African leaders move to quash dissent before it can form

Some leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are taking swift action against protests and fear of reprisal is likely to keep potential demonstrators quiet.

As protests continue across the Arab world, rumblings of political discontent have sounded in sub-Saharan Africa as well. These rumblings range from serious protests in Gabon and Sudan to pro-revolution newspaper columns in countries like Nigeria. Revolution will likely not spread through sub-Saharan Africa, but leaders in Ethiopia and Uganda moved this week to block even the possibility of uprisings. These moves show that the Arab protests are making some African leaders quite nervous, particularly as their countries navigate political transitions.

In Ethiopia, journalist Eskinder Nega has compared his country to Egypt and speculated about the possibility of an Egypt-style mobilization in Ethiopia. Eskinder’s remarks online and on the radio drew the attention, he says, of the Ethiopian government:

Eskinder Nega says six heavily-armed policemen jumped from a truck on a busy central Addis Ababa street last week, grabbed him and whisked him away to federal police headquarters. He says during a two-hour detention, he was brought before a deputy police commissioner who did not identify himself, but who warned him his activities were considered seditious.

“He said, ‘You’ve been trying to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia through writings you do on the Internet,” Eskinder recounted. “And the interviews you give to various news outlets. And he said, ‘Nothing similar is going to happen in this country.’”

Eskinder was jailed during the 2005 government crackdown in Ethiopia, which followed fiercely contested elections. Last year’s elections in Ethiopia did not produce the same levels of dissent – or violence – that 2005′s elections did, but Eskinder’s latest detention suggests that Ethiopian authorities are keen to shut down any voices who say that the government lacks legitimacy and is vulnerable to the wave of uprisings.

In Uganda, which holds presidential elections today, there seems to be little chance that President Yoweri Museveni will lose, and little chance that mass demonstrations could drive him from power. Still, Ugandan opposition leaders have talked about launching protests if Museveni wins. This threat was enough to worry the government, which “ordered phone companies to intercept text messages with words or phrases including ‘Egypt’, ‘bullet,’ and ‘people power’ ahead of [today]‘s elections that some fear may turn violent.” This preemptive maneuver seems to presage a greater crackdown to come, if the opposition does indeed take to the streets.

Government crackdowns could end up being the decisive factor in stopping sub-Saharan African protest movements before they really get off the ground. Northern Sudan’s repression appears to have stymied protesters there for the most part. And the words of an Ethiopian opposition member that Eskinder interviewed are revealing as to the political realities there:

Could the legal Ethiopian opposition leaders try to replicate what the legal opposition triggered in Egypt? “No,” firmly answered an opposition official I queried. “There will be a massacre, and it will also be the end of us,” he said. I could have been mistaken, but I thought I had sensed alarm in his tone.

There is another important issue also: If government repression did occur, would media outlets cover it? Given how little coverage Gabon has received in comparison with Arab countries, I think it unlikely that international media would devote substantial attention to a short – but merciless – crackdown in a country like Ethiopia. Some people paid attention in 2005, of course, but not on the scale that we’re seeing with Egypt and elsewhere.

In some places, then, African activists’ realistic fears of death and failure are already discouraging potential protesters. Nevertheless, as I said Wednesday, everyone is well aware of the events in Egypt – including governments who are taking steps to signal policies of zero tolerance for dissent.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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