20 Years Later – The Role of Art and Justice in South Africa’s Democracy

History, by Dumile Feni
History, by South African sculptor Dumile Feni.
Source: Photo by Akona Kenqu

At the entrance to the Constitutional Court of South Africa stands a sculpture of a large man yoked to a cart. His burden is a human one: a man and woman who themselves are seated on the back of a fourth figure kneeling on the cart. At first glance, the sculpture resonates with the history of servitude that marked the dehumanizing institution of apartheid. On closer reflection, the sculpture reveals a more complex message. The sculptor, South African artist Dumile Feni, did not create any racial differentiation between the four figures, and the man drawing the cart is the only figure large and strong enough to accomplish this task. The title of the work is History, and the four figures carry each other in a way that reflects the dependence, the interconnectedness and the tension that have always characterized human relationships.

History is the first of many artworks that challenge a visitor to the Constitutional Court to reflect on South Africa’s tortured past and the country’s transition to a constitutional order. As the highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court protects and enhances the fundamental values of human dignity, equality, and freedom of all people living within South Africa’s borders. The Constitutional Court Art Collection (CCAC)[1] is both a living monument to the ideals on which South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is based and a reminder of the work that remains.

The CCAC has humble origins. In 1994, when the original eleven justices of the Court were meeting in an office park in Johannesburg, Justices Albie Sachs and Yvonne Mokgoro were given $1,000 to decorate the courtroom. The justices did something far more valuable than brighten up the space; they spent the entire budget on commissioning artist Joseph Ndlovu to create a tapestry that represented the principles of humanity. Since that initial decision, the CCAC has grown to include donated works by over four hundred artists, a collection that is now valued at over $5 million.

Guided by the leadership of CCAC’s Art Curator, Stacey Vorster, a visitor to the Constitutional Court today is confronted, inspired, and challenged by this collection. Upon entering the Court’s foyer through a massive set of wooden doors that are hand-carved with representations of the twenty-seven rights enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, a visitor first notices a neon light installation by Thomas Mulcaire, which loudly proclaims “A luta continua” (the struggle continues). A series of urban griefscapes by Regi Bardavid presents the artist’s emotional struggle after her husband was killed during a botched robbery. A nude self-portrait by William Kentridge (a white South African man) highlights and reverses the ways in which nudity has been used historically as a tool of dominance to objectify black and female bodies.

Further down the gallery, a tattered dress made from blue rubbish bags bears witness to the sacrifice of Phila Ndwandwe, a general in the armed branch of the ANC who was caught by members of the South African Defence Force while attempting to smuggle information out of the country. After being stripped naked and tortured for refusing to give up any information, Ndwandwe fashioned a makeshift set of underwear for herself out of a blue plastic bag. This act of defiance and humanity burned itself into the memory of one of her captors, who told the story of Ndwandwe’s detention and death at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Upon hearing the story, artist Judith Mason wanted to pay homage to the extraordinary acts of an ordinary woman caught up in apartheid’s brutal machinery. Mason’s poem written on the skirt of the dress reads: “Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them.”

These artworks transcend the decorative or commemorative. They create moments of empathy that translate abstract concepts like apartheid into intimate experiences of individual pain and resilience. This empathy is an essential component of the court’s jurisprudence, which is founded in human dignity.  Art and justice are usually represented as dwelling in different domains: art is said to relate to the human heart, justice to human intelligence. Rationality is sometimes seen as inimical to art, and passion as hostile to justice. The Constitutional Court in South Africa shows how art and human rights overlap and reinforce each other. At the core of the Bill of Rights and of the artistic endeavor represented in the Court is respect for human dignity. It is this that unites art and justice.

It is imperative that the CCAC maintain the pieces already on display and also expand its collection to include works of continued vitality. And yet ironically, domestic fundraising is all but impossible because the Court must appear impartial and cannot accept any money from South African donors or the South African government, who may appear as litigants before it. The CCAC, accordingly, suffers. As a result, the roof is leaking onto priceless pieces; important works lack labels and explanations that would enhance the understanding and experience of the Court’s visitors; and tears of pigeon droppings run down Nelson Mandela’s cheeks in a depiction by Amos Miller. It is for these reasons that in October 2014, The Foundation for Society, Law and Art in South Africa officially launched a fundraising campaign at the offices of Hogan Lovells in Washington DC and New York to establish an endowment for the purposes of protecting, maintaining and eventually expanding the CCAC.

The state of the CCAC mirrors the troubles faced by South Africa as a country. After a period of exuberance in the years following South Africa’s astonishing transition to a legal order that protects the rights of all people, the hard and grinding work of maintaining a successful democracy has set in. The success of South Africa’s new Constitution will be determined not only by the strength of the judgments coming from South Africa’s courts, but also by the efforts across all of the country’s civil society to promote respect for the human rights of its people.

The CCAC symbolizes the best aspirations of our democracy, of reconciliation, of justice, and of transformation. When we fight for the artworks, we also fight for the underlying project of making a viable democracy in South Africa. To this end, the importance of the CCAC is not only to infuse the judgments of the Constitutional Court with empathy, but to provoke debate and reflection across a broader swathe of South African society. As the American jurist Judge Learned Hand has said: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes, believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women, when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it, and no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, and no court to save it.” [2]

The CCAC does not rest its hopes solely on the jurisprudence of the institution whose building it shares. It promotes the ideals of South Africa’s Constitution in a way that both overlaps and is independent of the law through a series of enigmatic and essential messages. Memorials lie everywhere. The struggle continues. We carry each other.

The Collection represents a history of intense passion, pain and redemption. And as it reflects on that history, it challenges and inspires a history that has yet to be written.





[1] To learn more about the CCAC and the Foundation’s endeavor to help preserve this important collection please visit: http://ccac.org.za/.

[2]  Hand, L. (1944) Spirit of Liberty. Speech given during an event titled “I am an American day” in Central Park, New York, NY. Available online at http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=1199.





Citizens’ Revolt in Burkina Faso

Even the long months of demonstrations and strikes that came before did not fully prepare the people of Burkina Faso for what they would accomplish during the last week of October 2014. In Ouagadougou, the capital, hundreds of thousands—organizers claimed a million—packed the central square on Tuesday, 28 October, to protest President Blaise Compaoré’s “constitutional coup,” as they called his plan to force through an amendment enabling him to run for reelection yet again, after more than a quarter century in power. Similar outpourings hit Koudougou, Ouahigouya, Kaya, Koupéla, Dori, and other towns across the country. Most were disciplined and peaceful, in line with opposition instructions. In the eastern town of Fada N’Gourma, however, several thousand burned the headquarters of Compaoré’s ruling party. In Bobo-Dioulasso, a commercial center in the west, young protesters symbolically pulled down a statue of Compaoré—while leaving untouched one of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi right next to it.[1]

Despite those massive turnouts, and despite women’s demonstrations the day before and trade union demonstrations the day after, Compaoré and his allies persisted. They announced that on 30 October their deputies in the National Assembly would vote to change the constitution. If adopted, their amendment would have permitted Compaoré to run not just for one more term but for three more. Some party leaders were already looking beyond the next election in 2015 and only half-jokingly suggested that their slogan should be Blaise Compaoré 2020.

Disgusted by the arrogance, people again occupied the streets and squares of major cities the morning of the planned vote. Their mood was now angrier, as protesters insisted more forcefully that Compaoré resign, and their tactics turned confrontational. Thousands sacked the National Assembly, preventing the vote. They attacked the government’s television network, forcing it off the air. The mayor’s office, ruling party headquarters, and homes of high officials were burned. Some protesters were killed as security forces tried to disperse them. Thousands marched to the presidential palace, but were blocked by troops. Similar scenes of rage swept the country. Only days later did reports trickle in confirming the extent of the destruction, much of it carefully targeted against government symbols and supporters.

Although the embattled president now agreed to leave the constitution intact, he still insisted on staying in office until the end of his term, provoking huge crowds to again fill the streets on 31 October. Already, some soldiers from Camp Guillaume in central Ouagadougou had joined the anti-Compaoré demonstrators, while other troops simply let protesters pass unhindered. Facing a split within their own ranks, military officers quickly decided to declare the government’s dissolution, before the situation in the streets escaped anyone’s control. Compaoré, finally bowing to reality, resigned that same day, and with French assistance fled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. Army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida took charge temporarily, and opened talks with opposition parties and civil society groups on a speedy handover to a caretaker civilian-led transitional government. Michel Kafando, a retired diplomat, was selected by consensus as the new interim president and sworn in on 18 November, with the prime task of preparing elections within a year.

Revolutionary inspiration

These events recalled the popular revolutions in North Africa three years earlier, in both scope and the aim of bringing down long-entrenched authoritarian rulers. In fact, one of the more popular slogans in Burkina Faso, shouted by protesters and painted on walls, was “Blaise dégage” (Blaise, clear out), adapted from the Tunisian uprising.

In the immediate wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, activists throughout sub-Saharan Africa took inspiration and tried to initiate comparable movements, gaining some traction here and there, though not to the extent they had hoped.[2] The popular insurrection in Burkina Faso is now also drawing attention across the region, where mobilizations on such a scale have been rare—and rarer still in actually toppling a president. “A veritable democratic harmattan [desert wind] is sweeping Africa,” commented Francis Kpatindé, a well-known political scientist from Benin. “People who have been stifled can now legitimately think that what was possible in Ouagadougou could also be in Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Banjul, and elsewhere.” Across these capitals, as well as in other corners of the African continent (Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola), the events of Burkina have invigorated on-going debates about term limits, their constitutional provisions, and the future of longstanding rulers.

Where and to what extent the sparks from Burkina Faso may ignite fires elsewhere will depend largely on the combustibility of local conditions: Are social and political elites united behind the regime, or have cracks emerged at the top? Are people sufficiently aggrieved and their rulers so impervious to change that activists see no alternative but to risk open, mass defiance? And are they organized enough, especially at the grassroots level? As Mathias Dzon, an opposition leader in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo, noted,  “we can’t say that Burkinabè went out into the streets to change their president in a spontaneous fashion. Some work went into it.”

“27 years is enough!”

The conditions for revolt in Burkina Faso certainly did not emerge overnight. They built up over a quarter of a century, encapsulated in the demonstrators’ slogan “27 years is enough!” By pointing to how long Compaoré had been in office, critics often recalled how the former army captain originally took power: through a military coup and the assassination of President Thomas Sankara, a popular and charismatic revolutionary leader.[3] Compaoré’s junta not only jailed, tortured, killed, or drove into exile those loyal to Sankara but also undid many of the innovations of Sankara’s revolutionary era, such as self-help mobilizations to build schools and health clinics and a greater reliance on domestic resources to develop the economy. The Compaoré regime chose instead to ally itself with conservative social elites and externally leaned more heavily on foreign aid and close ties with major Western capitals, especially Paris, the country’s former colonial ruler.[4]

The early 1990s brought a wave of prodemocracy movements across Africa, including in Burkina Faso. Facing domestic discontent and some pressure from France, Compaoré carefully orchestrated a shift to constitutional rule and multiparty elections. He erected a dominant party machine that relied partly on electoral fraud but mainly on the use of state resources and patronage favors to undermine opposition and secure high vote tallies in election after election. Though Burkina Faso now had the trappings of democracy, it was by most definitions a “semi-authoritarian” state.[5]

The regime’s repressive underbelly was dramatically highlighted by the 1998 assassination of independent journalist Norbert Zongo. Evidence pointed to Compaoré’s elite presidential guard, acting to keep Zongo from exposing a scandal implicating the president’s brother. The murder sparked a prolonged countrywide revolt.[6] Compaoré—a master of deflection, delay, and cooptation—survived only by promising reform. That included reinstating the constitution’s two-term presidential limit, which he had scrapped in 1997. But the subservient Constitutional Court ruled that the new limit did not apply retroactively, enabling Compaoré to run again in 2005 and 2010.

In early 2011, just a few months after Compaoré latest reelection, the country again plunged into crisis. This time the provocation was the death of a student from a severe police beating. Starting with angry youth demonstrations, the unrest persisted for months with a cascading series of labor marches, merchants’ protests, judges’ strikes, army and police mutinies, farmers’ boycotts, and attacks on mining sites.[7] The protests had no central direction, however, and opposition parties’ attempts to mobilize failed miserably.

On-the-ground organization

With the government now weakened by the mass unrest, the main opposition parties secured some advances in the December 2012 legislative election, increasing their representation from a dozen deputies to twenty-eight, more than a fifth of the total. The opposition’s new parliamentary leadership, headed by Zéphirin Diabré, forged a broad alliance of more than forty parties (the country has many others as well), with better organization and coordination than ever before.[8] When the ruling party pushed through a constitutional amendment to create a new senate, an upper house that would have been dominated by Compaoré loyalists, the opposition saw it as a maneuver to pave the way for lifting the presidential term limit. Through the latter half of 2013, the opposition parties, supported by labor unions and civil society groups, mounted large anti-senate demonstrations, effectively blocking its establishment.

Meanwhile, grassroots activists launched several new initiatives. Two popular musicians, the rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams’k Le Jah, launched Balai Citoyen (Citizens’ Broom) in mid-2013. It was inspired in part by Y’en a Marre, a rapper-initiated citizens’ group in Senegal that had sparked a broad—and successful—popular movement against constitutional manipulation. Although not aligned with any party, Balai Citoyen had explicit political goals: to “sweep out” poor governance and preserve the presidential term limit. Within two months it had affiliated “clubs” in all of Ouagadougou’s neighborhoods and in most major cities. Its ability to speak the language of disaffected youth drew many more into active participation in antigovernment protests.

In early 2014, as the authorities began talking more seriously about a constitutional referendum, a new activist network emerged, the Collectif Anti-Référendum (CAR, Anti-Referendum Collective). Initially formed by 365 associations in Ouagadougou, it soon spread across the country and prompted the opposition parties to form their own local antireferendum action committees. Later in the year yet another grouping arose, the Front de Résistance Citoyenne (FRC, Citizens’ Resistance Front), comprising two dozen civil society associations and headed by prominent prodemocracy intellectuals. The trade unions, meanwhile, built their own alliances with consumer associations and others; they demonstrated and went on  strike to voice worker grievances and protest high prices, with defense of the constitution prominent among their demands.

The work of such activists did much to boost the demonstrations called by the opposition party leaders. They also contributed to an increasingly notable feature in many antigovernment actions: references to the late revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. More than a quarter century after his death, Sankara remained a hero and inspiration to many young Burkinabè, his portrait carried by marchers, voice recordings played over demonstration sound systems, and sayings quoted in slogans and speeches. In the huge antigovernment outpourings of late October, Al Jazeera reported that many young protesters were inspired by the spirit of “Africa’s Che Guevara,” while the Paris daily Le Monde saw Compaoré’s overthrow as “the revenge of Thomas Sankara’s children.” Acknowledging such popular sentiments, Lt.-Col. Zida, the interim military leader, said that the Burkinabè people’s decision to rise up reflected an “identity of integrity that we have carried proudly since the August 1983 revolution” led by Sankara.

Whether motivated by revolutionary visions or just determined to see Compaoré gone, it was the young activists who spurred the final push to insurrection. Diabré and other senior opposition leaders had called the demonstrations and even urged their followers to engage in civil disobedience against the amendment vote. But it was members of Balai Citoyen, the CAR, and others on the frontlines who decided to breach the security lines around the National Assembly. According to Hervé Ouattara, president of the CAR and an initiator of the huge marches on the presidential palace on 30–31 October, leaders of his network understood that if Compaoré had to be forced out, “peaceful demonstrations would not be enough.” They prepared for confrontation, but also opened lines of communication with army officers. Those officers, convinced of the protesters’ determination, chose to avoid more bloodshed by deposing Compaoré.

Over the next year, the transition away from the Compaoré era will be full of uncertainties. The opposition leaders are focused on new elections, which they clearly hope to win. Others, closer to the activist networks, are also pushing for more fundamental changes: to improve people’s economic and social conditions, root out corruption, reform state institutions, and bring to justice the worst criminals of the ancien régime. Drawing analogies with the French revolution, one local journalist pointed to the rise of Burkina Faso’s own sans-culottes,” “these revolutionaries from the popular strata, distinct from the dominant social categories.” Now awakened to their ability to alter the course of events, they will surely demand a voice in shaping the changes ahead.



[1]  Agence d’information du Burkina (Ouagadougou), October 28, 2014.
[2]  Ernest Harsch, “An African Spring in the Making: Protest and Voice Across a Continent,” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2012, pp. 45-61.
[3]  Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
[4]  René Otayek, Filiga Michel Sawadogo, and Jean-Pierre Guingané, eds. Le Burkina entre révolution et démocratie (1983-1993). Paris: Karthala, 1996.
[5]  Mathieu Hilgers and Jacinthe Mazzocchetti, eds. Révoltes et oppositions dans un régime semi-autoritaire: Le case du Burkina Faso. Paris: Karthala, 2010.
[6]  Ernest Harsch, “Trop, c’est trop!: Civil Insurgence in Burkina Faso, 1998-99,” Review of African Political Economy, No. 81, 1999, pp. 395-406
[7]  Leila Chouli, Burkina Faso 2011: Chronique d’un mouvement social, Lyon: Tahin Party, 2012.
[8]  “Burkina Faso: The Opposition Becomes Better Organized,” Economist Intelligence Unit (London), 9 July 2013.




Protests and the Construction of National Security Threats in South Africa

SA Protest
Protesting police brutality by the Right 2 Know Campaign
(Gauteng Branch) at the Johannesburg Central Prison.
Source: Jayshree Pather – Right 2 Know, 8 Feb 2014

The revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden – that the United States (US) has developed surveillance capacities that make it possible for intelligence agents to surveil all Americans and many non-Americans – have provoked outrage and debate over the extent of their anti-terror policies far beyond their border. This massive overreach has even crept into the monitoring of popular mobilization. The Guardian newspaper has revealed a US Department of Defense plan to support universities to develop large scale projects identifying when mass protests in regions considered strategic to the US are likely to tip over into government-changing actions. The universities will use social movements’ digital traces to track when social movement mobilization tips over into contagion, allowing them to predict when radicalization is likely to turn into US-directed national security threats. Clearly the US is using the ‘war against terror’ as a pretext to spread its intelligence capacities across the globe to develop early warning systems of threats to its geostrategic interests.

But the tendency to stretch the concept of ‘national security’ to justify the expansion of the state’s coercive capacities is not peculiar to the US. South Africa does not face the same sort of threats to its national security, especially of the terrorist ilk, largely because it has remained seemingly non-aligned in major global geopolitical battles. This has not stopped the country though, from adopting a plethora of post-9/11 measures to counter terrorism and other forms of crime.

South Africa’s problems relate mainly to the unfinished business of social transformation, illustrated graphically by waves of mass protests that have engulfed the country for the past decade. Protests peaked in 2010; the year after the seemingly more progressive, pro-poor Jacob Zuma took office after years of neoliberal austerity.

The state has also intensified repression against protests, especially in the Mpumalanga province, where the paramilitarized Tactical Response Team (TRT), similar to the US Swat Teams, was deployed to quell social unrest in the area, leading to a massive spike in public complaints against this police unit. Several whistle-blowers on government corruption have also been assassinated, and this problem has spread to other provinces, notably KwaZulu-Natal: the deadliest province of all for whistle-blowers and activists. Most of these assassinations have gone unpunished, which has created a climate of near-impunity for assassins.

However, the most violent incident against protestors took place in 2012, when the police, including its three paramilitary units, the TRT, the Special Task Force and the National Intervention Unit, killed 34 striking mineworkers and injured 78 others at Marikana platinum mine in the North West province. The police used violence meted out by striking miners as a pretext to attack the miners, but the miners resorted to violence only once they themselves were attacked by union officials from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The strike revealed serious fissures between NUM and its own members, with the latter accusing the organization of failing to represent them properly, and being in bed with the employers. Evidence has emerged of the police having killed many miners in a more premeditated fashion, which has punched holes in the police arguments that they acted in self-defense.

Police militarization has led to an increase in the number of paramilitary units, their normalization in more and more areas of policing, and more joint deployments of the police and the military. The police have also introduced a more militarized form of public order policing developed by the French gendarmes, the French model of public order policing, which has been used to contain class struggles in the French public housing estates. They also embraced intelligence-led policing, which has allowed for more secretive and unaccountable policing.

Some public commentators have blamed growing police violence on a lack of police training and poor oversight. But when the trajectory of policing is examined in its proper context, it becomes apparent that the edging out of community policing in favor of more authoritarian forms of policing is a deliberate political strategy to contain growing class conflict.

In an attempt to justify more authoritarian responses to the protests, the Ministry of State Security has framed the protests as threats to national security, especially industrial protests. According to the previous Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, “… [violent] industrial action tended to be protracted, illegal, unprotected, and disruptive to key sectors of the economy, with a new trend of the shunning of union representation and hard won established labour relations dispensation in South Africa.”[1]

Referring to these strikes as illegal is problematic as the country’s Labour Relations Act makes a distinction between protected and unprotected strikes, but does not consider unprotected strikes as illegal, as workers have a constitutional right to strike. Furthermore, his statements about the shunning of union representation and labour relations procedures, fail utterly to grasp the fact that workers were shunning these organizations and procedures because they were failing to address their grievances.

Once the question of what constitutes national security threats becomes stretched to include protests, then it becomes easier for the security agencies to act against advocacy that threatens ruling class interests by using extraordinary measures. This has been seen in relation to shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has been subjected to repeated state repression.

Records held by the Ethekwini Municipality (which incorporates Durban) have revealed that in 2010, a protest planned by the Valley View Flats Committee in Ethekwini was prohibited because “an intelligence report said that these were actually members of Abahlali baseMjondolo attempting to protest under another name. The integrity of the application was therefore question(ed) due to the apparent misrepresentation and (the) march was not approved.”

Yet, according to Abahlali’s S’bu Zikode, the Committee is affiliated to Abahlali, but decides democratically as a separate organization whether to protest. The intelligence report clearly failed to apprehend this flow of decision-making and showed that intelligence operatives are involved in vetting protests, which points to a dangerous overreach of intelligence powers into the legitimate political organizing.

South Africa’s protests are diverse in motivation, but they have not coalesced into a national movement mounting a serious contest for power, and repression is an attempt to stop this from happening. However, the country’s mainstream media often caricature the protests as “service delivery protests,” which downplays the complexity of the phenomenon, and makes it more difficult for grievances to be communicated in ways that allow them to be addressed. In fact, many protests have been held by members of the African National Congress (ANC) against their own organization. Such protests became most pronounced in the wake of the 2011 local government elections, when the organization imposed their choice of candidates on many branches, leading to revolts against these decisions that continue to this day. In these cases, the underlying cause of the grievances is about not being listened to, rather than service delivery.

The security services have over hyped the extent of violent protests, presumably to make the case for more resources, and ultimately more state repression under the guise of protecting property and ensuring social stability. As the University of Johannesburg’s South African Research Chair in Social Change has pointed out, protestors may use disruptive means to communicate messages, such as burning tires and buildings, but these should be distinguished from violent protests where people are targeted and injuries, even deaths occur.

A recent research project by the University of Rhodes into protest trends in seven South African municipalities suggests that the vast majority of protests are peaceful, and go off without incident. While violence often occurs only when the police use violence against protestors, an increasing number of protestors are resorting to more disruptive means when the authorities ignore more conventional repertoires of protest. These repertoires usually involve protestors notifying the relevant municipality of their intention to protest, as required by the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

However, more municipalities have introduced measures that are not recognized by the Act, and that make it increasingly impossible for protestors to use the Act and exercise their right to protest lawfully. They are doing this to discourage people from taking their grievances to the street in the first place, and to encourage them to use other grievance resolutions mechanisms (such as ward committees) as the protests are embarrassing the government; however, in many areas these mechanisms have become dysfunctional, making protests the only viable form of communication.

In some areas, such as the Mbombela Municipality in Mpumalanga and Johannesburg, these conditions have driven protestors out onto the streets without notifying the municipality of their intention to protest, as the police perceive these protests as unlawful, they are more likely to attack them violently. So in other words, an increasing number of protests are protesting unlawfully because municipalities are making increasingly impossible to protest lawfully. The most extreme problem exists in Rustenburg, where the municipality has placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way of protests, which led to 53% of protests being prohibited in 2012.

These obstacles include requiring protestors to seek the permission of the chief if they wish to stage a protest in a rural area; given that many protests are against these very traditional authorities, this condition has made it all but impossible to protest lawfully against these authorities. The municipality also requires protestors to obtain a letter from the person they are marching against, confirming that they are willing to accept the memorandum: a condition that makes the right to protest subject to the say-so of a protestor’s adversary. What appears to lie behind these conditions is a government attempt to stamp out protests against mining exploitation in the platinum belt, which suggests that an undeclared state of emergency is in operation in the area.

As constructivist theorists of securitization have argued, the language used to describe security threats does not simply capture a security reality ‘out there,’ but is actually constitutive of that reality.[2] These social constructs can then be used to assert the existence of security threats that bear little relation to reality, to justify increases in the coercive capacities of the state. In this regard, South Africa is not alone in adopting an increasing securitized approach to social problems. The process is following well-recognized laws of motion in other parts of the world, captured well by Mark Neocleous:

“Whatever example we use, the pattern is the same: an ’emergency’ occurs in which ‘security’ is threatened; existing emergency powers are exercised and new ones put into place; these are then gradually ‘stretched’ beyond their original scope; this stretching is gradually justified and legitimised, until the police and security forces are exercising the powers way beyond their original context, to the extent that they become part of the everyday functioning of the rule of law: the emergency becomes permanent, the exceptional becomes the rule, and the sun fails to set on the sunset clauses. And the reason for this is simple: emergency powers are the highpoint of security politics.”[3]

The strengthening of the security cluster is not just about clamping down on criminals, but about dismantling emerging forms of working class power and restoring ruling class power. However, workers and communities have also shown that they are not willing to take these problems lying down, and they continue to mount crippling mass strikes and protest after protest. If these struggles escalate, then society could be reshaped, and this time not on the terms and conditions of the ruling elite. In this regard, no matter how difficult the current period seems, it also holds great promise.




[1] Siyabonga Cwele, Address by the Minister of State Security, Dr SC Cwele, on the occasion of the State Security budget vote, Parliament, Cape Town, 5 May 2010.

[2] Thierry Balzacq, ‘Constructivism and securitisation studies’, in Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Victor Mauer, ‘The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies’, Oxon: Routledge, pg. 56.

[3] Mark Neocleous, 2007, ‘Security, liberty and the myth of balance: towards a critique of security politics’, Contemporary Political Theory, Number 6, pp. 144.




El-Sisi’s Election in Egypt: an Overwhelming Victory or an Electoral Farce?

Egypt voters
Egypt voters express their uncertainty
Source: Reuters – Mohamed Abd El-Ghany
28 November 2011 – Flickr CreativeCommons

On 29 May 2014, hours after the conclusion of an additional third day of voting, an expected outcome was confirmed. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Field Marshal and Ex-Military Chief, will be the next president of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Although official results expect to be announced in the coming days by the legally mandated Presidential Elections Commission (PEC), unofficial results reported by the judges supervising the polls, revealed an overwhelming victory for El-Sisi with 93% percent of the votes cast.  Second and third place has yet to be decided as the only opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, and the number of invalidated votes are each coming in with between three to four percent of the 25.6 million voters.  This substantial number of invalided votes appears to be the result of a “positive boycott” by a group of activists who wished to express their support for the principle of democracy, but also their utter dissatisfaction with the current process, and therefore purposely voided their votes. It seems over one million Egyptian citizens ultimately followed this path.

Including this boycott, turnout is being reported to be around 46% of the total electorate of 54 million. This is far lower than El-Sisi’s wish of 40 million, which he expressed in his last television interview before the vote, and but only a few points lower than the 52% that came out for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi’s victory in 2012.

The PEC, the state and the Sisi campaign certainly can’t be blamed for a lack of effort in encouraging participation. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared Tuesday, 27 May a public holiday so work wouldn’t be a hindrance. PEC member Tarek Shebl reportedly threatened fines of $70 – LE500—referencing the electorate to Article 43 of the electoral law—on those who don’t have a valid reason for not voting. Sisi’s media supporters made impassionate pleas on their various platforms, with one claiming he would “cut his veins open” on air so Egyptians would vote, and others equating abstention with treason. But the most significant decision by the PEC was the extension, allowing voters to come to the polls for an extra day, referencing the hot conditions and Article 27 of the electoral law, which vaguely claims that the vote may be conducted “in one day or more,” but does not give any detail in terms of the conditions that warrant an extension.

A member of the Sisi campaign Ahmed Ayad explained the seemingly low turnout by the vast discrepancy in popularity between the two candidates, as the outcome was never in doubt and “no one feels danger or a sense of urgency.” It also cannot be discounted that Sisi’s twenty-four million supporters vastly outnumbered the thirteen million votes that Morsi received in 2012. This does seem to support the carefully constructed narrative that many observers and Sisi campaigners were hoping to be confirmed during the vote,  that the army’s removal of Morsi was due to a substantial mass of popular pressure. But what the turnout figures also reveal is the presence of a great deal of political apathy (after three constitution-related referenda, three phases of parliamentary voting, and the second presidential election in the past three years), frustration and dissatisfaction with how transitional authorities and the army have run the country over the past 10 months, provoking images of the pre-revolutionary period. One prominent Egyptian columnist Wael Abdel-Fattah lamented in the Lebanese daily Assafair, “The shock here is in the state’s need to use its old tools to defend its nominee.”

International observers also seem to present a mixed view of the elections; the European Union commended the democratic and processional nature of the vote, applauding that it was “administered in line with the law,” but it fell short of “full compliance with applicable international standards for democratic elections” and its “own constitutional principles.” In their official preliminary statement, the EU EOM listed the freedoms of association, assembly and expression as areas of concern, stated the PEC’s decision to extend the vote “caused unnecessary uncertainty in the electoral process” and called for a new electoral law that provides better independent oversight on the administrative decisions of the PEC. Democracy International, a U.S. based international observer group also felt the broader electoral environment was compromised, due to the suppression of political dissent and restrictions on fundamental freedoms. The African Union and the Arab League have yet to issue their preliminary assessments until the final results are announced.

So what does this all mean?

After taking this quick snapshot of the domestic, regional and international media covering the Egyptian presidential election, there are many outlets making broad declaratory statements about how the numbers reveal a “weak mandate” and that it is a “pyrrhic victory” for the president. But those viewers would be wise to recall that what ultimately shook President Morsi’s legitimacy, wasn’t numbers or turnout, it was his inability to deliver on any of his promises, especially on the economic front, as well as the level of polarization that rose during his one year in power.

What is really going to define whether the president will garner a long-standing legitimacy or not, is his ability to deliver for the Egyptian people. The numbers game and the electoral loopholes that allowed the PEC to extend the vote just hours before the polls were set to close is going to be either a forgotten story, or the confirmation of a disturbing trend. This will depend primarily on how the government performs. This government’s survivability is contingent on how well they are going to serve and provide, particularly on the economic side of things. But whether Sisi is able to transcend his political base and build a broader coalition of support, will depend on his willingness to confront the challenge of polarization and create a platform for political inclusion. The Egyptian government has to realize that while they are able to get away with this kind of maneuvering to make numbers work during the election, they cannot maneuver their way around the number of starving people in Egypt. At the end of the day, it is these people and their needs from where real legitimacy is derived.




Rwanda’s Twenty-Year Transformation

Esther Mujawayo, Survivor of the 1994 genocide
on the April 2014 International Day of Reflection.
Photo by Violaine Martin (UN Geneva)

This April marks twenty years since the horrifying 1994 Rwandan Genocide, though government coordinated commemoration ceremonies, dubbed Kwibuka 20, have been underway since January 2014. Amidst the remembrances, official and private, theatrical and sincere, Rwandans and international observers will be forced to consider the extent to which the situation in Rwanda has changed in the past two decades.

By a variety of measures, Rwanda’s progress has been remarkable. The country hosts over 11 million people on a plot of land the size of Maryland; despite the density of the population, the country’s ordered urban centers and remarkably well-served rural communities stand in stark contrast to the disorder that characterizes Rwanda’s neighbors in the Great Lakes Region. Between 2006 and 2011, Rwanda reduced the proportion of its population living under $1.25 a day from 57% to 45%–a remarkable feat that has earned Rwanda the title of a development success story.

This anniversary has provoked a great deal of research by scholars on the merits and strength of this story. A recent review of Rwandan “life narratives” compiled by Bert Ingelaere revealed improvements in governance, stemming from the RPF’s commitment to “improving the living standards of the people they govern.” [1] Discussions with Rwandan youths, published in a March 2014 issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies, found that, though their personal experiences may not reflect the lofty ambitions of the state, the RPF’s governance objectives and policies “have opened up new ways for young people to think about the possibilities for their lives…they have instilled a sense of possibility, hope, and aspiration for the future.” [2]

But those reflecting upon Kwibuka 20 in Rwanda and around the world would be well served in remembering that the violence in 1994 was not purely the product of underdevelopment, rather a disparity in power between groups and the development of a discriminating ideology in a militarized society. Economic growth is not a panacea for all societal ills−the composition of the social and political spheres of the country must be taken into consideration when analyzing Rwanda.

Political Scientist Jay Ulfelder, writing on his personal blog, described the paradoxical natural of Rwanda as such: “On the one hand, The World Bank now ranks Rwanda 32nd on the latest edition of its “ease of doing business” index—not 32nd in Africa, but 32nd of 189 countries worldwide. On the other hand, statistical assessments of the risk of an onset of state-led mass killing identify Rwanda as one of the 25 countries worldwide currently most vulnerable to this kind of catastrophe.”

Ulfelder’s assessment, worth reading in its entirety, illustrates that the government has done little to address the structural issues that led to the eruption of violence in 1994. Today in Rwanda, ethnicity still plays a role in a repressive political environment, while the strict laws governing speech in the country largely prevent the sort of airing of such grievances that would promote reconciliation. Writing in The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch described the government’s manipulation of the narrative in describing the events of 1994:

“In 2008, the government once again renamed the crime. Now they call it “the genocide against the Tutsi.” It’s an inelegant phrase that has been slow to take hold, perhaps because the foundational idea of Rwanda’s post-genocide order is to emphasize an inclusive national identity, and to treat Hutu and Tutsi as distinctions that belong more to the past.”

Inherent to such language is a troubling duality–while all citizens are ‘Rwandan,’ some Rwandans are victims, while the unnamed (but implied) ‘others’ are perpetrators. This is particularly problematic as it is simply untrue. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Howard French reminds us of UN investigator Robert Gersony’s estimation that, between April and September 1994, as many as 35,000 Hutus were killed by members of the RPF. The United Nations never released the report cataloging the “well-organized, military style operation, with military command and control,” described by one investigator as “military campaign style mass murders.”

Further troubling, given these allegations are the structures of the state, including the Rwandan national solidarity camps, called Ingando. According to a 2005 Harvard Human Rights Journal study, the camps are attended predominately by students about to enter university and by former militia-members. These camps are modeled after the sort of military training camps the Rwandan Patriotic Front used while training in Uganda and are typically comprised of military training exercises and lectures from government officials on government policies. While such camps are not necessarily problematic, reports from both academics that have studied the camps and Rwandans who have attended the camps suggest that the camps are concerned with “teaching [Rwandans] to be soldiers” and developing loyalty to the RPF’s political campaigns. [3]

Ulfelder’s comment that “Rwanda has suffered episodes of mass killing roughly once per generation since independence—in the early 1960s, in 1974, and again in the early 1990s, culminating in the genocide of 1994 and the reprisal killings that followed. History certainly isn’t destiny, but our statistical models confirm that in the case of mass atrocities, it often rhymes,” becomes all the more chilling when one considers the destructive capacity of those emerging from these camps.

President Kagame’s strict management of the country extends beyond military and security concerns and into the political realm. In 2010, ahead of national elections, the government banned two dissident newspapers and arrested opposition leader Victoire Ingabire after a speech she made calling for reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis after 16 years of exile. In that same election cycle, Amnesty International raised concerns about the difficulties imposed on opposition parties during the registration process and “a wider pattern of intimidation and harassment to discourage and discredit opposition group.” The continued precariousness of the political situation in Rwanda is illustrated by the murder of Patrick Karegeya, a political dissident living in exile in South Africa in January 2014. A number of international observers, including Michela Wrong in Foreign Policy, suggested that the murder was likely arranged by Rwanda authorities, given their unapologetic comments after it took place.

In light of this, it is clear that Rwanda is not immune to ethnic violence. In fact, by militarizing youth and oppressing the freedom of speech, Kagame may facilitate another violent outburst. The president of the Free Africa Foundation, George Ayittey lamented to the Wall Street Journal that “The real tragedy of Rwanda is that Mr. Kagame is so consumed by the 1994 genocide that, in his attempt to prevent another one, he is creating the very conditions that led to it.” In fact, “elite vulnerability” has been used as an explanatory framework to describe the heavy role of the center in all levels of the state, and the promotion of tightly controlled, technocratic and depoliticized system of governance.[4] Failing to address the structural inequalities and instabilities in the Rwandan political system threatens to reverse the strides that Rwanda has been made in the past two decades.

The international community’s sway over Rwanda has recently been demonstrated following the levying of economic sanctions and aid suspensions against the country for its support for militia groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. International influence could also be used to promote greater political opening, legitimate power-sharing and reconciliation projects in Rwanda. In light of both the remarkable successes and oppressive tactics of the Rwandan government, the international community has a responsibility to rethink its policies towards President Kagame’s administration. While the government’s programs and phenomenal economic growth is laudable and worthy of support, donors, academics [5] and advocacy groups alike have begun to question support for a government displaying increasingly autocratic tendencies. We shall see whether external leverage, internal tensions or reforms will lead to this next step in Rwanda’s transformation, a more open and less repressive political system.



[1] Bert Ingelaere, “What’s on a peasant’s mind? Experiencing RPF state reach and overreach in post-genocide Rwanda (2000–10),” Journal of East African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2014), 214-230.

[2] Kirrily Pells, Kirsten Pontalti & Timothy P. Williams, “Promising developments? Children, youth and post-genocide reconstruction under the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF),” Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2014) 294-310.

[3] Hilary Matfess. Personal Interview Conducted in January, 2014; Andrea Purdeková,  “80 Rwanda’s Ingando camps: Liminality and the reproduction of power,” University of Oxford – Refugee Studies Center, September 2011.

[4] Benjamin Chemouni “Explaining the design of the Rwandan decentralization: elite vulnerability and the territorial repartition of power” Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2014), 246-262.

[5] In addition to the many examples referenced throughout the article see African Affairs “Rwanda Virtual Issue: Twenty Years after Genocide” for some historical examinations of the Rwanda state over the years. http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/afrafj/rwanda.html




Part II: Anxieties of West African Democracy: Six Presidential Elections in 2014-2015

In the first part of this article, the author describes the political context surrounding the high-risk presidential elections that will take place in six countries in West Africa in 2014-2015. It considered in particular, the anticipated intensity of electoral competition in each country, one of the three elements of risk he’ll use, to assess the likelihood of violence. In this second part, he examines the current security context of the different countries and the institutional environments that will oversee the electoral process. This essay was originally written in French and translated by African Futures. All issues of misinterpretation or mistranslation are therefore solely the editors’ responsibility. To ensure the author’s original nuance, please read the French version.

Guinea small
Guinea, among others, will have a tense
electoral environment to monitor
(UNDP – via Flickr Photostream, 2007)

The second element of consideration for an analysis of the risks tied to the West African presidential elections of 2014-2015, is a state’s general security situation. Unfortunately, for these six, this is not reassuring. Among the determining factors of a security context, this piece considers the existence or nonexistence of armed rebel or ex-rebel groups, the degree of political control and professional integrity of the security forces, the extent of alignment between political affinity and ethnic and regional identities, the conditions, peaceful or not, of the most recent presidential elections, as well as the magnitude and form of political and/or security involvement of important foreign actors.

Nigeria appears to have without contest the most fragile security environment. The 2015 election will unfold in a country already battling with the terrorist group Boko Haram in the Northeast, and harbors organized armed groups in the Niger Delta who are just as likely to either politically support or create pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan (who also hails from this South-South region). The country is also experiencing elevated levels of violence including political, economic, ethnic, and religious dimensions in the Middle Belt (the center of the country) and elsewhere in the territory. Furthermore, the Nigerian federation is accustomed to the violent aftermaths of elections, as was the case in 2011, even though the ballot was judged to be better organized and more credible than all other previous votes.

More than 800 people were killed in three days of riots and fury in twelve northern states of the federation. The trigger was the defeat of northern candidate Muhammadu Buhari who was facing Jonathan. Nigeria did not need the terrorism of Boko Haram to achieve such levels of violence, as ordinary citizens confronted one another with certainly a dose of spontaneity, but also a clear degree of preparedness to the violence brought on by political-ethnic entrepreneurs and religious extremists. From the perspective of 2015, the blackmail of violence has already begun in the country, driven by militant groups threatening either: “if Jonathan is not re-elected, there will be chaos” or “if Jonathan was re-elected, there will be chaos.” When this psychological distress is added to the very low level of confidence Nigerian populations have in the integrity and professionalism of the security forces, the fear of a dark debut to 2015 for West Africa’s great power seems very legitimate.

Guinea, because of the repercussions of ethno-regional political polarization and its history of violence, is also quite fragile in terms of security. It should be recognized that undeniable progress that has been made under the Condé presidency in the reform of the security sector, which has translated into an increased capacity of law enforcement to contain street protests, while no longer killing dozens of people at each occasion. This is not the era of Lansana Conté or Dadis Camara, but Guinea’s security forces are still far from showing exemplary behavior and the political neutrality of officials in charge of law and order is equally far from being a reality. The various protests that had punctuated the long and difficult march towards parliamentary elections in September 2013 still resulted in sometimes deadly violence. It is therefore likely that a few explosive face-to-face encounters between opposition protesters and security forces will occur during the process leading to the 2015 presidential election.

The security context is not particularly reassuring in  Guinea Bissau or Côte d’Ivoire either. In the first country, although the chiefs of the army have always considered themselves autonomous from the civil political authorities,  security sector reform, despite being on the international agenda for ten years, has never taken off. In Côte d’Ivoire, significant efforts have been made to manage the catastrophic consequences of post-election conflict in 2011, but it will take a few more years to provide the country with defense and security forces that are coherent, effective and politically neutral. The difficult legacy of years of rebellion and conflict will heavily impact the security environment and political developments…even after the 2015 election. Both in Guinea Bissau and Côte d’Ivoire, the presence of external actors mandated to maintain peace, the military mission of ECOWAS (ECOMIB) and the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), respectively, plays in favor of relative security around the next elections.

The political position of the defense and security forces and the maintenance of their unity are uncertain elements within the security context of Burkina Faso, which saw violent mutinies in 2011. It is impossible to know how the Burkinabe army and the different generations of officers that compose it, will handle this unprecedented situation of political uncertainty after 2015. Many senior military officials were appointed after the mutinies of 2011 to regain control of this essential pillar of Compaoré’s power. Do they consider their fate bound to Compaoré staying in the presidential palace after 2015? How do the president’s closest officers, who have accompanied him since the very brutal early years of the regime, imagine their future? There are many questions and few answers, which should not lessen the anguish of Burkina Faso and many of their West African neighbors. Conversely, in Togo, the question of political positioning of the security forces and the army is less difficult to answer: the secure grasp on the power in Lomé seems to resist the hands of time.

Finally, it is important to interrogate the institutional framework in which these presidential races will be unfolding in the different countries. These frameworks include the rules, procedures, and institutions that are mobilized from the beginning to the end of the election process, and which play a determining role in the credibility of the elections and in particular the final results which designate a victor. Even if the credibility of the electoral process is not a guarantee of the absence of crisis and violence, the perception of a substantial lack of credibility is almost always a trigger of serious troubles. More so, when presidential elections happen in a country where the security environment is already fragile, and in the context of an intense competition for power, the credibility of the institutional setting of the election can be decisive for saving the country from falling into a post-electoral crisis.

Yet it is wise not to relay too much on these structures. The electoral laws, the conditions for establishing voter files, the political neutrality and the technical competence of institutions put in charge of organizing elections and examining post-electoral legal claims are subjects of controversy everywhere. None of the countries with an upcoming presidential election in 2014 or 2015 is considered as a model in the region in organizing free, transparent, and credible elections. Some, like Nigeria, have accomplished notable progress in the past years, but they are still far, very far, from the models in West Africa, which are Ghana, Cape Verde and Senegal, where electoral commissions and/or other institutions have been able to run some very competitive, yet credible elections.

In Nigeria, a number of reforms that were recommended by experts in the wake of the general elections of 2011 to correct the biggest failures of the system, but they were not implemented. In Guinea it took rounds of mediation, intrusive international technical involvement, and a fiercely negotiated political agreement to organize the legislative elections in September 2013. The list of tasks to accomplish in order to render the provisioned elections more credible in 2015 is very long. It includes the establishment of a new voter registry and putting in place new institutions such as the Constitutional Court, which should replace the Supreme Court’s key role of validating final results. Even in Côte d’Ivoire, where the current president promised a revision of the constitution, nothing has been done to put an end to the special institutional framework designed by peace agreements and to equip the country with a new credible and politically neutral electoral authority.

To conclude, all one can do is agree with citizens of West Africa, who are understandably anxious regarding the approaching electoral seasons. After considering the three elements of evaluation simultaneously, none of the countries will be safe from strong tensions prone to degenerate into serious violence. Despite taking the risk of being wrong (who can truly predict all possible scenarios in each of these countries several months before the different elections?), it is reasonable to classify Nigeria and Guinea as very high risk countries, Burkina Faso as a high risk country, and Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo as moderate risk states, this last category certainly not meaning “low” or “non-existent” risk.

Calamitous elections are not yet unforeseeable and inevitable natural disasters. The citizens of each of the countries in question, ECOWAS, and important international actors, have the means to tame their anxiety by strongly mobilizing to prevent violent crises. But there is also a risk in understanding elections solely and uniquely as moments of impending danger for states, and thus seeking only violence-free elections. This often leads regional and international organizations, to prefer the manipulation of the electoral process in favor of the more powerful camp, and therefore more capable of provoking chaos in case of defeat, compared to free and fair elections where the outcome is uncertain. The risk is forgetting and make people forget the electoral rituals so essential to young and fragile democracies: anchoring little by little a democratic culture in the society. If citizens must continue to vote every four or five years with fear in their hearts, it is the popular adherence to the democratic ideal in West Africa that will be ultimately threatened.

Partie II: La Démocratie de l’Angoisse: l’Afrique de l’Ouest et ses Six Élections Présidentielles de 2014-2015

Dans la première partie de cet article, l’auteur a décrit le contexte politique dans lequel se dérouleront les élections présidentielles dans les six pays d’Afrique de l’Ouest concernés par ces scrutins souvent à haut risque cette année et en 2015. Il a examiné en particulier l’intensité anticipée de la compétition électorale dans chacun des pays, un des trois éléments d’appréciation des risques de violence. Dans cette deuxième partie, il s’interroge sur le contexte sécuritaire actuel des différents pays et sur l’environnement institutionnel qui devra encadrer les processus électoraux.

Guinea small
Guinée, entre autres, aura un
environnement électoral tendu à surveiller
(UNDP – via Flickr Photostream, 2007)

Lorsqu’on s’intéresse au contexte sécuritaire général, un deuxième élément d’appréciation capital pour une analyse approximative des risques liés aux élections présidentielles à venir, il n’y a pas de quoi être rassuré. Parmi les déterminants principaux du contexte sécuritaire, on peut s’appesantir sur l’existence ou non dans le pays de groupes armés rebelles ou ex-rebelles, le degré de contrôle politique et d’intégrité professionnelle des forces de sécurité et des forces armées, le niveau d’alignement des affinités politiques avec l’appartenance ethnique et régionale, les conditions pacifiques ou non des élections présidentielles les plus récentes ainsi que l’ampleur et la forme de l’implication politique et/ou sécuritaire d’acteurs extérieurs importants.

Le Nigeria apparaît sans conteste comme l’environnement sécuritaire le plus fragile. L’élection de 2015 va se dérouler dans un pays déjà aux prises avec le groupe terroriste Boko Haram au Nord-Est, un pays qui abrite également des groupes armés organisés dans le Delta du Niger aussi prompts à soutenir politiquement qu’à exercer des pressions sur le président Jonathan lui-même issu de cette région du South-South, et un pays qui connaît des niveaux élevés de violence combinant des dimensions politiques, économiques, ethniques et religieuses dans le Middle Belt (centre du pays) et ailleurs sur le territoire. La fédération nigériane est aussi habituée à des lendemains d’élection meurtriers, comme ce fut le cas en 2011, alors même que le scrutin avait été jugé mieux organisé et plus crédible que tous les précédents.

Plus de 800 personnes avaient été tuées en trois jours d’émeutes et de furie dans douze Etats du nord de la fédération, l’élément déclencheur ayant été la défaite du candidat nordiste Muhammadu Buhari face à Jonathan. Le Nigeria n’avait pas besoin du terrorisme de Boko Haram pour atteindre de tels niveaux de violences mettant aux prises des concitoyens entre eux, avec certes une dose de spontanéité mais aussi un degré certain de préparation des esprits à la violence par des entrepreneurs politico-ethniques et des extrémistes religieux. Dans la perspective de 2015, le chantage à la violence a déjà commencé dans le pays, animé aussi bien par des groupes de militants du « si Jonathan n’est pas réélu, ce sera le chaos » que par ceux du « si Jonathan est réélu, ce sera le chaos ». Quand on ajoute à cette préparation mentale le très faible degré de confiance des populations nigérianes dans l’intégrité et le professionnalisme des forces de sécurité, la crainte d’un sombre début d’année 2015 dans la grande puissance de l’Afrique de l’Ouest paraît fort légitime.

La Guinée, du fait du prolongement ethno-régional de la polarisation politique et du passif de violences, est également très fragile du point de vue sécuritaire. Il convient de reconnaître les progrès indéniables qui ont été faits sous la présidence Condé dans la réforme du secteur de la sécurité qui se traduit par une amélioration de la capacité des forces de l’ordre à contenir des manifestations de rue sans tuer en une seule journée plusieurs dizaines de personnes. Ce n’est plus l’époque de Lansana Conté ou celle de Dadis Camara mais on n’est encore très loin d’un comportement exemplaire des forces de sécurité et d’une neutralité politique des responsables du maintien de l’ordre et de la haute administration territoriale. Les différentes manifestations qui avaient rythmé la longue et difficile marche vers les élections législatives de septembre dernier s’étaient tout de même traduites par des violences parfois meurtrières. On peut déjà anticiper un face-à-face explosif entre manifestants de l’opposition et forces de sécurité lorsque sera engagé le processus menant à l’élection présidentielle.

Le contexte sécuritaire n’est pas particulièrement rassurant non plus en Guinée Bissau et en Côte d’Ivoire. Dans le premier pays, les chefs de l’armée se sont toujours considérés autonomes par rapport au pouvoir politique civil et on parle de réforme du secteur de la sécurité depuis une dizaine d’années sans avoir jamais réussi à l’enclencher. En Côte d’Ivoire, des efforts significatifs ont été faits pour gérer les conséquences catastrophiques du conflit armé postélectoral de 2011, mais il faudra encore quelques années pour doter le pays de forces de défense et de sécurité cohérentes, efficaces et politiquement neutres. L’héritage difficile des années de rébellion et de conflit risque de peser lourdement dans l’environnement sécuritaire et les développements politiques… après l’élection de 2015. Aussi bien en Guinée Bissau qu’en Côte d’Ivoire, la présence d’acteurs extérieurs mandatés pour le maintien de la paix, la mission militaire de la CEDEAO (ECOMIB) et l’Opération des Nations unies en Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI) respectivement, est un facteur d’apaisement relatif.

Le positionnement politique des forces de défense et de sécurité et le maintien de leur unité sont des éléments d’incertitude qui pèsent sur le contexte sécuritaire au Burkina Faso qui a connu de violentes mutineries en 2011. Impossible de savoir comment l’armée burkinabè et les différentes générations qui la composent vivent actuellement la situation inédite d’incertitude politique sur l’après 2015. Les hauts responsables militaires dont beaucoup ont été nommés au lendemain des mutineries de 2011 pour reprendre en main ce pilier essentiel du pouvoir de Compaoré considèrent-ils leur sort lié au maintien de ce dernier au palais présidentiel après 2015 ? Comment les officiers les plus proches du président qui l’ont accompagné depuis les premières années d’un régime alors très brutal appréhendent-ils l’avenir ? Beaucoup de questions et peu de réponses, ce qui ne devrait pas atténuer l’angoisse des Burkinabè et de nombre de leurs voisins ouest-africains. Au Togo, la question du positionnement politique des forces de sécurité et de l’armée se pose beaucoup moins : le verrouillage sécuritaire par le pouvoir de Lomé semble résister à l’usure du temps.

Il convient enfin de s’interroger sur le cadre institutionnel dans lequel se dérouleront les scrutins présidentiels dans les différents pays. Ce cadre désigne ici l’ensemble des règles, procédures, institutions qui sont mobilisées du début à la fin du processus électoral et qui jouent un rôle déterminant dans la crédibilité des scrutins, en particulier celle des résultats définitifs qui désignent le vainqueur. Si la crédibilité du processus électoral n’est pas une garantie d’absence de crise et de violences, la perception d’un déficit important de crédibilité est quasiment toujours un déclencheur de troubles. De plus, lorsque l’élection présidentielle se passe dans un pays dont l’environnement sécuritaire est déjà fragile et dans le contexte d’une intense compétition pour le pouvoir, la crédibilité du cadre institutionnel régentant l’élection peut être décisive pour sauver le pays d’un basculement quasiment certain dans une crise postélectorale.

Il ne faudra pas trop compter sur cela. Partout, les dispositions des lois électorales, les conditions d’établissement des fichiers d’électeurs, la neutralité politique et la compétence technique des institutions chargées d’organiser les élections et d’examiner les éventuels recours font l’objet de controverses. Aucun des pays concerné par une élection présidentielle en 2014 ou 2015 n’est un modèle dans la région en matière d’organisation de scrutins libres, transparents et crédibles. Certains ont accompli, à l’instar du Nigeria, des progrès notables en la matière au cours des dernières années, mais ils sont tous encore loin, bien loin, des modèles en Afrique de l’Ouest que sont le Ghana, le Cap-Vert et le Sénégal où des commissions électorales et/ou d’autres dispositifs et institutions ont su gérer et crédibiliser des élections parfois très compétitives.

Au Nigeria, nombre de réformes qui avaient été recommandées par les experts au lendemain des élections générales de 2011, certes mieux organisées que les précédentes, pour corriger les plus graves failles du système n’ont pas été mises en œuvre. En Guinée, il a fallu des médiations, une forte implication technique internationale et un accord politique âprement négocié pour arriver à organiser des élections législatives en septembre 2013. La liste des tâches à accomplir pour rendre le dispositif électoral plus crédible pour la présidentielle de 2015 est très longue. Elle comprend l’établissement d’un nouveau fichier électoral et la mise en place d’une institution cruciale comme la Cour constitutionnelle qui doit remplacer la Cour suprême dans le rôle de juge ultime du contentieux électoral. Même en Côte d’Ivoire, où l’actuel président avait promis une révision de la Constitution, rien n’a été fait pour fermer la page des dispositions spéciales issues des accords de paix et doter le pays d’un nouveau cadre électoral et d’un mode de composition de la commission électorale indépendante susceptible de créer davantage de confiance de la part de tous les acteurs politiques.

On ne peut, en guise de conclusion, que donner raison aux citoyens d’Afrique de l’Ouest déjà angoissés à l’approche des échéances électorales à venir. Lorsqu’on prend en compte simultanément les trois éléments d’appréciation, aucun des pays ne sera à l’abri de tensions fortes susceptibles de dégénérer en violences plus ou moins graves. En prenant le risque de se tromper, – qui peut vraiment prévoir tous les scénarios possibles dans chacun de ces pays plusieurs mois avant les différents scrutins ? -, il est raisonnable de classer le Nigeria et la Guinée dans une catégorie de pays à très haut risque, le Burkina Faso dans une catégorie de pays à haut risque et la Guinée Bissau, la Côte d’Ivoire et le Togo dans une catégorie de pays à risque modéré, ce qualificatif ne voulant surtout pas dire « faible » ou « inexistant ».

Les élections calamiteuses ne sont pas cependant des catastrophes naturelles imprévisibles et inévitables. Les citoyens de chacun des pays concernés, la CEDEAO et les acteurs internationaux importants ont les moyens de dompter l’angoisse par une forte mobilisation pour prévenir des crises violentes. Mais il y a aussi un risque à appréhender les élections uniquement ou principalement comme des moments de danger d’implosion des Etats, et à ne rechercher que des élections sans violence. Cela revient souvent, pour les organisations régionales et internationales, à préférer la manipulation des processus électoraux au profit du camp le plus puissant, et donc le plus à même de provoquer le chaos en cas de défaite, à des scrutins réellement ouverts à l’issue incertaine. Le risque est celui d’oublier et de faire oublier à quoi devraient servir les rituels électoraux dans des démocraties jeunes et fragiles : à ancrer petit à petit une culture démocratique dans la société. Si les populations doivent continuer à aller voter tous les quatre ou cinq ans, la peur au ventre, c’est l’adhésion populaire à l’idéal démocratique en Afrique de l’Ouest qui finira par être menacée.





Anxieties of West African Democracy: Six Presidential Elections in 2014-2015

Voting - Sm
Voting in legislative 2012 by-elections
in Grand Laho, Côte d′Ivoire
(Photo: UN/Hien Macline)

This contribution is the first of a two-part essay by Dr. Gilles Olakounlé Yabi on the anxious environment in West African countries preparing for elections in 2014/2015. The second part will be posted on African Futures in mid-March. This essay was originally written in French and translated by African Futures. All issues of misinterpretation or mistranslation are therefore solely the editors’ responsibility. To ensure the author’s original nuance, please read the French version.

It is with knotted stomachs and clenched throats that the citizens of six members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are preparing to enter an election period that has become synonymous in too large a part of the continent, with a high risk of violent crisis. The first who will be summoned to the ballot are the voters of Guinea-Bissau, where presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 13 April are supposed to turn the page on a two-year transition period. In this Portuguese-speaking country, the only in the region except the islands of Cape Verde, the electoral calendar has been systematically disrupted since the nation’s formal democratization in the early 1990s, by military coups, political assassinations, and most recently by the natural death of the President. But it is in fact in 2015, when the election season will get exceptionally busy.[1] Presidential elections are foreseen in the first trimester in Nigeria and in Togo, and in the last trimester in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire.[2]

For each of these countries, and for the whole of West Africa, presidential elections have come to represent a critical moment for peace and political stability, and consequentially for economic and social progress. If the region had not faced a series of violent crises during the past ten years, the elections set for 2014-2015 would have surely served as a test for the consolidation of the practice and culture of democracy in each of the mentioned countries and, by the same token, the whole West African region. This question will only be secondary for the citizens, as they, as well as regional and international organizations will now approach the presidential ballots very differently. The primary objective will be to prevent these moments, which were supposed to demonstrate the vitality of democracy, from turning into periods of sustained violence, or worse, armed conflict. In light of the political and security events of the past years, these fears are legitimate.

But what is the magnitude of the risk associated with each of the upcoming presidential elections in the region? Where will the outcome have the most impact? To attempt to answer these questions, it is useful to consider three evaluation factors: the anticipated intensity of presidential competition, the general security context of the country, and the institutional structure put in place to manage the electoral process. Anticipating the intensity of the competition for the presidential position amounts to pondering, in each country, the likelihood that the ballot will be open, and that no candidate will be sure to win at an early stage in the process. Classifying the countries based on the first factor is not so simple, since we do not yet know with certainty who will be the candidates running in each presidential election.

In Guinea-Bissau, the ballot must put an end to a special situation borne of a coup… against a prime minister who was on the verge of becoming president, Carlos Gomes Júnior. Organized in April 2012, the last election was stopped between the two rounds of balloting. Gomes Júnior, largely in the lead after the first ballot, was brutally removed and forced to leave the country by the military chiefs who were hostile toward him. The former prime minister remains an influential political actor, but is still out of the country, currently in Cape Verde after first escaping to Portugal. He is still considered unacceptable by the military hierarchy and perhaps also by important regional actors, therefore it is difficult to envision how he could safely enter his country again and run once more in the presidential election. He has sought the nomination of his party, the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde), but the party chose on 2 March, a former minister of finance and former mayor of the capital, José Mário Vaz, as its presidential candidate.

The PAIGC, a dominant political force in the country despite its internal divisions, should start off with a lead in the parliamentary elections over the PRS (Partido para a Renovação Social), which is also divided, and ahead of a few other smaller parties. The competition for the presidency should be more competitive due to a few independent candidates likely to attract an electorate confused by and tired of partisan political struggles. But the hardest thing in Guinea-Bissau is not always to endow the country with a democratically elected president. It’s guaranteeing his political and physical survival until the end of his term, especially if he/she came to decide to rule against the interests of military chiefs and/or big drug traffickers, active in international networks across the region.

In Nigeria as well, the list of presidential candidates is not known with certainty, but attention is focused on the intentions of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan. Evoking a non-written rotation principle between the nomination of northern and southern candidates’ to lead the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), the party in power since the return of democracy in 1999, those opposed to a second term for the president are numerous. Vice President in 2007, Jonathan inherited the presidency after the death of Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010 before getting reelected in 2011 for his first full term of four years. The defections of influential PDP personalities have multiplied in the past few months and continue to weaken the camp of the president.

The opposition to PDP, on the other hand, is showing unprecedented strength, because of the merging in February 2013 of four important parties into one large opposition bloc, the APC (All Progressives Congress), which is just as established as the ruling party in each state of the federation. Financial means, a key determining factor in colossal electoral battles, will not be lacking from one camp to the next, even though the ruling party of this powerful oil-producing country will undoubtedly have at their disposal certain advantages. The competition will most likely be very intense. It will be so in all scenarios, including the improbable case of withdrawal from the race by the incumbent president for his party’s nomination, and no matter which candidate is chosen by the APC. This choice will not be easy and could produce rifts in the unity so far displayed by the new largest opposition party.

The Togolese, like the Nigerians, will be going to the ballot during the first trimester of 2015. The outgoing president Faure Gnassingbé, elected during controversial and violent circumstances in 2005 after his father Eyadema Gnassingbé died of natural causes, and then again re-elected in 2010, will be able to run for a third time without modifying the current Constitution. Since the forced return to a formal democratic system, the Togolese power structures have not stopped toying with the set limitation of two consecutive presidential terms. In 2002 a constitutional revision not only deleted this provision, but also instituted the principle of a single round presidential election.

Despite the recommendations of a global political agreement signed in 2006 and repeated demands from the opposition, the current constitution and the electoral law have remained very favorable towards a quiet continuation of President Gnassingbé’s regime. The presidential party UNIR (Union pour la République) controls the parliament with an absolute majority and will ensure that nothing is devised to reduce their candidate’s chances of victory in 2015. Moreover, the security apparatus of Gnassingbé’s regime and the insufficient coordination of the political opposition do not build the case, at this moment, for an open and serious electoral race that could result in a real political turnover in a country that has not experienced one since Eyadema Gnassingbé’s coup…in 1967.

In Burkina Faso, there has not even been a generational change in leadership, like what was seen in Togo in 2005. In power since October 1987, Blaise Compaoré will have spent 28 years as head of state at the moment of the 2015 presidential election. The current constitution limits the number of consecutive terms to two and the president will not be able to be a candidate unless he succeeds in passing a new revision of the fundamental law in the coming months. Because his intentions became clear, opponents to any kind of maneuver to prolong the reign of President Compaoré started their mobilization in Ouagadougou. They succeeded in weakening the president’s power base faster than expected. A significant number of important personalities from his party, the CDP (Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès), who used to be close supporters of Compaoré, decided to leave the ship last January and join the opponents of the constitutional revision.

Burkina Faso is already in a fraught pre-electoral period, and this situation will last until the government makes the decision to either renounce the idea of a constitutional modification or choose to convene a referendum on the subject. If the latter course is chosen, vehement political protests are inevitable and their consequences uncertain. The 2015 electoral race will then be highly competitive. If Compaoré decides to not seek reelection, the field would be very open. But the environment should be less tense and volatile than if the current president insists on running again.

In Guinea, President Alpha Condé is expected to run in 2015 for his second and last term. There is no legal obstacle to overcome, but he will face well-organized political contenders that are determined and capable of depriving him from a renewed term. The president came to power in December 2010 after a laborious and controversial election where, in the first ballot, the former Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo had largely outdistanced him, yet he was able to overcome the deficit and win in the second round. The recent legislative elections, also organized with difficulty after repeated delays and strong international involvement, made it clear that the camp of President Condé was unable to truly dominate the opposition in the polls. The latter, which is even divided into several clusters, is almost on equal footing with the president’s party, the RPG (Rassemblement du Peuple Guinéen) and its allies.

The UFDG (Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée) of Cellou Dalein Diallo represents an important political force that could become the majority contender in the second ballot of the presidential election, if its allies and other important parties such as the UFR (L’Union des Forces Républicaines) of Sydia Touré or PEDN (Parti de l’Espoir pour le Développement National) of Lansana Kouyaté join an “all against Condé” coalition. In the currently unlikely case of a single and formidable opposition candidate, President Condé would be exposed to a real possibility of being defeated, despite the usual advantages granted to a ruling candidate. There will be no limits to the intensity of the battle for presidency in Guinea at the end of 2015. It will be one of the toughest in the region.

During this same and final trimester of 2015, Ivoirians will also be called to the ballot to re-elect the current President Alassane Ouattara or choose a new head of state. After arriving to power during the course of a competitive election that dissolved into armed conflict with the then-incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, Ouattara has quickly indicated that he would like to be a candidate for a second and final term. His party, the RDR (Rassemblement des Républicains), will definitely be united behind the president for the future electoral battle, but the complete and unequivocal support from the PDCI (Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire), an important and potentially decisive ally, is not yet sure. The electoral outcome is not a foregone conclusion but the weakness and liabilities of the FPI (Front Populaire Ivoirien) of former President Gbagbo, a prisoner of the ICC at The Hague, are such that the current president should start as the likely favorite. Also, his actions to boost the Ivorian economy and his recent measures towards national political reconciliation will play in his favor. We can predict a moderately intense presidential election from an electorate that has not quite recovered from the traumatic 2010 post-electoral experience.


In the second part, the Dr. Yabi will consider the two other proposed evaluation factors. What can an analysis of the general security context of the various countries, and the institutional framework for the elections, tell us about the risks of post-electoral violence?


[1] The other presidential election in 2014, scheduled for June, will take place in Mauritania, a country straddling West and North Africa and removed itself from ECOWAS in 2000.

[2] At the same time, in the beginning of 2016, voters in Niger and Benin will in turn be called to the ballot to choose their president. In both countries, the political climate is already marked by great tensions and more than two years of failed elections. Cape Verde, Gambia, and Ghana are also preparing elections for the second semester of 2016.

La Démocratie de l’Angoisse: l’Afrique de l’Ouest et ses Six Élections Présidentielles de 2014-2015

Voting - Sm
Voting in 2012 legislative by-elections
in Grand Laho, Côte d′Ivoire
(Photo: UN/Hien Macline)

Cette contribution est la première d’un essai en deux parties par le Dr. Gilles Olakounlé Yabi sur l’environnement anxieux dans les pays d’Afrique de l’Ouest qui se préparent pour les élections en 2014/2015. La deuxième partie sera publiée sur African Futures à la mi-Mars.

C’est l’estomac noué et la gorge serrée que les citoyens de six pays membres de la Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique de l’Ouest (CEDEAO) s’apprêtent à entrer dans une période électorale devenue synonyme, dans une  trop grande partie du continent, de risque maximal de crise violente. Les premiers qui devraient être convoqués aux urnes sont les électeurs de Guinée Bissau où un scrutin présidentiel et des législatives censés tourner la page d’une période de transition sont prévus le 13 avril prochain. Dans ce pays lusophone, le seul de la région avec les îles du Cap-Vert, le calendrier électoral a été systématiquement perturbé depuis la démocratisation formelle au début des années 1990 par des coups de force militaires, des assassinats politiques et dernièrement par la mort naturelle du président. Mais c’est en 2015 que l’actualité électorale sera extraordinairement chargée.[1] Des élections présidentielles sont prévues au premier trimestre au Nigeria et au Togo, puis au dernier trimestre au Burkina Faso, en Guinée et en Côte d’Ivoire.[2]

Pour chacun de ces pays et pour l’ensemble de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, les élections présidentielles à venir représentent un enjeu crucial pour la paix, la stabilité politique mais aussi pour le progrès économique et social. Si la région n’avait pas connu une série de crises violentes au cours des dix dernières années, les échéances de 2014-2015 auraient dû surtout servir de test pour la consolidation de la pratique et de la culture démocratiques dans chacun des pays concernés et, par là même, pour l’ensemble de cette région du continent. Cette question ne sera que secondaire autant pour les citoyens que pour les organisations régionales et internationales à l’approche des différents scrutins présidentiels. La préoccupation première sera celle d’éviter que ces moments censés incarner la vitalité démocratique ne se transforment en périodes d’explosion de violences, ou pire, de basculement dans des conflits armés. Au regard des évènements politiques et sécuritaires des dernières années, ces craintes sont légitimes.

Mais quelle est l’ampleur des risques associés à chacune des élections présidentielles à venir dans la région ? Où sont-ils les plus importants ? Pour tenter de répondre à ces questions, trois éléments d’appréciation méritent d’être mobilisés: ce qu’on pourrait appeler l’intensité anticipée de la compétition présidentielle, le contexte sécuritaire général du pays et le cadre institutionnel appelé à régenter le processus électoral. Anticiper l’intensité de la compétition pour la fonction présidentielle revient à s’interroger, dans chaque pays, sur les chances que le scrutin soit ouvert et qu’il n’y ait pas de candidat quasiment sûr de gagner bien avant l’échéance. Classer les pays en fonction de ce premier critère n’est pas si simple, alors qu’on ne connaît pas encore avec certitude qui seront les candidats en course pour chacune des élections présidentielles.

En Guinée Bissau, le scrutin doit mettre fin à une situation d’exception née d’un coup d’Etat…contre un Premier ministre qui était en passe de devenir président, Carlos Gomes Júnior. Organisée en avril 2012, la dernière élection présidentielle s’était arrêtée entre les deux tours. Gomes Júnior, largement en avance à l’issue du premier tour, avait été brutalement sorti du jeu par les chefs militaires du pays qui lui étaient résolument hostiles. L’ancien Premier ministre reste en 2014 un acteur politique influent mais contraint à l’exil d’abord au Portugal et désormais au Cap-Vert, toujours considéré inacceptable pour la hiérarchie militaire et peut-être pour des acteurs régionaux importants, on ne voit pas comment il pourrait rentrer dans son pays en sécurité et se présenter à nouveau à une élection présidentielle. Il a sollicité l’investiture de son parti, le PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, Parti africain pour l’indépendance de la Guinée et du Cap-Vert), mais le choix de ce dernier s’est porté le 2 mars sur l’ancien ministre des Finances et ancien maire de la capitale, José Mário Vaz.

Le PAIGC, qui continue à bénéficier de son statut historique de  parti ayant conduit la lutte armée pour l’indépendance des deux anciennes colonies portugaises d’Afrique de l’Ouest, reste la force politique dominante dans le pays malgré ses divisions internes. Il partira favori pour les élections législatives, face au PRS (Partido para a Renovação Social, Parti pour la rénovation sociale), également divisé, et aux autres partis plus petits. La compétition pour le fauteuil présidentiel devrait être plus ouverte en raison notamment de quelques candidatures indépendantes susceptibles de séduire un électorat désorienté par les luttes politiques partisanes. Mais le plus dur en Guinée Bissau n’est pas toujours de doter le pays d’un président démocratiquement élu. C’est de lui garantir de bonnes chances de survie politique et physique jusqu’à la fin de son mandat, surtout s’il lui venait à l’esprit de toucher aux intérêts des chefs militaires et/ou des alliés locaux des réseaux internationaux de trafic de drogue actifs dans ce pays et dans toute l’Afrique de l’Ouest.

Au Nigeria non plus, on ne sait pas encore avec certitude qui sera candidat, mais l’attention se concentre sur les intentions du président sortant Goodluck Jonathan. Evoquant un principe non écrit de rotation entre candidats nordistes et sudistes désignés par le PDP (People’s Democratic Party, Parti démocratique du peuple), parti au pouvoir depuis le retour à la démocratie en 1999, nombreux sont ceux qui s’opposent à une nouvelle candidature du président actuel. Vice-président en 2007, Jonathan avait hérité du poste de président après le décès de Umaru Yar’Adua en 2010 avant de se faire élire en 2011 pour un premier mandat plein de quatre ans. Les défections de personnalités très influentes du PDP se sont multipliées ces derniers mois et elles continuent, affaiblissant le camp du président.

L’opposition au PDP semble par ailleurs n’avoir jamais été aussi forte, en raison de la fusion en février 2013 de quatre partis importants dans une grande formation, l’APC (All Progressives Congress, Congrès de tous les progressistes) qui est aussi bien implanté que le parti au pouvoir dans tous les Etats de la fédération. Les moyens financiers, déterminants dans la bataille électorale colossale qui se profile, ne manqueront pas d’un côté comme de l’autre, même si le camp au pouvoir dans cette puissance pétrolière qu’est le Nigeria disposera inévitablement d’un avantage certain en la matière. La compétition sera selon toute probabilité très intense. Elle le sera dans tous les cas, y compris dans l’hypothèse très improbable d’un retrait du président sortant de la course à l’investiture du PDP, et quel que soit le candidat qui sera choisi par l’APC. Ce choix ne sera pas aisé et pourrait provoquer des failles dans l’unité affichée jusque-là par le nouveau grand parti d’opposition.

Les Togolais devraient, comme les Nigérians, aller aux urnes au premier trimestre 2015. Le président sortant Faure Gnassingbé, élu dans des circonstances controversées et violentes en 2005 après la mort naturelle de son père, Eyadema Gnassingbé, puis réélu en 2010, pourra se porter candidat une troisième fois sans avoir à faire modifier la Constitution en vigueur. Depuis le retour forcé à un système démocratique formel, le pouvoir togolais n’a pas arrêté de jouer avec la disposition de limitation à deux du nombre de mandats présidentiels successifs. En 2002, une révision constitutionnelle avait non seulement supprimé cette disposition mais elle avait également consacré le principe d’une élection présidentielle à un seul tour.

Malgré les recommandations d’un accord politique global signé en 2006 et les demandes répétées de l’opposition, les dispositions actuelles de la Constitution et du code électoral restent très favorables à une tranquille pérennité du régime du président Gnassingbé. Le parti présidentiel UNIR (Union pour la République) dispose d’une majorité absolue au Parlement et s’assurera que rien ne soit entrepris pour réduire les chances de victoire de son chef en 2015. Par ailleurs, la machine sécuritaire au service du pouvoir et l’insuffisante coordination des forces politiques de l’opposition ne militent pas pour l’instant en faveur d’une compétition électorale ouverte et intense pouvant déboucher sur une alternance politique réelle dans un pays qui n’en a pas connue depuis le coup d’Etat d’Eyadema Gnassingbé en… 1967.

Au Burkina Faso, il n’y a même pas eu d’alternance générationnelle comme ce fut le cas au Togo en 2005. Au pouvoir depuis octobre 1987, Blaise Compaoré devrait avoir passé 28 ans à la tête de l’Etat au moment de l’élection présidentielle de 2015. La Constitution limitant le nombre de mandats successifs à deux, le président ne pourra être candidat qu’à condition de réussir à faire passer une nouvelle révision de la loi fondamentale dans les mois à venir. Cette intention ne faisant plus de doute, la mobilisation des adversaires à une énième manœuvre visant à prolonger le règne du président Compaoré a commencé à Ouagadougou. Elle a même affaibli le pouvoir beaucoup plus rapidement qu’on ne pouvait le prévoir, un large groupe de personnalités de poids du parti présidentiel, le CDP (Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès) qui ont toujours soutenu Compaoré, ayant décidé de quitter le navire pour rejoindre en janvier dernier le camp des adversaires de toute révision constitutionnelle.

Le Burkina Faso est de fait déjà entré dans une période  tendue et cela devrait durer jusqu’à ce que le pouvoir décide de renoncer à toute modification constitutionnelle ou choisisse de convoquer un référendum sur cette question. Dans ce dernier cas, de fortes contestations sociopolitiques seront inévitables et leurs conséquences incertaines. La compétition  électorale en 2015 sera forcément intense. Dans l’hypothèse où Compaoré renoncerait à prétendre à un nouveau mandat, la compétition devrait être très ouverte. Elle pourrait juste être moins tendue et explosive qu’en cas de candidature du président sortant.

En Guinée, le président Alpha Condé devrait être candidat en 2015 pour un second et dernier mandat. Pas d’obstacle légal à contourner. Il devrait par contre faire face à des rivaux politiques organisés, déterminés et capables de le priver d’un nouveau mandat. Arrivé au pouvoir en décembre 2010, au terme d’un scrutin laborieux et controversé, le président avait été largement distancé au premier tour par l’ancien Premier ministre Cellou Dalein Diallo avant de l’emporter au second. Les récentes élections législatives, elles-aussi organisées au forceps après une série de reports et grâce à une forte implication internationale, ont encore montré que le camp du président Condé n’était pas capable d’écraser l’opposition. Cette dernière, même éclatée en plusieurs pôles, a quasiment fait jeu égal avec le parti du président, le RPG (Rassemblement du peuple de Guinée) et ses alliés.

L’Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG) de Cellou Dalein Diallo reste une force politique significative qui, si elle s’allie à d’autres partis importants comme l’Union des forces républicaines (UFR) de Sydia Touré ou le PEDN (Parti de l’espoir pour le développement national) de Lansana Kouyaté, pourrait devenir majoritaire à l’occasion du second tour d’un scrutin présidentiel. Dans l’hypothèse, pour le moment improbable, d’une candidature unique de l’opposition, le président Condé serait particulièrement menacé par une défaite électorale, malgré les avantages habituels conséquents d’un président-candidat. Aucun doute n’est permis sur l’intensité de la bataille pour la présidence de la Guinée à la fin de l’année 2015. Elle  sera l’une des plus rudes de la région.

Au cours de ce même dernier trimestre 2015, les Ivoiriens seront eux-aussi convoqués aux urnes pour reconduire le président Alassane Ouattara ou choisir un nouveau chef d’Etat. Arrivé au pouvoir au terme d’une élection compétitive qui a dégénéré en conflit armé avec celui qui était le président sortant, Laurent Gbagbo, Ouattara a rapidement indiqué qu’il serait bien candidat à un second et ultime mandat. Si son parti, le Rassemblement des républicains (RDR) sera à coup sûr uni derrière le président pour la future bataille électorale, le soutien franc et massif du Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), allié important et potentiellement décisif, n’est pas nécessairement acquis. Le scrutin ne sera pas gagné d’avance mais la faiblesse et le passif du Front populaire ivoirien (FPI) de l’ex-président Gbagbo, détenu à la prison de la Cour pénale internationale aux Pays-Bas, sont tels que le président sortant devrait partir favori. Son bilan en termes de relance de l’économie ivoirienne et des mesures récentes allant enfin dans le sens de l’apaisement et de la réconciliation nationale devraient aussi jouer en sa faveur. On peut anticiper une compétition présidentielle modérément intense dans un pays dont les électeurs ont encore à l’esprit le traumatisme postélectoral de 2010-2011.


Dans la deuxième partie de l’essai, l’auteur examinera des deux autres éléments d’appréciation proposés? Comment le contexte sécuritaire général de chacun des pays concernés et le cadre institutionnel dans lequel se dérouleront les élections pourraient-ils influencer le risque de violences?


[1] L’autre élection présidentielle de l’année 2014, prévue en juin, aura lieu en Mauritanie, pays à cheval sur l’Afrique de l’Ouest et l’Afrique du Nord qui s’est retiré de la CEDEAO en 2000.

[2] Dans la foulée, au début de l’année 2016, les électeurs du Niger et du Bénin seront à leur tour appelés aux urnes pour choisir leurs chefs d’Etat. Dans les deux pays, l’atmosphère politique est déjà marquée par de fortes tensions à plus de deux ans des échéances électorales. Le Cap-Vert, la Gambie puis le Ghana seront aussi concernés par les élections au second semestre 2016.


Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum

Khartoum Sept 2013
Protests in Khartoum, September 2013
Source: Anonymous

In the ten days following September 23, Sudanese cities witnessed the largest anti-government protests in many years. Many of the protesters aimed to bring down the government; others sought a reversal of its recent decision to reduce fuel subsidies. The police and security services responded with lethal force, and according to Amnesty International, killed more than 200 protesters. The ruling party played on the fear that, if the protesters should bring down the government, they would bring down the state as well. The protests have now since subsided.[1]

This essay begins with the similarities between the September protests in Khartoum and other major Sudanese cities and popular uprisings against dictatorships in Sudanese modern history and in Arab countries in 2011—similarities that have led some to see this as heralding a “Sudanese spring” and the demise of President Omar al Bashir and the National Congress Party (NCP) government. I then turn to some important dissimilarities, including the weakness of the organizational structure of the protest movement, and the ways in which the armed opposition forces tend to negate the potential for non-violent civil uprisings. I briefly dwell on Sudan’s economic plight, before concluding with some observations on the importance of a historicized political-economic analysis of Sudan.

Sudan’s History of Collective Action

The street protests that erupted on September 23 in Wad Madani and Khartoum have a superficial resemblance to the April 1985 popular uprising that brought down the dictatorship of President Jaafar Nimeiri, and also the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. The protesters shared immediate economic grievances, and opposition to authoritarian and kleptocratic rulers who had been in power for too long.[2] In all these cases, government legitimacy was undermined by a clumsy and brutal crackdown, which in turn generated new focal points for outrage and protest.

It is often overlooked that there have been numerous protests in Khartoum and elsewhere in northern Sudan over the last two and a half years. When President Bashir returned to Khartoum from his visit to Juba on January 4, 2011—a visit in which he promised to respect the outcome of the imminent referendum on self-determination in southern Sudan—he was greeted by a protest over economic issues. The secession of South Sudan six months later, and with it 75% of Sudanese oil, required the government to undertake painful austerity measures. Shut off from access to the IMF and other international concessionary finance by U.S. financial sanctions, and encumbered by more than $40 bn in international debt, Sudan had to face this economic crunch alone. Although the “financial gap” of approximately $3 bn per year was well-known before the separation of the South, the government prevaricated on imposing the needed measures, so that each round of cuts was deeper and more unpopular than necessary.

The Sudanese have a powerful repertoire of collective action against authoritarian regimes. As Abdelwahab El-Affendi recounts, “before April there was October,” meaning that the April 1985 uprising was possible in part because the protesters remembered their successful uprising nineteen years earlier, and the army command similarly recalled the way in which capitulating to the protesters’ demands had made them heroes, not villains.

A Sudanese Spring?

The September protests chiefly took the form of loosely-coordinated rioting and demonstrations. Most of the protesters were drawn from the urban poor, but there was also an element of middle-class protest. Sudan’s doctors, one of the most powerful professional associations in the country, went on strike. Disaffected members of the ruling coalition reportedly instigated some riots, perhaps to stake a claim to a bigger payout in the next government reshuffle. Some demonstrations were supported by an emergent generation of activists using social media, modeling their tactics on the repertoire of measures used in Egypt in 2011. They tweeted pictures, some of them extremely gruesome, of those killed by the security services’ gunfire.

The killing of a young pharmacist, Salah al Sanhouri, served as a rallying point. The son of a prominent family, his funeral provided an exemplary moment for a classic repertoire of anti-governmental assembly.[3] Ajil Suwar al Dahab, director of the morgue resigned rather than sign a death certificate specifying “natural causes.” The Assistant President, Nafie Ali Nafie—reported to be a friend of Salah’s father—was humiliated when he went to pay his respects, and caught on video when he was forced by angry taunts to leave the Sanhouri house. Police also reportedly opened fire on the funeral procession.

This was certainly an uprising, but it was not entirely non-violent. As the Sudanese Government’s ablest press officer, Khalid al Mubarak, pointed out, “42 gas stations, 9 pharmacies, 2 companies, 40 public vehicles, 8 police stations, 81 comprehensive security sites, 35 police vehicles, 5 banks and 23 government buildings were attacked.”

The subjective conditions for revolution appeared to be there. As pointed out by Asim al Hag, there is a crisis of confidence in the government, brought about by a combination of misleading public relations over the fuel subsidy cut, and the brutality of the repression. Still the protests did not achieve their goals. After their zenith on September 25-28, they began to fade. The government remains in power, the austerity measures will be implemented, and the impact will be painful.

Objective Conditions for a Revolution?

The differences between the September protests and earlier Sudanese uprisings are as significant as the similarities.

First and most important, the protests lacked a deep organizational structure. The 1985 intifada was meticulously planned and the street demonstrations were scrupulously disciplined. It was coordinated by the National Alliance for National Salvation (NANS), a coalition of trade unionists and leaders of professional associations, who had no illusions about the challenge they faced—indeed they anticipated months of struggle rather than barely a week of massive demonstrations that closed down the capital. Their repertoire was creative and rigorously non-violent. For example, when the ruling Sudan Socialist Union announced a counter-demonstration, rather than trying to outbid or confront the pro-regime forces and risking violence, the NANS declared a “dead city day.” The pitiful SSU rally contrasted with a magnificent, unprecedented quiet over virtually the entire metropolis.

Expecting (correctly) that its steering committee members would be arrested, the NANS established, in each town, a shadow committee ready to take over the coordination role. Expecting that the security services would spy on them, the NANS counter-penetrated governmental institutions and set up a system for intercepting the police and national security radio communications. They even had a contingency plan for what to do when President Nimeiri returned from meeting President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office with a generous financial package in hand—one of the chief air traffic controllers was in on the plot. He changed the duty roster for the night of April 5/6 so that he was on duty, and shut down Sudanese airspace, forcing Nimeiri’s plane to land in Cairo. Meanwhile, the NANS had announced the biggest demonstration yet, two marches simultaneously to the Republican Palace and to army headquarters. The military commanders debated late into the night whether to crush the protesters by force, and decided—by a close margin, possibly clinched when they discovered that Nimeiri would not be landing at Khartoum airport that night—to side with the people.

Today’s demonstrators may possess cellphones and Twitter feeds but they do not have a fraction of that organizational capability.

The government has penetrated cyberspace and is using various tactics to monitor and divide the opposition. Intelligence agencies can turn social media against its practitioners, with false pages and announcements aimed to mislead and entrap activists, or to sow distrust among them by implying—truly or falsely—that some of their members have been turned and are security informers.

A second factor is that the Islamists are divided. Some, notably Ghazi Salah el Din, have moved into opposition and made public their critique of the direction of the government. Others remain in government, either protecting their positions or seeking internal reform. In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in 2011, the Islamists were in opposition and supported the protesters, as indeed they were at the critical moment in Sudan in 1985, when they remained on the sidelines, hoping to reap the benefits of the uprising. Despite the way that their reputation has been compromised by the last quarter century of wielding power, the Sudanese Islamists remain the most formidable organized political force in the country, and the fact that they are not united against the government is a challenge for the opposition.

A third factor is the army. The immediate success of a protest movement is best secured when the army “sides with the people,” or when there are enough defectors for the regime to lose its nerve. When the army hesitates, as in Yemen, the transition is at best protracted. When it sides with the regime, as in Syria, there is either repression or civil war. On the other hand, a purportedly pro-people coup may not later turn out to be so democratic—as Egypt shows. (Erica Chenoweth has recently made this point.) The Sudanese protesters hope that the Sudan Armed Forces high command will refuse to follow the orders of the President or his close friend, Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Hussein.

Nothing can be ruled out in Sudanese politics, but there are reasons to believe it unlikely that the army will either split or abandon the President. For a start, the most recent military promotions have brought a cadre of Islamist-oriented officers to the most senior ranks. Additionally, the army is at war, with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, and with the factions of the Sudan Liberation Army loyal to Minni Minawi and Abdel Wahid al Nur in Darfur, and with the Justice and Equality Movement in both. These groups are corralled under the Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF). The SRF is not popular in Khartoum, seen as responsible for escalating a war, spurning peace agreements, supporting the secession of South Sudan, and inflicting grievous economic damage on the country by, among other things, participating in the South Sudanese attack on the country’s main remaining oil installation at Heglig in April 2012.

The SRF leadership claims that a peaceful intifada is one of its strategies. This is ironic, as the SPLM refused to endorse the outcome of the 1985 uprising, thereby helping condemn the transitional government to failure. But after the formation of the National Democratic Alliance in 1994, John Garang spoke of a “protected uprising”—an intifada in which opposition fighters would rush to Khartoum to bring the intifada to a successful conclusion—as one of his three strategies (the other two being continued war and peace negotiations with the regime). This was a dream.

Challenges for the Civic Opposition

Today, there is virtually no political coordination between the SRF and the civic opposition in Khartoum, and the rhetoric of SRF leadership and the political language and goals of the SRF undermine the non-violent protesters. For example, the SRF has taken a strong stand against the army, demanding that it be dismantled. Yasir Arman, Secretary General of the SPLM-North, uses the framework of the “new south” to describe the resistance in the marginalized areas of northern Sudan, fuelling fears that he intends those areas to follow South Sudan into secession.

This provides the government with an opportunity it has used repeatedly and without hesitation invoking the specter of the armed opposition and promising that if the uprising were to succeed, Sudan might disintegrate or descend into sectarian conflict like Syria. Government leaders frightened urbanites by drawing parallels with the destructive riots that convulsed Khartoum following the death of the SPLM Chairman John Garang in July 2005. These may be cheap points, but they hit home.

A final problem for the opposition—both the SRF and elements of the urban protesters—is their tendency to learn lessons from abroad rather than analyzing conditions at home. A central plank of the opposition strategy is presenting its case to major western powers in the hope of obtaining an intervention of some kind. The time that Sudan’s “hotel guerrillas” spend away outside Sudan has long been a source of mockery inside the country, and one of the reasons for the respect commanded by Abdel Aziz al Hilu, leader of SPLM-N in Southern Kordofan, is that he remains in the field. But he is exceptional. El-Affendi observes that external orientation may have also contributed to paralysis of the civic opposition. He writes:

“One sarcastic Sudan-based non-governmental organization (NGO) worker has another explanation [for the lack of a third intifada]. Remarking on the fact that leading opposition figures have been busy courting international support against the regime, he quipped, ‘The revolution has not yet erupted in Khartoum because the opposition is too busy mobilizing in Washington DC!’”

There is an uncomfortable ring of truth to this observation. Much of the Twitter conversation was in English or French, and even that in Arabic often seemed aimed at an external audience. The focus of at least some of the activists was borrowing and applying a script derived from a particular narrative of the Arab Spring, or even the Enough Project, rather than exploring how best to innovate methods appropriate to the specific circumstances of Sudan. It is rare, for example, to see discussion of the main theorists of progressive change in Sudan such as Khatim Adlan, despite the acute relevance of their writings to the current situation.

In turn, the perception of external orientation has played into the government’s hands. Khalid Mubarak, media counselor at the Sudan embassy in London, taunts the opposition on his blog:

“The opposition is busy courting the West and keen to portray itself as a submissive alternative to President Bashir’s coalition government.  That’s why its spokespersons cannot (repeat cannot) declare that they are against free market economy. Even the moderates among them have no alternative to the IMF recipe and dare not reject it openly.”

Sudan’s Economic Crisis

Following the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, the decade-long economic boom that saw Sudan’s GDP expand from approximately $10bn to $60bn, came to an abrupt end. The government faced a revenue gap that the IMF estimated at just over $10bn over three and a half years, and a general agreement was reached between Sudan, South Sudan and major international partners that this gap would be filled by three equal contributions: Sudanese austerity measures, South Sudanese transitional financial assistance (TFA), and international assistance. No international concessions have been forthcoming other than some cash-in-hand from Arab countries after the South Sudanese capture of Heglig in April 2012.[3] South Sudan’s TFA payments began only in August 2013 when oil exports resumed, after the prolonged total shutdown. As a result, Sudan faced its economic crisis alone.

As noted by Asim al Hag, the key issue in the removal of the subsidies was less the economic rationale than the way in which the government presented the cuts in a misleading manner, compounding the already-low level of popular confidence in the regime.

Petrol prices were SDG4.5 per gallon in 2010, rising to SDG12.5 in 2012 and SDG21 after the latest increases—slightly below the estimated market price of SDG24 if the subsidy were to be removed entirely. Diesel prices rose comparably. Cooking gas rose from SDG13 to SDG15, to SDG25 today, which represents still a subsidy of about 40%.[5]

Reducing the subsidies saves the government about SDG7.2 bn (US$1.3bn) per year, almost 20 per cent of total expenditure, and enough to wipe out the expected government deficit for 2014. The impact will be inflationary, but less so than the alternative strategy of printing money. The urban poor will be hit hard, as will the agricultural sector as diesel prices rise. However, IMF data indicate that more than 50% of the fuel subsidy benefited the richest 20% of the population the poorest 20% received just 3% of the benefit, so the longer-term impacts will be progressive in terms of equality. The IMF estimates that the economic reforms will, in the medium term, lower inflation and increase growth, and that Sudan’s economic crisis is now approaching its worst point.[6] But it does not deny that there will be a short term negative impact on urban and rural poverty including general welfare and malnutrition.


President Bashir has survived to fight another day. He will count on improvements in Sudan’s economic situation, the continued disarray and weak strategy of the opposition, and the genuine fear, at home and abroad that Sudan might slide into state failure. The Sudanese government’s basic message, that in bringing down the government the opposition risks bringing down the state as well, resonates in both Khartoum and Washington DC.

The irony here is that the government’s weakness is its principal strength. In eviscerating government institutions and changing the structure of Sudanese governance into a patronage marketplace, the NCP is posing a choice between authoritarian patrimonialism and warlordism.

The immediate challenge for the opposition is intellectual. Sudan’s political economy needs a structural transformation, and dismantling the ruling party and security institutions will not achieve that. Over the sixty years since self-rule in 1953, Sudan has tried different basic formulae for governance including centralizing modernization (of different ideological strands), liberal parliamentarism, and unity in diversity. The challenge is to find a combination of all three, which in turn means there must be an inclusive national dialogue. Lacking unity of analysis and purpose, the opposition is reduced to tactically responding to the blunders and crimes of the government, hoping that one day it will be lucky and that a fortuitous alignment of the stars will deliver it to power—or what remains of that power. This is simply not good enough. We miss Khatim Adlan.






[1] This posting draws upon an article I published earlier this year in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies special issue on social movements in Africa, which brought together analyses of democratization movements in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The main theme of the collection was that a comparison of social movements shows how they are shaped by the structures of state institutions and informal power and patronage relations in which they operate. Insofar as African systems of governance tend to hybrids between the institutional and the patrimonial, civil and political protest movements reproduce this hybridity, both during their oppositional periods, and also in the event of them gaining power.

[2] In the Sudanese case, at least, a republican dynasty is out of the question, as President Omar al Bashir—like President Nimeiri—does not have children.

[3]  A similar killing of a student on October 18, 1964, followed the next day by a funeral was the catalyst for Sudan’s first popular uprising.

[4] Sudan is hoping for some progress at the fall meetings (October 11-13, 2013) of the IMF and World Bank.

[5] Data privately provided by economic advisers in Khartoum.

[6] Unpublished IMF assessments.