In 1984, a year after coming to power at the head of a military coup, Thomas Sankara addressed the U.N. General Assembly. Claiming the mantle for the dispossessed, for women, for youths, for the poor, Sankara — then all of 34 years old and just three years away from his tragic killing — told the assemblage of international elites: “I protest on behalf of all those who vainly seek a forum in this world where they can make their voice heard and have it genuinely taken into consideration.”
Over the past week, I have been thinking about Sankara a lot, both as I watch events unfold in Burkina Faso, a country he bequeathed with its unquestionably brilliant name (Land of the Upright People), and because my students and I have been discussing his seminal 1987 speech on women’s liberation in class.
As events in Burkina Faso move ahead at breakneck pace, I’m struck by how much they encapsulate different political struggles that have defined African protest since the anti-colonial period. Political transformations across Africa have rarely come piecemeal. Instead, they tend to come in waves, sweeping across the region and leaving massive social transformations in their wake.
I am currently finishing a book on African protest with Adam Branch. In it, we examine the two prior waves of African protests and offer evidence that we are currently in the midst of a third. The first wave includes the nationalist protests of the 1950s, a set of uprisings that culminated in the formal independence of almost all African states. The second wave encompasses protests centered in West Africa that occurred between the mid-1980s to early 1990s. These protests, a response to brutal austerity measures imposed upon African states by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, sparked a major era of formal democratization across the continent. With only three democracies prior to the protests, by the mid-1990s Africa could boast 20 democracies, with numerous more states holding elections.
Yet, despite these earlier waves and the political transformations they initiated, African protests are often ignored. We document more than 90 popular uprisings in more than 40 African states since 2005. By our measure, the heralded North African protests of 2011 represented not the first ripple of a wave, but rather its crest, with 26 African countries (including Burkina Faso) experiencing popular protests that year. Since then, protests have continued but have rarely generated the sort of attention devoted to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Why? Political change in the rest of Africa is often thought to result from violent conflict or external intervention. Africans themselves are presumed to be too rural, too ethnic or too poor for popular politics to lead to political transformation. Even today, as protests increasingly shake up ossified regimes and de facto one-party states, little attention is paid to the broader wave of protests unfolding across Africa and what it portends for the future of the continent.
In our book, “Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change” (forthcoming from Zed Books), we look at the two earlier waves and find that since the colonial period, analysts have often misunderstood the specific character of protest in Africa and ignored its political salience. More problematically, African protests have too often been co-opted by elites, who, through subterfuge and deceit, subvert its political content into more narrow agendas.
During the first wave of African protest, for example, nationalist parties often moved to the forefront, redirecting often-inchoate and amorphous popular outrage at colonial rule into a clear demand for independence. By offering to negotiate with colonial rulers and constrain the undisciplined masses, nationalist elites were able to reap the benefits of independence. Unsurprisingly, once in power, the same elites quickly replicated many of the ruling practices introduced by colonial regimes, devoting much energy to demobilizing the popular constituencies that brought them to power in the first place.
Burkina Faso’s trajectory fits well within these broader patterns of political protest. During the 1950s, a largely peaceful independence movement brought together various constituencies under the leadership of a nationalist party. Yet, upon independence, the new president, Maurice Yameogo, banned all political opposition.
Similarly, the second great wave of African protest, which unfolded between the late 1980s and early 1990s, ushered in democracy across the continent. Opposition parties, often founded and controlled by former members of the ruling elite, successfully corralled popular energies into a narrow demand for elections. But what was the content of these ostensibly democratic reforms? Across Africa, participants in the second protest wave found their legitimate demands for reform replaced with empty talk of multipartyism. As Thandika Mkandawire wrote at the time, for too many African states, the democratic reforms of the early 1990s amounted to little more than “choiceless democracies,” assuaging the energies of protesters but denying them what they truly sought: political and economic transformation.
During the second wave of protest, Burkina Faso, then under the four-year reign of Sankara, was at the forefront of the anti-austerity sentiment, going as far as withdrawing from engagement with the World Bank and the IMF and working to break France’s lingering colonial relationship with much of the West African sub-region. Blaise Compaore, once Sankara’s confidant, and eventually his executioner, initially came to power after a French-backed coup in 1987. He quickly set about reversing Sankara’s reforms but failed to stave off the economic and political winds sweeping the region.
Recognizing the shifting tides around him, Compaore, like many of his West African counterparts, embraced superficial democratic reforms to assuage the oppositional energies threatening his regime. Though elected to the presidency in 1991, only 25 percent of the population participated in the election while the majority heeded calls for boycotts by opposition parties suspecting Compaore’s democratic credentials.
They were right. Twenty-seven years later, Compaoré was still in power, only to flee into exile during the ongoing popular uprising. Upon the ignominious list of African leaders chased out of office by popular protests, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, we can now chisel his name. For long-term African leaders under pressure from popular protests, including Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the trend is an ominous one.
Yet, the ongoing wave of African protests is faced with a profound political crisis. Independence and democratization, both offered as resolutions to the continent’s structural woes, have brought little improvement to the African masses. And despite all the talk of “Africa Rising,” the challenges remain severe. After more than a decade of positive growth across Africa, little wealth has trickled downward to the vast majority of people. Instead, as the World Bank notes that Nigeria — often promoted as the paradigmatic example of Africa’s new economic prowess — represents “a puzzling contrast between rapid economic growth and quite minimal welfare improvements for much of the population.”
The 2012 Occupy Nigeria uprising, one of the largest in the country’s history, is emblematic of the current wave. Though it flamed out after two spectacular weeks, during its brief existence, the movement threatened the entire political and economic structure of the country, sending shudders through both national and global elites.
Where does this leave the young and dispossessed Burkinabes who have been at the forefront of the protests? Outside of Sankara’s reign, the country has made few efforts to transform its failed political and economic structure. Compaore presided over a fairly impressive period of economic growth over the past five years. And though he sought to hold power, it is worth noting that his method was constitutional reform, not an outright power grab. Yet, these factors in his favor were not enough to rescue him when the anger of the masses boiled over.
The fact that the army has stepped in is not necessarily a harbinger of military rule. In many African protests, it is the military that can play a decisive role by intervening on behalf of the protesters, as was the case during the 1964 and 1985 protests in Sudan, in which junior officers stepped in against the regime to prevent what would probably have been bloody crackdowns. If progressive voices in the military can come to the fore and turn power quickly over to a civilian leader, there is hope.
But have the protesters won? If all they achieve is the replacement of one military ruler for another, as in Egypt, it’s hard to be optimistic. But movements are not stagnant and can learn both from broader regional dynamics and their own histories of resistance.
Sankara was not immune to some of the pathologies that plagued earlier generations of African revolutionary regimes. He was intolerant of dissent and had little interest in the type of vague human rights championed by liberal advocates. But he understood that the young men and women who supported his regime would not be satisfied with incremental reforms. As the protesters who have resurrected his image and embraced the symbol of a broom recalling Sankara’s anti-corruption campaigns understand, reformist solutions can rarely threaten the fundamental structural inequities that define the harsh conditions of life faced by too many in Africa and beyond. As Sankara advised, “Comrades, forward to conquer the future. The future is revolutionary. The future belongs to those who fight.”
Zachariah Mampilly is associate professor of political science and director of Africana studies at Vassar College and the author of “Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War” (Cornell, 2011). His forthcoming book, “Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change,” is co-authored with fellow political scientist Adam Branch and is due out in March 2015.