The Jasmine Revolution: How Worried are the Sub-Saharan African leaders?

By PaanLuel Wël, Washington DC, USA

“For too many Egyptians, Sub-Saharan Africa is a stereotypical exotic land of thick jungles and masses of poor, starving and black-skinned savages” by Sunni Khalid

February 14, 2011 (SSNA) — As 2010 was coming to an end in Africa, no one would have supposed that the year 2011 would be synonymous with people’s power! So far, popular uprisings led by long subdued masses have effectively brought to an end the 28-year-old rule of Ben Ali of Tunisia and a 30-year-old reign of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt—the last Pharaoh.

The rippling affects of this Jasmine revolution are being felt and feared across the Arab-Islamic world today at an unprecedented rate since the two toppled dictators were untouchable until just this year when the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouaziz, a young Tunisian man frustrated and humiliated at the hand of excruciating poverty, sparked the embers of this on-going unstoppable mass-led rebellions.

With the domino-like-effect bound to cascade across the Arabic world, and especially, given the fact that the core pent-up grievances of these citizens are just parallel and comparable to those in the Sub-Saharan Africa, what are the chances that the Jasmine revolution will replicate itself in Sub-Saharan African countries? How worried should the aging dictators of Sub-Saharan Africa be?

I believe it depends on how similar and/or different the socio-economic and geopolitical tribulations confronting the citizens from these two regions are. The nature of citizenry—how politically savvy and technologically connected the population is—does matter too.

There are a lot of similarities between North Africa (NA) and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) that could help export the Jasmine revolution to SSA. For one, people from both parts of the continent are flustered by the rising cost of basic necessities due to skyrocketing food prices. Secondly, there is chronic unemployment level among the youth and disillusionment with the corrupt aging political elites in both NA and SSA. Thirdly, both region boast of demography where young jobless youth made up a whopping 70% of the population.

But most importantly, people in both regions share deep-rooted frustrations with the dearth of political freedom, widespread human right abuses and general despair over prospects of brighter future. In NA, Ben Ali rule for 28 years and Mubarak was in power for 30 years. Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya groomed their sons to take over power from them.

Similarly in SSA, we have uncle Mugabe of Zimbabwe (31 years in power), El Beshir of the Sudan (22 years of ruling) and Museveni of Uganda (of 25 years rule and counting). These SSA leaders, among numerous others are accused of egregious corruptions, and possible grooming of their sons. Museveni, for instance, is said to be grooming his son who is now the head of Ugandan Special forces, the elite unit of the Ugandan national army—the UPDF.

In view of the fact that these factors helped triggered the revolts in NA, it is logically sound to speculate that they could still pushed the currently disheartened and submissive masses in SSA to the edge and onto the streets just as they did in both Tunis and Cairo.

But as there are similarities in both regions, so are there conspicuous differences. The foremost case in point is the breed of citizens who organized and led the demonstration in Tunisia and Egypt. The vanguard of rebellion in NA was led by a technologically connected and highly educated youth back up by a rising middle class living in urban cities. SSA, relative to NA, has no sizeable middle class concentrated in urban centers, generally lack adequate access to the internet, Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare etc.

Take Egypt for instead, the city of Cairo alone has a population of over 20 million with per capita income of approximately $10, 000 and a literacy rate of over 72%. Tunisia, on the other hand, has a national literacy rate of about 75% with great concentration of moderately wealthy middle class in Tunis and other major urban centers. Without this kind of citizenry in place, the Jasmine revolution would never have seen the light of the day.

Essentially, the uprisings in NA were mostly confined to the urban cities of Cairo and Tunis where the rising middle class dissatisfactions with the ruling elites reached a boiling point and erupted irreversibly. The existence of highly sophisticated urban societies in NA that is technologically connected to the world help inspired the Facebook and Twitter revolution.

SSA, on the contrary, has no highly educated, technologically connected, politically savvy and blossoming urban middle class. Instead are found the technologically disconnected and highly illiterate marooning youth among major cities of SSA. Lack of internet access or low penetration compounded by the evils of pronounced ethnic allegiances and blind respect for authority have produced politically ignorance mass who can’t rescue themselves from the profligacy of their egotistical leaders.

The old saying that “Ignorance is bliss” still sways in this part of the world. Thus, the citizens of SSA are not likely to realize and capitalize on the relationship between technology and the new found power to challenge entrenched leadership in their backyards.

The second differences is on the (im)partiality of the national army. There is no doubt that the downfall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt was made possible, or rather precipitated, by the neutrality of the national army. Had they taken side and shored up the regime, we would have witnessed a different story; one that would have delineated the line of either the Chinese Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 or the 2009 Iranian brutal crackdown on the Green Movement (the Green Movement is slowly crawling back to life, thanks to the Jasmine Revolution, and there was a big demonstration in Tehran yesterday).

The majority of national armies in SSA are like private militias of the incumbent president. This is always the case simply because Africa leaders do staff top positions of the national army with their close relatives. The president is therefore so close to the army that it would be hard to get the army on the side of the people like what happened in both Tunisia and Egypt where the army tilted the balance of power on behalf of the people when they refused to enforced martial arts rule.

The best illustration and possible guide into the likely role of the army in SSA was best portrayed when presidential elections were bitterly contested in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Ivory Coast. The army simply sided with the incumbents and beat up the protesters. While their counterparts in NA are being toppled in popular mass uprisings, dictatorial aging leaders in the SSA are recycling themselves into power by abusing democratic processes.

This sometimes resulted in the formation of unstable coalition governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, the latest fashion or reinvention for the aging dictatorial regimes. And because disputed elections produce stalemates at best or bogus government at worst, the very socio-geopolitical stability democracy promises the citizens are irreparably strained.

It will remain to be seen what effects, if any, the Jasmine revolution will have on the SSA countries. In the past, Sub-Saharan African leaders might have been either too preoccupied with corruption or too rich to care about the people. However, this is likely to change in the light of this new unprecedented and unanticipated development that is sweeping away entrenched bad leadership.

It is possible that the leaders of SSA countries may introduce some cosmetic reforms to ward off any forbidding street demonstrations. But unless and until serious socio-economic and political reforms are carried out, there would be always a real danger of a Jasmine-like revolution occurring in the Sub-Saharan African countries.

These deep-seated exasperation among the young, hungry and angry youth over poor job prospects and unaccountable governing ruling class may come to pass in countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sudan, Gabon, Ethiopia, Morocco, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Libya, Swaziland, Togo, Central African Republic and/or Cameroon.

Mr. PaanLuel Wël can be reached at [email protected] or through his blog:

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