Only ten days ago, knowledgeable commentators were still discussing why North Africa’s protests had not spread into Sub-Saharan Africa. But in the last week and a half, protests movements have gained steam south of the Sahara. With the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak occasioning comment across the continent, more protests may occur.
One way demonstrations have spread – or threatened to spread – is through geographical proximity. It remains to be seen whether North Africa’s anti-regime movements will find echoes to the immediate south, but it will already be difficult for people in the Sahel to ignore the turmoil on the other side of the Sahara. Nearly all of North Africa has now experienced protests. Demonstrations broke out in Libya yesterday. Morocco has not felt the impact from Tunisia and Egypt as strongly as other North African countries, but the protests that hit Algeria this weekend made Morocco nervous about the prospect of popular agitation in Western Sahara. Unrest in Western Sahara would bring the protest wave to Mauritania’s borders. Mauritania, in fact, already experienced at least one incident of self-immolation modeled on the tragedy in Tunisia. It seems unlikely that the protests in Libya and Algeria will inspire unrest in the countries immediately south of North Africa, such as Niger and Chad, but both of those countries are in the midst of election season, and as we have seen anything is possible.
In East Africa, Sudan has generated an uneven but significant protest movement. Calls for uprisings are now coming from African writers and opposition politicians in the neighborhood of Sudan and Egypt. An Ethiopian blogger writes, “Let us hope the fight for common decency extends throughout the Nile and into Ethiopia.” As Uganda heads into presidential elections this Friday, “Opposition members…are threatening Egypt-style protests if next Friday’s presidential election is rigged so that Yoweri Museveni can extend his 25-year grip on power.”
Geographical proximity is not the only factor in the spread of protests: sometimes the example of North Africa has inspired activists much further south. One of the strongest protests movements has emerged in Gabon. Global Voices, which is offering special coverage of the situation, summarizes the main issues there:
The West African nation of Gabon is experiencing a popular revolt against the rule of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo who died only months before his son was elected in October 2009. Citing allegations of election fraud, opposition leaders formed a breakaway government on January 26 with former presidential candidate André Mba Obame as the self-declared president.
Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in the nation’s capital, Libreville, on January 29, and were faced with violent suppression from the army. Protests have spread to other cities, and crackdowns have become increasingly fierce as the current wave of popular protests demanding free elections sweeping the African continent (Tunisia, Egypt and Côte d’Ivoire) has made the Gabonese government especially wary. The “unofficial” government went into hiding in the offices of the UNDP where they have remained for more than two weeks.
It is interesting to watch what meanings the North African protests take on in different political climates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some activists in Uganda, and also in Nigeria, view the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia through the prism of elections in their own countries. “I have no doubt in my mind that the April polls will be massively rigged as usual,” Nigerian columnist Ikechukwu Amaechi writes, “and when that happens, let us remember that the stirrings of democracy can only be popped up by the people.” Other commentators, such as the Ethiopian blogger mentioned above, wonder what level of brutality their governments would inflict on protesters if matters reached a point of desperation. Finally, some wonder (myself included) whether international media outlets would devote as much coverage to “African” protests (as though North Africa is not in Africa too) as they have to “Arab” protests.
Each country is different, but there are broader trends at work too. A significant swath of politically-minded Africans see the faces of Ben Ali and Mubarak when they look at their own leaders, and vice versa. The protests in North Africa probably will not sweep Sub-Saharan Africa, but they have already ignited a conversation about what is politically possible – apparently, more than most would have said is possible even two months ago.