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Africa: Winds of Change

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Mar 25, 2011 (110325)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

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 reversals.

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 Africa."

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, which do a better job than most in combining overviews with nuance and are well worth reading.

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 (, 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 know."

I have included some excerpts from two recent Afrobarometer reports (at 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 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

Wangari Maathai

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 people.

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 haven't worked.

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 north.

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.
  • (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 happening.

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 Middle East.

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 looking people.

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 century.

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.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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