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rising: The significance of protests in sub-Saharan Africa


Since the 2008 food crisis, sub-Saharan Africa has experienced an increase in civilian and labour protests. These protests embrace a broad coalition of support, as well as a broad array of issues. It is imperative that policymakers as well as Governments pay particular attention to these protests, which have taken a unique form and have the potential to become more hostile and destructive in their operation. The protests are primarily centred on economic issues ranging from high unemployment to the escalation in food prices. However, these protests include an element of political disillusionment – citizens are beginning to lose faith in their Governments.

Clarissa Graham from Consultancy Africa Intelligence, examines these protests, attempting to illuminate the issues underlying the protests and discusses whether they are likely to affect the economic growth of the countries involved. It also begs the question of whether the respective Governments are to blame, or whether it is merely an expected outcome of the recent financial and economic crises.

Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa

According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections, as well as the United Nations Economic Outlook for the global economy, Africa stood to gain from the recent financial crisis that hit the developed economies in North America and Europe.(2) “African economies are less exposed to the global financial system than any other region, and African banks hold few of the ‘toxic assets’ that helped spark the crisis. Pre-crisis growth trajectories saw the region achieving strong economic growth rates averaging 6.5% per year.”(3) This growth was facilitated by macroeconomic reforms, high external demand for primary commodities and a growing investment surge in Africa due to high commodity prices.(4)

“In many countries, productivity increased and domestic investment improved, in part due to remittances from African workers overseas. Domestic demand also grew, notably in telecommunications as mobile phone and internet use spread rapidly.”(5) These conditions proved favourable to sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth, especially with increased investment flowing from emerging economies such as India, China and Brazil. After the financial crisis in the developing economies turned into a global economic recession, analysts miscalculated the impact it would have on African economies, which were considered relatively sheltered from the financial crisis.

When the economic crisis eventually hit African economies, the effects would be severe. When the crisis spilled over to African economies, the results were higher unemployment and wider inequality. Between 2007 and 2009, at least 30 million jobs were lost worldwide.(6) The most concerning feature of that economic crisis in Africa was the severe effect it had on youth unemployment, which remained at 18% for the last decade.(7) Since the financial crisis, economic conditions within sub-Saharan Africa have deteriorated, whereby “African economies are experiencing reduced demand for commodity exports, tighter financing conditions overseas, and a drop in foreign direct investment and other capital inflows.”(8) The greatest concerns for African Governments are the challenge of avoiding similar political rebellions such as those in North Africa and how to stem growing unemployment.

Economic and political rebellion: The extent of involvement, causes and effects

The Arab Spring was the beginning of many civilian protests against Governments and regimes, motivated by unemployment and the call for political and economic reforms. The Arab Spring has inspired protest all around the globe. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has not been spared the rise of rebellion that began in North Africa. Protests have raged in every region of the sub-continent. In sub-Saharan countries, protests rage over issues such as democratic rights, freedom of association and expression, frustrations around poor service delivery and poor social and economic conditions.(9)

Within Southern Africa, the most stable region of the continent (in terms of the absence of conflict), countries have been experiencing more protests since 2009. In Angola, rumours have been circulating since mid-February 2011 of a possible North African-style rebellion against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for the past 32 years, his ministers and his corrupt friends.(10) However, activists’ plans were quickly thwarted by the military police, arresting all those involved in talking of an impending revolution.(11) South Africa has been experiencing service delivery protests where violence and property damage have resulted in clashes between police forces and civilians.(12) This culminated in the recent youth march, organised by the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), against white ownership of economic resources and wealth, and against poverty and unemployment.(13)

In Swaziland and Botswana, there have been protests by civil servants and other labour groups calling for salary increases and better economic management.(14) In the case of Swaziland, calls for political freedom and growing discontent with the absolute monarchy are increasing.(15) In Malawi, civil society groups have launched a series of demonstrations against high fuel prices and the general mismanagement of the economy.(16) Similarly in Mozambique, protests have erupted over unfair working conditions and steep increases in food prices.(17) Both the protests in Mozambique and Malawi erupted in a violent police crackdown on protesters.(18)

West Africa has experienced the most violent of the political protests in the sub-continent, usually launched against Government and unfair elections rather than economic conditions. In Burkina Faso, the President had to elect a new prime minister following a series of riots involving soldiers, police and students in February this year.(19) Cote d’Ivoire experienced the most violent uprising in sub-Saharan Africa. Protests reached a point where the Ivory Coast was on the brink of a civil war, following an election where President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.(20) Election protests in West Africa were violent and usually involved a clash between security forces and civilians (often divided in support of the Government). Benin, Gabon and Senegal have also been hit by violent protests over election outcomes and constitutional changes extending the presidential term, that were considered illegitimate among the population of the countries.(21)

In East Africa, violent protests have erupted in Uganda and Djibouti. In Uganda, protests were organised against rising food and fuel prices as well as rising public transport costs.(22) Urban middle class citizens also showed their frustration towards corruption and poor delivery of social services and high unemployment.(23) In Djibouti, violent protests have largely escaped the attention of the media. These protests took place between January and March and were in response to the amendment of the constitution allowing President Ismail Omar Guelleh to hold a third term in office.(24)

These economic and political protests are widespread across sub-Saharan Africa and have in most cases erupted in violence or brutal police crackdown. The interests that drive these protests are, however, heterogeneous. In Southern Africa, the protests are launched in frustration with current social and economic conditions within the region. In West Africa, the trend is protests against political conditions of growing authoritarianism and the abuse of executive and legislative powers in Government. An underlying feeling in all of these protests is the growing disillusionment and frustration with the way Governments manage countries politically and economically.

It is inevitable that these protests will lead to uncertainty in the economic and political sphere. These protests are likely to breed uncertainty among investors, both domestic and international, concerning the economic and political stability within sub-Saharan Africa. This investor uncertainty will have a particular impact on the economies of sub-Saharan Africa, and the already dire economic conditions protestors are experiencing could worsen if investors are discouraged because of political instability.

Furthermore, the current economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa are not likely to improve in the current global economic context. The Euro-zone crisis will negatively impact trade and export earning within the sub-continent as the major trading partners of the continent are facing their own economic slowdown and growing citizen discontent. This will lead to a downturn in the export sectors of affected countries especially the manufacturing and the mining sectors. The full extent of the effects of these protests however, are not clear as many of these protests are either successfully thwarted by Government or they fade in their impact and intensity. What is most likely is that domestic production will experience a downturn and the socio-economic conditions will worsen.

Who deserves the blame?

These protests are generally launched against Governments or corporations; however, some are not launched against any entity in particular but are just an outlet of frustration with the current living conditions or increasing incidences of corruption and greed within Government and the private sector, such as the recent protests launched by university students in Sudan for greater political and economic reforms and the labour protests that were staged in Mozambique.(25) In this analyst’s opinion, the significance of these protests taking place in sub-Saharan Africa in comparison to the rebellion that erupted in North Africa is that the former take on the style of service delivery protests and protest for greater economic inclusivity. These protests are not launched with the goal of toppling the Government or initiating economic and political change as in the case of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan protests are usually launched in order to gain attention from Government and draw attention to the socio-economic conditions the citizens are facing under the current economic or political climate, calling for greater political and economic inclusion.

This begs the following questions: against whom are these protests launched and are these disillusioned parties blaming the wrong entity? Have the Governments failed to represent the interests of their citizens in order to gain from the favourable concessions and deals offered by some multinational corporations or foreign investors? Is it a question of economic mismanagement and poor accountability on the part of Government? Or could this be the effect of increased privatisation and the drive to achieve monetary and fiscal stability as opposed to greater economic inclusion and freedom? Is this merely the effect of the recent economic crises that hit the global economy and the recent Euro-zone crisis facing some of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest trading partners? This debate about who is to blame for the economic crises is difficult to pinpoint as an economic crises stems from various sources and the protesters’ discontent is launched at a variety of entities, not only Government. However, the trend in sub-Saharan Africa is that protest is mainly launched against Governments and their cronies.(26)

This does not imply that protestors are not frustrated with the private sector in terms of working conditions and retrenchments. These frustrations against the private sector are nonetheless directed against the Government for not regulating the activities of businesses and corporations.(27) It could be argued that these Governments have, in the drive to make economic policy conducive to unregulated international trade and making the flow of financial investments (usually portfolio investments) easier(28), sold out their accountability to the pressure of international investors. This is not to say that international trade or easing the flow of financial capital is destructive, it is merely an argument that better and fair regulation is necessary in order to shelter the domestic economy from the worst effects of an economic recession.

Conclusion

For how long will African Governments be able to stem the tide of protests and rebellion? Is it sustainable to quell the protests by increasing the social safety net without considering the implications of unsustainable budget deficits and debt? The protests in sub-Saharan Africa illustrate growing discontent with the current status quo of unemployment and economic inequality. It is however, not plausible to argue that these protests will evolve into a North African-type rebellion, toppling Governments and ousting corrupt regimes. However, these protests are a culmination of growing disillusionment with the promises of economic freedom and equality, brought by greater economic integration and economic growth.

These protests have the potential to divide nations, result in violence and ultimately political instability. Governments need to heed the calls of the economically marginalised and the unemployed urgently and initiate dialogue to resolve growing discontent and stimulate greater political participation. Those Governments that fail to listen intently could alienate the very people who put them into power.

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