The year 2020 has been marked by an endless stream of protests in all corners of the world, and African countries have had more than their fair share. In a year that will forever be defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and the call for social distancing, there have been multiple reasons for agitated people to defy logic in favour of mass gatherings. From the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA to the 18-month long protests in Hong Kong, and the recent outbreak of demonstrations in Belarus, no region of the world is being spared. In Africa, the #EndSARS movement against police brutality in Nigeria has ignited passions, just about the same time as the #ShutItDown protests against femicide took off in Namibia. In DR Congo, protests have ranged from opposition to an electoral commission appointee to demands for justice against historic murders and rapes. In a year when we are supposed to be distancing from each other, why are citizens so determined to take to the streets in large numbers?
Firstly, nearly every national constitution guarantees the rights to free movement, free assembly and peaceful protests. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United Nations equally provides international endorsement for the rights of people to demonstrate peacefully. While some countries are known to place arbitrary bans on public gatherings or to employ various means for de-legitimizing protests, public demonstrations remain the primary medium of choice for aggrieved citizens across the world. Yet, in spite of the prevalence of protests, what starts out as peaceful hardly ever ends as such. So what exactly makes protests dangerous?
It is not uncommon for peaceful protests to turn bloody when people who gather for legitimate causes find their ranks infiltrated by others with more violent instincts. Things might turn violent when the first person hurls a stone at a building or attempts to damage a vehicle; or when tyres are burned on a street or when protesters form barricades to deny other citizens free movement. Very often, the presence of law enforcement agents on the streets tends to aggravate protesters, and counter-protests have also been seen to upend peaceful movements. Images of bloodied protesters and torched buildings routinely flood our timelines, and the use of social media serves to spread even more angst among people. So when protests become violent, who is to blame?
It is conventional knowledge that one of the hardest things to achieve on earth is mob control. American legal scholar, Cass R. Sunstein wrote in 2009 “…when like-minded people get together, they often end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk to one another.” In essence, people who were already agitated get even more aggravated when they find others who share their anger. Collectively, they might be unstoppable, except when confronted by a more powerful (read: violent) force. This inevitably sets up a battle royale with law enforcement officers who often resort to dispersion tactics including use of tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition. In the ensuing tussle, innocent lives will be lost and some will be permanently maimed. Peaceful protests hardly ever end as they begin.
One of the most devastating dimensions to street protests involve the hijacking of legitimate causes by hoodlums and political elements. No one can really tell how or when strange individuals get in the mix of peaceful protests, but it is a common phenomenon to notice a more violent streak emerge from within the ranks once a protest has gone on for a few days. Very often, these hoodlums resort to theft, rape, vandalism of private vehicles, looting of shops and burning of public property. In the case of the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, the aftermath of the largely peaceful protests was a completely different set of nefarious activities which resulted in the burning of private business, banks, police stations, mass transit vehicles and even the king’s palace!
So if street protests pose such a threat to personal health and public safety, are they any good? Do street protests achieve any valuable outcome?
The first thing about street protests that must be understood and accepted is that they are designed to make life uncomfortable for everyone. Street protests are not the same as a peaceful procession. A protest by nature takes over public space to draw attention to a cause – it is inevitable that this results in untold discomfort for some. There will be other civilians whose lives and businesses are impeded; there will be children who might have to miss school days; and there will be public officials who find themselves caught in crosshairs. The goal of nearly every protest is to generate attention, so any form of media coverage becomes a win for the people, and a source of discomfort for public officials who often become determined to quash the movements. Street protests also raise the alert levels in law enforcement agencies which have still not learned many tactics for de-escalating tension. So, can anything good come from a set of coordinated actions designed to create discomfort?
The answer is yes. If properly managed, actions on the street need to be accompanied by a set of clear demands that are tabled to public officials, either by representatives of the protesters or by parallel comrades. The combined forces of street agitation and boardroom negotiations tend to deliver better results than street protests only. Most public officials appear to be incapable of responding appropriately to public demonstrations that are not spearheaded by known and credible leaders, so the more responsive administrations are often keen to engage with the leadership of the agitators to end the protests while the concerns are addressed privately. As expected, these overtures are often dismissed because of the breakdown of trust between governments and citizens. It is the absence of dialogue that almost always leads street protests to turn bloody.
So will there yet be street protests in the final weeks of 2020? Definitely! Protests will carry on into 2021 and beyond, because we still do not have alternative avenues for channelling public anger and demanding change. Will these protests turn violent? Most of the time, yes. And this is because law enforcement agencies are not properly trained in de-escalating tension and because there will always be hoodlums who seek to hijack legitimate causes for personal agendas. Will governments become more responsive to public protests? That is the unresolved question. There are a handful of emerging public leaders who are showing understanding of mob psychology and who are swift to demonstrate compassion. Public leaders who are quick to show up and address protesters have a better chance of de-escalating conflict, while reticent leaders who prefer the show of force are likelier to promote violence by their actions and inactions.
If street protests are here to stay, the big question is how can we guarantee the safety of lives and property while demanding our rights? That is the big question.
The author, Faith Abiodun, is Executive Director of Future Africa
It is election season in Africa once again, and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) reports that no fewer than 23 African countries will be conducting elections in 2019, ranging from Local Government and National Assembly elections to the Presidency. Countries like Tunisia, Senegal, South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Libya, Namibia, Mauritania, Algeria, Guinea-Bissau and Botswana will be holding presidential elections, and there’s evidently so much at stake for the continent.
Of all the interesting incidents that accompany elections, there is always the emergence of new players into the political spectrum, each hoping to win or gain national recognition in the worst case. It can be argued that there is very little to lose in launching a political campaign as a newbie, except the candidate is deploying personal resources without building a significant political base to have a true fighting chance of winning, but that is ultimately a choice to be made by the electorate.
However, most citizens tend to treat unfamiliar faces in politics with a very healthy dose of scepticism, even when they have no love for the political dinosaurs who have dominated public spaces for all of their lives. So, why do people find it hard to rally behind new entrants into politics?
Here are five thoughts that dominate the minds of citizens:
Do they belong to a recognizable political party?
As much as we despise politicians who belong to the ruling and dominant political parties because we believe they are the root of all our problems, we still give the side-eye to the new politician who knows that they have very little chance of securing a ticket on the platform of a dominant part and then settles for creating their own New African National Party (NANP). Without mincing words, no one will recognize NANP on the ballot, so …nope. We’re not going to vote for them.
South Africa’s Mmusi Maimane has earned national recognition in relatively short time because of his rapid rise in the Democratic Alliance. Source: https://bit.ly/2s9FXUj
Do they have enough money for the campaign?
Let’s be honest, elections are very very expensive, so when a new candidate emerges, it is a very fair question to ask how they intend to fund the election. Who is paying for radio and television adverts? How are they going to afford billboards, street posters and branded vehicles? If they’re going for a presidential campaign and need to travel across a country with members of their team, how are they going to bankroll endless flight tickets and hotel stays? At the least, will they have enough to produce branded t-shirts and caps for their supporters? Is it all starting to look a little too much for Mr/Mrs Newbie?
Central African Republic presidential candidate Agustin Agou waves to supporters during a campaign rally. Compared to other presidential campaigns, this looks really weak on funding. Source: https://yhoo.it/2CQ6MTN
Do they have a proper national base or just a few fans?
So, most new entrants into politics tend to be people who have worked really hard to earn their name in a small sector and who have been encouraged by a few fans to launch a political campaign so that they can do as much good for the local government, state/province or country. Very often, Mr/Mrs Newbie is cautious because they just want to do good, but you can’t say no to the fans, right? So, they launch a campaign. But the real question that potential voters are asking is “Does anyone else know this guy, or is it just me?” Knowing that citizens in African countries tend to speak hundreds of languages, and localize politics, it is a fair question to ask if this new entrant can really connect to citizens across a country and gain enough fans all around, not just in a few cities.
Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta can pull crowds like this. Source: https://bit.ly/2Ew9dfZ
No one knows if they will actually be better than the current crop
What is it they say about the devil you know? As much as we want to see “change” and “hope” and “new beginnings” and all the other campaign slogans that politicians bandy around, are we really willing to take a chance on this fresh face that has never been tested? Citizens tend to say things like “all politicians are thieves, so this one will be exactly like all those who have come before him”. For presidential elections that tend to have 4-5 year terms at minimum, are people really willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar face?
Several election campaigns in Africa are driven on sentiments so citizens vote based on hope rather than clear policy proposals. Source: https://bit.ly/2Qr2d5V
“I cannot waste my vote on somebody who has no chance of winning”
Now, this is one line that is consistently thrown around by people who have next to zero intent to even vote in the first place. The concept of the “wasted vote” is built on the assumption that every vote cast for anyone other than the top two or three candidates is inconsequential since it will not make the race at the top more competitive. So, what is the incentive to register, stand in the hot sun for hours and eventually cast a vote for someone who has very little chance of winning? Never mind that democracy is about participation, it is just that much harder to convince a sceptic that that “wasted vote” actually has value.
In 2017, Diane Shima Rwigara launched a presidential campaign in Rwanda where it could be argued she had no chance of winning. Source: https://bit.ly/2LTh9sX
So, there you have it! The road to political relevance is filled with so many potholes for anyone who was not born in a presidential palace or whose godfathers do not currently roam the corridors of power.
What other reasons have you heard for not voting for a newbie in your country? Are you planning to vote for a newbie in upcoming elections in your country? Share your reasons.
The future of our beloved continent is in the hands of its people. Africans are at the end of the day, ultimately responsible for the trajectory of the continent. However, as we begin to think of the different roles that various segments of population play, we cannot ignore the role that Africans outside of the continent play in shaping the continent as we know it. Estimates from the World Bank put the number of Africans outside the continent to be over 100 million. This large number of Africans living outside the continent has, in many cases, led to the development of structures and initiatives on the continent through various means like starting grassroots organizations themselves or sending money back home to facilitate economic activity in many parts of the continent. We therefore cannot simply ignore the influence of Africans living outside the continent when we think of the future of Africa.
The contributions Africans in the diaspora have made to the economy of Africa are clear. In 2010 alone, Africans living outside of Africa contributed an estimated US$52 billion, more than the US$43 billion which the rest of the world gave Africa in foreign donations and handouts. We can understand the financial implications that the diaspora had on a particular country’s economy through a closer look at the Zimbabwean situation. In 2008, during the catastrophic Zimbabwean economic crisis, Zimbabweans throughout the country managed to survive through the money that relatives sent. As a result, Zimbabwe managed to abandon the hyper-inflative Zimbabwean dollar and adopt a foreign currency based system because of the increased circulation of foreign currency which came to a larger extent from Zimbabweans living abroad. This phenomenon of Africans in the diaspora contributing to the economy of the motherland is not uncommon. The question that comes from this, however, is “should this form of contribution be the end of African diaspora involvement in Africa”? We have seen the immense potential that lies in Africans living abroad. How then can we further utilize this new ‘resource.’ In 2015, for example, the government of Zimbabwe proposed introducing a tax for citizens living outside the country. Is this a good example of engaging the diaspora? What alternatives are there?
Africans in the diaspora are therefore a new market of people yet to be fully engaged when it comes to issues facing the continent. When it comes to participating in landmark events that have real implication in the political landscape of the continent, they are not truly engaged. An example is voting, only 23% of countries on the continent have provision for external voting. It is a lack of such structural frameworks that inhibits Africans outside the continent from playing a more pivotal role in the development of our continent. How can we make it easier for those outside the continent to not only have a voice in when it comes to the future of our continent but also, implement some of the new ideas they have gained from their experience living in different environments? There are several examples of students returning to the continent after having studied abroad and then transforming their respective communities. How can we make this process smoother for these people and how can we embark on introducing framework that allows Africans living outside the continent to start transformative initiatives back home when they are physically not there?