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Africa: Winds of Change
Mar 25, 2011 (110325)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
Do this year's "people's power" victories in the North African
countries of Tunisia and Egypt signal a new era for other countries
in Africa, as well as for the Arab world of which they are also a
part? And if so, what factors will determine where the wind strikes
sparks, adding its momentum to pro-democracy forces that have
previously been stifled or defeated? Even more uncertain, where can
democratic forces not only mobilize but also win? In fact no one
knows the answers, but they are being asked across the continent.
It was February 1960 when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan,
addressing the white South African Parliament, announced that the
colonial powers should recognize the "wind of change" sweeping the
continent. Yet it was not until 1994 that this wind swept aside the
white-minority regime in South Africa.
Africa's quest for a "second independence" from oppressive
neocolonial and despotic regimes is also not new, beginning with
rebels in the Congo in the early 1960s, and continuing with such
waves as the "sovereign national conferences" in Francophone Africa
and the Nigeria pro-democracy movement in the 1990s. There have
been some hard-won victories, but also many disappointments and
The day-by-day news in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, as well as the
relative quiet in Morocco and Algeria, demonstrate that the
"contagion" effect is far from simple and automatic, even within
that region served by the unifying television coverage of Al
Jazeera Arabic. Wide generalizations are necessarily suspect,
particularly when applied to such broad and internally diverse
categories as "North Africa," the "Arab World," or "sub-Saharan
Nevertheless, such attempts at generalization are probably
inevitable, and can at least be useful in calling attention to
factors that may or may not apply to any particular country.
Today's set of AfricaFocus Bulletins contains two essays, by
Wangari Maathai (in this issue) and by William Gumede (see
http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103a.php), which do a better
job than most in combining overviews with nuance and are well worth
I am sure, however, that most AfricaFocus readers will have, as I
do, doubts about some of the generalizations, particularly those
applied to "sub-Saharan Africa" as a whole, beginning with their
failure to mention the many African countries where there have been
significant advances toward functioning democracies. A useful
corrective, with a wealth of empirical data, is the public opinion
survey series by Afrobarometer (http://www.afrobarometer.org),
including data from 2008 on 19 African countries, where 29% of
respondents rated their own country a "full democracy," 30% their
country as a democracy "with minor problems," 25% a democracy "with
major problems," and only 11% not a democracy at all or "don't
I have included some excerpts from two recent Afrobarometer reports
(at http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103c.php). See also my
short checklist of "Caveats and Unanswered Questions" at
African countries are indeed diverse, and the North/sub-Saharan
distinction is not necessarily the most salient distinction to mark
in predicting likely prospects for democracy. One characteristic
relatively easy to check empirically is that of the many
long-ruling incumbent leaders. Those states having a ruler with
over 15 years in power are not the majority but still an impressive
one-third of the 54 on the continent (see "Dinosaurs and Dynasties"
in http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103a.php). Another
distinction, Elleni Centime Zeleke reminds us in an essay below on
"The Problem with Africans and Arabs," is both important but also
often stereotyped as an unchanging "Orientalist" distinction rather
than based on historical political economies and variable both over
time and between and within countries.
You will also find a few brief reflections of my own, with caveats
and unanswered questions, in the other AfricaFocus sent out today
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
These winds of change may now reach across the Sahara
The revolutions in the north have inspired sub-Saharan Africans. We
can only hope the region's leaders take note
8 March 2011
As protests against authoritarian rule spread throughout north
Africa and the Middle East, I've been asked whether similar
pro-democracy protests could take place in sub-Saharan Africa too.
At first glance, the conditions appear ripe. Many sub-Saharan
Africans also struggle daily with the consequences of poor
governance, stagnating economies and dehumanising poverty, and
rampant violations of human rights.
It's difficult for an outsider to know the local reasons why people
in any society finally decide they've had enough of their leaders
and rise up against them. It's also dangerous to assume that
revolutions occurring simultaneously have the same root causes. But
certain factors do help explain the volatility in north Africa and
the relative quiet to the south - and why that may not persist
indefinitely. The first is the idea of the nation itself, along
with regional identity. Because the great majority of peoples of
north Africa and the Middle East are Arabs, their ethnic,
linguistic, religious, and cultural connections provide a degree of
solidarity within and across national boundaries. The majority
think less along ethnic and more along lines of national identity.
Al-Jazeera provides a wealth of information in the region's common
language, Arabic, and allows one country's news to reach a broad
regional swathe practically instantaneously.
Many in the younger generation are well-educated professionals,
eager to make their voices heard. And in Tahrir Square, we heard
the protesters chant: "We are all Egyptians," no matter where they
came from in Egypt, their social status, or even their religion
(Egypt has a small but significant population of Coptic
Christians). That sense of national identity was essential to their
success. But that national spirit, sadly, is lacking in much of
sub-Saharan Africa. For decades, under colonial rule and since
independence, many leaders have exploited their peoples' ethnic
rivalries and linguistic differences to sow division and maintain
their ethnic group's hold on power and the country's purse strings.
To this day, in many such states, ethnicity has greater resonance
than national identity.
Instead of encouraging inter-ethnic understanding and solidarity,
leaders have set communities against each other in a struggle for
resources and power, making it difficult for citizens to join
together for the national interest.
A second factor is the role of the military. The Egyptian army's
decision not to fire on protesters was key to the success of the
February revolution. Sadly, we couldn't expect the same in
sub-Saharan Africa, where in many - if not most - nations both
police and army are sources of instability and rancour. Quite often
soldiers are hired, paid and promoted by the man in power. As a
result, their first loyalty is not to the nation, but to whomever
is in the state house.
In addition, the majority of the army's recruits may be drawn from
the leader's ethnic group, especially if the leader has been in
power for many years. Since it isn't likely that the soldiers'
micro-nation (tribe) would be demonstrating in the streets, it can
be relatively easy for them to open fire on protesters with a
certain sense of impunity.
More tragic evidence of this was provided last week when unarmed
women expressing their opinion about the disputed election in Ivory
Coast were mown down by troops loyal to the incumbent president.
Not only was this a clear violation of human rights, but evidence
of recklessness and impunity, and the extreme lengths to which
leaders will go to protect their power.
A third factor is the flow of information. North Africans'
geographic proximity to Europe and the ability of significant
numbers to travel or study abroad have exposed them to other
influences and horizons. Many have access to the latest technology
and the wherewithal to use social media to communicate and organise
to great effect.
But the large majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa don't have
access to the same levels of education, or information and
technology. It may be that their media are controlled by the state,
or independent voices are so worried about being harassed or shut
down that they censor themselves or shy away from politics
altogether. These constraints make it difficult for ordinary
citizens to understand how their governments operate, and less able
to calibrate the power of a united and determined people.
Finally, our people tend to tolerate poor governance and fear both
their perceived lack of power and their leaders. This year in north
Africa enough people shed their fear of losing jobs and property,
of reprisals, detention, torture and even death. Until a critical
mass does the same, it's unlikely sub-Saharan Africa will emulate
the kind of "people power" we've seen in the north.
Even so, many sub-Saharan leaders must be paying close attention
and asking themselves: "Could it happen here - my people rising up
against me?" Some will make changes, perhaps cosmetic, to appease
their populations; others may take bigger steps. One lesson I hope
all will draw is that it's better to leave office respected for
working for what they believed was the common good, rather than
risk being driven out, repudiated and humiliated, by their own
Even though internet-organised pro-democracy protests earlier this
week in Luanda, Angola's capital, were broken up by security forces
and the protesters threatened with harsh reprisals by a senior
member of the ruling party - tactics we have seen used in numerous
African regimes over the years - the truth is that people are not
rising up without reason. They are unhappy with how they are being
governed and have tried other methods to bring about change that
A wind is blowing. It is heading south, and won't be suppressed
forever. In Ivory Coast, despite last week's brutal attack, on the
eve of International Women's Day hundreds of women marched to the
spot where their colleagues were killed, a clear demonstration
that, slowly but surely, even Africans south of the Sahara will
shed their fear and confront their dictatorial leaders. The women's
bravery will be an inspiration to others in Africa and elsewhere.
Eventually the information gap in sub-Saharan Africa will be
bridged, partly because the world is not closed anymore:
al-Jazeera, CNN and mobile phones - all available in sub-Saharan
Africa - mean information can be transferred instantly. There is no
doubt that those in the south are watching what's happening in the
I also hope that the extraordinary events in the north encourage
all leaders to provide the governance, development, equity and
equality, and respect for human rights their people deserve - and
to end the culture of impunity. If its member states are slow to
recognise the inevitability of change, let us hope that the African
Union encourages heads of state to acknowledge that Africa cannot
remain an island where leaders continue in office for decades,
depriving their people of their rights, violating their freedoms,
and impoverishing them.
In conflict and war, Africa and all its peoples lose. It would be
so much better to see Africa awake and have revolutions brought
about by the ballot box in free and fair elections, instead of by
tanks and bullets.
The problem with Africans and Arabs
Elleni Centime Zeleke
Pambazuka News, 2011-03-16, Issue 521
- Elleni Centime Zeleke is an adjunct lecturer in African Studies
at York University. firstname.lastname@example.org.
- (An earlier version of this article was posted on the blog site
Relentlessly Progressive Political Economy.
The North African revolts have seen Arab countries portrayed as
somehow separate from the rest of Africa. Elleni Centime Zeleke
critiques the trend and exposes in whose interests it works.
The way the term Arab is being thrown around these days is enough
to give a person reason to pause while celebrating the victories of
the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. After all, in the present
context of social revolt in North Africa there has been a
deliberate effort to erase the fact that Libya, Tunisia and Egypt
are all continental African countries.
Moreover, to call one's self Black or African or Arab is to use
identity markers that are not indigenous to Africans or even the
vast majority of people we now call Arab. The question then is: who
uses these identities and when? No doubt, mobilising these
identities can be useful for making certain kinds of political
claims that advance the needs of African and Arab peoples. But
still, we need to always ask for whom is this mobilisation
Cutting off the historical ties between so-called Arabs and
so-called Africans (by which we mean Black people, as if those
kinds of people are easily identifiable) is a trick of Orientalist
historiography. And, as the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said
has taught us, Orientalism is a Western style of thought first
invented in the 18th century that was used to 'dominate,
restructure and have authority' over the area we now call the
The problem with this style of thought is that it posits Arabs and
Africans as having fixed and distinct qualities that mark them off
as different from both Europeans as well as each other. So
investigating the problem of Orientalist methodology is not just
about raising the bogeyman of identity politics; rather, if we
don't, what ends up happening is that Orientalist methods are often
blindly adopted to conceal the multiple historical, political, and
economic ties that connect so-called Black people to browner
For example, Yemeni ancient and contemporary history has deep
connections with Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians across the Red
Sea (20km), but the way the story gets told you would think Yemen
was closer to Libya, and that the west side of the Red Sea could be
skipped in any story about Arabs. I would venture to say this is
ridiculous. And I really don't think we should accept Orientalist
methods when thinking about what is an Arab or an African.
In fact, neither Arab identity or Black identity is self-evident.
Instead, the parameters of identity shift over time and are
negotiated within the context of changing political and economic
processes. We need to be vigilant about how identity is produced as
a sediment of these various political, economic and social
processes and not simply assert it as something given, or else we
will only sound defencive and silly when we do.
The fact of the matter is that Egypt as a modern nation-state is
deeply connected to the developmental ambitions and contradictions
set in play by Mohammed Ali, who was an Albanian commander that
ruled over Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Empire but who eventually
became the independent ruler of Egypt in the early part of the 19th
What is important to note about Mohammed Ali is that he was the
first non-Western leader who really tried to catch up with the
industrialised West, and in trying to catch up with the West he
colonised present day Sudan, transforming the political-economy of
Egypt from small-scale peasant based production towards cash crop
based export oriented production.
Egyptian cotton became the main export commodity of this new
economy, with Sudan providing a source of cheap slave labour.
Mohammed Ali attempted to use cotton as the basis for
industrialising Egypt, though he did not industrialise Sudan. But
precisely because Mohammed Ali's project was intimately tied to
Sudan, chattel slavery, and cotton production, one cannot separate
the developmental trajectories of Egypt from its larger continental
African connection and questions of race.
Indeed, since the time of Mohammed Ali and the initiation of a
trade in chattel slavery, race has begun to operate in a peculiar
way in the region's history. More specifically, the slave trade has
played a role in the racialisation of 'Africans' and 'Arabs'.
What this means is that we cannot reference abstract identities
like 'Arab' and 'African' as if they are outside real political and
economic processes. And since the transformation of Egypt into a
modern nation-state is intimately tied to its 'African'
developmental trajectories we need to name it as such.
It should also be noted that in large measure because Mohammed
Ali's industrialisation of Egypt ended up as a failed project, from
the 1870's until 1952 Mohammed Ali's offspring were forced to rule
Sudan and Egypt with the English in what was known as the
Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. It was not until Nasser's free-officer
revolution in Egypt in 1952 that we really saw the end of
Anglo-Egyptian rule in Sudan. In fact Nasser's regime was an
attempt to resolve the contradictions of the developmental
trajectories set in place by Mohammed Ali, his offspring and the
Anglo-Egyptian Condominium - the promise of nationalism of course
being that you could democratise development on behalf of all of
the nation's people. But as such, Egyptian independence was always
tied to a very ambivalent relationship to Sudan and vice-versa.
Importantly, then, if this present revolution is not going to
simply sink back into neo-liberal hell we need to seriously think
through Egypt's regional political and economic formation. This is
particularly the case since Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat (Egypt's
president from 1970 until his assassination in 1981) and Hosni
Mubarak (who succeeded Sadat and against whom the Egyptian people
took to the streets) are also failed attempts at speaking to the
very same developmental patterns that have historical roots and
that Nasser tried to address.
Moreover, the revolution in present day Egypt not only signals the
failure of post-colonial arrangements, but it also signals the
failure of a third world project that Nasser articulated in tandem
with people like Kwame Nkrumah and Josip Tito. Partly this project
failed because it was elitist, but more importantly that elitism
failed to interrogate national developmental trajectories and to
build a truly inclusive popular nationalism (as our friend Frantz
Fanon might say).
In the case of Libya, then, we should be aware that Gadaffi was a
major player in African politics. So much so that he nearly
convinced the African Union (AU) to move the seat of the
organisation to Libya. But again his involvement in politics was
not just symbolic; Gadaffi's money and weapons are involved in
nearly every major conflict on the continent of Africa from
Sierra-Leone to the conflicts in Chad and Sudan. The political
economy of Libya is also such that it relies on the importation of
large amounts of migrant labourers from the African continent as
well as South Asia.
Historically, of course, Tripoli was also an important destination
in the trans-Saharan trade routes (whose starting point lay in the
forest regions of 'darkest' Africa) bringing important trading
goods to Libya that were then exported to the Mediterranean world
and beyond. These historical ties are what Gadaffi himself has
mobilised in justification for why the AU should be based in Libya.
In contrast to this, in the media coverage that has reported on the
use of paid African mercenaries brought into fire on the
anti-Gadaffi protestors, we have been led to believe that there is
a yawning gap between 'Black' mercenaries and the rest of civilised
Libya. But, the claim about the use of Black African mercenaries
should be viewed with caution. After all, the constitution of Libya
outside of an African context is an Orientalist fallacy (and
fantasy) that obscures the real histories of these places and can
only play to a violently racist hand.
A few nights ago someone suggested to me that what tied Arabs
together was a shared language and culture. But spoken Arabic is
not always intelligible to other Arabic speakers. In Oman, Yemen,
Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia other linguistic practices exist which
help form the locally spoken Arabic, but also remind us of other
kinds of historical and cultural connections that make up these
places (too diverse and complicated to get into now). I also
remember being schooled by an Egyptian in Cairo, about why
Egyptians are not Arabs. So again, I would venture to say things
are complicated and this is not just a matter of identity politics.
Instead, it seems that the Afro-centrics speak a kernel of truth
when they state that present historical methods tend to elide the
myriad Afro-Arab connections.
However, because the Afro-centrics are an African-American school
of thought and because they refuse to periodise their claims about
the historical formation of race in different places, they end up
making sweeping statements that projects American cultural history
on to the rest of the world. Can we really accept the claim that an
inherently racist attitude towards Black people is constitutive of
an Arab or Islamic identity in the way it is for white people in
the Americas? Yet, just because such a claim seems implausible it
should not make it easy for us to dismiss the point that we need to
pay attention to the way race has been operationalised in the
framing of the present North African revolutions.
Indeed, because I don't want to go Afro-centric, I think it is
better if we think through the production of contradictory
histories. So, while I would suggest that we need to not rewrite
the history of the world as a footnote to America's cultural wars,
at the same time, we need to see that the rest of the world has
increasingly come to see itself in highly racialised terms. This
too needs to be explained, but I would suggest that we probably
should not turn to the use of cultural categories such as Arab or
Islam to explain the rise of a notion of 'Arab' that is distinct
from 'African'. Instead we want to link these identities back to
political-economy. But for now we also need to take seriously the
kernel of protest and truth that the Afro-centric folks speak about
and build on it. Race does lie at the heart of many of these
so-called Arab revolutions in very complicated ways. Let's not
sweep this under the carpet in the name of self-righteous
indignation or else we will add one more substantive reason for why
these revolutions might come to naught.
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