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

The winds of change that swept aside Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have swiftly blown east to test the long-serving leaders of Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan.

Yet if these winds can blow east across North Africa to the Middle East, can't they also blow south to sub-Saharan Africa? Surely there are plenty of dictators in Africa's other countries who have outworn their welcome after 20-plus years in power?

Perhaps, but different societies respond to the same conditions in very different ways, and the 53 countries of the African continent each has its own social structure and attitudes toward those in power. Here are four reasons why, despite the massive protests in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa remains silent.

Weakness of civil society

Regime change is common in Africa, but it tends to come from the barrel of a gun and not because of street demonstrations, says Achille Mbembe, an historian at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. This means there are few organizations with the power to challenge the authority of rulers, to organize dissenters, and to articulate alternative ideas of government that ordinary people would be willing to give their lives for.

“Civil society organizations are often weak because they are divided along ethnic lines, and many nongovernmental organizations are simply revenue-generating activities, so they are not very helpful in building the values of a deep civil society,” says Mr. Mbembe.

The current debate among Ivorians over how to handle the current leadership crisis in Ivory Coast between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and apparent election-winner Alassane Ouattara is a typical example of how many members of African civil society look for their answers from international organizations like the United Nations and the African Union, and not from within their own societies.

“In Ivory Coast, the debate is whether there should be a military intervention to overthrown Gbagbo. They are all wanting foreign intervention to solve the problem. If we start resolving election disputes, the whole of the continent will be at war with itself, because each election is contested bitterly. People want someone to give them freedom, not to pay for it themselves.”

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