Tuesday, November 1, 2011

‘Arab Spring, African Fall’: A Reawakening

Idi AminImage via Wikipedia
Uganda's infamous dictator, Idi Amin
For some reason I thought it would be much easier to find a compiled list of African dictators online. Africa has been branded as the ‘continent of dictators’ along with Asia and Latin America since the waves of independence from foreign control. Even though the world’s dictators are spread across four continents (Europe’s dictators rarely ever get a nod), Africa is more often associated with dictatorial rule than its counter parts. Indeed, the continent has been home to its fair share of notorious dictators like Idi Amin, Kamuzu Banda, Al Bashir, Mengistu Mariam and Robert Mugabe. But African leadership is transforming. By looking online and trying to piece together a complete list of dictators, it looks like there are 17 dictators left out of the 48 countries on the continent:
  • North Africa – Algeria, Chad, (North) Sudan, Morocco
  • East Africa – Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea
  • West Africa – Guniea, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia
  • Southern Africa – Angola, Zimbabwe, Swaziland
  • Central Africa- Congo, Central African Republic
It should be noted that the classification of who is considered a dictator varies by definition and list (one analyst, went as far as listing the number of African autocratic states as 39). Even though Africa is commonly seen as the continent that wrote the ‘dictator’s handbook’, the majority of autocratic leaders today, are largely in Asia. Across different lists of autocratic governance and across different indices that measure levels of freedom enjoyed by citizenry, Asia seems to currently bear the brunt of tyrannical rule. This is even more so since Africa lost four dictators this year. It’s not often that Africa is given credit for teaching and/or upholding the ideals of democracy. Dictatorships in Asia, which have already been inspired by events in North Africa as seen in the ‘Arab Spring’, can (and should) continue to draw parallels and learn from the long history of anti-dictatorial revolts in Africa by its citizenry.
Way to go Egpyt! 02/11/11Image by cactusbones via Flickr
Arab Spring in Egypt was a paramount event.
African dictators have been falling this year. This year, Africans have witnessed the fall of Moburak, Laurent Gbaghbo, Ben Ali and now, Ghadaffi. Although some African leaders tried to hold out a candle for Ghadaffi, even the African Union has now conceded that the he is no longer the leader of Libya. By examining the list, it appears within the continent, North, East, and West Africa have a lion’s share of countries led by dictators. It is clear that at the beginning of this year, the numbers of dictators within Africa, were disproportionally in North Africa. In fact, according to Judy Smith-Höhn, a senior southern Africa researcher at a Pretoria-based think-tank the ISS Sub Saharan (SSA) countries like Malawi and South Africa, experienced the events witnessed in North Africa this year, in the 1990s and yet people are constantly trying to use protests that occurred recently in countries like Malawi, as southern Africa’s `Arab Spring’ (Irin News). As an example, in southern Africa (consisting of nearly 14 countries), Zimbabwe, Angola, and Swaziland are the last remaining dictatorships. So it is also fair to say that North Africa too should have been able to draw parallels and learn lessons from the history of anti-dictatorial movements in southern Africa by its citizenry. When protest led to Kamuzu Banda and De Klerk’s National Party left power, we should have also looked to North Africa asking, “is North Africa next?”

The events in the Middle East that began in North Africa have to an extent been unfairly called the “Arab Spring”, “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Uprising” which by description alienates African countries. Many of the participants are both Arab and Africans or are Africans who are simply not Arab. This terminology marginalizes the millions of people and perpetrates the stereotype that all North Africans are Arabs or the even more problematic one – the claims that Arabs are not Africans even though they are physically on the continent. It also means that when the ‘Arab Spring’ started, a large part of the world initially looked towards the East (Syria, Bahrain etc...) and not at what was occurring in neighboring countries in the South. African presidents though saw the connection. They knew that their disgruntled citizens could once again take to the streets. African presidents’ continent wide, reflected on their own governance, began to panic and preemptively protect the status quo – even the ones that were not dictators! In democratic Malawi, a university professor was even investigated and fired for comparing the conditions in North Africa to conditions in Malawi. African presidents knew that their sleepy (but not asleep) citizens would rise.
In SSA this year, we have seen an African reawakening happening in Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal, Swaziland and Uganda to name a few. It could have easily been termed the “African Fall”. In fact, the successful revolutions this year, so far have only been on the African continent. However, the power of media attention to sustain a revolt is important to a movement, and without much international support, SSA revolts didn’t turn in to televised revolutions. Instead, the western international media gaze was focused on what their governments have been holding their breaths a long time for - regime changes in much of the Middle East. Although this inspiration to overthrow current leadership has largely been viewed as an impact of the Arab Spring it’s also important to note that many countries in SSA had been ridding themselves of their dictators or other unpopular leaders for a long time. Fighting for democracy on the continent is not something new – it has been only 50 years since the struggles against the colonial rule (essentially, foreign dictatorships) and many of those freedom fighters still remember those battles. The recent struggle for independence seeping across the continent is about gaining independence from our own home bred leadership. We are witnessing, what I hope is the reawakening of Africans and the start of an ‘African Fall’.

--A version of this article was published on African on the Blog