Does Africa need an Arab Spring?

Anti-riot police use water cannons, with pink water, against opposition supporters in Uganda Uganda's government has survived protests over the cost of living

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As the people of Egypt and Tunisia mark the first anniversary of the revolutions which toppled their long-time leaders, leading to popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, Malawian academic Jimmy Kainja asks: Is it time for an African Spring?

Regimes have been shaken, dictators toppled and revolutions televised in ways most people thought was not possible a mere 12 months ago in North Africa and the Middle East. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world's longest-serving and most autocratic leaders - and that is exactly what residents of some Arab countries have been fighting against.

Yet an African Spring in the exact fashion of the Arab Spring would signify a step backwards - not a step forward.

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Democracy does not begin and end with the ballot box”

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In fact, it would make a mockery of all that the majority of African countries achieved in the late 1980s and the early 1990s - when they did away with dictators and presidents-for-life in favour of multiparty democracies.

I previously argued that "the protagonists of the Arab Spring have more to learn from their sub-Saharan Africa counterparts than the other way round. The majority of sub-Saharan African countries peacefully did away with one-party-rule in the 1990s."

And now there is no region in the world that holds more elections than sub-Saharan Africa.

'Selfish, greedy leaders'

However, the vote alone is not enough - and democracy does not begin and end with the ballot box, as recently "liberated" Egypt and Tunisia are starting to find out and countries south of the Sahara have known for a long time now.

How free is Africa?

map showing levels of freedom in Africa, according to Freedom House

These countries continue to struggle to solidify their democracies - because of the enduring lack of necessary democratic institutions and structures of governance.

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There is an unfortunate perception that people from sub-Saharan Africa cannot stage any revolt of their own. They have to copy it from elsewhere - in this case, the Arab Spring.”

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And, of course, because of the prevalence of selfish, greedy and opportunistic leaders: Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Paul Biya in Cameroon, to name but a few.

Indeed, some of these leaders got extremely nervous in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions last year.

A political science lecturer at the University of Malawi was summoned for "questioning" after he allegedly compared the social and political situation in Malawi to that of Egypt.

And in Zimbabwe a group of activists are still on charges that originally carried the death sentence but have now been reduced - for allegedly plotting an Egyptian-style revolution in that country.

So, the struggle for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa is certainly not lacking.

But these struggles are very different to what we have seen in parts of the Arab world.

Freedom to protest

These ones are mainly focused on forcing governments to become more accountable and to provide populations with the basics that they need to survive.

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The July 2011 demonstrations in Malawi, for instance, was not organised to overthrow the government or to demand that President Bingu wa Mutharika step down.

The protests were about the lack of democratic institutions that have allowed the current administration to rule with total impunity.

In Uganda the "Walk to Work" protests were about exorbitant fuel prices - it was not about overthrowing the government or forcing the president to go.

Nigeria is the same - aside from the separate issue of the recent Boko Haram bombing campaign.

Nigerians have been protesting about the withdrawal of fuel subsidies - they are asking their government to be more considerate but they are not calling for a revolution.

Young Nigerian protesters say they were inspired by the Arab Spring

Not one of the Arab countries had such freedoms to protest or even question their government prior to the Tunisian revolution on 14th January 2011.

So why then the calls for an African Spring?

This failure to acknowledge the difference between what is happening south and north of the Sahara may well be a matter of distorted historical perspectives - mainly by Western commentators who were caught off-guard by the Arab Spring and are now eager to spot the next possible spark.

And there is an unfortunate perception that people from sub-Saharan Africa cannot stage any revolt of their own. They have to copy it from elsewhere - in this case, the Arab Spring.

Rather, the growing number of protests and increasing political dissent in sub-Saharan Africa - whether tolerated by respective governments or not - could yet be an indication of a mature democracy. And a sign that the region does not need such a "spring".

It is worth remembering that most of these countries attained democracy only 20 or 30 years ago.

Robert Mugabe (file photo) Zimbabwe's government moved swiftly against any attempts to organise street protests

All these protests were unheard of before the dawn of democracy.

Today, ordinary citizens are demanding more of their governments than they have ever done before - and they are refusing to accept any form of mediocrity.

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues in The End of History and the Last Man that the striving by citizens for liberal democracy arises as a part of the soul that demands recognition.

"As standards of living increase, as populations become more cosmopolitan and better educated," he says "and as society as a whole achieves a greater equality of condition, people begin to demand not simply more wealth but recognition of their status."

These are exactly the social changes happening in Africa today. Progress has been made - and it can only get better.

These demands and the eagerness by the people to be heard - to hold their governments to account - can only be addressed by developing strong democratic institutions - and not simply by getting rid of presidents and their governments.

This is what is necessary in the next stage of Africa's democracy - not an African Spring in the mould of the Arab Spring.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Rwanda is an example how African countries are suppose to move forward. Thinking global, Acting local.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Good article but its easier said than done with the type of Govts we have in Malawi,Uganda,Zimbabwe and the list is endless the only best possible option out of this mess is the African spring.This should come from within and not to be influenced by the west.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    African leaders have proved themselves as selfish and corrupt as any in the Northern Hemisphere. Will they ever change I very much doubt it. As to the likes of Mugabe and his cowardly clique, and Islamist murderers in Nigeria and Somalia, and other parts of North Africa only outside military intervention would unseat them and bring them all to justice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Asitislikeitis writes: 'What the writer fails to grasp is that African countries fought long and bitter battles against colonialism. The leaders you ridicule in your article are real life heroes'. I have witnessed Mugabe's men murdering innocent people so as to make headway with the 'revolution' and to secure the peasants co-operation through fear. The last thing I'd call Mugabe is a hero!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    To me, it's almost "Arab Spring" in the Sub-Saharan region everyday. These countries are always fighting these never ending revolts against various groups which in most cases don't stand for a noble cause. Constant revolutions is part of the problem hindering growth in the Sub Saharan region, and most of these dictators are entrenched in power by the same governments calling for the Arab Spring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    @46 Athame57
    Not starving just yet, we do change our government from time to time even if the choice between each party isn't wonderful and as far as I know we haven't started killing each other yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    A commentator said..In fact, only the Republic of South Africa can boast of infrastructures, economy & techonology that rival any developed countries in the West... You need to know that endemic poverty among black and mixed race south Africans make them no different from any other African nation. A country where there is no equality in terms of wealth cannot be said to be free! And China? Free?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    It is very disheartening that just a mere 6 out of 54 African countries are free as shown in your illustration. In fact, only the Republic of South Africa can boast of infrastructures, economy & techonology that rival any developed countries in the West. Call it Arab Spring or what have you. Africa desparately need a renaissance, true democracy & a govt that work for the masses not few elites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I'd argue that the 'civilised' world is forever inching closer to what we had in the 'uncivilised' world before agriculture was forced on us.

    Control over how we spend our life.
    Freedom from others demands.
    The ability to enjoy our time with our family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    What is your criteria for determining a country is partially free? Who says Kenya is partially free? I think we are more free than Ghana and Benin; the issue in Kenya is that systems don't work. My! Oh! My!

    I don't foresee what happened in the Arab world happening in Africa. Reasons simply are that freedom is much better than it has been in those countries. It is not really about poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    What the writer fails to grasp is that African countries fought long and bitter battles against colonialism. The leaders you ridicule in your article are real life heroes. What the write calls revolutions are nothing but coups.France took out Ggabgo in Ivory Coast. NATO took out Gaddafi.Other African countries must beware not to return their countries to foreign control again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    As Africans we also need to be accountable for the role that we must play toward a free and democratic society. We cannot discriminate among ourselves on the basis of tribal, religious, gender, sexual orientation differences and advocate freedom and justice from national governments. The leadership is mostly a product of the larger social structure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    When it comes to removing Mugabe the British should do the dirty deed as it was they who, despite evidence that Mugabe was a murdering thug, prepared him for power and installed him in the first place. Why should innocent Zimbabweans die to rectify Britain's mistakes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    What the writer of this article is saying to the west is that they should be a little bit nicer to the Subsaharan Africa because Africa has done a lot more already in making itself available to their exploitation than the Arabs had done. Arabs deserves a draconian response from the west ..they did not learn from Africans who started to denounce sovereignty 20 -30 years ago. -- sad!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    An "Arab spring" may not be necessary but various African countries may need actions unique to their circumstances. Rulers changing constitutions to contravene term limits; those winning with above 90 % votes; those exploiting tribal, racial, religious, economic, regional differences to sustain their position in power; those pillaging nations' wealth - all need to be approached differently (cont.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    As much as Africans have a long threshold to withstand natural calamities, the same is a myth when it comes to the determination to uphold "democratic" ideals and is subjective depending on which pair of lenses this is viewed from.

    The tribal/ clan loyalties will forever galvanize the consummation of autocratic leadership when one is called to be accountable.

    We do not have any minerals worth...

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Has the "Arab Spring" actually been good for the Arab countries – I think the jury is out! The new religion of western defined democracy has reached fundamentalist proportions, and like religions before it, fundamentalism leads to blinkered views. Each country should determine what is best for itself – even if that means holding on to long serving leaders

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Where is the freedom?
    who support it?
    Where is the justice?
    Can we buy them from shelves?
    Can african people see what a call freedom of expression?
    Can we practice it in our countries without fears?
    Why the world are ignoring us and not supporting us?

    We as Djiboutian oppositions who live around Europ, We tried to contact to different medias such as BBC Somali section but no chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I was happy to see dictators like Gadaffi and Mubarak go. I cannot express my joy if we Ethiopians have our own Arab spring and remove the authoritarian regime of Meles KeZenawi. I believe most people in sub Saharan Africa will choose democracy against tyranny. The question itself is wrong! Which foolish person chooses oppression rather than freedom? Of course, unless you are the oppressor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Arab spring has been fully supported by Aljezeera TV but we as african nations, We don't have media so we can't exerces our freedom? I am from Djibouti and we can't event say 1 word against our dictatorship regime (Ismail Omar Guelleh) because he got power (Military, money) to control all africans newspaper, TV. The western medias such as BBC for example, is defending only UK interest.


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