Africa’s eternal spring

    The Gdeim Izik protest camp outside the Moroccan-controlled Saharawi capital of El Aaiun in October 2011.

    George Lakey’s important article “What About the rest of Africa?” correctly chronicles impressive pro-democracy struggles across the African continent. Lakey spotlights the work of the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a vital resource working to list, describe, and track a comprehensive set of actions and movements. Lakey was right to point out that PRI reporter Lisa Mullins’ contention that the Arab Spring “did not” have counterparts in countries south of the Sahara desert is fundamentally flawed. But I would take this point even further than Lakey did.

    There is a significant problem which this all-too-often-accepted assumption brings to light: The “Arab Spring” was never confined to the “Arab world” or to the season of spring.

    An observer like Mullins should know better, but we still too easily forget the pervasive level of media manipulation and negative propaganda that has “colored” our views of Africa since the advent of racism, colonialism and the mid-Atlantic slave trade. The cradle of civilization—those North and Central African spots where humans first developed, and organized complex societies with major scientific breakthroughs—still suffers from a “dark continent” complex. Egypt is almost always separated from its own neighbors to the south, despite the fact that the Nile River which gives that society life has always flowed deep into the heart of the continent, connecting diverse communities. Well-educated people still think of war, poverty, inequality and violence when picturing Africa as a whole, without fully grasping the fact that the continent’s biggest killer is the lack of basic health services—a tragedy intensified when one understands that these deaths would be largely preventable if the international business community decided to make affordable medicines and services a priority.

    Misperceptions about the nature of the Arab Spring pale in comparison, but they derive from the same problematic roots. The common narrative is that nonviolent civil resistance spread from Tunisia to Egypt to parts north and east; the truth, though, is significantly more complex. A careful reading of the events throughout North Africa in the months before the dramatic and well-covered mass springtime demonstrations reveals a series of audacious actions in Western Sahara against decades of Moroccan occupation. Though little-known outside the region, there is no question that the October, 2010, gathering of over 20,000 Saharawis—in one of the boldest modern acts of nonviolent disobedience against the Moroccan government—had a profound effect on the rest of the continent, one already very conscious of the dynamics of de-colonization and re-colonization.

    The Gdeim Izik protest camp of over 8,000 tents was set up in what can only be described as a popular occupation, just seven and a half miles outside of the Saharawi capital of El Aaiun, under Moroccan colonial control. Though the army burned down the camp one month after it began, three generations of protestors continued their efforts for self determination through sit-ins, streets actions, and hunger strikes. Malainin Lakhal, secretary-general of the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union, noted that the demands included the right to work, to housing and to social services such as health care. But the protests, which Noam Chomsky hascited as the beginning of the Arab Spring, also called for basic political rights and dignity, including “the right to profit from the wealth of our own country.”

    Similar stories can also be told about Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire and the Gambia—all with uprisings taking place at approximately the same time as the Tunisian and Egyptian ones. “Regime change” in all of these countries may not have been as fast or dramatic as in Tunisia and Egypt, but we should be aware that—over the next twelve months—no fewer than seventeen countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be holding national elections. As South African parliamentarian Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, both a Quaker and a representative of the Communist Party, put it, “small actions build upon one another to make for bigger changes—small ripples of hope can combine to build a current so strong it can bring down the mightiest walls of resistance and oppression.”

    Eritrean publisher Kassahun Checole, founder of Africa World and Red Sea presses, also noted with excitement the widespread and long-term implications of the demonstrations that have taken place across the continent. These mobilizations, Checole asserts, are particularly significant because they were based largely on non-religious movements, with Christians, Muslims and traditionalists sharing in the work across ethnic and cultural lines. In addition, they were led primarily by women, in societies where historically women have been tremendously repressed. They were neither oriented towards mainstream electoral politics, nor were they initiated by long-standing professional groups. Finally, stated Checole, what was perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the campaigns throughout Africa was that they were based upon “a consciously-decided nonviolence, after a 30 to 40 year journey of trying, unsuccessfully, to wage armed struggle against much better-armed states.”

    All of George Lakey’s conclusions are on the mark: the common assumption that sub-Saharan Africans don’t do nonviolent struggle is—to put it very mildly—an unfounded stereotype. More to the point, it is certainly true that there are thousands of cases of civilian resistance throughout Africa which have not been quantified and analyzed in a framework for substantial review. Anecdotally, however, it is both clear that these cases exist, and that there is much to learn from them for future movement-builders both inside and outside the continent. The job of researchers and activists must be to do more than simply take note of these inspiring stories. We must help to provide a spotlight on these African struggles, and to build transnational solidarity with the people and organizations too often overlooked.

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