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Vol 60 No 2

Published 25th January 2019


Africa in 2019: The youngest continent fights back

Shakier economies and an accelerating youth revolt dominate our second special issue on the year ahead

There are clear parallels between the wave of protests demanding radical change across Africa this month with the early days of the North African revolt in 2011, known as the Arab Spring. In most cases, those protests had brought together activists outside traditional party and civic structures.

Mostly under 30, the protestors were angry and brave, using digital technology as an organisational tool. They were taking on some of the world's most ruthless security states. That is true for the current protests against economic devastation in Sudan and Zimbabwe as well as misrule in Congo-Kinshasa and Uganda. And as the anger of the youth grows in Tanzania and Zambia, the grip of their security services will be tested too.

For today's dissenters, there are some harsh lessons from the 2011 wave. Most of the bright hopes of those determined protests in 2011 – in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the milder ones in Algeria and Morocco – were snuffed out within a year. After regime change, Egypt has reverted to ultra-authoritarianism and Libya is being ripped apart by rival militias.

A long tradition of constitutionalism has bolstered gradual reform in Tunisia although dissent is growing again. Innovative economic ideas in Morocco have pushed back some of the protest impetus but the kingdom also depends on harsh repression. In Algeria, where the 81-year-old and incapacitated President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will probably stand for and win re-election in April, le pouvoir has stifled opposition with a mix of largesse from some of Africa's biggest foreign reserves and the fist of the deep security state.

Economic anger
In 2019 as in 2011, the spark for revolution has been anger at weak and badly managed economies run for the benefit of vested interests in business and the military. The free-market mantra has little relevance in the many African regimes where public assets have been taken over by local and foreign private companies, either covertly or in some rigged privatisation processes.  

That is the background to the disputed elections in Congo-Kinshasa whose official results could allow outgoing President Joseph Kabila and allies to rule by proxy, and maintain a wrestler's grip on the biggest reserves of cobalt, an essential component for electric cars, in the world. That helps to explain strong support from China and Russia for Kabila's 'negotiated election victory' with Félix Tshisekedi, the more pliable of the two opposition frontrunners.

It also explains the lukewarm backing for fair and transparent elections in Congo-Kinshasa by the European Union and the United States. Feeling threatened by Beijing and Moscow's support for autocrats, Western governments are reluctant to make new enemies in Africa. That is another brutal lesson for young dissidents in Africa: for regimes that slaughter their own people, the risk of sanctions is diminishing.

On top of that leeching away of national resources, Africa's economies, still projected to grow on average by 4% a year by the African Development Bank's optimistic statisticians, will have to navigate a downturn in the global economy, at least as bad as the US-triggered crisis in 2007-2008.

Brutal responses
In Sudan and Zimbabwe, it was the combination of state-imposed price hikes worsening inflation, a currency crisis, rampant corruption in the regime and a political-security cabal operating with impunity that led to open revolt. Those regimes have sent security forces to round up oppositionists, house by house, in many cases detaining and torturing their targets.

Both regimes have used live rounds against protestors, with Sudanese security forces aping the tactics of the Syrian regime under President Bashar al Assad with an armed raid on a hospital in Omdurman which had been treating people with gunshot wounds.

A courageous team of Sudanese TV journalists got the footage on international networks, prompting the World Health Organisation and sundry Western governments to issue mild rebukes to the Khartoum regime. The endgames in Harare and Khartoum are likely to play out with little outside intervention.



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