A lot has changed since I arrived in Uganda in 2009. At that time, mass mobilization for political goals was far more abnormal in Uganda.
For those of us in the struggle against authoritarianism, it is only natural to dwell on the long distance we must still travel to victory. We see the goal still ahead of us — a dictator’s removal or a war that must end — but we rarely look behind to celebrate how far we’ve come.
Even just two years ago, I would’ve hesitated to assert that Ugandans had begun to coalesce their power. It was the same handful of activists and disorganized, strategy-less opposition parties making noise at press conferences. In October 2017, however, all hell broke loose as dictator Yoweri Museveni orchestrated an amendment to the constitution, prolonging his three-decade reign. Parliamentary proceedings looked more like a WWE special, as legislators brawled with chairs and military personnel infiltrated their proceedings, along with the offices of progressive organizations throughout the country.
Despite the crackdown, Ugandans in every region of the country pushed back. It was the first leaderless, well-dispersed emergence of anger-begetting-action I had witnessed in Uganda. Conflict between citizens and the state continues to rise as ghetto-raised Rasta star Bobi Wine goes head-to-head with Museveni, mobilizing urbanites for nonviolent resistance. If his campaign team can get beyond the city context they know well and establish a well-coordinated network of rural organizers, 2019 could set him up to take power from Museveni’s grip.
I have hope for the year ahead of Africa. It began with unions in Sudan and Zimbabwe putting old and new authoritarian regimes respectively to the test. Togo stands on the brink of ending a half-century of family rule, and Algerians continue to flood the streets against their despot, who was just forced to concede his candidacy for a fifth term. Anti-government protests in Ethiopia have pushed a traditionally regressive regime into taking steps toward democracy, which its new leaders are doing.
Of course, it wouldn’t be wise to be purely optimistic. Fascism is on the rise in the southern world as much as it is in the north. The following overview of national political situations shows just how promising, if not turbulent, the rest of 2019 may be.
Horn of Africa
There is perhaps no better place to start than Ethiopia: the place where humanity (arguably) began. This birthplace of civilizations, religions and many African peoples who have migrated the continent has also boasted a more modern tradition: minority rule. The early 1990s saw the rise of a Tigray minority that took control of the government and suppressed even the most modest forms of dissent for nearly three decades. Human rights organizations, for example, were not permitted to exist in Ethiopia. Last April, however, new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power following a long bout of protests by the Oromo people and others yearning for political change.
“Ahmed is pushing reforms faster than anyone has anticipated,” said Ethiopian journalist and activist Eden Sahle. “Even more impressive is his ability to serve as a role model and articulate his vision of wiping out the extreme ethnonationalism through compassion and democracy.” There is a sense of possibility that has swept Ethiopia for the first time in the lives of young people. Already the Ethiopian government has taken progressive measures against foreign investors. In October, the first female president of the country was installed. Ethiopia is one African nation with massive potential in 2019.
The rest of the Horn of Africa looks more bleak. Djibouti — home to the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa — has no legally instituted independent media outlets. Regional human rights body Defend Defenders decried the regularity of arrests and torture of artists, journalists and civil society workers. Little news concerning people power has leaked beyond the borders of the small country in recent years.
Somalia still remains a dance of terrorist groups and kleptocrats (with some reports ranking it 2018’s most corrupt country in the world). More Somalian activists are integrating issues of gender justice into their push for political change, but being among the least stable countries, they’ve still got a long way to go.
Meanwhile, Eritrea just might win the “North Korea of Africa” prize. With no independent legislature, judiciary or media, President Isaias Afwerki is feeling comfortable in his 26th year in power. Every Eritrean serves the state for an indeterminate period upon turning 18, with most being designated to military service. According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, this “national service” often lasts more than 10 years.
Of all the regions in Africa, North Africa wields the greatest potential for change this year. Sudan continues bold revolutionary action against longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir. The resistance has spread to all corners of the country and has benefitted from the leadership of the professional class, including lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers and academics.
In Morocco, on Feb. 20, the officially banned Justice and Dignity movement, with participation from teachers and other trade unionists, commemorated the anniversary of the Arab Spring by marching on the royal palace, home to autocrat King Mohammed VI. The once suppressed population is now said to hold an average of 48 protests daily, according to Morocco’s human rights ministry.
At the same time, Western Sahara — the only country in Africa still occupied by a colonial power (Morocco) to this day — continues its long tradition of resistance. Effectively building a nation in exile, the Saharawis score incredibly high in women leadership, national solidarity and large-scale intifadas. With demonstrations on the rise in Morocco, perhaps 2019 will be the year Morocco’s security apparatus is spread too thin, weakening its hold on the resource-rich land.
Algeria has not been as resistant to dictatorship over the past several years, but on Feb. 22, Algerians transitioned immediately from the mosques to the streets, condemning President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to pursue a fifth term in the upcoming April elections. These protests began this year in a few towns and have escalated fast. In protests on March 1, turnout was on the rise again. Now it seems every town’s streets are overflowing with Algerians hopeful for an end to Bouteflika reign. At the threat of public demonstrations, he seems to be resigning his mission to seize a fifth term and instead delaying elections to prolong his fourth term in power.
In Tunisia, a journalist named Abderrazk Zorgui set himself ablaze in December to protest economic hardship. The action calls to mind the 2010 self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi — the event that is often credited as the start of the Arab Spring. In both Tunisia and Egypt, there is a growing outrage that the regime changes of 2011-2013 did not produce the desired results in the lives of citizens and the systems and cultures of governance. Many contend that the situations are in fact worse than they were in the early 2000s.
Libya is a nation much harder to summarize, and its political future is much more difficult to predict. A mix of armed and unarmed groups continue to protest and contend for various interests. Public and private sector actors — and, of course, international militaries under the banner of NATO and the United States — compete for various interests, some more virtuous than others. Libya remains a chaotic and fragile state, if indeed we can call it a state.
Benin had the first post-colonial democratic transition in the region in 1991 and has often been lauded as an example of democratic values in West Africa. In recent years, however, there has been some regression on this legacy. Dissatisfaction from unions and youth movements is likely to result in more anti-government protests this year. Perhaps they will pick up some tips from Burkina Faso, home to a recent youth-led revolution and a spirit of restoring the political memory, ideals and systems that once governed her land.
Recent momentum against the half-century family dynasty in Togo has unfortunately subsided. “Opposition parties broke into factions, seeing 2020 elections ahead,” said activist Farida Nabourema. “There is a strong demobilization at the moment. Opposition needs to unite around a civil resistance agenda rather than an electoral one.”
Nigeria witnessed massive voter turnout for its recent presidential election despite a postponement followed by a Boko Haram attack on the rescheduled date. Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari won a second term. In the words of Nigerian activist Chidinma Chikwelu, “[Buhari’s] so-called corruption fight has been lopsided and based on party affiliation, religion and tribe. I really don’t foresee the leopard changing its spots.”
Buhari also congratulated Senegalese incumbent Macky Sall on his recent electoral victory, which was obtained partially through the imprisonment of his contenders and partially through the modern infrastructure he has built in Dakar. Activists in Senegal might turn to neighbors in The Gambia for advice on restoring democratic practices. Gambians won defections from despot Yahya Jammeh’s inner circle and thwarted his 2017 coup. This is likely to be a year of investigations into rights abuses from members of Jammeh’s past administration.
While Ghana has had more frequent change of presidents than most African countries, we shouldn’t confuse this with the rights and freedoms afforded to citizens. 2019 will be another year in which Ghanaians push for LGBT rights and freedoms of expression and press in the face of police brutality.
Law enforcement crackdowns have also been a serious problem in Guinea, where police used sometimes-lethal force against protesters last year. We may see more of this unfortunate practice in 2019, as a resumption of teacher strikes and protests for citizen rights in the mining sector is likely to occur.
Meanwhile, Ivory Coast ex-president (and former leftist and youth activist) Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court one month ago. His release was met with resistance back home by those who felt his acquittal was unfair. More drama should unfold on this matter over the coming months.
In many West African countries, the current push by protesters isn’t for regime change, but for better governance.
After the first year of Liberian President George Weah’s administration, citizens are critiquing the slow rate at which he has tackled issues of poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Weah still enjoys majority support in Liberia, both with government workers and citizens at the grassroots. Pressure will likely exist in 2019 to push him to deliver on his campaign promises.
Sierra Leone saw protests in 2018 against fuel price hikes and a miner’s strike. First Lady Fatima Bio is spearheading her own campaign to end sexual violence against girls, which other first ladies in the region have also endorsed. Like many other West African countries, the current push by protesters isn’t necessarily for regime change, but for better governance, especially where private corporations are enjoying profits at the expense of citizens.
Guinea-Bissau has witnessed nine coups or attempted coups since 1980, but people are now taking matters into their own hands, rising up in the thousands to oust President Jose Mario Vaz. These demonstrations follow failed regional talks to settle internal competition within the ruling elite.
Even in the 21st century, slavery is still rampant throughout West Africa. In Mauritania, there have been protests in recent years against the enslavement of about 90,000 people. President Ould Abdel Aziz announced he isn’t running for a third term this 2019, but we have heard this story before. Resistance will rise if he doesn’t stay true to his promise.
Niger and Mali are currently insecure with the presence of militant groups, but citizens of the latter managed to hold protests against fraudulent elections last year. This resistance may reside for a time before regrouping, as a state of emergency has been declared through October 2019.
Some Ambazonians continue to fight for succession from autocrat Paul Biya’s Cameroon amidst widespread insecurity. Public lamentations organized by Anglophone women last year have reduced the regularity of violent attacks, but Biya’s grip on power remains firm.
While a military coup attempt was thwarted by the administration of President Ali Bongo in Gabon earlier this year, Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was not quite as lucky in his direct coup attempts. Still, he managed to cut his losses by assisting the less popular Felix Tshisekedi to rig the Dec. 30 elections against popular opposition figure Martin Fayulu. Tshisekedi took power, rewarding Kabila with a comfortable transition of power after decades of pillaging the resource-wealthy country. Such bait-and-switch presidential antics should be analyzed by movements across the continent, as more longstanding dictators concede power, but not without insulating themselves first.
In the neighboring Republic of the Congo, President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s three-decade rule doesn’t seem to be facing any real threat. The last formidable resistance took place in 2015, when a sham referendum resulted in a change to the constitution that allowed Nguesso to retain his hold on the presidency.
Idriss Déby is another African dictator who has been insulated from opposition, in his case by the French military, which spared 2,000 troops in February to help suppress mercenary soldiers. In 2018, bishops in Chad spoke out against the manner in which Déby modified the constitution to help himself keep power through 2033. Resistance to Déby mostly comes from violent groups, which means it may be quite some time before democratic transition takes place in Chad.
Teodoro Obiang, who ousted his uncle in 1979 and has been in power ever since, might just win the award for worst dictator in Africa. With propaganda often spread about his divine abilities, Equatorial Guinea sits at his mercy. Many state resources are essentially private family assets — especially oil — giving him an estimated value is $600 million. Opponents have accused him of cannibalism — specifically, consuming enemy testicles and brains to increase his sexual stamina. Much of the resistance to Obiang has been by non-African states, who have seized assets belonging to his family. Although Obiang announced amnesty for political prisoners last year, the opposition has a long way to go in consolidating its power against his personality cult.
The big ray of hope in Central Africa, however, is Angola. With Jose Eduardo dos Santos now out of power, following an uprising of artists and their fans, the culture of resistance hasn’t dissipated. Although there are many arbitrary arrests of those protesting corruption, Angolans remain vocal and aggressive.
My home of Uganda has enjoyed the exciting emergence of musician-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, known affectionately as Bobi Wine, going head-on with the militaristic three-decade Museveni regime. The slogan “people power, our power” is chanted by school pupils and the working class alike. So far, however, Kyagulanyi’s campaigns have mainly consisted of live concerts in the capital city and interviews with international media outlets following his arrest and torture. If he can use 2019 to build networks of rural organizers to supplement his city strength, he will undoubtedly poke a hole in the increasingly draconian Museveni government, which has illegally taxed social media.
Rwanda, despite its commendable infrastructural development, remains a totalitarian state. With one ruling party spy designated to every 10 homes, little if any dissent to dictator Paul Kagame is publicly voiced without severe retaliation by his security apparatus. Rwanda is regionally notorious for suppressing dissent through forced disappearances and killings. Most dissidents still alive remain in exile. In September, however, female opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was freed from jail and pledged to continue her fight.
Burundians are nearly as quiet as their Rwandese neighbors. Extreme repression, including state killings, has discouraged open critique of Pierre Nkurunziza — who, after defiling Burundi’s constitution, is eligible to stay in power until 2034.
At the same time, Tanzania’s fascism is escalating. In November, administrative head of Dar es Salaam Paul Makonda called for public reporting of gay people, for whom he had assembled a team of police and officials to jail them. President John Magafuli had run on an anti-corruption platform, but his administration has become more vicious with every turn.
Extrajudicial killings remain high in Kenya. A number of activists documenting killings by police remain at high risk. In February, organizers of social justice centers based in Nairobi slums held vigils for Caroline Mwatha, who they allege was murdered for exposing the truth about police involvement in killings. Nairobi activist and friend of Mwatha, Florence Kanyua, said, “We went to the city morgue and confirmed Caroline was dead. The state is blaming it on a botched abortion, yet police have claimed there is no government pathologist available to carry out a postmortem.”
South Sudan is in a constant circle of peace negotiations and violations of these negotiations. Backed by President Museveni of Uganda, warlord Salva Kiir continues to pillage the country and drive millions of South Sudanese into refugee camps within South Sudan and in neighboring countries. Women’s rights organizations, the women’s wing of South Sudan Council of Churches and youth arts-activism movement #Anataban are among those who continue to pressure for a total end to civil war.
In Mozambique, 2019 has already been characterized by killings and mutilations in resource-rich Cabo Delgado. President Filipe Nyusi had claimed the situation was under control, but youth organizer Cidia Chissungo and her fellow organizers broke through the silence by circulating photos of the atrocities. “During the media blackout on Cabo Delgado, we had thousands of shares in less than 24 hours,” Chissungo said. “Ten days after we began the campaign, the president stated the situation was critical and began paying it more mind.” The Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO, has been in power since Mozambique’s independence.
Last year’s protests against corruption in Zimbabwe escalated to a massive protest against fuel price hikes this January in which over 600 were detained and 12 killed. Trade unions called for general strikes in February following a multi-day march by the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe that escalated to occupations in the capital of Harare.
In May, Malawi will hold presidential elections where incumbent Peter Mutharike — tied up in a corruption scandal — will face off against his own Vice President and former female President Joyce Banda.
Zambia, while often characterized as a country of passive people, may be the strongest voice against China’s emerging influence over the continent. The “China equals Hitler” protest slogan was popularized among Zambians in September. China continues to indebt national governments throughout Africa, which is understood by some as a type of long-term colonization strategy. Zambians are also increasingly wary of their own governments and institutions. For example, a student protest against the abolition of meal allowances was held in February.
The African National Congress that once played a pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa has in recent years found itself embroiled in scandals, one of which pushed President Jacob Zuma to resign a year ago. 2018 witnessed more protests in the country than any of the previous 13 years. Perhaps it is no coincidence that South Africa has been dubbed the “protest capital of the world.”
There is likely to be no slowing down in 2019 either. It is an election year, and student protests continue even long after the heyday of #FeesMustFall. Recently installed President Cyril Ramaphosa was a unionist and anti-apartheid activist, but is now a millionaire with a track record of human rights abuses. Yet, he once cut a visit to London short to return to South Africa in order to address protester demands. Such responsiveness by the head of state to citizen grievances is likely to encourage more demonstrations in 2019, regardless of his position on matters being protested.
Meanwhile, Lesotho and Eswatini remain monarchies under traditional cultural hegemony. Last year, in Lesotho, factory workers organized protests, whereas in Eswatini, the Rural Women’s Assembly and Swaziland United Democratic Front are among those leading the charge. Both small nations have small movements aimed at transitioning from monarchic rule to democracy.
Southern Africa still sets the bar high, despite its shortcomings. Botswana and Namibia rank high in political freedoms. Namibia, in fact, ranks higher than the United States in democracy and press freedom.
We mustn’t forget the islanders — who, in addition to pristine beaches — are enjoying comparatively adequate governance as African nations. In particular, it’s the tiny island nations that are really setting the pace. Cape Verde received a high ranking in the 2011 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, second only to Mauritius — whose president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, resigned a year ago due to a corruption scandal.
Seychelles President James Michel also resigned in 2016, without offering explanation, and President Danny Faure is completing his five year term. Sao Tome and Principe ranks high in all categories assessed by Freedom House.
The only drama among the small island nations seems to be in Comoros. Traditionally, the presidency rotates between the three islands, but President Azali Assoumani won a constitutional referendum in July to extend term limits and abolish the rotational presidency system. More than 20 coup attempts have taken places since Comoros’ 1975 independence, and with autocratic trends taking hold, 2019 could yield some pushback from citizens.
Africa’s largest island, Madagascar, is perhaps the furthest behind, when it comes to in citizens’ rights. Authoritarian in its governance culture, the state suppresses the voices of the many environmental activists who strive to protect the country’s unique species and ecosystems. Youth movement Wake Up Madagascar and civil society coalitions are on the frontlines of fighting for political freedoms.
Toward a new Africa
There may be no straightforward way to summarize the political momentum in Africa. Some places are becoming free. Others are being driven into suppression. Most nations are experiencing a bit of both.
I want to suggest only one generalization that characterizes most of Africa: It is wrongly governed by old men. While gerontocracy exists the world over, it is particularly vicious in Africa, where the median age is 19. Political and business elites, on the other hand, are above the age of 50 — or, if they are not, they tend to think and behave as those who are generations removed from the majority population. Youth are systematically excluded from political representation, influence and opportunity — with few exceptions. In almost every country, we see youth rising up in one way or another to spark change.
Africa is our planet’s second most populous continent and holds the highest concentration of natural resources. Yet, infrastructure is so poorly developed — and information so overly censored — that even fellow Africans must painfully strain to obtain news about their homeland.
Furthermore, the continent is so diverse in every way imaginable that articles such as this one can only skim the surface. Hopefully, as events unfold throughout the year, news of African movements will reverberate throughout the world in ways that cannot be easily ignored or suppressed.
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