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People Power Movements Rise in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Nico Colombant

As Egyptians mark one year since popular protests forced their long-time President Hosni Mubarak from office, further south in sub-Saharan Africa, analysts say people power movements are gaining traction as well.

In recent weeks, Senegal has had repeated protests, some of them deadly, in which demonstrators are denouncing incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and his decision to run for a third term on February 26.

Walid Phares, an international relations expert in Washington who wrote a book predicting the so-called Arab Spring, thinks Africa's Sahel region from Sudan to Senegal will have more and more protests against autocratic governments and bad governance as social media develops.

Phares says civil society activists as well as several radical Islamic groups and a few ethnic insurgencies in the region want change.

"With the rise of technology, where you are going to have Internet you are going to have similar uprisings because of the connectivity ability of these forces, so it is not going to be as massive as in Tunisia or in Egypt or even in Benghazi and Tripoli but it is going to find its way," said Phares.

Carl LeVan, an Africa expert from American University, says growing disappointment in the outcome of Africa's many elections is also playing a part.

"In many countries, Africans do not feel like democracy is consolidating, they in fact feel like autocracy is consolidating," said LeVan. "And that is a volatile combination for people who are otherwise used to going to the polls and who placed high hopes in democratic political reform."

Constitutions are routinely changed to allow for more mandates and leaders who came to power through coups or wars win elections often marred by fear and fraud.

The longest serving leaders in Africa are both from oil-rich, but extremely impoverished countries, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema and Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

Both of them have been in power since 1979.

In a close third place, in terms of length of tenure, is Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980.

Even in extremely repressive environments, activist Maurice Carney, from a group called Friends of the Congo, believes people power movements can make a difference.

He says the current convergence of these movements, which also includes the so-called Occupy trend in the United States, helps.

Carney points to a recent protest by Congolese women activists at the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa following botched elections which returned Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila to power.

"Strategically, if the opposition were to get the women back at the embassy, and serve as a symbol to tap into the global, the greater Occupy movement, I think it can have some legs, without a doubt," said Carney.

Emira Woods from the Foreign Policy in Focus advocacy group in Washington says despite the challenges in facing formidable security and state structures, there is historical precedence in having African hardline leaders forced out through social pressure.

She points to a wave of such protests after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, when U.S or Soviet-backed leaders lost support.

"That was when the dictator from Mali, Moussa Traore, was kicked out because women and students organized demonstrations and occupied, forcing him to leave office," said Woods.

This year, protests in sub-Saharan Africa have been successful, not to change a regime, but to force a government to review unpopular policies. This happened when Nigeria's government decided to lower gasoline prices, after an earlier subsidy slash had caused them to more than double.

A young Nigerian engineer at a protest in Lagos last month, Adeboye Forowa, had this warning for leaders.

"They are not in tune with the pulse of the environment," said Forowa. "They need to walk out of their offices onto the streets and just listen for a change."

Analysts say that with more social media organizing these types of protests, a growing African middle class demanding better governance, as well as radical movements also seeking change in a context of widespread corruption, street demonstrations and regional insurrections are likely to escalate across the continent.