Why Tunisia's winds of change aren't blowing south to sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has remained quiet even as protests spread across North Africa from Tunisia to Egypt and onward to Yemen and Jordan.

African rulers use ethnicity to divide and rule

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where there is more homogeneity among the mainly Arabic speaking Muslim populations, sub-Saharan African nations are often deeply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Many voters choose their leaders from their own ethnic or even kinship groups, hoping that someday they can draw on their own ethnic ties to have government improve their lives.

“Often political activists align along ethnic lines, they are not ideologically based," says Corinne Dufka, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch in Dakar, Senegal.

Ethnicity as an organizational tool is used by parties that see themselves as socialist, and those that are more brazenly nationalistic and ethnic; it is used by ruling parties and opposition parties alike. Since very few countries in Africa are clearly drawn along ethnic lines – South Africa, for instance, has 11 official languages – ethnicity is often a divisive tool. This makes nationwide movements in ethnically diverse countries like Senegal or Zimbabwe – whether in campaigns against polio, or in protest against a president – all the more difficult.

Ethnic divisions are “instrumentalized” and perpetuated by many African rulers, adds Professor Mbembe. “To a large extent, the answer to why other nations in Africa fail to do what the Tunisians have done is because of the reality of ethnic divisions, instrumentalized by those in power,” says Mbembe. That keeps ordinary people reliant on ethnic leaders to represent them at the table of power.

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