Some small signs that the 'Arab Spring' is spreading into Africa

The 'Arab Spring' has largely not spread south of the Sahara, but Africans are now less willing to stand by and accept stolen elections, gross abuses of power, and flaunting of inequality.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Two brothers listen to a radio broadcast of election results on a cell phone, while eating lunch outside their house in Monrovia, Liberia, last month.

Many observers have lamented that the mass protests and revolutions of the Arab Spring have not swept south through Sub-Saharan Africa. The common conclusion is that Africa is not ready for its own democratic leap forward. Africans are too poor, too fragmented, and too weak institutionally to mount the reform campaigns needed to make progress at this time, they reason. Put simply, hungry people don’t have time to worry about democracy.

Yet such a conclusion is mistaken. This past year has seen noteworthy democratic breakthroughs in long autocratic Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Niger. These gains have been augmented by decisive strides forward in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and Zambia. 

Such developments have not emerged in isolation but are part of an extended process of democratic institution-building that has been underway in Africa.  Africa has been experiencing an information revolution over the past decade with nearly 50 percent of adults now owning a cell phone. Since 2000, independent commercial radio has expanded by more than 360 percent. With 70 percent of the population under 30 years of age, Africa’s youth have been at the forefront of this informational shift. Better educated and aware of global norms, these youth have higher expectations of transparency and reforms from their government than do their parents.

Legislatures, courts, election commissions, and local governments are likewise growing increasingly autonomous and placing unprecedented constraints on the executive branch. This was vividly illustrated last month when Uganda’s heretofore rubber-stamp parliament forced three government ministers to step down pending an investigation into alleged hefty kickbacks they received while negotiating the country’s first-ever oil contract.

In short, Africa has been quietly molding its own “democratic spring.”

That isn’t to say that Africa doesn’t face significant governance problems. Some 40 percent of Africa’s governments still hew mostly to an autocratic line. Half of these control lucrative natural resource revenues, mostly oil, propping up their hold on power. Civil society remains weak in many countries, limiting the oversight and reform functions these civic organizations normally play. And the return of Qaddafi’s armed mercenaries threatens to destabilize a number of democratizing Sahelian countries, notably Mali and Niger.

Perhaps most pernicious is Africa’s legacy of “big-man” politics – the highly patronage-based governance model that relies on personal allegiances to a charismatic leader who is considered above the law. Such governance norms are inimical to accountability – and remain common on the continent.  Not coincidentally, 19 African heads of state have been in power for a decade or more.

Africa’s democratic trajectory, then, is being forged by the tension between these competing forces – greater expectations for shared power versus the status quo of personality-based governance networks.

This is where the Arab Spring is playing an instructive role. Africans from all walks of life have been captivated by the protests against political monopolies, systemic corruption, and impunity that have unfolded in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab World. Africans too have seen the potential impact of “people power” in redressing the injustices of a privileged minority. Consequently, Africans are now less willing to stand by and accept stolen elections, gross abuses of power, and flaunting inequality.

Regional and international actors play an underappreciated role in this competition by helping to set the minimum standards of acceptable governance practices by the degree to which they recognize (or renounce) African leaders who attain power through manipulated elections, altered constitutions, or other illegitimate means. They also do so by the attention (and therefore protection) they provide civil society reformers and journalists.

Civil society will play a decisive role in the outcome. Reform requires reformers. Historically, change is led from citizen groups. And civil society has been instrumental in Africa’s recent democratic gains. Key to their ultimate success will be whether they have absorbed the equally important though less sensational lesson emerging from the Arab Spring: that change does not come about from one-time mass protests but sustained, active, and networked civic engagement.

While not as breathtaking as the Arab Spring, the outcome of Africa’s current democratic opening may have as far-reaching consequences – with generational implications for regional governance, development, and stability.

– Joseph Siegle is the chair of an African Center for Strategic Studies’ Working Group report on “Africa and the Arab Spring: A New Era of Democratic Expectations” 

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