed him.
After a week of protests culminated in the torching of several government buildings including the state electricity firm, Senelec, the military was deployed to restore order. But members of Senegal’s main opposition coalition, Bennoo Siggil Senegal, continue to agitate against the aging president and his son, framing their popular movement as a fight to protect the country’s democratic legacy.
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Uganda’s “walk to work” movement started in April when a few politicians — opposition leader Kizza Besigye among them — simply started commuting on foot to protest rising fuel and food prices, but it quickly drew thousands of unhappy Ugandans into the streets. Spurred by dire economic conditions and hardened by the regime’s thuggish response, protesters clashed with security forces loyal to President Yoweri Museveni for much of April and May. They burned tires and threw rocks at police officers, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live ammunition, leaving at least 10 dead and hundreds injured.
But by June it appeared that Museveni’s heavy-handed response had achieved its desired effect. Besigye had been arrested and charged with incitement of violence for his role in the walk-to-work protests (the charges have since been dropped), and the movement sputtered. Today, some analysts fear that the unrest has left Ugandan’s worse off than before: Museveni, who has been in office for a quarter-century, has vowed to devour protesters “like samosas” and is tightening the screws on the East African country’s already stifled political opposition. But with economic conditions continuing to deteriorate — and with Museveni stubbornly continuing to applaud his stewardship of the Ugandan economy — who knows what the long hot African summer may hold.
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South Africa, which could see as many as 160,000 miners go on strike this week, had been rocked by intermittent civil unrest well before the Arab Spring erupted this January. Beset with myriad economic problems — including 24 percent unemployment, water shortages, and a festering housing crisis — South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has struggled to meet rising expectations.
In February, tensions reached their highest point in months when police used live ammunition against protesters who burned tires, threw stones, and fired on riot police in the northeast Mpumalanga province. The incident came immediately following President Jacob Zuma’s state-of-the-nation speech, in which he took credit for significant job creation and claimed that the country was on the path to economic recovery.
The relative calm that has settled over South Africa after the Mpumalanga confrontation remains imperiled by the country’s disaffected and largely unemployed youth population. As Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions recently told CNN, “If we don’t do something urgent enough with the crisis of youth unemployment in South Africa, we will be in Tunisia and Egypt very soon.”
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The African winters
Justifiably unnerved by the spate of civil unrest that ripped through the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year, a number of African leaders were quick to pre-empt or quash protests in their countries before they reached a critical mass.
In Burkina Faso, protests that erupted in March over high food prices and rapacious security forces blossomed into a full-scale military mutiny in April. In response, President Blaise Campaore, who has ruled the small West African country for 24 years, dissolved his government and granted troops a range of concessions. The move did little to soothe the situation, though, as merchants continued to march in the streets. Campaore quickly changed his tune, quashing protests and dismissing 566 of the soldiers who took part in the demonstrations.
Zimbabwe, too, saw dreams of revolution crushed when President Robert Mugabe ordered the arrest of 46 activists — including one ally of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai — accused of plotting an Egyptian-style uprising in February. An Internet campaign called FreeZimActivists failed to rally support against the veteran dictator several weeks later, and the protest movement effectively died. Aside from a few clashes in April, Mugabe’s fiercely authoritarian government has faced few challenges since.
The Ethiopian government likewise employed an incarcerate-the-opposition strategy to smother unrest. In March, at least 64 members or supporters of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement and Oromo People’s Congress were arrested and imprisoned in Addis Ababa.
In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema — whose rule extends back to a 1979 coup that toppled his uncle, former president Macias Nguema — wasted no time outlawing protests when rumblings started up north. He feared, not unreasonably, that the mass of desperately poor Equatorial Guineans might finally rise up against his family’s rapacious corruption. And with the African Union summit scheduled for June in the capital city of Malabo, he couldn’t afford to look bad. The summit came off without a hitch, but it might have had something to do with the fact that more than 100 activists were rounded up and detained beforehand.
Nascent popular movements were also quashed in Gabon, Djibouti, and Cameroon, revealing the extent to which decoupled political and economic development has bred instability in the region. For now, strongmen maintain a delicate peace in all three capitals, but if we’ve learned anything from the Arab Spring, it’s that just because things are quiet now doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way.
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