Sunday, January 30, 2011

Africans Revolt in the Middle East: How Egypt's Revolts Won't Impact Africa

The narrative of Egypt’s protest by the west has been void of Africa and void of an analysis on its implications for Africa. Egypt is often cited, together with South Africa and Nigeria as the strongholds in Africa. In fact, Egypt was instrumental in the creation of the African Union (AU) and its neighbor Tunisia, is home to African institutions like the African Development Bank. Yet, it appears that the narrative surrounding the peoples revolts in North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt) are being covered as if they bear no consequence or effects for African nations in the continent that they belong to. It is certainly appreciated that the revolts will have effects on Middle Eastern countries like Jordan and Yeman, but it should be appreciated that we cannot pretend that it does not affect Sub-Saharan Africa. We can certainly not expect current African leaders to make bold statements about the revolts in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt because it has consequences for many their own leaderships. In fact, the African Union has stood in the background as they meet at the 2011 African Union meeting and continue to discuss the fate of another dictator, Gbagbo. Instead, we are confronted with a string of CNN experts on Middle East that have been summoned for a political analysis, but have yet to hear CNN (or any other major network in the US) inquire about the African Union’s position on the revolts or any opinion on what this means for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, there has been no mention on how these revolts will affect its immediate neighbors, Sudan and Libya. Sub-Saharan African countries have many historical, political, cultural, and economic similarities with the North African countries (including a shared land mass), yet there is the continued popular western tendency is to separate North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. This sentiment manifests in the types of narratives and coverage we are hearing from the western media and politicians about the revolts.

The perception that somehow Africa is a homogenous continent and that all Africans are Black, Christian, or non-Arabic, non-Muslim is an underlying assumption used in denying North Africa's connection to the rest of Africa. The other factor centers on an unwillingness to attribute ancient Egyptian civilizations advancements to the continent of Africa because of the euro-centric belief that there were no advancements in Africa by Africans prior to European contact (hence, North Africans are not African). The argument is that North Africans have ‘Middle Eastern” cultures, but at what point does “middle eastern culture” simply become “North African culture or African culture in the North Africa?”.  The current social construct of the Middle East has been inconsistent, irrational, and problematic for many. North Africans should be able to claim a double heritage of being African countries with Middle Eastern heritage. It is possible for a continent to have multiple cultural groups in it.  As an example, the East Asian country of China and the south Asian country of India are both in Asia but have different cultures but share some similarities as Asian countries. Similarly, the countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morroco, may have ‘Middle Eastern’ cultures, but also have strong African roots that are similar to countries like Sudan, Nigeria (which both have a large Muslim populations), Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Egypt and Sudan's histories have intertwined for years. Instead of trying to separate the continent, we (particularly, the west) should allow space for duality for these countries. We should be looking at North African and Middle Eastern cultures as having the same cultures as opposed to trying to separate North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. Whether one likes to admit it or not, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Western Sahara and Sudan are African countries and their histories are part of the history of Africa.

The practice of western governments supporting African dictators is not unique to North Africa, it has happened in many African countries. In the age of internet and Wikileaks though, its harder for them to deny propping up dictators. Particularly, those that do not have the support  and interests of their people. Egypt and Tunisia are not the only African countries that suffer high inflation and unemployment under dictators. This is happening in other countries throughout the continent like Zimbabwe, Gabon, and Senegal. The difference is the west tends to think that African people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, only revolt because they can’t get along with others from a different religion or ethnic group (“tribalism”). Africa’s problems are not only about race, ethnic groups, or ‘tribes’- economic injustice is usually an underlying factor that takes form in ethnic tensions. Africans across the continent struggle for economic a political justice and this plight is not unique to North Africa. Africans all over the continent are seeking fundamental changes. The events in North Africa will have consequences in Africa (See: Fire in the Arab World: A real lesson for African politicians).  In fact, according to political scientist Alemayehu G. Mariam, Ethiopia’s government has issued a complete blackout on coverage of the Tunisian riots to its public for fear of it spreading to its borders. One wonders if this year will mark a second revolution for many African countries - a peoples' revolution where all the people of Africa will take back their countries from dictators and send them packing to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia seems to be a popular destination for dictators. Another infamous African dictator, Idi Amin, went to Saudi Arabia to seek refuge just like Ben Ali did, and this is the potential destination for Mubarak. So when Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left power, the revolution was not just a Middle Eastern story, it was also an African story. As noted in an article by Alemayehu G. Mariam, “The Tunisian people's revolution should be an example for all Africans struggling to breathe under the thumbs and boots of ruthless dictators.” Similarly, the revolt about economic injustice is an African story. 

So as the African Union meets in Ethiopia this week to discuss events on the continent, two of its long standing leaders may not be represented. African leaders are already dealing with the repercussions as they sit to discuss the current protests in Gabon. Already, we are seeing revolts of over 5,000 people in the Gabon revolts that started Tuesday, January 25th, 2011. In  surprising move, the opposition leader, Mba Obame declared that he is the winner of the contested 2009 elections and is the legitimate president.  During the 2009 election, there were riots in Gabon over the election results that soon died out. Obame this week cited Ivory Coast and Tunisia during a rally, saying "history was on the march". In this case though, it is clear that Obame is the figurehead of the revolts and that it may not be a grassroots movement but a politically led one. Other African Presidents like Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal have stated that he is not worried about a revolt occurring in his country because he would be able to suppress it. Nevertheless, there is evidence that African leaders across the continent are paying close attention to the events in North Africa because it has real consequences for Africa. However, coverage of the revolts and its effects have not been inclusive on its impact on sub-Saharan Africa even though Egypt is in Africa.

It was interesting to hear CNN’s “Facts about Egypt” being reiterated by CNN presenters that included a historical accounts of Egypt void of colonialism. CNN reporters are repeatedly citing that Egypt’s economy was under “foreign control” until 1953. By ‘foreign control’ they are indirectly referring to colonialism and are clearly glancing over the effects of foreign economic control over and neo-colonialism had on Egypt’s economy. True, it is not the only reason for wealth not trickling down to its masses, but my argument here is that one cannot just ‘glance’ the fact that the period of foreign control they are referring to  was colonialism, and colonialism is a part of the history and legacy in every African country (including Ethiopia, albeit not being colonized). When anti-colonial struggle were being fought on the continent, it was the people of the African continent that worked together to overthrow imperialism on the continent. It was not a Middle Eastern anti-colonial movement that came in to liberate North Africa; it was African people living under similar conditions jointly seeking self-liberation.  Not acknowledging Egypt’s colonial legacy or its connection and leadership in the continent robs Egyptians of their history in a subtle but meaningful way. Africans have long struggled for freedom over several years. The forms of governments that are in power in contemporary Africa have their roots in colonialism and the African experience. The North African revolts need to be analyzed given richer insight inclusive of the African historical experience.

Monday, January 3, 2011

African Presidents Step Down, Pack Up, and Head Home to Retire!

Since Independence from the undemocratic rule of the colonial governments, many African countries have gone through less than five presidents over a time span of roughly, 50 years. It is very rare that an African leader decides to step down, pack up the state house, and head to their village to retire. They tend to die in office (naturally or via assassination), fall victims to coups, or escape to foreign countries due to imminent threats on their lives. The recent events in Ivory Coast surrounding Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down is the most recent example of an African leader clinging to power undemocratically, but it also touches on the wider issue of the unwillingness of many African Presidents in African democratic and non-democratic countries to admit defeat and/or step down. African leaders have had a poor record of stepping down over the past few years. Notorious leaders that are holding on to power today include Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Omar Bongo (Gabon) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt). In fact, the situation is so dire that a Sudanese businessman Mo Ibrahim, has offered a monetary incentive for African presidents to peacefully leave office as an incentive for relinquishing power when their time is up through the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has been trying to rebrand Africa through influencing good governance and through rewarding sucessful leaders with an award and money. For many, stepping down poses the risk of being held accountable for past deeds, primarily for ‘disappearance’ of opposition leaders and public funds. When handing over power to someone outside one’s own 'kitchen cabinet', political party or ethnic group, or geographical area, many African leaders know that they need to appoint someone that will not persecute them for their misdeeds whilst in office. Usually, this encourages and establishes the use of coups as a guaranteed or proven method of handing over power. Otherwise many African citizens have to rely on 'waiting' for the often long and protracted death of a dictator. Africa's longest dictator, Bongo, ruled Gabon for 42 years.

There are however, a few African Presidents or dictators have managed to step down peacefully. Notably, these were Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. When Nelson Mandela stepped down as President in 1999, after five years as President, he set a precedent in South Africa for Presidents from that country, to continue to step down. Since Mandela, we have seen a succession of Presidents in South Africa after the dictatorial rule of the apartheid regime. In stepping down, he sent a message to the African and International world leaders South Africa was going to continue down a democratic path. Likewise, he showed African citizens in various countries that their own leaders should be able to step down. With few skeletons (if any) in his political closet, it was easy for Mandela to step down. He had no ‘disappearing’ opponents or ‘disappearing’ public funds during his presidency. In the case of Jerry Rawlings, Rawlings took power by means of a coup and ruled as a dictator, from 1981-1992. During this time, he liberalized politics, held elections, was elected in a 1993 fair general election, re-elected in 1997 and retired by 2001 when his term concluded.

In the case of Malawi, Kamuzu Hastings Banda was Malawi's first President but after elected to office, he consolidated his power, had a long and brutal reign but still stepped down after he agreed to a referendum that was held 1993. Banda is touted as one of the worst dictators in Africa in the terms of brutality and acquired wealth yet, despite the nature of his regime, he stepped down after a referendum that ended three decades of totalitarian rule. When Malawi’s Catholic Pastors issued a pastoral letter highlighting the abuses they saw in the country by the Banda Regime in 1992. This was followed by a call towards multi-party state in the same year by Chafuwka Chihana. The Muslims in Malawi joined forces with the Catholics and other Christian groups to work towards change. University students at University of Malawi also began to call for change resulting in the temporary shutdown of the university. The Malawi Army, who may have been the only force in a position to organize a coup during his reign, also appeared to be serving the interests of Malawian law and order and did not attempt a military takeover of power. Through Operation Bwezani, they disarmed his network of unofficial security, the Malawi Young Pioneers, in a peaceful disarmament process. This was followed by referendum in 1993. When Malawians voted for change to multi-partisim, Banda, in spite of his hegemony (which included 33 years of rule), did not try to cling to power. He stepped down after he was stripped of power and helped newly emerging opposition parties and the church through the transition in preparation for the country’s first general elections. It is important to note that Banda was tried for the Mwanza Four murders, where four opposition leaders were killed in 1965 but acquitted due to lack of concrete evidence and his advanced age. Banda, like Rawlings, lived peacefully amongst his people after their presidencies.

Although Malawi’s situation may have some different dynamics since Malawi has negligible ethnic and religious divisions, has had no wars, and a series of civilian presidents, the presence of which may compound political situations in other countries; the case of Malawi may stand as an example to other countries with dictators like Banda that peaceful transitions are possible even after extended periods of dictatorial rule (See: Video on Malawi's Peaceful Transition) . Since Banda stepped down without resistance, Malawi has seen two Presidents in since 1994, and the sitting President is also expected to step down as well. It is important to note that both Malawian Presidents have made attempts at extending their rule thorough the introduction of a third term, but these constitutional amendments have been successfully quashed through constitutional means in Malawi parliaments. Malawians are not prepared to go back to extended or life Presidents like that had under Banda. Malawi's current President, Bingu Mutharika has indicated that he plans on stepping down. As the current chair of the AU, he has also been vocal in encouraging Gbagbo to step down.

Although, the majority of African leaders cling to power, we need to closely examine the exceptions to this rule so that we don’t brand or lump each country unfairly. Also, so that African leaders and citizens see that stepping down is an option and is possible. Mandela, Rawlings and Banda all stepped down without their own resistance albeit having different lengths of rule and/or operating different societal conditions. Mandela did so in a newly democratic country backed by a new constitution; Rawlings began to introduce democratic principles after his coup, adopting a more democratic constitution and setting the stage for him to withdraw; and lastly, Banda did it whilst operating under a completely undemocratic and totalitarian country shroud with political controversies. Hopefully, Gbagbo, his supporters and the Ivorian people, can learn from these recent precedents regardless of what political stage they are in. One also hopes that when their own terms are up or when faced with defeat, the now vocal African leaders that are currently calling for Gbagbo to step down, follow suit by packing up, going home, and returning to their own mansions in their village. 

** To add to the list of presidents that have stepped down in Africa, I would like to add that Julius Nyerere also stepped down in 1984. See: