Social Protest, an African Perennial

Y en a Marre pic - sm
“Y en a Marre” protests in Paris, Sept 2011
Source: Gwenaël Piaser via Flickr

Early one morning in March 2013, residents of Bujagali in eastern Uganda, upset by the deplorable state of the road through their village blocked it with logs and large stones. The protesters expressed anger that President Yoweri Museveni had not kept a promise to pave the road, which becomes virtually impassable during heavy rains and throws up dust clouds in dry weather. Although the residents seemed determined to keep the road closed—some youths jokingly planted banana suckers and maize across it—riot police eventually came from nearby Jinja, arrested several demonstrators, and dispersed the remainder.[1]

A few months later, and some 4,500 kilometers across the continent in Nigeria, women traders in an Onitsha marketplace launched a tax strike against a new fee of 3,000 naira imposed by the Anambra state government. The strikers were familiar with the history of popular protest in Nigeria, noting that market taxes had been a central cause of the 1929 Aba Women’s Riot. When security forces shut down the marketplace in retaliation, the women barricaded a main road, marched on the state legislature, and threatened to demonstrate naked in front of state government offices if the tax was not lifted.

These were just two of thousands of protests held across Africa this year. Whether in the form of strikes, marches, rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, or unorganized outbursts of violence, Africans have taken to the streets in large numbers to voice diverse social and political grievances.

In early 2011, in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, some African analysts wondered why people south of the Sahara were not similarly revolting, since conditions in many sub-Saharan countries are comparably bad, if not worse.[2] Their assumption that the North African example should easily spread southward—if not for ethnic fragmentation, political passivity, or other factors—failed to take into account the complex conditions that historically give rise to large-scale popular mobilizations. It also ignored how people’s movements in North and sub-Saharan Africa have in fact inspired each other over the decades.[3] And by adopting a rather narrow focus on only explicitly political actions aimed at toppling sitting governments, such a view tended to discount the significance of protests focused on immediate social and economic concerns.

A Turbulent Continent

True revolutions may be few and far between. But that does not mean that Africans have been passive in the face of the serious difficulties they face. While Africa’s elites have many ways to influence policy—bankrolling favorite candidates and parties, evading unwelcome taxes and regulations, subverting state institutions through corruption and bribery—the poor must often resort to one of the few sources of power available to them: public protest. In most African countries, accurate and accessible data on protest activities are scarce. Researchers usually are obliged to rely on media reports, which by their nature are partial, inconsistent, and vary greatly by country (depending on the extent of press freedoms and the capacity of the given media). Such sources, despite their limitations, can nevertheless be quite illuminating. Simple searches on just a few keywords (“protest,” “strike,” “riot”) on the website, for example, found well over 3,000 reports of protest events in Africa during the first seven months of 2013 alone—even excluding the exceptional cases of Egypt and Tunisia.

Beyond the sheer numbers of reports, their geographical breadth is notable. With only a half dozen or so exceptions, every African country has experienced some form of public protest, even in highly repressive states where demonstrators readily face violent police or military reactions (such as Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Sudan, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe).

Across the continent, Egypt and Tunisia stand out. The overthrow of long-entrenched authoritarian governments in early 2011 lifted the lid on popular protest—although the recent bloodshed in Egypt may well dampen citizens’ continued willingness to hit the streets. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights recorded 3,817 separate protest acts in 2012. Another group, the International Development Center in Cairo, reported 1,354 protests in just the month of March 2013, an average of 44 per day. In Tunisia, the Ministry of the Interior recorded 12,270 protests in that country during the first eleven months of 2012.[4]

In the rest of Africa, a few countries are notable for frequent demonstrations and strikes. Kenya and Nigeria, both of which have plentiful and active civil society groups and relatively free medias, yield reports of scores of incidents each month. If police tallies were available, they might well give much higher numbers. For example, the Ministry of the Interior in Senegal—which has a much smaller population—registered 3,295 demonstrations in 2011.[5] The South African police, who diligently record such data, reported an annual average of 9,300 “crowd management incidents” there between 2004/05 and 2011/12, a category that included mostly protests but also some sporting events.[6]

Once sporadic occurrences, protests have become more common in Africa in recent years. Except in a few countries, it may still be premature to talk of the emergence of African “movement societies.”[7] But it is nevertheless evident that active dissent is no longer stigmatized—or so easily repressed—and that public tolerance for disruptive protest has been spreading.

Social Grievances at the Fore

Most often, it is explicitly political protests that make headlines, especially when they include some violence. And with Africa still beset by so many flawed governing systems, overt political unrest remains a prominent feature. During the first half of this year, deadly election-related clashes repeatedly broke out in Guinea and Togo. Local residents and demonstrators clashed with riot police in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and other countries. Political activists staged dramatic “Occupy Parliament” protests against legislators’ high salaries in Kenya. Western Sahara residents—often led by women—mounted some of the largest and most sustained demonstrations for independence since Morocco occupied the territory in 1975.

Yet overall, the bulk of protest activity in Africa (as elsewhere in the world) has focused on social and economic grievances, much of it carried out by particular sectors of the population or for very specific demands. Like youths in general, students often strike or demonstrate, sometimes over major political issues affecting society as a whole, but frequently over immediate complaints particular to their institutions, as they have recently in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Labor actions have been most common across the continent. During the first half of 2013, teachers struck in Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, and Senegal; doctors, nurses, and other health workers in Burkina Faso, the DRC, Kenya, and Mozambique; transport workers in Cameroon, the DRC, Nigeria, Morocco, and South Africa; miners in Liberia, Niger, and Zimbabwe; and oil workers in Gabon, Nigeria, and Mauritania. Municipal workers walked off their jobs in Senegal and farm workers struck in Kenya and South Africa. In August, some 30,000 workers went on strike against major auto manufacturers across South Africa. Such labor actions have often been called by trade unions, pointing to the importance of organization for successful mobilization. Their frequency also belies notions among some scholars of “new social movements” that working-class action has been largely superseded.[8]

Protests have occurred over a wide range of other issues as well. Government moves to lift food price subsidies prompted an upsurge of labor, student, and broader citizen protest in Zambia. Merchants shut their markets in Uganda. Women marched against rape in Nigeria. Bakers struck in Senegal. Residents staged protests against electricity outages in Guinea and Madagascar and poor refuse collection in Nigeria and South Africa. Deaf people demonstrated in Kenya to demand better services. In June, youths led violent protests in Ashaiman, near the Ghanaian industrial city of Tema, to protest government neglect. In Tanzania’s southeastern region of Mtwara, residents rose up over plans for a gas pipeline that promised few benefits for local residents.

Political Connotations

It is often not easy—or useful—to categorize a given protest as simply “political” or “social.” Based on the predominant demands or nature of the organizations leading them, some may lean more in one direction than the other. But some can reflect multiple demands and motivations. Take, for example, the large demonstrations in Burkina Faso on July 20. Many thousands of trade unionists, civil society activists, and other citizens marched through the capital and other cities to protest high prices, low wages, poor health and education services, corruption, and numerous other maladies. But like the political opposition parties, which had demonstrated separately against creation of a controversial and costly 89-member Senate, the unionists’ also called on the authorities to scrap the new institution and use the funds for social needs instead. “One midwife is worth more than 89 senators,” chanted the marchers.[9]

Given the weakness of African state institutions and the multitude of social networks, noted the editors of a collection of research papers on social movements in Africa, African movements frequently exhibit a “rather hybrid nature” when viewed through the categories of conventional social science. “They often display social, political and religious characteristics that overlap one another.”[10]

Some activists try to maintain distinctions, however. The unionists in Burkina Faso denied that their demonstrations were political, meaning they were not organized by the opposition parties, which they distrust to some extent. Most often, activists worry that explicitly political alliances or demands may invite repression or make it less likely the authorities will concede their demands.

Whether openly political or not, most protests, even those for seemingly modest reforms or concessions, have political implications. In Africa’s more repressive states, any protest can implicitly challenge rulers’ authority. Even in Africa’s more democratic systems, popular agitation around day-to-day grievances can highlight the limits of government performance or the wide gaps in social and political power between ruling elites and ordinary citizens.

Widespread social and economic unrest can influence the tenor and tempo of overt political life. It may encourage political challengers to step up their opposition activities and sap the resolve of a regime’s supporters. From time to time, seemingly “non-political” protest may converge with mounting political opposition to yield genuinely revolutionary occurrences. In sub-Saharan Africa, the anti-austerity protests of the 1970s and 1980s laid the groundwork for the massive pro-democracy movements that shook dozens of countries in the early 1990s. In North Africa, the Arab Spring was preceded by years of labor and other social agitation, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia.[11]

And when a seemingly significant political turnover does take place, the persistence of social protests after that change can point to uncompleted agendas, especially for poor people who may experience little improvement in their daily lives. In Senegal, the popular “Y’en a marre” youth movement is credited with helping initiate a massive citizens’ insurgency on June 23, 2011, which blocked President Abdoulaye Wade from subverting the constitution and contributed to his electoral defeat some months later. This year, on the second anniversary of that event, Fadel Barro, a leader of “Y’en a marre,” noted that under the new government of Macky Sall unemployment, high prices, and illegal land acquisitions continue to afflict Senegal’s youth, contributing to ongoing unrest. For a clear break with the past, Barro said, “we are still waiting.”[12]





[1]  New Vision (Kampala), March 26, 2013, and The Observer (Kampala), March 28, 2013.

[2]  See, for example: Charles Onyango-Obbo, “The Revolution in Black Africa Won’t Be Played Out in the Streets,” and Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi, “As the Arabs Rise Up and Conquer Fear, Black Africa Looks On in Gloomy Envy,” both in the East African, February 14, 2011.

[3]  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.

[4]  La Presse (Tunis), January 14, 2013.

[5]  Le Soleil (Dakar), February 17, 2012.

[6]  Peter Alexander, “Protests and Police Statistics: Some Commentary,” paper, University of Johannesburg, March 2012, and Peter Alexander, “A Massive Rebellion of the Poor,” Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), April 13, 2013.

[7]  David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow (eds.), Towards a Movement Society? Contentious Politics for a New Century, Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

[8]  Such as Jean Cohen, Alain Touraine, and Alberto Melucci. For a critical review, see Steven M. Buechler, “New Social Movement Theories,” Sociological Forum, Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer 1995, pp. 441-464.

[9]  L’Evènement (Ouagadougou), No. 260, July 25, 2013.

[10]  Stephen Ellis and Ineke van Kessel, “Introduction: African Social Movements or Social Movements in Africa?”, in Ellis and van Kessel (eds.), Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009, p. 4.

[11]  On the role of economic and climatic “stressors” in contributing to North Africa’s political upheavals, see: Caitlan E. Werrell and Francesco Femia (eds.), The Arab Spring and Climate Change: A Climate and Security Correlations Series, Washington, DC: Stimson, Center for American Progress, and the Center for Climate and Security, 2013. Available at:

[12]  Le Soleil (Dakar), June 22-23, 2013.

Human Rights, Development, and Democracy in Africa: What Role for the Arts?

Education and development through art, Ethiopia
Can the arts make the difference?
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Poland
via Flickr (Creative Commons CC)

In the past 10 to 15 years, a number of African countries have seen sustained and high economic growth, yet this has not lifted the continent’s inhabitants out of poverty. While poverty has been massively reduced in Asia in the past 30 years—in China and India in particular—50 percent of Africans in 2013 still eke out an existence below the poverty line of $2 per day, just as they did in 1981. Of the 46 countries in the Low Human Development category of the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures health, education, and living standards, 36 are African.

Instead, resource-driven growth in Africa has led to jobless growth, and to the privatization of state assets and enterprises. In line with neoliberal dogma, it has corresponded to rising unemployment in a region where only 28 percent of Africans are estimated to have regular, wage-paying jobs, while the rest make their living in the informal sector.[1] Meanwhile, wealth is increasingly vested in the hands of a politically connected minority and educated elite. A classic example of the growing economic inequality in the region is South Africa, where 20 percent of the population earns 68.2 percent of the national income and the bottom 20 percent earns 2.7 percent.

Given the role of the arts in generating jobs and foreign income for countries in the global north, some African countries such as Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Nigeria are embracing the “creative and cultural industries”[2] as new sectors for economic development.[3] But it is unlikely that any one factor alone, driven by any industry, can lead to equitable development. The Arab Spring is a case in point. Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Libya, whose average life expectancy in excess of 70 years compared to Sub-Saharan Africa’s, where the average is 55 years are witnessing massive political change as their citizens have taken to the streets to advocate for access to education, health services, and employment; but also for fundamental human freedoms like freedom of association, freedom of thought, and freedom of creative expression.

Even in the so-called poster countries for African democracy—Kenya, South Africa, Senegal, and Botswana—countries whose regular and relatively free and fair elections are held up as the standard in the region, have high levels of popular unrest. Even there, citizens demand better services and living conditions and oppose with increasing strenuousness the authoritarian means introduced by their elected governments to reduce the transparency and accountability of their leadership.

What, then, are the links between the arts, on the one hand and, respectively, democracy, human rights, development and the eradication of poverty, and economic growth on the other? Which among these are to be priorities? And what is the role of the creative sector generally, and of artists in particular in shaping these priorities?

Economic Growth and the Arts

Creative industries are being “sold” to Africa as a magic bullet[4] that would generate the resources required for broader social and human development on the continent. The fact that industry’s growth was unaffected by the global financial crisis, was further rationale for its push toward Africa.[5] But can the arts be an economic driver that would generate resources required for broader development on the continent? More to the point, is resource-driven growth even what is needed there?

Conditions in Africa are fundamentally different from those of the global north. Poor intellectual property regimes, for example, result in mass piracy and loss of income; markets with disposable income to sustain creative industries are lacking; and infrastructure and expertise are absent at key points in the value chain, such as production and distribution. Furthermore, it is naïve to expect cultural and creative industries to deliver the sort of economic growth that provides mass employment when more traditional economic sectors that have attracted much greater private, international and public investment, have failed to do so.

Relying on the arts to be a driver for economic development is not even good for the arts. The emphasis on those creative industries that have the most potential to generate jobs and sustainable income—like publishing, film, contemporary music, and craft—has meant that other sectors like dance, theatre, and visual arts have suffered official neglect.

In short, emphasis on the creative industries reinforces a neoliberal approach to economic growth which, in the final analysis, benefits—and serves—an elite rather than those who most require developmental assistance in the areas of health, education, and employment, without benefiting the arts themselves.

The Arts, Human Rights and Democracy

According to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals’ statistical annex, 51 percent of Africans live in poverty and 50 percent of children globally who are not in school live in Africa. One in seven African children dies by the age of five and one in thirty African women dies in childbirth. Two-thirds of the world’s 33 million HIV-positive people live in Africa. A child dies of malaria every 45 seconds; 90 percent of these children are in Africa. Outside of North Africa, 69 percent of Africans lack basic sanitation and access to clean water.[6]

International donors tend to designate some fundamental human rights—such as those mentioned above—as “development challenges or goals,” while treating the rights to freedom of conscience, movement, and assembly—as “human rights issues.” Because these are priorities, the right expressed in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to “freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts” is left by the wayside.

For this reason, new initiatives like the Arterial Network are defining development much more holistically than development orthodoxy, as the “the ongoing generation and application of resources (economic, human, infrastructural, etc.) to create and sustain the optimal conditions (political, social, cultural, environmental, etc.) in which human beings may enjoy all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” By this definition, engagement in arts and culture is not simply a luxury for the few, or something to be afforded once other, more important rights having to do with physical well-being are taken care of. Rather, it is a fundamental human right to be made available to all people, to be enjoyed alongside all other human rights and freedoms.

The Africa Institute of South Africa, based in Pretoria, uses the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index to identify four types of African governments: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. Of the 50 rated African countries, only Mauritius is considered a “full democracy,” while 9 countries are in the “flawed democracy” category, 11 are considered “hybrid regimes” (in a state of transition), and more than half are deemed “authoritarian regimes.” Of the six economies this index lists as the fastest growing on the continent, only Mozambique is in the hybrid category, while the rest are all deemed “authoritarian.” [7] This suggests that economic growth and political freedom are not linked positively—not a surprising inference to make.

The practice of human rights, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association is not simply about asserting human rights but is also an advancement of democratic practice. Their absence or curtailment limits the participation of citizens in the governance of their lives, in holding public authorities accountable, in exposing maladministration and corruption and presenting alternatives to hegemonic political views, moral values and power relations.

The basic premise of artistic engagement—the freedom of creative expression—is yet another of these rights. It is, therefore, no coincidence that artists align themselves with broader struggles for democracy—as was the case in South Africa in the struggle against the censorial tendencies of the apartheid regime—since the attainment of a democratic state allows the political space in which this and the other freedoms may be exercised without fear. However, even the coming into being of a constitutional democracy where freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Constitution – again, post-apartheid South Africa is a prime example – government and political players continue to threaten its practice when such practice is critical of the political status quo. A recent example was the exhibition by Brett Murray – Hail to the Thief 2in which the artist satirizes the ruling party’s selling out of its liberation ideals in favor of get-rich-quick, often corrupt schemes, with leading South African political figures demanded that the work (in particular, one depicting the exposed penis of the country’s president mocking the rape of the public purse) be banned and even destroyed.

Struggles for democracy – as witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt today – are not only about elections every five years, but about the rights of citizens to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms on a daily basis, even when democratically elected regimes use their new-found political legitimacy to restrict such rights and freedoms.

It is for this reason too that home-grown groups like Arterial Network seek to organize creative practitioners at national levels, not simply to support individual creativity, but to ensure that the arts community has an organized voice to articulate its aspirations, defend their rights, and agitate for policies and structures that promote and protect their freedoms.


International donors and philanthropists often act and provide support in silos—for example, arts funders customarily fund development or human rights or the empowerment of women or climate change. Within an African context, this is a mistake. It is necessary to take a more holistic view of development funding that integrates economic growth, the assertion of all human rights and freedoms, the deepening of democracy, and environmental sustainability.

Rather than the simple instrumentalization of the arts for economic growth or social development, efforts should be geared towards making the fundamental human right of all to participate in, and enjoy the arts a reality and in so doing contribute to economic development, social cohesion, and to the assertion of democracy and human rights.

Such activities include building capacity and training leadership in the African creative sector, individuals who will have the organizational skills, the political know-how, the policy tools and the confidence to be able to build and sustain their respective creative sectors. Artwatch Africa, a nascent Arterial Network project, monitors the contravention of freedom of creative expressions in all African countries. The contribution of the arts to economic growth is developed through cultural entrepreneurship training, but it is also interrogated through annual creative economy conferences that apply theory to varying African conditions. Building sustainable arts organization and providing relevant and up-to-date information are key to effective advocacy at national, regional and international levels, and the Network has made significant strides in this regard.

Currently, it is primarily international funding partners who support this multi-faceted vision, but efforts are under way to increasingly seek African resources to build and sustain a pan-African network of artists, cultural activists, creative enterprises and cultural NGOs. This is precisely so that individual practitioners may give creative expression to their views and insights, under the protection of national, regional and international networks that advocate, resource and defend such creative expression in the broader promotion of democratic societies.






[1] “Africa at work: Job Creation and Inclusion Growth,” The McKinsey Global Institute, August 2012.

[2] Although definitions differ in the field, creative and cultural industries generally refer to a range of economic activities which are interested in the creation, exploration, and discovery of knowledge or information.

[3] See the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTD) 2010 Creative Economy Report for specific details.

[4] Joseph Gaylard, “Tracking Trade: Creative Industries EU/SA Trade Dialogue” (presentation, Creative Economy Conference, Dakar, Senegal, 14-16 November 2012).

[5] UNCTD 2010 Creative Economy Report, pg.  xxiii.

[7] Africa Institute of South Africa. Africa at a Glance: Facts and Figures. Pretoria, 2012.



Popular Mobilization and the New Politics of Resource Sovereignty in Tanzania

The Mtwara region, still waiting for their road Marja-Leena Kultanen
The Roads of Mtwara, Tanzania (2005)
Source: Marja-Leena Kultanen (
(cc) Creative Commons from Flickr

In 1972, a resident of Tanzania’s impoverished southeastern region of Mtwara penned an angry missive to the editor of a national newspaper. “In Tanzania, there are two groups of people,” he began. “Those in northern and central regions are the ones who enjoy the country’s fruits of independence and those in southern regions are left behind without any progress.” He cited the government’s geographically lopsided investment in infrastructure and industry as evidence of this inequality, and concluded by posing a poignant question that cut to the heart of the young East African country’s aspirations of national unity: “Why are the southern people ignored?”[i]

Some 40 years later, the longstanding perception of second-class citizenship articulated by this frustrated letter-writer has exploded into a series of full-blown protests against the Tanzanian government, newly accused of not just passively neglecting but actively exploiting the Southeast. The catalyst for Mtwara’s popular uprising was the government’s announcement, following the discovery of natural gas reserves in the region and during a desperate nationwide electricity shortage, of plans to construct a 330-mile pipeline to funnel the gas to the nation’s economic capital of Dar es Salaam. Officials justified the pipeline, funded by a Chinese loan, as an essential response to the failures of hydroelectric generation and Dar es Salaam’s growing power needs. They pointed out that Dar es Salaam – unlike the Southeast – already had the appropriate facilities to convert the gas to electricity and upload it to the national power grid. The fact that Mtwara was to receive a meager 0.3% of the total income generated by the project was harder to explain.

For local people tired of feeling “left behind without any progress,” the prospect of sitting by idly while wealthier regions reaped the benefits of the treasure buried in their own backyard proved untenable. Their response was to stage a claim of resource sovereignty against their own government. This past January, a delegation calling themselves the Mtwara Elders publicly delivered the protesters’ demand: that the gas be processed and converted within Mtwara. Simultaneous riots in Mtwara exposed a rawer strain of popular rage; as government property was torched, dozens of protesters were arrested, and a number of individuals were killed in clashes with police. In late May, further unrest was met with an aggressive show of official force when the army was deployed to use tear gas and live ammunition against protesters, reportedly leading to several citizen deaths. At present, it seems likely that tensions will continue; Tanzanian leaders have made some concessions to the people of Mtwara, but still insist that construction on the pipeline will begin shortly, as planned.

Spokespeople of Tanzania’s ruling political party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), suggest that the Mtwara movement has been orchestrated by opposition party thugs; others wonder if it is motivated by Islamic extremism or anti-Chinese sentiment, or compare it to separatist movements elsewhere. Such explanations reflect a reluctance to take the protesters’ stated agenda seriously, and to recognize the Mtwara uprising as both the result of specific local grievances and part of a broader struggle to redefine the substance and scope of national citizenship across the African continent. Three dimensions of this case are crucial to understanding its nature and significance: the historical dynamics of uneven development within Tanzania, the country’s ongoing transition out of single-party socialism, and the growing global trend of popular direct action against governments that have betrayed their citizens.

Legacies of Uneven Development

Materially and symbolically, Mtwara is a periphery within a global periphery. This marginality is a produced condition, rather than evidence of arrested development. For the past century, the region has been integrated into the global economy, and successive colonial and national economies, on unequal terms that have deepened rather than diminished its relative poverty. Under British rule, Mtwara was part of Tanganyika’s Southern Province, which officials referred to as the “Cinderella Province” – coding the south as economically and cultural backward, but holding up the promise of a fairy tale transformation under colonial capitalism. There were to be no perfectly fitting glass slippers for Mtwara, however. Aside from a massive development project (the postwar Groundnut Scheme) that turned out to be a logistical disaster, the colonial regime treated the area simply as a reserve of cheap labor. Over time, Mtwara farmers began growing cashews for export, but the local lack of facilities for transporting, storing, and processing nuts kept profits low.

After independence, the national government adopted a platform of socialist equality and declared its intention to construct a road connecting Mtwara to Dar es Salaam, in order to end Mtwara’s isolation and identity as a remote backwater. Fifty years later, and long after the demise of Tanzanian socialism, the Mtwara-Dar es Salaam road remains unfinished. Today, the region’s economy is still based on cashew production, which is still limited by poor infrastructure. Many young Mtwara residents, seeing no livelihood options at home, migrate to work as petty traders in northern cities, where they often face discrimination. This situation is not unique; southern Italy, northeastern Brazil, and Appalachia are among numerous examples of national peripheries that have been underdeveloped along similar lines. Many of these sites also supply resources – like timber and coal – that power growth in the rest of their countries. Yet the spectacle of the Tanzanian government jumping to build a gas pipeline from Mtwara while it has failed to pave a basic road along that same route for half a century stands out for its stark instrumentalism. CCM’s invocation of the rationale of technical efficiency over that of welfarist obligation to justify the gas extraction illuminates the extent to which the logic of neoliberal capitalism has come to dictate governance in contemporary Tanzania. Mtwara’s lack of infrastructure has, in effect, disqualified it from benefiting from the very resources that could help overcome this underdevelopment.

Multi-Party Politics and the Postsocialist State

The cycle of uneven development may be powerful, but it is contingent upon the consent of those exploited. Since the 1980s, Tanzanians across the country have suffered the enduring effects of austerity cuts under World Bank and International Monetary Fund-imposed structural adjustment policies, including drastically reduced social services and living conditions for average citizens. More recently, the Tanzanian government has joined many other African regimes in selling off land and minerals to foreign parties under poorly regulated arrangements. The welfare state of the early independence era has essentially dissolved. By contrast, the political structure of the socialist state has been slower to perish. Though in 1992 Tanzania became a multi-party state after decades of single-party rule by CCM, the latter has continued to hold onto power. However, as the CCM-dominated regime’s capacity for self-legitimation as anti-colonial liberators or socialist providers wears exceedingly thin, opposition parties like Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) and Civic United Front (CUF) have gained increased support.

Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on popular disaffection with the current government, Chadema and CUF have both spoken out against the gas pipeline. In this case, as in others, CCM has responded by digging in its heels and claiming a monopoly on representing the interests of the greater national good. President Jakaya Kikwete has repeatedly pronounced that all resources on Tanzanian soil belong to all Tanzanians, insinuating greed or disloyalty on the part of the Mtwara protesters. Yet at its core the Mtwara movement is a call for the redefinition of national citizenship as a more robust institution, rather than a threat to the integrity of the Tanzanian national unit. Protesters are asserting ownership over regional resources through an appeal for the redistribution of national wealth to fund the local creation of energy infrastructure. In doing so, they are upholding their economic rights as equal members of a broader national community, instead of merely succumbing to a myopic parochialism.

A New Era of Popular Mobilization

Though associated with opposition parties’ bid for power, the Mtwara protests have also expanded the ongoing push for Tanzania’s democratization beyond the sphere of electoral politics. The implications of this shift depend on the movement’s ability to transcend its territorial confines. Not all inequality within Tanzania is organized geographically, and much resource extraction occurs at the hands of foreign companies rather than the national government. Nonetheless, the country’s internal economic disparities are intensifying amidst the energy windfalls and GDP growth of recent years. At least one third of the Tanzanian population lives below the poverty line and the vast majority goes without electricity. Urban employment prospects are limited despite high living costs, and rural farmers face food insecurity and displacement by land-grabbing corporate interests. If other marginalized citizens can identify with the broad spirit (and not just the specific agenda) of the Mtwara movement, then Tanzania may soon see a surge in popular protest along with a turnover in party leadership.

In this way, the people of Mtwara might convert their historical condition of being “left behind” into a position at the forefront of a new politics of direct action and resource sovereignty on a national scale – in the vein of last year’s Occupy Nigeria movement or Brazil’s recent popular uprising. Such mobilization would likely require additional triggers and invite forceful state repression, and could conceivably be either encouraged or constrained by the increasingly vibrant and violent nature of Tanzanian multi-party politics. Though the future remains unclear, one thing is certain: the Mtwara protests have significantly altered Tanzania’s political landscape by highlighting the urgency of a more substantive and equitable configuration of national citizenship.



[i] Azizi Muhibu, “A Look at Southern Tanzania.” Daily News, August 3 1972.



Women and the 2013 Zimbabwe Elections: A Voice from the Field

Editors’ Note: This digest, written by Ashley Rudo Chisamba, an Information and Membership Officer with the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe provides a local perspective and voice from the field on the day of this important national vote. African Futures wishes to highlight the work of this organization and the countless other civil society groups working to support a peaceful and representative electoral process.


Photo - sm
Zimbabwe’s women are ready to be heard
By AFSC Photo via Flickr @ Creative Commons

Zimbabwe‘s national elections will occur on the 31 July 2013, officially ending the transitional phase and term of the Government of National Unity. The run-up to elections has been marked by high contestation over election dates, constitutional reforms, the voter roll and electoral readiness. The parties in the Government of National Unity; Zimbabwe African National Unity-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) have been bickering over the proclamation of the election date and the reform of various policies in order to create a conducive environment that promotes free and fair elections.

The preceding elections in 2008 were marred by intimidation and violence, which affected many communities throughout Zimbabwe. The 2008 elections also further contributed to the decline of women’s participation in electoral processes, both in the number of female voters and official candidates. Since 2000, women of Zimbabwe, as well as other voters, have gradually withdrawn from participating actively in elections due to high levels of violence and feelings of insecurity. The Research & Advocacy Unit detailed in a 2011 report that nearly 62% of the women they sampled experienced violence in the 2008 vote, up from 20% in 2005 and 19% in 2002 respectfully.[i]

Consequently, the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) has collectively created a platform for women’s organizations to coordinate and attend to issues concerning women’s participation in the forthcoming elections. Specifically, it set up a Women’s Situation Room to enhance women’s participation and ownership of governance processes in line with the UNSCR 1325 and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which demand an increase in the number of women in governance structures. Through its membership, WCoZ has used the Women’s Situation Room concept to encourage female candidature as well as women’s participation as voters.

The Women’s Situation Room (WSR) advocacy cluster comprised of WCoZ, Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) and Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU), convened five provincial based workshops on Women Peacebuilding and Conflict Management. These meetings were useful at spreading these concept to women from all segments of Zimbabwean society, and encouraged women to be involved in peacebuilding and conflict management efforts within their respective communities. The workshops also helped organizations strategize on how to better integrate efforts to ensure women share information and collectively participate in electoral issues regardless of their various backgrounds. The advocacy cluster also held a women leaders interparty meeting with the female leadership from the three main political parties in the Government of National Unity (MDC-T, MDC and ZANU-PF) to discuss how to ensure peaceful elections and women’s effective participation, with an emphasis on their role as candidates. The WCoZ also created a Roadmap to Elections, a set of basic principles, reforms and minimum conditions needed for a free and fair vote for women.

Another body of the work of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, The Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU) focuses on the Vote for a Woman Campaign, which aims to mobilize the electorate to back female politicians in the forthcoming elections. Women have used this structure and the new constitution as a platform to campaign for posts and positions of power. The Women’s Trust (TWT) also has a complementary campaign SiMuka Zimbabwe (Arise Zimbabwe), which encourages women to register and vote for a woman in the forthcoming harmonized elections. Nevertheless, women’s representation, and treatment in the already held primary elections of June 2013 raises concern. The principal political parties are using the new quota in the new constitution that reserves sixty parliamentarian seats for women and this has created a constraining and no-win situation for female candidates. Women are being confined to the seats and are restricted from competing at constituency level and becoming direct representatives.

Finally the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe has set up a structure of networks organized by cluster (information, advocacy, medical, legal and shelter)  to provide aid and assistance for women that may be violated during election period. Through this organization and others’ efforts, the women’s movement has been far more proactive in the lead up to the 2013 elections than it was prior to the 2008 vote. Despite these improvements, several of their programs remain unfunded, leaving unfortunate gaps in the Coalitions’ desired impact.

However, this has not stopped the women’s movement in its tracks. As the first ballot is soon to be cast, women are working collectively to promote women’s participation and women’s vote for a woman!


[i]  A.P Reeler, “Zimbabwe women and their participation in elections,” Research & Advocacy Unit, December 2011,

Museveni and the Monitor: Succession Politics in Print

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Uganda’s Partly Free Press
By Rachel Strohm via Flickr
© Creative Commons

On May 28, 2013, the ninth day since the headquarters of the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor was closed,[1] the standoff was escalated as journalists were tear-gassed and struck by batons by police outside the vacant office. Members from Uganda’s Human Rights Network for Journalists organized a peaceful sit-in, but the guarding officers, after some provocation, soon intervened, rapidly dispersing the hundred or so journalists and arrested two for questioning.[2] NTV Uganda caught footage of a particular encounter and posted it to their YouTube page.

The shutdown is in response to the now well-known leaked letter written by Ugandan General David Sejusa (Coordinator of Intelligence Services and currently “on-leave” in London). The letter, which was released by the media outlet, alludes to a plot to assassinate opponents who oppose President Yoweri Museveni’s plan to give power to his son Kainerugaba Muhoozi. Mr. Muhoozi’s potential succession in 2016 (once the president completes his fourth elected term) has been widely speculated by proponents of the opposition, but never discussed in such a public manner by a member of Museveni’s inner circle. The letter provides insight into an internal power struggle between the old guard of the National Resistance Army, and Muhoozi’s alliances with the younger Special Forces Command. The government vehemently denies the existence of any of these tensions or plans.

The Ugandan police contend the raid is part of an investigation on the source of the leak, but has also said they wish to test the letter’s authenticity, and that the Monitor is in violation of a Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Directorate it issued a week before the raid.  The Daily Monitor‘s Managing Editor Don Wanyama obviously rejected this explanation, claiming that the newspaper’s full cooperation would threaten the life of his source, and that his paper is protected by Uganda’s Press and Journalist Act and the constitutionally provided freedom of the press. The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) agreed with his assessment and questioned the “method of operation and manner in which the media houses were cordoned off.” The Monitor has been able to continue to publish online, but has no idea of the extent the damage done to their office, or whether any of its sources are safe from governmental surveillance. The courts have gone back and forth on the issue. A magistrate’s court, which provided the government with the search warrants requiring the Daily Monitor to comply, has now claimed that “in the process of execution of the said warrant, the mandate given by the warrant was overstepped.” Government authorities are still reviewing the newest order, and reiterating their calls for complete cooperation. The Kampala High Court is now expected to address this contradiction in a hearing beginning on May 30, 2013.

So far this closure has provoked widespread condemnation across the international community and regional press organizations. The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers,[3] the East African Law Society,  and various other media watchdogs have all released statements of concern. But as South Africa’s Daily Maverick astutely points out, the Daily Monitor is more than just a popular paper in Uganda, but part of Nation Media Group (NMG), the biggest media organization in East Africa. This is owned by Aga Khan, one of the wealthiest men on the continent, and one of the few individuals with the resources to withstand, and perhaps even fight back against a targeted government intervention.

As the occupation reaches its second week and President Museveni embarks on a crucial three-day working visit to South Korea, it appears that there is no urgency to conclude the investigation, or re-open the Daily Monitor, as a legal battle is about to begin. The Observer, an opposition-leaning paper from Kampala reported on Monday, May 27 that the terms of reopening include an agreement never to write negative stories about the army, the president, or his family. These conditions were supposedly relayed during a meeting with outgoing Interior Minister Hilary Onek, but even the managing director of the Daily Monitor would not confirm the contents of their discussion. But whether the issue is settled by the courts or between the two disputing parties, it is useful to recall Museveni’s long history of media blockages, articulated most profoundly by Ugandan author/journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo on his personal blog. Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s central conclusion is that Museveni never cracks down on the free press just for the sake of it; behind the smoke there’s always political implications. The issue of succession and internal divisions within Museveni’s support network seem to be at the heart of this year’s Daily Monitor siege, and Uganda’s free press is once again stuck in the middle.


* Approximately ten hours after posting this digest on May 30, 2013, the Government of Uganda released a statement declaring the end of the closure of the Daily Monitor, while they continue their investigation. This decision was made just hours before the Kampala High Court was scheduled to question the legality of the blockage. The statement also lists a series of “undertakings” that the Monitor has made with the government, including most notably “to be sensitive to and not publish or air stories that can generate tensions, ethnic hatred, cause insecurity or disturb law and order.” It will be interesting to observe how this statement is interpreted by the paper, and if it will restrict the content it publishes. Their initial thoughts were given in an interview with Germany’s GW by Daily Monitor’s Managing Director, soon after the opening. The government still denies that the leaked letter was ever received, and will continue to pursue its source.

[1] One other daily Red Pepper and two Nation Media Group radio stations (KFM and Dembe FM) were also shut down because of their affiliation with the report.

[2] “Protests at Uganda’s closure of independent media” AFP,  May 28, 2013,

[3] WAN-IFRA is the global organization for the world’s newspapers and news publishers, with formal representative status at the United Nations, UNESCO and the Council of Europe. The organization groups 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries.

Amnesty for Boko Haram: Lessons from the Past

Boko Haram, a cause of concern for Pres. Jonathan
©Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

On April 24, 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria inaugurated the “Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North.” The committee, a presidential statement said, “has been given the task of identifying and constructively engaging key leaders of Boko Haram, and developing a workable framework for amnesty and disarmament of members of the group.”[1] It is headed by Special Duties Minister Kabiru Tanimu Turaki and composed of former and current government officials, religious authorities and human rights activists.

Boko Haram, a militant jihadist organization, grew from a Muslim sect that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the mid-1990s.[2] It launched a massive uprising in summer 2009, and since fall 2010 it has attacked Nigerian government targets, Christian gatherings, schools, and businesses. Boko Haram’s goals include the imposition of Islamic law (Shari’a) across the Nigerian state.

Having rejected these demands, Jonathan has countered Boko Haram with military force. Twice—from January to July 2012 and again on May 15, 2013—he imposed states of emergency on areas affected by Boko Haram, particularly Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. Although the establishment of the Committee on Dialogue reflects his acknowledgment that purely military means cannot eradicate the group or solve this problem, it is also consistent with policymaking tendencies toward Boko Haram that are reactive, ad hoc, and cyclical. Proponents of this dialogue process hope it will break the cycle of cracking down and muddling through in the aftermath of military operations. Yet even dialogue faces obstacles, and Nigeria has to look no farther than its own Niger Delta to find lessons on the limitations of amnesty programs.

While the Niger Delta’s experience with its own rebellion has certainly influenced government thinking and public discussion about the possibility of an amnesty for Boko Haram, the example of the Delta amnesty program should offer greater cause for concern than optimism. First, key aspects of the Delta’s experience cannot be transferred to the north, due to the differences in composition and goals between Boko Haram and militants in the Niger Delta. Second, the medium-term trajectory of the amnesty in the Delta reveals deep flaws in its design and implementation.

A Rebellion (and an Amnesty) in the Niger Delta

Militancy in the Niger Delta focuses primarily on resources, rather than the commonly perceived narrative of religion. Nigeria, according to 2011 estimates, is the world’s twelfth largest oil producer. Most of the 2.5 million barrels it produces per day come from the Delta, located in the country’s southeast. While oil generated $68.4 billion in government revenues in 2011,[3] much of the wealth lines the pockets of politicians rather than benefiting ordinary Nigerians. Delta residents face not only poverty and inadequate services, but also environmental devastation; for example, an assessment of pollution in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta conducted by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) concluded that the oil-related pollution there would require twenty-five to thirty years to clean up.[4]

Groups from the Delta have long demanded greater assistance and attention from the federal government to deal with these important issues. Some residents, frustrated by government oppression and indifference, have taken up arms. From 2006 to 2009, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) kidnapped and killed oil company personnel, attacked oil installations, and fought Nigerian soldiers. MEND’s activities reduced Nigeria’s oil production by more than 28 percent during this period. The government responded with force, deploying the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF). Yet attacks continued. Amid the violence, the administration of President Umaru Yar’Adua (Jonathan’s predecessor, under whom he served as vice president) pursued political solutions. In September 2008, the government formed a Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to explore new avenues of engagement. From August to October 2009, the government offered amnesty to Delta militants, encouraging them to turn in their weapons in exchange for pardons, job training, and employment. In October, after an estimated 8,000–15,000 fighters had come forward, the government announced a $1.3 billion jobs and infrastructure program for the Delta. The basic equation underlying the amnesty—money for peace—has remained in place under the Jonathan administration, which plans to continue the program through at least 2015.

A Similar Model for Boko Haram?

Some Nigerians, in and outside the government, hope to recreate this equation for Boko Haram. In Borno State, epicenter of the sect’s violence, the then governor-elect Kashim Shettima (who remains in office) proposed an amnesty for Boko Haram fighters in May 2011. In July 2011, Jonathan appointed a committee to explore the possibility of negotiating with the sect. Efforts at dialogue faltered, however, due to difficulties in establishing contact with credible spokesmen for Boko Haram; one mediator withdrew from the process in March 2012, accusing the government of leaking information to the press.

Despite these failures, calls for dialogue, negotiations, and amnesty have periodically resurfaced. The persistence of these ideas stems partly from pessimism about military approaches to the violence. The military (again in the form of the JTF) has cracked down heavily in the northeast, killing and arresting scores of fighters. But attacks have continued, sometimes shifting forms and targets as Boko Haram responds to the military’s advances. Most recently, on May 8, 2013, the group staged an attack on the northeastern town of Bama, freeing over 100 prison inmates and leaving 55 people dead. Widespread military abuses are also said to fuel recruitment by Boko Haram. The crackdown against its July 2009 uprising, during which police executed the movement’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, remains a key grievance for some members of the sect.

Even recently, Jonathan appeared to oppose the idea of amnesty. When northern Nigeria’s most prominent hereditary Muslim ruler, Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar III of Sokoto, proposed amnesty in March of this year, Jonathan again pointed to the difficulties of identifying Boko Haram’s leaders and demands as a basis for negotiations. In April, Jonathan changed course, reviving the earlier idea of dialogue. The sultan’s persistence and the calls of other prominent Nigerians likely influenced this decision, and heavy civilian casualties inflicted by the military during fighting with Boko Haram in the northern village of Baga on April 16–17 may have reinforced the pessimism, even within the administration, about the effectiveness of the military approach. The concerns Jonathan raised in March, however, remain unaddressed: How will the new Committee on Dialogue identify credible interlocutors? Can anyone speak for Boko Haram, particularly if it proves increasingly fragmented and prone to the emergence of splinter groups like Ansar al Muslimin fi Bilad al Sudan (The Defenders of Muslims in West Africa)? If Boko Haram has already rejected amnesty, as its purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, did in a video released to the media on April 11, what conditions would induce its leaders to change their minds? Does the group have grievances and demands that an amnesty program could feasibly address? The re-imposition of a state emergency in the northeast adds yet another concern: will the state of emergency and efforts toward amnesty prove mutually reinforcing, constituting a “carrot and stick” approach to Boko Haram, or does the state of emergency signal that the government is continuing to lurch from tactic to tactic, lacking a clear strategy?

The Committee on Dialogue exists to answer these questions. It must, however, navigate uncharted political territory. Many analysts cite widespread anger in northern Nigeria at corruption, poverty, and unemployment as a partial explanation for Boko Haram’s emergence; an amnesty could attempt to assuage this anger by providing jobs and infrastructure. But the equation “money for peace” may not adequately address the factor of religion. Boko Haram members who fight not for a larger slice of Nigeria’s oil revenues but for the vision of a more Islamic Nigeria may be unmoved by offers of jobs and payments. Even if the committee locates leaders who can speak for Boko Haram, negotiations over the content of amnesty could hit deadlock on issues like Shari’a. The model of the Delta amnesty, in other words, could prove inapplicable in the north.

Flaws in the Niger Delta Amnesty

The Delta amnesty itself appears increasingly flawed, which further calls into question its applicability in northern Nigeria. After 2009, violence declined in the Delta. Yet today, as MEND commanders lounge in Abuja hotel rooms and receive lavish payments, other MEND members, from mid-level commanders to foot soldiers, voice discontent with the amnesty’s implementation. By spring 2010, ex-militants were already complaining that payments were irregular and job options unsatisfactory. Corruption in the Delta has also gone largely unaddressed.

Perhaps most tellingly, oil theft has risen in 2012 and 2013, with the gangs perpetrating it often including ex-militants. Oil companies are responding by shutting down pipelines and declaring force majeure, which in turn deprives the government of revenues. The trend in theft suggests frustrated ex-militants are tiring of waiting for jobs and payouts and engaging instead in criminality. Deploying soldiers to pursue thieves could trigger clashes between them and the ex-militants, setting the stage for cycles of reprisals.

MEND, too, appears restless. Violence by Delta militants never completely ended after 2009; MEND is generally blamed, for example, for bombings in Abuja in October 2010. Actors claiming to speak for MEND have periodically made threats of a renewed uprising. Gauging the seriousness of these threats, or of the broader prospect of a return to prolonged violence in the Delta, is difficult. At a minimum, however, the possibility for sustained violence looms larger at present than it did before. In April of this year, a South African court convicted former militant leader Henry Okah for involvement in the 2010 bombings. In response, MEND (or a segment of it) promised to renew its attacks. While Okah and other former commanders distanced themselves from the statement, two incidents—an attack on a police boat that month and a gun battle involving former militants in May—have raised fears that MEND will follow its threats with actions.

The Delta’s experience suggests caution is warranted about what amnesty programs can achieve. Even if the federal government brought Boko Haram to the negotiating table and signed an amnesty deal, the implementation of that program might falter. Under that scenario, former Boko Haram fighters might take up arms again in a few years, perhaps during Nigeria’s next national elections in 2015.


The limitations and drawbacks of the Nigerian military’s fight against Boko Haram are clear, especially in light of the killings in Baga. Addressing the problem of Boko Haram will require a political component, but political solutions will be constrained by contentious regional and interreligious rivalries in Nigeria and may be undermined by ad hoc policymaking. Releasing imprisoned Boko Haram members may prove politically possible, but implementing nationwide Shari’a likely will not; creating special zones where Boko Haram members may live may prove possible, but expelling Christians from the north likely will not. Given the wide gulf between what Boko Haram wants and what the state can offer, Boko Haram may continue to reject amnesty as an alternative to its armed struggle. Ambitions to implement an amnesty program in northern Nigeria, therefore, will most likely continue to face resistance, especially if the flawed experience of the Niger Delta is taken as a model. President Jonathan’s Committee on Dialogue must confront the challenge of discerning how and with whom to negotiate, and how to devise a model for the north that accounts for both the particular problems posed by Boko Haram and the particular needs of northern communities.




[1] Ben Agande, “Jonathan Inaugurates Committee on Boko Haram Today,” Vanguard, April 24, 2013,, accessed April 30 2013.

[2] Although there is not complete consensus regarding the origins of the group, it is generally believed that Muhammad Yusuf, the group’s early leader began developing the group’s ideology and its followers in the mid-1990s.

 [3] Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, “Financial Audit: An Independent Report Assessing and Reconciling Financial Flows within Nigeria’s Oil and Gas Industry—2009 to 2011,” December 2012,, accessed April 30 2013.

 [4] United Nations Environment Programme. Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. Nairobi: UNEP, 2011.



Kenya’s Jubilee Election: What Next?

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Kenya’s voters are now eager for change.
Copyright: Commonwealth Secretariat

This year, Kenya celebrates fifty years of independence. In the life of nations and states, Kenya is young. Its new constitution, emerging out of and in response to struggle and bloodshed, including the postelection violence a mere five years ago, is even younger; it came into force in August 2010. The election on March 4, 2013, was thus the first under a new legal order fashioned organically within Kenya (and not, like the last one, in Britain), and it ushered in two new bodies of government: a senate with powers to impeach a sitting president, and forty-seven county governments, which if devolution proceeds in accordance to the law, will control real resources. This reflects the overwhelming wish of the Kenyan people, who asked, in consultation after consultation over the last two decades, for the essentially colonial, centralized powers of the president to be curtailed. A key question now is can the newly created legal order that disperses and devolves power hold, and if so, what shape will it take?

In the recent election, Kenyans and much of the world focused heavily on the race for the presidency. This is unsurprising, as the president as the symbolic head of state  is still associated—perhaps incorrectly, given recent changes—with massive powers over the destiny of the country. More dramatically, the March 2013 election pitted Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, two sons of Kenya’s most famous independence leaders (Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga), against each other in the run for the presidency. This evoked emotional memories of both Kenya’s brutal birth and the last painful election, which resulted in power sharing between Odinga and outgoing President Kibaki, after a highly irregular and violent election process in which the two candidates stood on opposite sides of the conflict.

Perhaps because of this recent and painful past—and the related, uncomfortable questions about responsibility raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) case as well as, more importantly, by the thousands of witnesses and victims—both presidential candidates made sure to emphasize Kenya’s bright future in their national campaigns, filling them with promises of development and transformation. In their English-language campaign advertisements in newspapers and on billboards, the candidates appeared next to pictures of highways and high-speed trains, giving a sense that Kenya was on the fast track forward—with the new constitution as its guide. Indeed, if we simply look at what these official campaigns were about by reading party manifestos, listening to the historic presidential debates, and perusing the English-language press, we would think the whole country was in agreement about what needs to be done: educate children, improve health care, support farmers, build better infrastructure, lower unemployment, raise wages, and nurture economic development, among other key actions.

Yet today in postelection Kenya, we have a public that is deeply polarized—to the point that the new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has called for reconciliation. One part of the country is celebrating the success of the Jubilee alliance led by Kenyatta. Another, often linked to Raila Odinga’s Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) alliance, is in mourning, outraged, or stunned. Some are heralding the fact that, after the horrific postelection violence in 2007 and 2008, peace was maintained this time around, and that electoral disputes were and are being settled through the court system. In this universe, the fragile democratic institutions mandated by the progressive constitution of 2010 are working, and the many Kenyans who were persecuted and lost loved ones and property will now be protected (though historical justice is another matter). Businesses and property will be respected, and as a nation, Kenyans can now control their own destiny and stop listening to foreigners.

Others are profoundly skeptical. So many questions remain about how the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) conducted the election, from the complete failure of the technology designed to curb rigging, to the many missing forms and discrepancies in tallying. So many critical questions remain about who controls the military and police; Kenya’s National Security Advisory Committee is primarily controlled by its Kikuyu members, who are of the same ethnicity as Kenyatta, and the old fears of surveillance and repression are reemerging, especially with what appeared to be concerted attacks against civil society in the media. The reality of having two International Criminal Court indictees leading the country is simply stunning. The elected Deputy President William Ruto, according to many commentators has distinguished himself by being a thug during the brutal reign of President Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU). There is an uneasy feeling that respect for institutions on the outside is accompanied by informal maneuverings on the inside, in the same way that the indictees appear to be respecting the ICC while, disturbingly, witnesses continue to disappear.

At some level, the common denominator between the currently polarized political camps in Kenya and disagreements among the broader public is the constitution. The current leaders were elected—or selected depending on your viewpoint—from within the confines of the new legal order. All sides claim it as their source of legitimacy and as a yardstick of progress. The struggle to breathe life and meaning into that legal document is a common goal, for which Kenyans may find themselves bridging what looks like a hardened divide. Which Kenya will emerge from this ongoing conversation—a process historians might call nation building, messy in all places and times—is an open question. Perhaps it cannot be answered today, because an answer must be crafted through a longer process of struggle, negotiation, and imagination.

Signs of change exist. Even now, as things seem to look the same in terms of the leadership at the highest levels, new forces are emerging. Governors across the country have just been confirmed but are already finding common cause, walking out of a meeting together after former President Kibaki lectured to them about Kenya being a “unitary state.” The election produced a Somali-Kenyan MP in Luo-dominated Nyanza province, and an Asian Kenyan MP in Meru. Nairobi, the powerhouse of the Kenyan economy, has a technocratic CORD governor and a populist Jubilee senator. A forensic audit of the IEBC’s performance one way or another will occur, and the emerging discussion of judicial activism suggests that the Supreme Court will become a new arena of struggle in this battle to shape the nation.[i] The new Environment and Land Courts have not even begun their work dissecting and deliberating over the accumulated land injustices across the country. The National Land Commission, deliberately stalled by the previous administration, has not yet come into force but must, according to the new constitution, opening new arenas for settling vexing issues. Despite the limited court interpretation of the constitution’s gender clause for this election, Kenyans will see more women in Parliament. Lastly, as the president and his coterie now start to name the appointees to a constitutionally limited cabinet, they will need to consider whether these nominees will pass the scrutiny of Parliament, which will now vet each candidate. And so the struggle is just beginning under new, untested rules. No doubt old dirty tricks will be tried (as they continue to be in all democracies), but now more tools exist to fight them. The outcome depends on popular mobilization and people exercising their rights like the muscles of an athlete. Politics, too, can be seen as a marathon, and Kenyans have distinguished themselves in the sport.

Kenya’s deep polarization is partly attributable to the fact that politicians generally play multiple games. They say one thing at a national level to mobilize broad support. They say another thing to what in American politics we call “the base,” producing narratives that build “emotional constituencies”—groups of voters with the same reactions and feelings on an issue or set of issues.[ii] In Kenya, these narratives play out in local languages and in complex local idioms and parables, often inscrutable to other citizens. This gives extra force to building the base—in this case by using an imagined coherent entity called “an ethnic community.”

In Murang’a during the election and in Eldoret a few months before, I was able to discern one such narrative that had been repeated in “prayer meetings” by the Jubilee protagonists, and that was clearly entrenched among the Jubilee bases. This was the narrative of Odinga’s treachery in mobilizing the ICC against Jubilee leaders, who now needed to be “protected.” In return for protection through voting, these leaders would protect the bases from further violence, loss of state patronage, and persecution. This completely fabricated and ironic tale allowed two formerly antagonist ethnic factions (Kenyatta’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu, and Ruto’s group, the Kalenjin) to join political forces in a plausible coalition. How this will play out—as a forgotten script or a new basis for illiberal mobilization in confrontation with the constitution—remains a key question moving forward, especially with the ICC cases scheduled to begin soon.[iii]

Overall, Kenya and its partners—the East African region, which depends on Kenya as an economic powerhouse and as a buffer against political conflicts elsewhere, especially in Somalia; the United States, which relies on Kenya in its war on terror;[iv] Europe, Kenya’s largest trading partner; and China, its newest one—can breathe a collective sigh of relief that the election was peaceful if imperfect. The real struggle for the Kenyan nation, its democracy, and its constitutional order is just beginning and is bound to be messy and difficult if history is any indicator.[v] This is especially the case since Kenya’s struggle is occurring in the context of the ICC cases, the war on terror, the related war in Somalia, and discoveries of oil in Kenya and the wider region. Still, in no place and time has this process of transformation been easy, nor is it ever finished. Kenya at fifty is only at the doorstep of its future.

[i] In a ruling shortly after the election, the Supreme Court deemed the minster of education’s attempt to ban a high school play that highlights ethnic favoritism and corruption unconstitutional. The play was recently performed and can be viewed on Youtube:

[ii] George Lakoff, The Political Mind (New York: Viking Press, 2008), 197.

[iii] As of this posting, Deputy President William Ruto’s case is set to begin May 28, 2013, while President Kenyatta will stand trail starting July 9, 2013.

[iv] Kenya is one of the largest recipients of US aid for counterterrorism, and the war it is waging in Somalia is no doubt linked to this, although shockingly it never came up as an election issue.

[v] See John Lonsdale’s brilliant work on this matter, particularly his chapter “Anti-Colonial Nationalism and Patriotism in Sub-Saharan Africa,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism, ed. John Breuilly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 318-340.

Not Even the Sky Limits Pro-Democracy Activists in Egypt

                    Morsi to the Moon?
          Source: The European Union (EEAS)

While the much anticipated time frame for parliamentary elections in Egypt has been set for 27 April 2013, frustration with the Morsi regime remains and opposition to his government is being expressed in new and creative ways. In a particularly unorthodox form of protest, the April 6 Youth Movement, a key movement within the Egyptian Revolution, posted on their official Facebook page that they have entered President Mohammed Morsi in an online competition to win a trip to outer space. They claim he is more suitable to govern the people of the moon. The online competition run by Axe, a popular men’s deodorant brand, offers to send the individual who receives the most votes to a space training camp in Florida before sending them into space with the space tourism company Space Expedition Corporation. Morsi, with 17,059 votes at the time of this posting, tops the polls and can be seen depicted in a space suit on the competition website. So far, the government has not issued an official response.

The Egyptian activists of the April 6 Youth Movement were a formidable presence on the streets of Cairo during the April 2011 protests calling for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s reign. Following Mubarak’s departure, many were supportive of candidate Morsi, seeing him as the legitimate leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a step in the right direction for Egypt. However, not long after his ascension to power, the group became one of his fiercest critics. The current situation in Egypt is extremely volatile as Morsi’s clumsy leadership has helped inspire an extremely polarized political environment, and the economy remains in shambles. Reports of a recent crackdown on NGO freedoms is trending on social media and opposition figures are unhappy that despite the timeframe for the elections being set, the constitution, including important election laws, remains disputed. Since the second anniversary of the revolution on 25 January, protests have become more intense and are spreading, further accelerated by the disturbances in Port Said last week. Protest is alive and well in Egypt. But with this tongue-in-cheek campaign, it seems that even the sky will not limit pro-democracy activists in Egypt.



New Media in Africa and the Global Public Sphere

Celebregion Photo - Occupy cell phones
#OccupyNigeria and Social Media in Lagos
             Source: (cc)

In analyzing the relationship between a “global public sphere” and social media on the African continent, the generalizations hide a far more interesting set of observations. Debates and discussions about what passes for a global public sphere often overlook and obscure dynamics of power or take themselves too seriously. What is defined as the global public sphere by most observers and scholars is still very much limited to the industrial north (especially the United States and United Kingdom) and their public and private broadcasting systems, twitter handlers, and blogs. The term also refers, by default, to debates and deliberation solely in English. In contrast, what transpires with media in the Global South, especially social media, is far more interesting. Part of the reason may be that the normative notion of the “public sphere” taken from Jurgen Habermas is linked to Western notions of democratic and “rational” free debate.[1]

The Difference between the Arab Spring and African Protest Movements

Much of the excitement around social media follows the success of social movements in the overthrow of the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Known colloquially as “the Arab Spring,” it is clear that these outcomes were the result of a range of other factors that were very specific, and beyond the realm of generalizations about the global public sphere.

These factors include the nature of the regimes (i.e., family dynasties); the role of armed forces (who quickly joined or tolerated the protests); the degree of state repression; long histories and deep levels of social movement organization (from varied groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and trade unions to the young Internet types that laid the groundwork for the protests beginning in January 2011 in Egypt); and political culture and the role of religious identities. It is also important to look at factors such as different levels of urbanization and the more prominent role of a middle class and their connection to social media in North Africa. For example, Egypt has a vibrant blog and Facebook culture that predates Tahrir Square by a number of years. Finally, Al Jazeera, especially its Arabic service, was decisive in the Arab Spring and the outcome of the civil war in Libya.

Sub-Saharan African political and media conditions could not be more different from those in the north: for one, we’re talking about a range of different regimes, including ones where the transition to democracy predates the Arab Spring by at least a decade, in which basic democratic rights (elections) had been achieved without the Internet, and where—at least in some cases—elections were competitive. With few exceptions, in sub-Saharan Africa protests are couched in economic terms (see, for example, the “Walk to Work” protests in Uganda; the fuel subsidy protests—known as #OccupyNigeria—in January 2012; and ongoing protests over government failure to provide basic services to the black majority in South Africa). Crucially, protesters and their leaders south of the Sahara are not necessarily calling for the removal of their heads of state, merely for accountability—though some government officials in both cases would want to tar protestors with such a brush.

Unlike the crucial role that networks like Al Jazeera played in North African protests, global news networks (in French and English) failed to cover the protests against Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade’s campaign for a third term (he was voted out) and those by #OccupyNigeria “live” or with the same intensity and attention that were afforded the protests in North Africa.

New Media Trends and Politics in Africa

There is a tendency to fetishize the relationship between social media and the likelihood of protest. The use of mobile phones to spread information and coordinate actions was indeed widespread in some protests and disturbances in sub-Saharan African countries; take the cases of Mozambique and Mali (here and here) for example. However, and separately, research on Zambia’s recent election concludes that the impacts of online crisis monitoring and information tools during elections—like Ushahidi—may be overstated. Furthermore, new research about Twitter use suggests few elites (described as “African business and political leaders”) have joined the continent’s Twittersphere. That said, not all evidence is negligible, pointing instead to the emergence of a connected public on the continent that includes some political and policy elites. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, an early adopter of social media, launched his presidential run on Facebook in 2011; Jonathan’s critics also resorted to using social media, so much so that by January 2012, he had “set a world record” as the most cursed president on Facebook. In South Africa, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has made social media an essential part of its political strategy, though it has also proved to be the Achilles heel of its party leader, Helen Zille. The online dominance of Zille and the DA also reflect racial disparities (still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa.

But it is Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s longtime president, who best illustrates the potential and the paradox of social media: he manages to discredit himself while simultaneously representing an ideal path for political engagement in the digital age. His tweets, with their exclamation points, abbreviations, and numbers impersonating words, often resemble—in the words of one my students at the New School—language more suitable for texting among teens than for an elected official and are “akin to a beta release, a politician highly advanced in his tactical approach but with major problems built into the firmware.” Not surprisingly, Kagame has had his fair share of “twitterspats.” For example, in May 2011, Kagame took offense at a remark made by a British journalist, Ian Birrell, who had described him as “despotic and deluded.” For the next hour, Kagame responded in a series of tweets to Birrell. Some observers considered it the first time a head of state directly engaged with a journalist on Twitter.

#Kony2012 versus #OccupyNigeria

While the actions of Kagame and other political leaders are significant for how the public sphere is changing in Africa, their impacts pale in comparison to #Kony2012, arguably the most significant event in the short history of Africa’s place in the global public sphere. Despite criticisms about the “film” and Invisible Children (including after the public meltdown of its founder), at least for a while this will remain the template for how “the global public sphere” will engage with African issues and Africans. Mainstream journalists and commentators still attest to #Kony2012’s efficacy and usefulness.

Initial criticism of #Kony2012 centered on demands for “African voices.” Mainstream media became obsessed with finding out what “African voices” say—that is, what “authentic” Africans think about the film. While this was a useful critique, it also assumed that the authenticity of the African would make the criticism “real” and add ballast to #Kony2012’s fading truthfulness.

Western media seemed to be thunderstruck with the sudden “awareness” that if you report on something happening in Uganda (or name your country) without bothering to talk to any people from said country, you’re likely to come up with something like #Kony2012. They anxiously asked around for as many Africans as they could find to provide some kind of unchallengeable African truth. “You’re Nigerian? You’re from Sierra Leone? Oh well, close enough, you’ll do. Now tell us what to believe, and please do try to be polite and not say anything horrible about racism, especially if it might be ours.”

Obviously, the lack of African voices from the regions in which the Lord’s Resistance Army operates (or once operated) was part of the problem in this “activist” film, with its easy “to do” list of solutions aimed at those who are often mockingly described as “Facebook slacktivists.” But it is not clear how being “authentically African” makes someone a useful purveyor of opinion on the issue. Even Invisible Children has “African voices” on its staff. In fact, this was part of the filmmakers’ defense when they responded to criticisms. Africans can also draw uninformed (or purely self-interest driven) conclusions about what’s going on in the continent. So it is unclear if the “authenticity” of the Africans engaged in (or critiquing) any given “African” situation is the solution, per se. Perhaps the main takeaway from #Kony2012 is that the film will probably retain some salience—despite the widespread criticism against it and its makers—for how most people, including some Africans, will engage with sub-Saharan African issues for the time being.

More promising are the implications of #OccupyNigeria, a series of protests that brought that country to a standstill for the first two weeks of January 2012 following an announcement by President Jonathan that he would scrap a fuel subsidy that most Nigerians considered their birthright. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians streamed onto the streets to join marches and rallies. The national strike was only suspended after the government, following a deal brokered with trade unions, partially restored the subsidy. By most estimates #OccupyNigeria was the largest and most sustained short-term protest movement in any sub-Saharan African country in a long while.

Media coverage of Nigeria during #OccupyNigeria mostly focused on alleged violence associated with protesters or linked the protests to the violence of Boko Haram, which stepped up its attacks during the strike. Certain “expert” voices in the West supported the government of Jonathan, especially his finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. They would quickly face the backlash of Nigerian protesters. Cases in point: Jeffrey Sachs and Ethan Zuckerman. The latter to his credit, backtracked from his initial thoughts.

Much of the pressure came from activists on social media, crucially in the Nigerian Diaspora. The latter also took their protests to the streets. Online activists targeted celebrities (Nollywood actors and popular singers like D’Banj) who were forced to declare their allegiance with the strike. Yet the real focus of the anger was directed toward Nigeria’s political class, especially Jonathan and Okonjo-Iweala, who were both lampooned and scoffed online. Two websites stood out: the Nigeria-based Chop Cassava (which produces video reports) and Sahara Reporters, based in New York City.

Of these, Sahara Reporters has had a larger impact. Sahara Reporters has become a media force inside Nigeria largely because it is not in Nigeria. The website’s base in New York City places Sahara Reporters “beyond the reach of the politicians and corporations that the site often reports on.” What appeals to its readers and audience is the nature of the stories it reports. As Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Al Jazeera English, Sahara Reporters provides “eye witness accounts, just raw information about sensitive issues that the press in Nigeria is too afraid to publish or report.” These include extensive coverage of a huge oil spill in the Niger Delta; revealing the corruption of a state governor who was eventually tried in a British court; and events surrounding the illness, absence from Nigeria, and eventual death of President Umaru Yar’Adua in May 2010.

Ordinary Nigerians have warmed to Sahara Reporters’ reporting and support it publicly. It has also attracted the attention of those in power. In some instances, Jonathan’s office has released media statements directly addressed to the site. In one celebrated case, Sahara Reporters’ story of thirty-two aides accompanying Nigeria’s first lady on an official trip to an African Union summit in Ethiopia resulted in the presidential spokesperson releasing a press statement aimed specifically at Sahara Reporters.

Some concerns have been raised about sensationalism in Sahara Reporters’ style of reporting and writing. However, the conspiratorial and mocking tone of Sahara Reporters’ coverage should not be surprising. The sensationalism or the partiality to sensational stories is simply a symptom of a current Nigerian reality: that people know that they are getting screwed by the political system, and that there is a “real” beyond what is visible, dominant, or apparent in mainstream Nigerian media.

What makes Sahara Reporters’ reporting “global” is not just the fact that it is transnational but also the flow and counterflow of information between New York City, Lagos, and elsewhere in Nigeria. There’s also the reciprocity between Sahara Reporters’ editors, audience, contributors, and sources, as well as its targets.

Final Thoughts

One could argue that the idea of a global public is not inherently progressive or democratic and that the question “toward a global public sphere?” can be deconstructed on that basis. But it is important to remember that the public sphere, any public sphere, is a site of considerable contestation. Nancy Fraser, in her now well-worn critique of Jurgen Habermas, suggested that one should look for “actually existing” public spheres rather than impose normative ones.[2] So while social media in some instances may replicate and reinforce the dominant racist, sexist, capitalist power that we are familiar with (as the case of #Kony2012 so vividly illustrates), it sometimes does not. It would appear that social media is also a form that can be given content, as the cases of #OccupyNigeria and Sahara Reporters would suggest.

[1] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989).

[2] Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text no. 25/26 (1990): 56–80.

* This essay is based on a presentation by Sean Jacobs at the conference “Towards A Global Public Sphere” at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University on March 30, 2012.

Urban Protests and Rural Violence in Africa: A Call for an Integrated Approach

Deadly Protests outside West Darfur University. Source: UN photo / Albert
2010 protests outside University of Zalingei, West Darfur.
UN photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran

African countries appear to be in the midst of an epic shift in the nature of their political struggles. The continent continues its long-term decline in violent conflicts with the total number this year falling to half of their post–Cold War peak. How do we make sense of this decline?

One approach is to assume that African violence has become apolitical and even nihilistic in its form and content; hence it is no longer a space for legitimate political struggle. News accounts of the violence perpetrated by groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram, Ansar Dine, or Al Shabaab, driven by transnational concerns and seemingly devoid of any viable national political agendas, bolster this claim. However, this approach does not tell us much about where African political energies are being expended.

Perhaps African governments have simply become better at responding to the needs of their citizens, who no longer feel compelled to challenge their respective regimes? Unfortunately, parallel to the decline in violence, the continent has suffered a democratic setback over the past decade that challenges this assumption (the number of countries labeled “free” or “partially free” by Freedom House dropped to 30 from the pinnacle of 34 reached in 2005).[1]

A more nuanced reading of the drop in violence is that Africans have moved away from resolving their political issues with force. Instead, they are privileging other forms of non-violent political action, especially urban protests, which have witnessed an upsurge over the past decade. This approach treats urban protest as a substitute for rural violence. Scholarship largely accepts this binary, by analyzing each as a discrete and unrelated phenomenon.

Indeed, scholars have long treated urban and rural political action as deserving of separate analytical categories, divided politically, economically and often ethnically. We have studied them as distinct spaces, partitioning the study of violent conflicts that often have disproportionate effects on rural areas from analyses of broader national political trends centered within capital cities. Conflict scholars, including me, have worked hard to understand these spaces of violence, often arguing that the capital city bias of much analysis renders these areas opaque—black spots immune to observation and analysis by outsiders. Eastern Congo, South Sudan and Darfur, Northern Nigeria, and Northern Uganda stand as prominent recent examples. On the other side, those focusing on national level phenomenon tend to cut zones of violence out of consideration, surgically excising these areas from infecting life in the surrounding national body. Yet such a division of scholarly labor ignores the complex ties between the largely urban protest movements and the primarily rural conflicts that continue to bedevil many of Africa’s largest countries.

It is not just outsiders that are prone to such selective thinking. During the war in Uganda, I would often discuss the situation with Kampala-based colleagues and friends, many of whom were puzzled as to why I was interested in traveling to the north, an easy four-hour bus journey away. Life in Kampala seemed to continue unabated, despite the horror stories that would occasionally flash across the daily broadsheets. Much the same can be said about the view from Khartoum or Kinshasa, where the troubles in the periphery are treated as peripheral.

In Nigeria, a Lagos-based writer going by the name Mao Kaci captures this sentiment: “I do not recall that the dead in the Maiduguri genocide were ever memorialized in a public ceremony or even much remarked in the media and public discourse. For us, sensitive and insensitive Nigerians alike, life went on.”[2]

But does such a partition of geographic space hold either intellectually or even politically? I believe not. Increasingly, we are witnessing a commingling of urban and rural agendas that force a reconsideration of our current approach to understanding the relationship between violence in the peripheries and popular movements in the cities. Urbanization is driving this blending by bringing what were once thought of as peripheral conflicts to the center of national politics, even if not always in a straightforward manner.

Earlier waves of popular protests such as those that followed the end of the Cold War were often dismissed for espousing narrow agendas unrepresentative of an imagined, rural African public. Analysts claimed that the continent’s primarily rural composition rendered such movements tangential if not irrelevant. Even today, in the face of a dramatic migration into urban areas that has produced a population in which 40% are city dwellers (37% in sub-Saharan Africa according to a 2010 UN Habitat study, significantly higher than India),[3] analysts dismiss the possibility of truly popular uprisings due to Africa’s rural bias.[4]

A more accurate, yet analytically challenging approach would center the relationship between urban protest and rural rebellion. The interaction between rural and urban in contemporary Africa runs two ways—from the rural to the urban, but also from the urban to the rural—though in no way is this symmetrical. As one of my graduate students at the University of Dar es Salaam put it, “When people come from the village to Dar es Salaam, they live like Dar es Salaam people. And when they go back to the village, they live like Dar es Salaam people.”

Driving this deepening relationship between urban and rural Africa are powerful economic logics tied to a global rise in commodity prices that has allowed many African governments to pivot away from their reliance on Western aid toward investment from Asian capitals. The effect is to inextricably tie the fate of rural Africa, the source of all those commodities, to the capital cities that process the transactions through which these goods enter global markets, reaping the bulk of the financial benefits in the process.

The post-election crisis in Cote d’Ivoire stands as an important transition point between the post-Cold War wave of democratization protests in West Africa and the more recent iterations of this phenomenon. As with earlier conflicts that broke out across the continent in the 1990s, Cote d’Ivoire’s crisis was tied to the end of the Cold War and the demise of a long-ruling (relatively benign) dictator. A complex medley of ethnic and citizenship tensions undermined a dysfunctional democratic process triggering popular protests that eventually led to civil war. Though the war had clear spatial dimensions, with the opposition ensconced within its own sovereign space in the north and the government firmly in control of the south as per a 2003 peace agreement, the country could never isolate the violence to a specific area. Instead, the violence continued to dictate political and economic realities across the country until its denouement, a decisive second civil war in 2011.

Recent popular movements across the continent have had a similarly interactive relationship with violent conflicts taking place in the periphery. For example, in Sudan, the 2012 death of four Darfuri students near Khartoum led to multiple days of protests by pro-democracy activists, revealing the complex relationship of the Darfur war to the “Girifna” (we are fed up) movement formed in 2009 by university students, among others. As a result of the 2011 peace deal between the Khartoum government and an alliance of Darfuri groups, the children of displaced Darfuris received a five-year fee waiver at national universities, literally bringing the problems of the periphery into the heart of the capital.

The Occupy Nigeria movement that began in early 2012 has a similarly complex relationship to the violence of Boko Haram in the country’s north. Nigerian writers have made explicit connections between the emergence of Boko Haram and the broader dysfunction of the Nigerian state, helping prime the public for the burst of protests that followed cuts in fuel prices subsidies in early 2012. Writing in September 2011, just months before the so-called Occupy Nigeria protests broke out the following January, Kaci recalled a brutal crackdown on suspected Boko Haram militants in Maidiguri:

“We all watched that video and expressed our shock—I still feel the bile in my mouth when I think of that old man in crutches, escorted out of his house, made to lay face-down in the street, and finished off with a bullet….Perhaps nothing strange, nothing disturbing, indeed, had happened. There had been Ogoni, Odi, Zaki Biam, etc., etc., before Maiduguri. The Nigerian state does not only underwrite our citizenship, it also has the right and power to overrule our life and issue us with death, even on a large scale. That, for you, is the Nigerian state under which we organize what may be taken as Nigerian society.”[5]

In his scathing critique of the political elite, Maci identifies Boko Haram as a misdirected expression of a common anger with the performance of the Nigerian government. He clarifies that this is not a defense of the seeming nihilism of Boko Haram. It is a call for a greater awareness of the social conditions in which Boko Haram is one of many twisted responses to an African state that is simultaneously celebrated for presiding over a prolonged period of growth and condemned for failing to translate that into a meaningful improvement in African lives:

“We must learn to distinguish between causative factors and conditions of possibility. Poverty, corrupt and unjust governance are not the causes of Boko Haram terrorism but the conditions of possibility in which that terrorism has been able to rear its head.”

Such an integrated analysis of the common forces driving African rural and urban realities is sorely lacking. While work has been done to explore the effect of Asian capitals across the continent, we have not fleshed out the domestic picture sufficiently. What is needed is a better sense of the ways in which the forces of globalization and urbanization are transforming the political, economic, and social conditions of contemporary African life, and what types of political action—whether rural or urban, violent or non-violent—are being produced in response.

[1] “Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance,” Freedom House2013,; “Freedom in the World 2005,” Freedom House2005,

[2] Mao Kaci, “Boko Haram: Of the Sensible and the Insensible,” Nigerians Talk, September 20, 2011,

[3] UN Habitat, The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequality and Urban Land Markets (Nairobi: UN Habitat, November 2010), ii, 172,

[4] Jolyon Ford,  “Democracy and Change: What are the Prospects for an “African Spring?,” African Futures, July 14, 2012,

[5] Mao Kaci,  “Boko Haram: Of the Sensible and the Insensible.”