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'Protest is always hopeful': Examining the third wave of popular protest in Africa

- June 12, 2015

People waving branches celebrate in the streets of Bujumbura on May 13, 2015, following the radio announcement by Major General Godefroid Niyombare that President Nkurunziza was overthrown. The attempted coup by a top general eventually “failed.” (Jennifer Huxta/AFP/Getty Images)
Just in the past couple of months in Africa, there have been major protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in Burundi, against electricity shortages in Ghana, and in Addis Ababa to condemn the murders of Ethiopians by Islamic State militants in Libya. There were also smaller or localized protests, such as women’s rights miniskirt demonstrations in Tunisia and protests in the eastern Congo town of Beni against escalating violence that has terrorized citizens there.
The book “Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change” by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly, published this year, discusses this ongoing unrest, which they call the “third wave” of protest. Branch and Mampilly’s book situates this third wave in relation to two earlier waves of African protest: the anti-colonial struggle that brought independence in the 1960s, and the anti-austerity wave that ushered in political and economic liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Africa Uprising” has already receoved prominent reviews, including Helen Epstein’s piece in the New York Review of Books. As the first installment of this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, here’s a Q&A with the authors.

Anti-government protesters take over the state TV podium in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, October 30, 2014. Thousands of protesters marched on Burkina Faso’s presidential palace after burning the parliament building and ransacking state television offices, forcing President Blaise Compaoré to scrap a plan to extend his 27-year rule. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

KYD: You wrote, “From the colonial period until the present, accounts of protests tend to describe clearly the political parties, labour unions, or student groups that were involved, only then to casually remark that tens of thousands of people took to the streets but without giving any idea as to who they were, why there were protesting, or what they sought to bring about” (page 19). Do you have recommendations for readers on sources that tend to avoid these pitfalls? Do you have advice for journalists covering the current wave of African protests to avoid these kinds of reports?
AB & ZM: Our most basic advice is first, always listen to African voices, and second, don’t assume that these are monolithic. We focus on the debates occurring within Africa, the rich and complex debates among Africans, whether academic or popular, in the newspapers or in the khat-houses. To capture this diversity, we draw a distinction between formal civil society actors — labor unions, NGOs, political parties and so on — and what we refer to as political society.
Political society includes the majority of ordinary Africans, in particular the urban underclass, whose relationship to the state is defined not by formal institutions and a legal regime of rights, as with civil society, but rather by informal and often exploitative interactions, mediated by personalized ties and, often, violence. The majority of urban dwellers have too often been left out of accounts of African politics, which instead favor the more easily accessed narratives put forth by civil society.
Our book is an attempt to really listen to what ordinary Africans have to say in order to discern how they understand their own political visions. We looked at a variety of sources to better understand the politics of political society — from interviews with street-level political activists, to various forms of music and popular culture that many see as representing their struggles, to urban slum-dwellers living in the midst of the uprisings, to youth experimenting with new forms of social and cultural organization.
The politics of political society often don’t look like the politics of civil society, with the latter’s familiar narratives of democratization and rights and its comfortable repertoire of press conferences, peaceful demonstrations, and carefully constructed lists of demands.
Political society’s alternative forms of politics may require a bit more work to find and interpret, but they will be all the more interesting and can open doors to the diversity of politics and political possibilities in Africa today.
At the same time, we recognize that African civil society has its own internal debates and political controversies, and that many within it are recognizing the importance of political society if political change is to become a reality. Thus, we see novel efforts by civil society activists to connect to the struggles of ordinary Africans. As Amira Yahyaoui, a Tunisian civil society activist, put it in a recent interview:

Wherever you go, you will see that the trust between governments and people is completely broke. But the trust between civil society and people is also going down. And this is one of the reasons why these revolutions — the Arab revolutions, but also other revolutions, like Ferguson for example — are not organized by NGOs or organized civil society. They’re organized by the people themselves.

Graph from Branch and Mampilly's "Africa Uprising" shows increasing trend of protests on the continent.

Graph from Branch and Mampilly’s “Africa Uprising” shows increasing trend of protests on the continent.

KYD: Your book cites an Afrobarometer policy brief by Boniface Dulani, Robert Mattes, and Carolyn Logan, which shows that despite economic growth across multiple African countries, there has been little change in lived poverty at the grassroots. In another part of the book, you write that “this third wave of African protest retains its strength and will continue as long as the conditions giving rise to it are not resolved” (page 67). Taken with the Afrobarometer results on poverty (as well as other Afrobarometer findings on dissatisfaction with economic governance), should we expect a long period of protests in Africa, especially as we see little change from African governments in the four cases you study?
AB & ZM: We don’t see the conditions giving rise to protest changing – but what remains to be seen is whether protest will continue to be the preeminent form of collective political action used to address these conditions. So while we expect the continent-wide “third wave” of African protest to continue – as it has even in the short time since we finished the book with uprisings in Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and elsewhere – this does not mean that protest will continue to be at the forefront everywhere. This will depend largely on national political contexts.
For instance, in Uganda, where Adam is at present, there are vociferous debates over the upcoming presidential elections in 2016. The last elections in 2011 gave rise to the massive “Walk to Work” protests by the political opposition, which we chronicle in our book.
However, from what we’ve been hearing, most people think that the chances for a replay of the 2011 uprising are slim. This is partly because the political opposition has utterly failed to put forth a coherent political agenda or carry out any popular organization among citizens. It is also because of newly repressive laws, which basically criminalize most forms of public association and expression, let alone political organization.
But perhaps most important, the Museveni regime has shown the lengths to which it is willing to go to crush any mass protest movement. In 2011, it showed that the state will use unbridled and brutal military force not only against the protesters but against all those in the streets or markets where protest is taking place.
It’s really a kind of collective punishment. The government has declared that the price to be paid for protest is a military assault on urban areas, generalized destruction, and permanent paramilitary occupation. The urban population, as sympathetic as they might be to the protests and their demands, cannot afford to support them: The price to be paid is too high and the protests’ possibility of success just too low.
So our expectation is for political resignation and abstention in 2016 rather than more protests, which is not to say that protest will not come to the fore again in Uganda in the future.

A vendor sells a map of Africa along the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi April 24, 2015. While recent unrest has plunged the small, landlocked nation of Burundi into its worst crisis since the end of a conflict a decade ago, Reuters photographer Thomas Mukoya shows the realities of daily life. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

KYD: Your book covers in depth four “third wave” protests: Nigeria’s Occupy movement in 2012, Uganda’s “Walk to Work” protests in 2011, protests following the Ethiopian election in 2005, and protests in Sudan in 2013. If you could magically make space for a fifth case, which from the long list of “third wave” protests listed on pages 68-69 would you choose to explore and why?
AB & ZM: We would have liked to include the gas protests in southern Tanzania, which Zachariah wrote about a couple years ago. As we discuss in the book, African protest has historically been primarily an urban phenomenon, with good reason. But we find one of the most interesting developments of late to be the emergence of popular protest among Africa’s rural masses. This challenges dominant analyses of African rural politics, which commonly depict the rural as the space of “tribalism” and large-scale violence.
With the influx of foreign investment flowing to Africa’s rural areas, we are seeing a new grab for rural lands both by African governments and foreign investors. This is leading to a convergence in conditions between rural and urban and upending the political dynamics in rural areas. In fact, the category of political society – which we framed as a primarily urban phenomenon – may be increasingly useful to understand politics in rural areas as well.
Thus, we should not be surprised by the eruption of political society protest even in areas far removed from national capitals – though not so far from international capital. These developments require renewed engagement with the changing nature of popular politics and the transforming relations between rural and urban, what has been a defining cleavage of African politics since the colonial era.

A youth carries a lit flare as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood gather in the El-Mataria neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt on Friday, April 24, 2015 to protest the 20-year sentence for ousted president Mohammed Morsi and verdicts against other prominent figures of the Brotherhood. (Belal Darder/AP Photo)

KYD: One characteristic of each of the four cases you study is the participation of unemployed youth. Scholars and analysts often invoke a narrative of how the demographic “youth bulge” on the African continent and elsewhere increases the likelihood of anti-regime protests. How do you see your study engaging or perhaps qualifying that narrative of unemployed youth and protest?
AB & ZM: We certainly engage this narrative in the sense that unemployed or underemployed youth were a significant constituency of all the protests we examined.
But the term “youth” is notoriously imprecise. Even in the United States, we can’t agree whether the cutoff for youth is 16, when you can drive, 18, when you can vote, or 21, when you can drink. Similarly, in India, youth can refer to unmarried individuals living with their parents regardless of age. Across Africa, you see a similar imprecision.
Hence, we tend to agree with Alcinda Honwana who suggests the term “waithood” instead to acknowledge the ways in which “youth” as a social category is constructed by the specific economic, cultural and political conditions.
In the book, we do this by avoiding a decontextualized understanding of youth – especially male youth – and placing them instead within the framework of a broader concept of political society. Yes, youth are often at the forefront of many protests, but those protests should be understood as deriving their politics, their form, and their demands from the experience of the urban underclass as a whole.
This allows us to see the alliances and fractures within popular protest, the lines splitting political society from within – often along age – and to see the efforts by protesters and political leaders to overcome those divisions.
A demonstrator smiles as she gives sweets to Egyptian soldiers as they sit on top of their tank in Tahrir Square.

A demonstrator smiles as she gives sweets to Egyptian soldiers as they sit on top of their tank in Tahrir Square. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

KYD: In all four of the protest cases you study, the state uses force to effectively end the protests (alongside other measures). The book almost reads as a primer for states potentially threatened by popular protest to strengthen their security forces as a preemptive solution. Are there cases in the third wave where the state’s use of force is insufficient to put down popular protests?
AB & ZM: We don’t think that African states need a primer from U.S. political scientists on how to undertake the effective repression of protest; they can receive that from the U.S. government already. Moreover, this is a tactic employed by states not just in Africa, but also more widely around the world.
While in some cases, such as Uganda, the use of force by the state has been able to effectively silence protest, the use of force has not always been sufficient – for instance the recent uprising in Burkina Faso, the protest movement in Senegal, or even the Egyptian and Tunisian protests in their inspiring early weeks.
The other mode of “protest management” that the book explores is represented in the Ethiopian case study. There, after the country-wide 2005 urban uprisings, the ruling party launched an extensive, highly intensive developmentalist project intended to co-opt the urban population through small-scale developmental activities, grand infrastructure projects, and mass membership in the ruling party.
The recent elections in which the ruling party and its allies seem to have won 100 percent of the vote may be seen as a sign of the success of that strategy. Not in the sense that the ruling party commands perfect popular consent, but in the sense that it has effectively monopolized the political space in the urban areas where popular protest had frequently erupted.

Protestors cheer after erecting a barricade out of shipping container and pushing back the police in Bujumbura, on 13 May 2015 during a demonstration against incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a 3rd term. (Jennifer Huxta/AFP/Getty Images)

KYD: I’m conflicted by the end of the book. I want to be hopeful that popular protest in response to the “crisis of representation” (page 207) in Africa will yield some significant change for the people who put themselves at risk of organized state violence against them. The outcomes of the four case studies leave me skeptical that the state will ever lose, as if “the game is fixed.”
And yet you end the book cautiously optimistic, writing, “African protest may become the locus from which powerful new political imaginations emerge, ready to be taken up by popular struggles not only on the continent but also around the globe” (page 216). What gives you this hope?
AB & ZM: Because protest is always hopeful! Protest is a sign that people are claiming their right to define their own societies, their own way of life. It is an assertion of self-determination and popular sovereignty. Following Amílcar Cabral, we agree that those seeking political transformation in Africa should “tell no lies” and “claim no easy victories.” But even protests whose outcomes are disappointing demonstrate the ever-present possibility for change.
It is easy to forget, especially in the post-9/11 United States, that the greatest political victories were rarely won through elections but required large-scale political mobilization. People who took to the streets managed to end wars, helped curtail racial, gender or sexual discrimination, and challenged unfair economic practices. In other words, they found ways to express their democratic rights in far more substantive ways than merely casting a vote every four years. And they do this without the permission of the elites who have fully captured the U.S. electoral process.
In contrast, many African countries are still struggling to define the basic compact between government and society and so there isn’t as much deference to the political leadership, regardless of whether they came to power via elections or not. African scholars have been talking about “choiceless democracies” for three decades now, a concept we increasingly relate to as U.S. citizens. We believe we have much to learn from African protest, in regards to both the challenges it will inevitably confront and how those challenges may be overcome.
Adam Branch is associate professor of political science at San Diego State University and will soon join the University of Cambridge as university lecturer in African politics.
Zachariah Mampilly is associate professor in political science at Vassar College, where he directs its Africana Studies Program.