Why There Won’t Be an African Spring

A perceived “spring” is more a Western anticipation and less an African reality but there is political tumult in Kenya and Sudan.

A giraffe in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, October 16, 2006
A giraffe in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, October 16, 2006 (Wikicommons/Mkimemia)

While the attention of Arab and Western media was largely focused on the historic victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate in Egypt, street protests of a scale not witnessed for two decades continued into their second week in Khartoum and other major Sudanese cities. There are also protests in Gabon and Togo while the upcoming elections in Kenya are anticipated with anxiety.

Africa tends to be viewed through a prism of disease, starvation, violence and, most of all, corruption. When the “Arab Spring” erupted in late 2010, it was generally seen as a Middle Eastern phenomenon rather than an African one, even if its main protagonists were all located on African soil. However, while events to the northeast of Tunisia have dominated the news coverage, events to the south have been no less tumultuous.

At the same time, a perceived “African spring” is probably more a Western anticipation and less an African reality. This is what the cases of Kenya and Sudan show to us.

If there was an African spring, it happened more than twenty years ago. On July 7, 1990, Kenyans rose up against an oppressive regime and defied orders, gathering at Kamukunji grounds to press for democracy. The government responded with a brutal crackdown in which several people were killed. Many more such protests followed and many more lives were lost over the years before an era of multiparty rule was finally ushered in at the end of 1992.

In Sudan today, there is certainly discontent with the regime but it is far from clear whether it could produce a popular uprising. Indeed, President Omar al-Bashir stated, while protesters in Khartoum were demanding regime change, that “there is no African spring.” He may be right.

Though neighbors, Kenya and Sudan are very different countries. To regard political developments in both as part of a comprehensive “African spring” would be wistful thinking at best.

Consider that while in Egypt and Tunisia, even Gabon and Kenya, it is the close relationship between the ruling elites and the agents of globalization that is the source of public outrage; in Sudan and Zimbabwe, it’s vice versa. Presidents Bashir and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe attempt to discredit demonstrators in their countries by referring to them as “agents of Western imperialism and remnants of colonialism.”

Rising up against one’s government makes less sense for most Africans than protesting through informal politics and their own perceived political societies. In Sudan, this poses little threat to the regime. The military and security establishment is loyal to the central government while the opposition and civil society are divided and weak.

Kenya is a different story. Rapid urbanization since the 1990s has brought with it a huge set of problems, from fuel and housing scarcities to unemployment which, if unresolved, will destroy the old bonds of community that exist among Kenyans.

In Nairobi, officials estimate that close to 70 percent of the urban labor force is employed in the informal sector. Petty commerce and street vending predominate. Such employment, which barely meets subsistence needs for many in it, has become ever more illicit as protectionist barriers are reduced and fewer domestic goods are produced for resale.

Much of informal employment is confined to a world of violence and impunity, not just because of the sheer illegality of the goods that are traded but also due to the involvement of contraband, drugs and guns. The organizations that operate in the field often act as miniature states by monopolizing the means of violence and providing protection in exchange for loyalty and territorial dominion.

So there are no mass uprisings in Kenya. The dispirited and unemployed youth find shelter in the perceived political society of criminal organizations like Mungiki which simultaneously act as employer, protector and social worker.

Clive Gabay, an acclaimed analyst of African politics at the Queen Mary University of London, put it best: “African elites are not uniquely corrupt, nor do they exist in a vacuum of African corruption but neither is Africa a pure victim of contemporary economic imperialism.”

African elites are as complicit in processes of resource and profit extraction as the multinational corporations such as Shell Oil who so often come in for the vitriol of social justice and anti-corporate activists. What Africans have been railing against over the past few years then is what Thandike Mkandawire called at the turn of the century Africa’s ‘choiceless democracies.’ In other words, Africans want a true choice. It is not enough for international donors to call for ‘free and fair’ elections, only for them to enforce, by dint of the implicit threat of aid withdrawal, a complicity among all the candidates with neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

Want the Western world should anticipate indeed, is not an African Spring but a “cheetah uprising” — the rise of a healthy civil society.