The Language of the Political Crowd in Tunisia

“The solidity of the images was the
expression of their permanence.” Elias Canetti

Language is critical to the ability to mobilize. The group feeling that was activated in the urban hubs of North Africa in 2011 was manifested in an identifiable language and iconography of collectivity. In many ways, language itself can consolidate people into crowds. The language of political crowds in Tunisia in 2011 opposed the language of dictatorship that had long divided and isolated the population. In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti underlines the importance of language in the formation of crowds, where the symbolic destruction carried out by the revolutionary crowd aims to put an end to the system by taking down its symbolic representation. “The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognized. It is the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances. The solidity of the images was the expression of their permanence…never before had it been possible to approach them with hostile intent. Now they are hauled down and broken to pieces.”[i] One sees in the crowds of North Africa the repeated phenomenon of images of the rulers (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi) torn down, defiled, written over with graffiti, burned and tossed on garbage heaps. This destruction of symbolic images is the collective language-action of the crowd.

In Tunisia, the dictatorship had long produced a separation of the population into oppositions of which we can highlight three: urban/rural, secular/religious, and state/society. The Ben Ali regime produced these divisions to weaken the population by means of a political discourse of modernity and secularism that emphasized the superiority of the secular over the religious, the urban over the rural, and the state over society. I will briefly focus here on one of these oppositions, the urban/rural, and how the crowds in Tunisia rejected this opposition through a language of unity.

The Tunisian crowds of January 2011 showed a heightened consciousness of the dictatorship’s linguistic manipulation and used a language of unity that destabilized the dictatorship’s social dichotomies. The division of the urban and rural regions was overcome through the virtual unity of people on Facebook and Twitter. Parallel to this virtual community was the visible unity of rural and urban populations in the streets of Tunis. The language used by these crowds expressed a rejection of a politics and language of division. This was achieved through a direct and collective language of solidarity, the reclamation of social space by both rural and urban populations, and the iconographic marks that covered the walls of the city. The crowds, because of their heightened consciousness of the way that the dictatorship used language to separate them, deployed a counter-articulation that subverted the language of oppression.

The Urban/Rural Opposition

A discourse of “primitivism” to describe the rural areas was endemic in Tunisian political language. The discourse of Tunisia’s urban/rural dichotomy is the product and instrument of decades of oppression and marginalization of the rural areas by the politics of the political center in Tunis. This policy served to buttress a specific political project of modernism and secularism, in a language that privileged the urban, secular elite. This pattern of exploitation and isolation of rural areas began under Ottoman rule and continued under French colonial control. For example, in 1897 the French established the CPG (Phosphate and Railroad Company) that created divisions between tribes in the region of Gafsa to further the exploitation of natural resources for the pecuniary benefit of urban, Tunis-based elites. This type of division within rural areas and between the rural areas and the capital continued during the regimes of Bourguiba (1956-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-2011). Disappointingly, the interim governments (January 14, 2010-October 23, 2011) for the most part redeployed this language of separation between rural and urban Tunisia. Complaints about the rural/urban dichotomy in the months after the 2010 – 2011 revolution have come from the people in the region of Kasserine, where I heard many express that their lives continued to be neglected in the same way as before the revolution.

Indeed, the post-revolutionary period has seen a repetition of the Constitutional Democratic Rally’s (RCD) tactic of fomenting tribal conflict and marginalization of the countryside as a means to strengthen the political center. During the transitional period (January 14, 2011-October 23, 2011) the socio-economic problems of rural areas was glossed over as primitive, tribal, and insignificant. In the press, no details of rural conflicts were ever given, and were explained as “tribal conflicts.” The cause of discontent in the impoverished region is dismissed because of the economic benefits the town provided for the center.  In response to the July 2011 protests in El Ksar, Medhilla, and Metlaoui, an envoy of the interim government’s Ministry of the Interior, Mohamed Lazhar Akremi, stated that “the legitimacy of the demands of the region’s inhabitants can in no case excuse the blockage of economic activity in the region.”[ii]

Real demands for economic equality and justice are spun through a language of primitive, tribal disputes. According to the TAP (Tunisie Afrique Presse), tribal violence in the region of Metlaoui has been ignited by rumors that the State will allocate jobs according to tribal lines in the region where the phosphate mines are located.[iii] The incidents were also described by the French press as tribal clashes. “Violent clashes between rival tribes led to 11 deaths and more than 100 injured in three days in the mining town of Metlaoui in the south-west of Tunisia, indicated a source authorized by the Minister of Interior Sunday night on the AFP.”[iv]  To date, there is no analysis into the causes of the social problems at the root of these clashes. They are reported as vaguely documented facts resulting from “tribal” and “violent” cultural practices that allegedly typify the countryside. This discourse, prevalent under Ben Ali and continued by the transitional government, opposes a violent, bloodthirsty tribal culture and its irrational crowds to the stability and rationality of modern urban culture. Continuous with the language of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, the countryside continues to be marginalized in favor of the seat of political power in Tunis. Because of this, the continued use of dictatorial language separates the rural from urban Tunisia.

The Language of the Revolutionary Crowd [v]

The language used by the crowds during the Tunisian revolution subverted the linguistic binaries of the dictatorship. Its language united people against the separations established by the common political discourse. The revolutionary crowds asserted the unity of the population, both rural and urban, against State oppression. The crowds were written over with words expressing the shared sentiment of the people. The events of 14 January and of Kasbah I and II , mass gatherings during the weeks after the flight of Ben Ali, in Tunis defied the politics of a rural/urban split when the populations from the central and southern regions came and occupied the center of political power, using a common language and holding the same signs. Che Guevara’s face was everywhere on the walls and streets, as well as names of the regions where the demonstrators came from to join the Kasbah movements: Gafsa, Kasserine, etc. During the mass occupation of the streets, names of the regions which the protestors came from were written in graffiti. The countryside had come to the city and inscribed its presence on the walls of Tunis. People put the symbols of the Tunisian nation on their faces. Others draped the Tunisian flag over their bodies and held signs declaring the nation as theirs. Freedom was a word written on the bodies of all, regardless of their region or situation. In the appropriation of public space of Tunis by all regions of Tunisia, the streets became spaces of meeting and unity marked by graffiti. The Kasbah became a truly public space where it was possible to write: “Merci le peuple! Merci Facebook!” “We were all screaming ‘dégage’ with one voice,” writes “Tunisian Girl” on her blog about the demonstrations of 14 January. The people spoke with one language, one voice, using one word to express a common desire of the unified crowd. Even little children were among the crowds. One girl’s forehead read, “Army, I love you,” showing the unity of the army with the Tunisian people.

I write these words in Tunis on December 17th; exactly 2 years after Mohamed Bouazizi set his body on fire in Sidi Bouzid. In some ways, Tunisia looks very much the same today with the poor, the youth, and the rural populations in a state of neglect. But the crowds of today are quite different than they were in January of 2011. These days partisan, sometimes fanatic, and quite desperate crowds form in a very different and more isolated social landscape than the revolutionary hopefulness of last January. Many people here wonder about that crowd solidarity and unity of purpose that brought the people together during those days, and where it might have gone.

Both photos were provided by Manuela Maffioli, a photographer from Tunis.


[i] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (London, England: Gollancz,  1962) 19.

[ii] La Presse, July 7, 2011, http://www.lapresse.tn/, 5.

[iii] TAP, June 4, 2011, http://www.tap.info.tn/en/.

[iv] “Affrontements dans le sud-ouest tunisien: le bilan s’alourdit à 11 morts,” AFP, June 5, 2011. “TUNIS – De violents affrontements entre tribus rivales ont fait onze morts et plus de 100 blessés en trois jours dans la ville minière de Métlaoui, dans le sud-ouest tunisien, a indiqué dimanche soir à l’AFP une source autorisée au ministère de l’Intérieur. Le dernier bilan est de 11 morts, avec 5 tués dimanche, a déclaré cette source.”

 [v] For more on this subject, please look for the author Andrea Khalil’s upcoming book, Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria and Libya (London: Routledge, 2014). 

A History of Resistance in the Congo

In light of the recent escalation of violence in the Kivus, the emergence of M23 rebellion, and the ongoing negotiations in Kampala, we thought it important to place the latest cycle of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in its proper historical context. Herbert F. Weiss, emeritus professor of political science at the City University of New York and senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, offers his reflections in a reposting of African Futures’ first contribution, written in February 2012. — eds.

Gbadolite, DRC-CAR border

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has an image problem. Sometimes it is viewed as the most violent of violent societies. At other times its population is viewed as passive and fatalistic. This essay attempts to shed some light on this paradox. Its underlying thesis is that the Congolese people have shown a great interest in the politics of their country. When given a chance they have used the right to vote in sophisticated ways, and when they felt betrayed have supported dynamic protest movements—sometimes violent, sometimes non-violent. However, there have been long and frequent periods when external interventions have rendered protest seemingly hopeless. During such periods the Congolese have often appeared to be apolitical and passive. Yet there have also been periods where Congolese have mobilized to oppose and even overcome such external intervention, particularly in the East. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves whether the growing resistance to the Kinshasa regime in the wake of the recent national elections will manifest itself in a new (and possibly violent) protest movement, or whether repression by the regime will result in another period of seeming passivity.

The Independence Struggle, 1958-1960

The struggle for independence started quite late in the Congo. In January 1959, there was a major riot in Leopoldville (today Kinshasa) for which the leaders of the ABAKO (the ethnically-based political party of the Bakongo people) were blamed and jailed. This led to an extraordinarily fast and successful mobilization of the Bakongo and a complete boycott of government services in the Lower Congo region. ABAKO participated in an alliance with other political parties that were committed to a demand for immediate independence and a federal state structure. Some leaders were sent abroad to explore getting aid for the anticipated (possibly violent) struggle and to explore the establishment of a provisional government in exile.

Belgium, fearing an Algeria-like violent struggle, called a Belgo-Congolese conference in January 1960, at which (to everyone’s surprise) they agreed to full independence as of June 30, 1960. In sum, Belgium capitulated, and as a result, no protracted struggle occurred—the potential for a violent anti-colonial uprising vanished. However, the rapid and effective mobilization of the ABAKO demonstrated a clear potential for well-organized resistance to the colonial regime, prepared to use violent means if necessary.

National elections were held in May 1960 in anticipation of independence. Although most Congolese had never had the opportunity to vote before, and despite an extraordinarily complex electoral system, the Congolese public participated massively and their electoral behavior demonstrated a sophisticated use of the ballot to further their perceived self-interest. In the end, the more radical nationalist parties were victorious, with Patrice Lumumba at their head.

Within days of the achievement of independence, the colonial army mutinied, Belgian civil servants fled, Katanga and “South Kasai” seceded, and a UN peacekeeping mission (ONUC) arrived in the country.

For a variety of mistaken reasons, Lumumba was soon defined by the West as a Communist agent. This resulted in U.S. support for a quasi-military coup against Lumumba in September 1960, the subsequent exclusion of Lumumbists from positions of power, considerable Western (though not US) support for the Katanga secession, and the exile of many Lumumbist leaders.

By mid-1963, the return of some Lumumbists and the sharply declining purchasing power of ordinary Congolese sparked the Congo Rebellions.

The Congo Rebellions/Revolution, 1963-1968

The independence struggle had proven the propensity of the Congolese to support mass protest with the potential for the use of violence. This struggle had also manifested the more radical inclinations of the rural population when compared to elites or urbanites. Immediately after independence, with a sharply declining economy, deep disappointment in the expected material benefits from the attainment of independence, and the exclusion of some of the most popular leaders, the Congolese were available for protest.

Revolutionary protest began in the Kwilu region in mid-1963 and then spread rapidly to the Northeast. Left to their own resources and power, the revolutionary forces were destined to overwhelm the government. However, Cold War considerations dominated the international stage, and the West, especially the United States, committed a variety of forces and significant financial resources to defeating the revolution. No satisfactory assessment of casualties is available, but some experts have estimated that over one million Congolese lost their lives during the repression.

Both Congolese elites and ordinary citizens saw a lesson in the defeat of the Rebellions: There was no point in rising up against a government supported militarily by the West. This lesson was underlined in 1977 and 1978, when former Katanga secessionist soldiers who had taken refuge in Angola and had been radicalized by its MPLA government, invaded the Congo. Once again, they were initially quite successful and popular, but were met with foreign forces (including the French Foreign Legion and Belgian Paratroopers) supporting the Mobutu government in Kinshasa, and were defeated.

The result was the fatalism and even passivity that some observers have noted in the Congolese people, which helped Joseph Mobutu stay in power for over 30 years. However, Mobutu was also able to mobilize mass support—not as protest movements, but to support his regime. In the later years of his rule, both he and his party lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Congolese, but in the early years, the regime was popular. These were years of prosperity, unity, peace, and nationalistic pride after years of war.

The Conquest of the Congo: The First Congo War

Even before the Rwanda genocide in 1994, the East had seen more violence and inter-ethnic conflicts than the rest of the Congo. However, the displacement of around one million defeated Hutu from Rwanda into the DRC upset the political and ethnic balance of power in the Kivus, as former Rwandan army units used their refugee camps as bases from which to attack Rwanda. In 1996, Rwanda and Uganda (soon joined by Angola) attacked the Congo in order to eliminate the insurgency camps established in the Congo by exiles from all three of these states. As a smokescreen for their invasion, Uganda and Rwanda helped organize a Congolese revolutionary movement, the ADFL, soon to be led by Laurent Kabila.

With the Congolese army largely ineffective, the combined forces of Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, and the ADFL were able to conquer the entire Congo in a little over six months and send Mobutu into exile. In fact, it is unclear how much actual fighting was done by the Congolese themselves. Certainly, thousands of Congolese men and women were recruited by the ADFL, and some of Mobutu’s army units defected and supported the “invasion/revolution.” The most important mobilization occurred among very young men and children from eastern Congo, known as the “kadogos,” who were given a great deal of power after Kabila became president. However, according to most reports they did little fighting, using their status as “veterans” to gain prestige with civilian populations after territory was conquered, although more research on this question is necessary.

However, soon after the First Congo War began, a genuine mobilization occurred in eastern Congo by members of the so-called autochtone ethnic groups who deeply resented the presence and dominance of foreign forces (particularly from Rwanda and Uganda). These foreign forces were also allied with the much-maligned and hated Congolese Tutsi, who were viewed as foreigners. This mobilization formed the “Mai Mai” groups—usually, but not always, ethnically homogeneous—and they employed violence against the Rwandan army and their Congolese allies, the RCD-Goma.

The Second Congo War, 1998-99

Initially, the new Kabila government was quite popular, but several factors soon sharply reduced his popularity. Kabila ignored civil society and the substantial non-violent opposition to Mobutu that had fought Mobutu for years, refusing to share power, and he was visibly surrounded by Rwandan Tutsi officers and politicians. He used the Kadogos to control the population, and they abused that power repeatedly. He also attempted to impose something akin to a cultural revolution, with neighborhood committees empowered to control the citizenry.

In the summer of 1998, Kabila ordered Rwandan forces to leave the Congo. They left western Congo (particularly Kinshasa), but re-invaded in the East, where they struck an alliance with local Congolese army units. This resulted in a full-fledged war, with Kabila supported militarily by Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad, and resulted in the division of the country into two large zones of approximately equal size—the Kinshasa-controlled, and the “rebel-controlled” areas.

There were major differences between the two areas. The Kinshasa-controlled area remained “united,” even though the leadership was unpopular. Meanwhile, the rebel-controlled area subdivided several times, and was subject to Rwandan and Ugandan spheres of influence and/or military occupation. In the rebel-controlled areas, substantial armed protest movements developed. These were the Congolese Mai Mai groups that resisted the rebel administrations. The Mai Mai movements also allied themselves to Rwandan and Burundian Hutu insurgency groups with bases in the Congo, with military, financial, and political support by the Kinshasa authorities.

The Third Congo War: The Mai Mai against the Rwandan Army and the RCD-Goma

In many ways the Mai Mai resistance can be compared to the 1960s Congo Rebellions—rural-based groups determined to eject foreign forces and influences from their land. And although the territory in which they operated (the two Kivus) was occupied by modern armies, and although initially the Mai Mai had only crude weapons, they managed to dominate the countryside, although they never captured towns or cities. The struggle between the Mai Mai and the RCD-Goma/Rwandan army caused by far the greatest number of casualties of all the conflicts in the Congo since 1994. Initially, they protested the alliance between Laurent Kabila and Rwanda. When that alliance changed into complete animosity (i.e. the Second Congo War), they fought the RCD-Goma, and continued to do so even after the signing of the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement in 1999. After the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, the Second Congo War came to a virtual standstill. On the other hand, war continued in eastern Congo, with an intensity that had not been seen before, and civilian casualties that passed all previous records.

In sum, populations in eastern Congo no longer considered foreign power—once represented by the West, and now by the armies of Uganda and Rwanda—to be an insurmountable obstacle to protest or to the use of arms. The previous sense of “hopelessness” had been forgotten, and it was possible to mobilize for armed struggle in eastern Congo. Interestingly, the rebel movements were never able to inspire a similar resistance in Kinshasa-controlled areas, despite the fact—as shown in the 2006 elections—that the Kinshasa authorities were quite unpopular in the areas that they controlled.

Mass Mobilization and the Use of Violence, 2003 to the Present

Eventually after the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, and after many attempts, the major Congolese players came to an agreement in Pretoria in 2002 that promised to reunite the Congo, establish a transitional government, draft a new constitution, and organize elections to produce a legitimate government. In 2003, these goals were put into motion with the reunification of the country and the establishment of the Transitional Government, including all major opponents during the conflict between 1998 and 2003. Part of this agreement involved merging all the different armies that had fought each other, including several Mai Mai groups. Despite the problems that this merger posed, the process did not result in any major violent confrontations—with the continuing exception of eastern Congo. The different rebel administrations were formally dissolved, but the personnel were partly integrated into the now national government.

Apart from continuing violence in eastern Congo, this region changed in several important ways. The alliance between Mai Mai groups and the Rwandan Hutu insurgency (now known as the FDLR) collapsed, and the FDLR’s position became more isolated under pressure by the new Congolese army (the FARDC). The CNDP, a Tutsi-led insurgency against the Kinshasa government with General Nkunda at its head, managed to fend off several FARDC campaigns and almost captured the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma. With Rwandan help, Nkunda was neutralized, but his army was integrated into the FARDC, helping Kinshasa-supported Tutsi elements to become virtually militarily dominant in the Kivus. These dramatic changes in the balance of power in eastern Congo are largely the result of a rapprochement—largely unpopular among the Congolese public—between the DRC and Rwanda.

The prospect of elections in 2011 once again aroused the enthusiastic support of the general public, despite the widespread view that the increasingly authoritarian Kabila regime would use any and all methods to retain power. This did not prevent some small but significant military-type attacks against government authorities, both in the post-2006 election period, and in the run-up to elections in 2011:

  • In 2007, Kikwit (the commercial capital of Bandundu Province) was attacked briefly, and once again these forces withdrew before Kinshasa was able to respond effectively.
  • In 2009 to 2010, in Equateur Province, rebels were able to invade Dongo and more significantly capture the province capital, Mbandaka, despite the presence of MONUC and FARDC units. Predictably, these rebels withdrew before Kinshasa was able to respond.
  • In 2011, Lubumbashi airport was attacked. Again the perpetrators withdrew before an effective response could be marshaled.
  • Also in 2011, Kinshasa itself was attacked, and the group in question was able to penetrate Camp Kokolo in the heart of the city and then proceed to one of the President’s residences. There is some dispute about the fate of the attackers. Regime circles claim that over 200 were captured, but persons close to the attackers claim that they all escaped, and that the regime imprisoned 200 men with ethnic roots in Equateur Province.
  • Finally, there have been repeated clashes in the Bas Congo region between a religio-political movement, the Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK), and the Kabila regime’s police and military. Unlike the examples cited above, these have been provisionally suppressed popular uprisings without any apparent military know-how or leadership.

What do these incidents have in common? With the exception of the BDK, they can all claim extraordinary initial success and an orderly withdrawal. One must ask whether these are isolated, insignificant events, or instead probes by organizations with more significant resources. If the latter, are these groups waiting for the right moment to launch a substantial attack against the regime?

Given the great crisis of legitimacy that is currently affecting post-election Congo, the temptation to employ force against the regime must be considered substantial. Is the inhibition to employing revolutionary violence against foreign support a thing of the past? In that regard, one thing is clear: the West is almost certainly unwilling to back the existing regime with military force. However, history shows that the West may have been replaced in this role by the regime’s African supporters.

Dissatisfaction and red-hot anger are now widespread in the Congo. Will the Congolese people follow in the footsteps of the Arab spring and make the ultimate sacrifice for political change? Or will the option of non-violent protest ordered thus far by Etienne Tshisekedi prevail? If the latter should happen, how will it fare given the authoritarian predilections and successful repression currently employed by President Kabila?

Making the Link: Rwanda’s Domestic Policies and Interests Abroad

High-level Event on Democratic Republic of Congo
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Lately, Rwanda has received considerable media attention for its role in the M23 crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After two reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC tied Rwanda to the armed group, the international community began to take action. This past July, after the release of the first UN report, the U.S., Germany, and The Netherlands all cut portions of their aid to Rwanda. Rwanda’s biggest donor, the UK announced on the 30th of November that it finds the available evidence against Rwanda and its role in the DRC “credible and compelling” and subsequently cut £21mof aid intended to be disbursed this month.

These recent developments represent part of an emergent trend in which Rwanda is criticized for its role in neighboring countries but congratulated for its domestic progress. Rwanda is consistently praised in the media for its leaps in development—particularly related to free education, the number of women in parliament, its national health care plan, Mutuelle de Sante, and its growth in gross domestic product (GDP). Critical voices, such as Timothy Longman’s op-ed piece from June 2012, have been few and far between. However, on Sunday, 24th of November, this silence was interrupted when President Kagame’s former advisor David Himbara, who fled the country in 2010, issued a statement claiming that “Britain is not funding Rwanda. It is funding a dictator.” This remark comes at a time when foreign aid is being withdrawn in response to Rwanda’s role in fueling the violence in DRC, and not because of Kagame’s repressive domestic policies. Viewed in this context, Himbara’s statement begs the question, is Rwanda’s predatory behavior outside its borders connected to its increasingly authoritarian domestic policies? It also raises the worrisome question how aid money can contribute to the suppression of the Rwandan people and help make possible Kagame’s military involvement outside of Rwanda.

A closer look at the processes of democratization and decentralization in Rwanda sheds light on the façade-like nature of development programs in Rwanda. Despite heavy funding for a decentralization reform program that began in 2000, Rwanda is still considered “not free” by the international democracy-monitoring agency Freedom House International. The decentralized governance structure and government development programs have failed to genuinely empower Rwandan citizens. Rather, the highly target-driven development agenda squeezes out room for local voices and increases the reach of the central state into the village, while the mechanisms of decentralized governance are employed to effectively control poor and voiceless rural citizens.

While in certain rural areas there is an increase in the number of schools, health clinics, and local government offices, access to these services seem to come at the high price of subtle repression and disenfranchisement. Furthermore, there are no other political parties other than the governing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), so political representation is limited. While other parties technically exist, they have no presence in the rural areas, and reports of abuse, intimidation, and vote influencing have been a major concern in both the 2008 parliamentary and 2010 presidential elections.

Given this de facto one-party scenario, local officials (always RPF members), under severe pressure to meet national development targets, are vastly more accountable to the central state than they are to the people they represent. Their main objective is to reach development targets, agreed upon at national level, and to ensure that the centrally-sanctioned policies and concepts are understood in the village—that all Rwandans are one, that speaking about ethnicity is an act of “divisionism,” and that if you do not send your kids to school you will be fined. People do participate in local governance meetings.However, most often this “participation” simply means attendance of local political meetings to listen to leaders “sensitize” them on the central state’s priorities.[1]

Even beyond the formal state apparatus, it is well recorded that civil liberties and empowerment in Rwanda are constrained by the social order designed to create a “new Rwanda”. Freedom of the press and NGO activity are two areas where the state has tight and increasing control. Furthermore, opportunities for protest or public action simply do not exist and mobilization against the state is almost always deemed an act of divisionism. Democracy in Rwanda, despite its outwardly progressive appearance, is internally deficient.

Despite much evidence to support the case that Rwanda is indeed a dictatorship, or at least veering in this direction, over the recent years donors have chosen to turn a blind eye on the country and its people, forgoing expression of their concerns regarding the internal politics of Rwanda, focusing instead on the country’s ability to reach its development targets. Outspoken reactions, however, are common when reports suggest that Rwanda breaches the sovereignty of the DRC. But outraged donors and the international community fail to draw connections between the domestic policies of the country and its foreign meddling. If appropriate domestic and international policy is to be built to address Rwanda’s ills, the international community and donors need to stop paying lip service to Rwanda’s development achievements, at the expense of condoning the oppression of her people. Condemning Rwanda’s foreign policy, while uncritically commending its domestic achievements, and ignoring their connection, only makes for confused and poor policy.

 


[1] Many studies into decentralization and public participation in Rwanda have found that these interactions are very one-sided with information flowing from the top-down and with very limited input from Rwandan citizens. For more, see Purdeková, A. (2011) ‘Even if I am not here, there are so many eyes’: surveillance and state reach in Rwanda’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 49, 3 (2011): 475-497 Cambridge University Press and Ingelaere, B. (2011) ‘The Ruler’s Drum and the People’s Shout: Accountability and Representation on Rwanda’s Hills’. In: Straus, S. and Waldorf, L. eds. Remaking Rwanda: State building and human rights after mass violence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

2012 Somaliland Elections: Internal Gains but External Obstacles to Statehood

Somaliland’s Independent Aspirations
Source: Photographer Charles Roffey

Today, Somaliland votes. In their fifth election since 2002, the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland will decide the composition of their local municipal councils, and which three political parties can represent the nation for the next ten years. Today’s outcome will not only set the stage for the nation’s political future, but also display to the rest of the world their claim for international recognition, and the strength of their democratic system.

However, the real importance of the election may not only be who wins and who loses, but how it’s perceived by Somalia and Puntland. For the first time, members from civil society from Mogadishu and Garowe will accompany electoral monitors to observe the technical process in many of Somaliland’s major cities. Yet for government representatives, it will not be the results in the capital Hargeisa that will define their perceptions, but how voting is conducted in the disputed border regions that will be most influential. Recent events and statements indicate rising tensions within these areas, and Somaliland would be wise to avoid taking a major stand during today’s crucial vote.

Internal concerns and external challenges

Somaliland’s democratic system has continued to expand over the last few years, and international observers have given many positive reviews leading up to today’s vote. The new electoral law passed in 2011, allows for officially registered political associations to challenge Somaliland’s three legal political parties (President Silanyo’s KULMIYE, UCID and UDUB) in municipal elections. Five new associations (UMADDA, DALSAN, RAYS, WADANI and HAQSOOR) met the registration requirements and were approved by the RAC.[1]

In order to become an official party, the law initially requires a minimum of 20% in each of Somaliland’s six regions.[2] The system limits their populations’ choices to three political parties to ensure broad based policy platforms, and to avoid previous tendency of narrow clan-based coalitions. The campaign was particularly vibrant and regulated, with each party adopting a different color and symbol to bring their supporters together, but with a structured schedule for the party rallies.

Despite the development of this democratic system, there are a few lingering concerns about the electoral process and the potential for violence within the border regions. Most notably, the former ruling party UDUB will not be part of this election, after withdrawing in protest due to their perception of bias within Somaliland electoral institutions. Although many of their representatives have simply realigned with other participating associations, the party still possesses the capacity to disrupt the vote, and one news outlet[3] has reported that the backlash has already begun. During the night of the 27th, gunmen attacked the offices of Somaliland Election Commission in town of Erigabo, supposedly sent as a statement by the town’s mayor and member of UDUB party.

This incident occurred within the Saanang region, one of the three disputed territories (the others are Soong and Cayn) and on the frontline of the dispute between Somaliland, Puntland and Somalia. Somaliland has set up at least 39 polling stations in this region, and increased its military presence to escort the polling officials. This gesture was not appreciated by Puntland authorities and its Minister of Information Mohamud Aideed Dirir characterized the move as “naked military aggression.”

The government in Mogadishu has remained relatively quiet regarding the vote, despite the President’s prioritization of continued talks with Somaliland. One component of their silence could be they have yet to take a public stance on the self-declared state of Khatumo. The declaration of Khatumo occurred in January 2012 and united the three disputed territories under a single state structure as authorized in the Somali constitution. Although the previous Somali administration voiced support for the initiative, in practice the state structure has yet to emerge, as the regions remain essentially “governed” by traditional leaders whose allegiances drift from Khatumo, Puntland to Somaliland. Some Khatumo supporters have also expressed their disapproval of the election, as just yesterday Khatumo aligned militia temporary kidnapped members from a HAQSOOR delegation returning from a final campaign event. Somaliland tried to improve relations with Khatumo supporters by giving one of their leaders a ministerial position in their national government, and despite the best efforts of Mr. Saleban Isse Ahmed, the process of reconciliation still has on a long way to go.

Early Reports and Conclusions

Early reports of today’s election indicate long lines of voters in the hot sun, proud manifestations of national pride, and a colorful display of the growing spectrum of Somaliland’s political scene. The government has even instituted a “no car policy” preventing any private or public vehicles from disrupting the vote. So far the process has gone smoothly in most of the country, but multiple sources are now reporting heavy clashes in the Hudun district of Sool between Khatumo militia and Somaliland forces.

Yet unfortunately for the people of Somaliland a transparent and mostly peaceful process will not drastically redefine their standing in the international community. Rather, it will be how they manage their external relationships with Somalia and their regional neighbors that will have the greatest effect on their pending application for statehood. While it is essential that the locals of the disputed territories are given the right to express their allegiances and vote in Somaliland elections, it is not the time for Hargeisa to flex its military muscles and use the election to legitimate its authority in the region. The 28th of November will test Somaliland’s relationship with its external neighbors, and if it can maintain a measured level of restraint, it will greatly improve their hand in the many tough conversations that lie ahead.


[1] Registration of Political Associations and Approval of Political Parties Committee (RAC). 15 political associations applied to compete in local council elections but nine were disqualified after failing to meet the legal requirement set out in by The Regulation of Political Associations and Parties Law 2011.

[2] It is expected that votes will be spread widely between the seven parties; therefore it is likely that three parties won’t be able to meet this threshold. In that case, RAC have agreed with the parties to proportional ranking system within the six regions.

[3] It should be noted that this particular source Garowe Online is owned by the son of the President of Puntland, and often is very supportive of the regional administration, which certainly has taken a strong stance on this vote.  I was unable to find another source to support their claims.

Puntland, Multi-Party Politics, and its Place in Somalia

While the world was rightly fixated on the new President of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s election, al-Shaabab’s attempt at his assassination, and his inauguration over the last few weeks, another electoral process began in Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern state of Puntland; and it’s not off to a good start.

Political Competition in Puntland

Members of the Puntland Electoral Commission began a campaign on the 22nd of September to raise public awareness about the new electoral law and the beginning of registration for “political associations” for the upcoming district-level elections.[i] Yet Puntland’s opening toward multipartism was overshadowed by a provision in the recently passed constitution which extends the President’s term for a fifth year. This inspired hundreds of protestors to greet the Electoral Commission in the city of Gardo with a large demonstration. The protestors set fire to tires, carried banners and chanted “No 5 Years” throughout the city centre, eventually closing businesses and clearing the streets. Just a day later, the government responded by closing a clan elder’s office in Puntland’s commercial capital of Bosaso, after the five major clans of the Bari province released a statement also condemning the President’s extension. A military police convoy confiscated all the office equipment, including computers and furniture, and shut down the gathering space for elders and community leaders.[ii]

The source of discontent, the new state constitution, was passed through a referendum exercise by 500 chosen elders and civil society leaders on 18 April 2012. While the document does include some progressive improvements, and allows for multi-party elections for the first time in the 14 year history of the state, the fifth year for the presidency was solely seen as a political manoeuvre. Especially, as President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole and his four year term was set to expire on the 8th of January 2013.

Some observers see the extension “as [a] nonissue,” necessary for the implementation of recent reforms, and believe the protests were simply an attempt of Farole’s political opponents to foment instability. The President himself indirectly addressed the protests and the “new era” of multi-party politics, but rejected the right of the opposition to instigate civil unrest. Although the protestors certainly tried to test Farole’s patience for political competition, the President’s recent behaviour has raised some additional questions regarding his broader political ambitions and plans for Puntland state.

Puntland’s Agenda in Mogadishu

Puntland was a major player in Somalia’s recently concluded end of transition roadmap[iii] and possessed a great deal of leverage to drive the process, as a relatively stable governing entity with plenty of independent capacity. As hosts of the two constitutional conferences in the state’s capital city Garowe, the Puntland delegation was primarily responsible for the strong federalist system built into the Somali provisional constitution and the decision for delegates of member states to be represented in the Upper House of Parliament. Both these issues were extremely contentious, and will be up for debate in the newly elected Federal Parliament.[iv] How they are interpreted by the national legislative body will ultimately shape Puntland’s relationship with the government in Mogadishu.

Unlike its neighbour to the West, Somaliland, Puntland has so far not expressed its desire to be independent. However, the night before Hassan Sheikh’s election in Mogadishu, the government did release a statement threatening secession if the process lacked fairness and if it allowed failed politicians of the past to be elected. During the final days of the Hassan Sheikh’s selection process for the new Somali Prime Minister, there are even reports that the autonomous region is demanding that a Majerten (the most dominant sub-clan in Puntland) be chosen, with the consequences undefined. To perhaps address this issue, President Hassan Sheikh’s first national trip will include a stop in Garowe.

Puntland has also taken a variety of unilateral steps to build its own governing capacity, without any real consultation with its partners in the central government. The President negotiated oil contracts and begun drilling without a national oil law determining how revenue is to be distributed, and created the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) to rid the coast of piracy. This particular initiative was funded and armed by the United Arab Emirates, trained by South African-linked Sterling Corporate Services and various military contractors, and was in complete violation of the United Nations arms embargo.[v] Despite its actual effectiveness in tackling the piracy threat, its creation further displays Mr. Farole’s independent spirit and personal initiative, a problem for a Somali state desperate for national unity.

Given that the initial attempts at oil have come up empty, and the funding for the anti-piracy program has been cut following international condemnation, it is likely that the Puntland state would struggle to stand alone. Yet these setbacks do not necessarily limit Mr. Farole’s role in broader Somalia, as he still maintains the capacity to manipulate outcomes in Mogadishu, and interfere in the constitutional reform and statebuilding processes.

But while Puntland looks able and ready to define and protect its place at the national level, Mr. Farole would be well advised to monitor his situation at home. Neglecting those in his own state could make his efforts in Mogadishu obsolete, even with the protection of his constitutional mandated one-year extension. The protests are just the latest challenge to his legitimacy, and the establishment of a more vocal opposition is simply one of the many consequences of multi-party politics. Time will tell if President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole can handle a little local competition.

 


[i] After registering for a “political association”, the top three groups following the district vote will become Puntland’s official political parties, and represent their constituents in the state’s representative bodies for the next ten years. The other registered associations will be eligible for only district level seats. See Josh Linden’s reflections from the Center on Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown for greater detail: http://www.democracyandsociety.com/blog/2012/08/10/puntlands-democratic-transition-new-electoral-laws/.

[ii] This decision was especially significant as clan elders play a major role Puntland’s legislative process.  In addition to helping solve local disputes within the community, the traditional council of elders had previously nominated the candidates for the Puntland House of Representatives.

[iii] When the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was unable to complete its transitional tasks by August 2011, the international community agreed to a one-year extension, but required that it accept a detailed framework and timeline for establishing a new government.  The “Roadmap to End the Transition” was signed on 6 September 2011 by six Somali politicians (the former TFG president and prime minister, speaker of parliament, Puntland and Galmudug Regional Presidents, a representative from the armed Sufi group Ahlu Sunnah Wa Jama’a) and the UN Special Representative.

[iv] The Provisional Constitution for Somalia was entered into force on 2 August 2012 in Mogadishu, but all of its articles will be up for debate by the Federal Parliament before being presented to the Somali people in a national referendum for final approval. See the United Nations Political Office in Somalia’s (UNPOS) Guidebook on the Provisional Constitution for further details regarding this evolving document.

[v] See Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2002 (2011), UNSC S/2012/544, 13 July 2012, pp. 21-23 and Annex 5.3 for the full extent of the allegations.

 

Africa as a Mirror of Democratization

The Fespaco Film Festival
Source: Isabel Mendes

Africa as Subject v. Africa as Object

Too often, academic approaches to the subject of democracy in Africa confine themselves to static and quantitative approaches that emphasize ordinal rankings, national units of analysis, and institutional presence or absence, rather than grapple with inevitably messy and complex subjective and interpretive approaches to the topic. Among the biggest casualties in this “Africa as Object” approach is a loss of any sense of the ongoing open-endedness of democratization as a process, of the condition and meaning of democracy as unfixed and evolving, and of the relevance of apparently local developments to regional, transregional and global actors and interests. Against this, an “Africa as Subject” approach emphasizes not just individual and group agency around projects both momentous and mundane. It is also mindful of the gap these actors perceive between the status quo and popular imaginings of a just order needing to be fulfilled, akin to what Rousseau termed “the General Will.”  Despite Africa’s appearances of stagnant stability, these aspirations are a clear and ever-present threat to the forces of order throughout the continent.

I was reminded of this when I attended a conference on Africa and the New Media, as part of the most recent Fespaco Pan African Film Festival in Ouagadougou. A surprisingly large number of the Burkinabe I chatted with raised the topic of the still-unfolding “Arab Spring” revolutions.[1] Actually, this in itself wasn’t so surprising – events in the Maghreb were among the most significant in a generation, not just for Africa, but for the world. More surprising, perhaps, was the often-repeated refrain, uttered without fear or malice, that “it will cross the desert and come here”—not only because the regime of Blaise Compaoré is notoriously repressive and autocratic, responsible for the deaths of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara in 1987, and of several others since. Indeed, later that week, police shot and killed an unarmed student during demonstrations against the regime.

What was also startling to me was the confident sense of the inevitability of change on this scale expressed by my interlocutors, most of whom probably hadn’t finished high school. After all, the Sankara period was the last time the country and the region had felt the winds of change of this magnitude, and many Burkinabe are too young to have any memory of it. Opposition parties are notoriously disorganized and politically independent civil society organizations seem rare.

It could simply be that the famously immense reserves of patience Africans show in the face of adversity are drying up, or the supposedly paramount importance they attach to political stability is more conditional than it is often given credit for, and these snatches of conversation were evidence of this new reality. A few weeks after Fespaco’s conclusion, in fact, Compaoré’s military bodyguard began a mutiny in their barracks that spread to the presidential compound and army camps, in protest over unpaid allowances, causing Compaoré to flee the capital, which then experienced widespread looting before the regime regained control.[2] A dependent of the former Gaddafi regime, Compaoré ironically served as mediator during the Mali coup and secessionary challenge earlier this year, reprising a role that he has played in the region on several previous occasions.[3]

These predictions of change are not disproven simply by the fact that Compaoré remains in power, nearly six months after the festival’s conclusion. Rather, they are expressive of the country’s– and region’s – “General Will.” How this sense of just and fair participation is manifested, of course, depends on conditions that vary from one place and period to the next. Particularly when the stakes of electoral contests are low, and electoral observers are complicit in maintaining the status quo, it would be a mistake to interpret low turnout as expressing an absence of popular democratic culture.

Democracy as Condition v. Democratization as Process

The “Africa as Object” approach – understanding democracy as a particular condition that can be adequately assessed through freeze-frame analysis of electoral results – can lead to false choices between demands and institutions, or participation and representation.

Typical in this regard is a recent piece in the Economist, asking “Which way will African politics go? The way of Senegal, where the president conceded electoral defeat on March 25th to a younger rival, extending a democratic tradition unbroken since independence in 1960? Or is nearby Mali a more troubling bellwether?” and concluding that “Representative government is still on the march in Africa, despite recent hiccups.” It includes a map with an ordinal ranking of African countries from “full democracy” (Mauritius the sole exemplar) to “flawed democracy” (such as Senegal and much of southern Africa), “hybrid regimes” (ranging from Nigeria to South Sudan to Tanzania), “Authoritarian regimes” (Mali, Burkina Faso, and the DRC), to “Failed states” (Somalia, including Puntland but excluding Somaliland, is the sole exemplar).[4] I wonder how many years South Sudan will be accorded before being relegated to the “Failed state” category. But the point is not to quibble with this or that specific categorization, or to decry the absence of similar ordinal rankings of, say, the democratic culture of U.S. counties.[5] It is rather to insist upon the fluidity of democratization, its unevenness within a given country, its regional and transcontinental dimensions, and above all, its incompleteness everywhere. To pose a choice between the paternalistic authoritarianism of Senegal versus the more contested authoritarianism of its eastern neighbour Mali is expressive not only of its flawed analysis but even more, of the true value that it accords democracy, in Africa or anywhere else.

Technocratic Trusteeship v. Struggle as Reflexive Solidarity

All this should be kept in mind whenever you pick up the next World Bank country report that employs a discourse of technocratic trusteeship – “We have the answers for your development needs, know what you need better than you do, you’re coming along pretty nicely, but you’re certainly not there yet” – for the country in question. The discourse of “good governance” has become so pervasive, and the institutions purveying it show so little introspection or critical self-awareness, that it has become difficult to imagine a discourse that takes a qualitatively different approach.

Doing so begins with a rethinking of one’s own identities and interests, in the reflexive spirit of James Baldwin’s famous quotation, “If you don’t know my name, you don’t know your own.” Without practical political projects with both short-term and longer-term goals, it can be very difficult for the average Westerner to imagine what identities and interests, if anything, they have in common with, say, the average Malian or Burkinabe. We are rich, and they are poor; we are more urban, and they are more rural; we have free trade, free presses, free speech, and democracy; they lack all these things—or so the media would usually have you believe.

Enlightened self-interest can be endlessly debated and defined, but most American taxpayers know and oppose corporate welfare when they see it. Of course, we don’t see it anywhere near often enough; and when we do, it often seems insurmountable. In this regard, campaigns of solidarity have a double advantage: the moral basis of demands on behalf of both taxpayer interests, together with those of struggling producers elsewhere in the world, are greater than the sum of their parts. Americans joining this struggle – in conscious collaboration with their African producer counterparts – will have allies for future campaigns whose goals may not be presently established or known, and will thereby also succeed in narrowing the gap between their stated values and perceived interests.

To illustrate,  Mali and Burkina Faso are members of the Cotton-4 consortium (together with Benin and Chad) that has submitted a proposal to the WTO calling for a global agreement to end all production-related support for cotton in all WTO member nations. As the third largest producer and, more importantly, the largest exporter, the United States is the biggest violator in this regard. Over $24 billion in subsidies over the past decade have gone to a few thousand U.S. producers (fewer than two percent of all U.S. farmers); the top ten percent of these have successfully secured over three quarters of this largesse (averaging over $1 million of guaranteed income per cotton farmer) for themselves—these subsidies amount to more than two times greater than Burkina Faso’s entire GDP.[6]  By one conservative estimate, ten million Central and West Africans dependent upon cotton for income would receive an additional $300 million of income, lifting millions of them out of poverty.[7] These billions of dollars could instead go to Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, thereby preventing millions of Americans from falling into poverty.  By contrast, they wouldn’t even notice the projected cotton price rise of no more than a dime per pound.[8] Although the US Senate Committee of Agriculture has cleared the new farm bill – the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act 2012 – which would eliminate some subsidies to cotton producers, it also proposes to increase support for crop insurance, extension, and other indirect supports totalling over $173 billion over the next decade (nearly doubling the subsidy total of the last farm bill) that would leave much of cotton’s trade distortions intact.[9]

What should be abundantly clear by now is that the WTO cannot adequately or fairly police itself. When Brazil led the charge against past and present cotton subsidies in the WTO, U.S. negotiators temporized, and in lieu of eliminating subsidies, awarded annual payments of $147.3 million in “technical assistance and capacity-building aid” to the Brazilian Cotton Institute.[10] The African producers, whose states are much more dependent on cotton for income yet lack Brazil’s technical capacity and bargaining power at the WTO, got nothing.

The example of cotton subsidies conforms to the rule, rather than the exception, regarding corporate welfare’s effect on poor producers outside the OECD. The major bottleneck is a comparative lack of awareness and organization among U.S. taxpayers and voters.[11] The statistical correlation between higher levels of per capita wealth and more durable cultures of democratization – particularly when wealth is more equally distributed, and when the effects are assessed over time – are as strong as they are intuitively logical.[12] It seems a good bet that democratic institutions and practice in Mali, Burkina Faso, and their neighbors would be stronger today if their U.S. counterparts had succeeded in ending cotton’s corporate welfare years ago.

Clearly, striving for free and fair elections remains an indispensable goal in Africa, in the United States, and indeed the world over, for the foreseeable future. Just as clearly, for the foreseeable future, elections in actually existing democracies will fall far short of this ideal. Greater democratization in Africa, as in the United States, is contingent on present struggles, within, beyond, and across its borders.


[1]Indeed, with some prescience, public and private rebellion against militarized, patriarchal authority was a theme of many of the films screened – including Mickey Fonseca’s Dina, Dahmane Ouzid’s Essaha, Raconte, Scheherezade, Yousry Nasrallah’s Raconte, Mohamed Mouftakir’s Pegasus, and Mahat Saleh Haroun’s Un Homme Qui Cri.

[2]Simon Gongo and Jason McClure, “Burkina Faso President Dismisses Cabinet as Soldiers Loot in Ouagadougou.”Bloomberg. 16 April, 2011; at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-16/burkina-faso-president-dissolves-government-as-soldiers-rampage.html.

[3] Adam Sandor, “Blaise Compaoré’s Dangerous Game in Mali,” Africa Portal, 15 August, 2012; at  http://www.africaportal.org/blogs/community-practice/blaise-compaor%C3%A9%E2%80%99s-dangerous-game-mali.

[4] “African democracy: A glass half full,” The Economist, 31 March 2012; at http://www.economist.com/node/21551494.

[5]This may yet accompany another Florida 2000-style debacle in the forthcoming U.S. presidential elections, however.

[6] Kinnock, Glenys. “America’s $24bn subsidy damages developing world cotton farmers,” Guardian, 24 May 2011 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/may/24/american-cotton-subsidies-illegal-obama-must-act; The World Bank estimates that Burkina Faso’s 2011 GDP was $10.2 billion.

[7]Burk, Christopher. “Resolved: Free trade should be valued above protectionism,” Debate Central at http://debate-central.ncpa.org/uil-spring-topic-overview/.

[8] See Julian M. Alston, Daniel A. Sumner, and HenrichBrunke, “Impacts of Reductions in US Cotton Subsidies on West African  Cotton Producers,” Oxfam America, 2008: 11, at http://omiusajpic.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/paying_the_price.pdf.

[10]Ritesh Kumar Singh and Prerna Sharma. “US must fall in line on cotton subsidy” The Hindu Business Line, 25 May 2012 at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/article3456253.ece?homepage=true.

[11] Not surprisingly, perhaps, non-cotton producing European countries have better organized mobilizing campaigns on this issue; see e.g. the Trade Justice Movement, at http://www.tjm.org.uk/about-us.html.

[12] See e.g. Adam Przeworski, Mike Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990. Cambridge University Press; and John Gerring, Philip Bond, William T Barndt, and Carola Moreno, 2005. “Democracy and Economic Growth: A Historical Perspective,” World Politics 57 (April 2005) 323-364.


Mauritania: Dreaming about the Fall of the Military State

Mauritania has witnessed large protests this year calling for an end to the military regime of General Ould Abdel Aziz (for a useful though slightly out of date overview, see @LISSNUP’s discussion of the protests). Mauritanian activist and blogger Ahmed Ould Jedou offers an insider’s perspective on the drivers of protest and the role of the February 25 youth movement. The full text of the article (in Arabic) can be downloaded here. A summary in English, by Sara Abbas, is below – The Editors

Mauritania is living through an intense period of political upheaval, whose beginnings can be traced to the Arab Spring and the subsequent fall of Arab dictators.  The Mauritanian opposition in all its forms has become united in the need to bring an end to the ruling military regime, led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

As far as the opposition is concerned, the current regime in Mauritania represents a continuation of rule by the military establishment, which began in 1978 following the overthrow of the country’s first president at independence, Ould Daddah. Mauritania’s current president, General Ould Abdel Aziz (henceforth “the General”) came to power when he deposed Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in a 2008 coup. The latter had removed the General from his post as the head of the presidential guard.

The 2008 coup was widely regarded as a painful blow to Mauritania’s experiment with democracy, and a return by stealth of the military. Mauritania had attempted democracy following another coup in 2005, which brought down the regime of Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. In the wake of that coup, elections deemed free and fair were successfully organized, in 2007. Ould Cheikh Abdallahi emerged victorious in the second round.

The coup by the General a year later was widely condemned by the opposition, which formed a “National Front for the Defense of Democracy”; an entity that soon became a target of state repression. Following a long struggle, the opposition entered into dialogue with the General, resulting in the 2009 Dakar agreement. The agreement paved the way for presidential elections later that year.

The elections, when they came, were a failure. Many international observers refused to take part. The major opposition parties rejected the election’s results, and the General was seen to backtrack from his Dakar commitments. The agreement had stipulated the holding of a comprehensive national dialogue, with the purpose of tackling a host of thorny issues. The most urgent among these was how best to organize elections, in addition to defining the role of the national army vis a vis other state institutions.

The regime’s refusal to enter into dialogue with the opposition, widespread corruption and theft of the country’s resources, and tampering with the judiciary, amongst other things, coupled with the energy unleashed by the Arab Spring, contributed greatly to the situation we find in Mauritania today. A plethora of diverse groups ranging from youth movements to traditional opposition forces are currently working to put an end to the regime.

The opposition political parties are an important force in the country, and coordinate their activities through a body known as the Democratic Opposition Coordination (COD). COD is composed of some influential Mauritanian political figures, several pressure groups, and ten political parties. The most prominent of the parties is Rally of Democratic Forces (socialist in leaning), Tawassoul (which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in Mauritania and which enjoys a strong following among university students and civil society organizations), and Union of the Forces of Progress (left-leaning, with a strong presence in the trade unions). The COD has organized several massive marches this year, and has tried to stage a sit-in in the capital Nouakchott on May 3rd, although it was quickly repressed by the state. A recent large action by the COD was a march in Nouakchott in July, which began near the national hospital, then made its way to Ibn Abbas Plaza, where it staged its rally. 90,000 people are estimated to have taken part in that demonstration.

Another important presence in the political scene is the February 25 Movement. Inspired by the spirit of the Arab Spring, and in response to calls by activists on the internet, Mauritanian youth took to the streets on 25February 2011. The youth’s slogans extolled the idea of a civil state, called for an end to the military state, and made a number of social and economic demands. The intensity of the demonstrations took the regime by surprise, and the state moved to repress them within two weeks of the first demonstration.

The youth, who became known as “February 25 youth”, began organizing themselves in a number of different structures. First, there was the “February 25 coordinating body”, but soon, tensions and disagreements appeared between the members, leading to the dissolution of the group. A segment of the members had attempted to enter into dialogue with the General, a move that was condemned by the majority as a betrayal of a movement still in its infancy.  Following the collapse of the coordinating body, a “25 February youth coalition” was formed, which took over leadership of the movements’ youth, and it managed to effect a strong youth presence in the Mauritanian street.

Throughout this period, the regime was very active in its repression of the movement, treating the youth with extreme harshness and thwarting their efforts with the help of its intelligence services. A segment of the organizers managed to hold together however, and established the “25 February Movement” that is still active today.

February 25 uses marches, sit-ins, other forms of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance to protest the situation in Mauritania. In addition, the movement organizes online campaigns against corruption, injustice and the repressive tactics with which dissent is met in the country. Though February 25 relies mainly on Facebook for mobilization, it does employ more direct tactics, such as leaflet distribution and poster-hanging.

The Movement makes various demands, including:

  • The establishment of a democratic, institutionally based state where governance is exercised by the people without oversight by the military;
  • Strengthening national unity and creating real solidarity between various components of Mauritania’s people by combating all forms of racism and marginalization, eradicating slavery and its remnants, and instituting positive discrimination (affirmative action) measures to benefit the most vulnerable groups in society;
  • Giving women their proper standing so as to enable them to contribute to building Mauritanian society side by side with men;
  • An education system that truly caters for the needs of the labor market and creates jobs that can guarantee a dignified life;
  • An end to the institutionalized looting of the country’s wealth and the better utilization of national resources;
  • Enabling civil society to play a more effective role in state-building and reform; and
  • The Establishment of mutual respect and cooperation with other countries and a foreign relations based on serving and protecting Mauritania’s interests and the interests of its citizens.

According to some observers, February 25 youth have played an important role in Mauritania’s politics. Their repeated public demonstrations have entrenched a culture of protest in the country, to the point that protesting is a normal event in Mauritania today.

Observers however fault the movement because, despite its national and inclusive demands, most of its activists are Arabs, and therefore do not reflect the diversity of Mauritanian society, which is composed of Arabs, blacks and descendants of former slaves (“Haratine”).

The movement has tried to remedy this by linking up with other protest movements that represent non-Arabs, including the “Don’t Touch my Nationality” black protest movement as well as “IRA Mauritanie”- the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania. With COD joining the call on the street for the removal of the regime, these groups have begun to participate alongside the other organizations.

An activity carried out recently by February 25 was a symbolic action, which took the form of a protest in front of the constitutional court on July 10 (2012), the anniversary of the first coup in Mauritania’s history (1978). Security dispersed the protestors quickly, and arrested some of the movement’s activists.

Looking forward, Mauritania’s opposition parties and youth movements face a great challenge. If they want to achieve real change and bring down the regime, they will have to win over all segments of Mauritanian people – Arab, black and descendants of former slaves, in order to create solidarity and unity capable of mobilizing the silent majority of Mauritania’s street to bring an end to the military state.

The Return of the Opposition in Gabon

“I left Gabon in a wheelchair; I’ll come back on my two legs. People that have said I’m dead and gone had better prepare to fight against my ghost.”

-Gabon’s main opposition leader Andre Mba Obame in July 2012

After 14 months of exile the leader of Gabon’s outlawed Union Nationale (UN) party Andre Mba Obame, returned to Libreville on August 11th to be greeted by a few hundred supporters at Leon M’ba International Airport. His arrival marked the return of an opposition party in the Central African state, as since the death of Pierre Mamboundou in October 2011, leader of the UPG (Union of the Gabonese People), politics had been dominated by President Ali Bongo Ondimba. Son of Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon for 42 years until his death, Ali Bongo’s first term as the new leader of the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) began in September 2009 after a controversial electoral victory. The outcome was challenged by his opponent Mr. Obame claiming widespread fraud, but even after the constitutional court affirmed the result, violent protests broke out across the nation. A longtime powerful minister in Omar Bongo’s regime, Obame switched sides after the PDG rejected his candidacy for succession and chose the president’s son to lead the party, thus solidifying the political and personal divide between the two Gabonese policymakers.

A year and a half later and the creation of his new Union Nationale opposition party, Mba Obame declared a stolen election proclaiming himself the victor and the rightful leader of Gabon, complete with a formal inauguration and the selection of a parallel cabinet. These actions led to charges of “disturbing public order” and “threatening state authority,” leading Obame to seek refuge in the local United Nations compound.  In his final days in Gabon before flying to France for “heath reasons,” his Union Nationale party was banned and diplomatic immunity removed, leaving Mr. Obame vulnerable to arrest and prosecution. Therefore the stage was set for a dramatic political clash at the capital airport.  But surprisingly the opposition leader’s landing was undisturbed, and he returned home comfortably.  The army observed from a far and PDG authorities proclaimed that Andre Mba Obame’s return was simply a “non event.”

This semblance of calm was short-lived as on the 15th of August Andre Mba Obame’s supporters took to the streets.  They were met with tear gas and batons, as police were quickly called upon to disband an outlawed party’s unauthorized demonstration.  Protestors threw rocks and bottles and after an afternoon of confrontation, one woman had died, dozens were injured, and over 63 people were arrested.  The crackdown continued after the streets had settled, as masked gunmen burnt a TV station transmitter[1] owned by Mr. Mba Obame, heightening tension between rival party members.

Political posturing followed as the public prosecutor for the Gabonese capital reiterated her firm intention to arrest the “public nuisance,” to which Mr. Obame defiantly responded to the government challenge “Go on. I dare them.”  Union Nationale representatives have reiterated the calls of the Gabonese Diaspora for a sovereign national conference[2] and sweeping reforms, which Ali Bongo instantly rejected, dismissing the notion of a political crisis in Gabon.

Yet on the 25th of August, ten days after their initial demonstration, 1500 Union Nationale supporters held an official rally in party headquarters where Andre Mba Obame addressed his followers and his accusers in a determined and passionate speech.  This time the police stayed back, following the interior minister’s guidelines that the rally would be allowed if they remained within the confines of their reopened office in Libreville.  The attendees obliged, and returned home without incident, passing the mobilized gendarmes on their way.

In addition to the party’s rally, other segments of civil society have also begun to voice their concern. The influential movement Ça Suffit Comme Ça released a damming communiqué calling for the release of the political prisoners from the August 15th demonstrations.  According to their report, the incarcerated 63 have been subject to torture and degrading treatment over the past few weeks, contrary to Gabon’s international treaty obligations.

These developments all speak to impact of Obame’s return, helping to invigorate a previously disillusioned opposition party and reviving voices of discontent.  The interior minister’s decision to stand down and to allow the banned Union Nationale the right to assemble seems to reflect an understanding by the PDG that an arrest of Obame may no longer be politically feasible. To do so would almost certainly reignite the violent post-electoral clashes of 2009, and perhaps an even broader political crisis. With soaring food prices, a completely oil-based economy, dissatisfied unions and high youth unemployment; this is an additional problem that Ali Bongo would be smart to avoid.

As of the 7th of September the standoff continues, as the government has yet to engage the banned opposition and their growing calls for dialogue.  Today in the southern city of Mouila, Union Nationale party members and new opposition voices have begun to draft a common declaration to submit to the government on the terms of a sovereign national conference.  Ali Bongo’s response will dictate the trajectory of this political confrontation. On the one hand he could help pacify the resistance by providing political space for the opposition and reinstating the banned party, perhaps in return for their recognition of his ruling status. But if the violent crackdown of the 15th of August is the chosen reply, the President of the Gabonese Republic may have helped inspire a threat truly worthy of his concern.


[1] This article, as well as many others was written in French. All translations and interpretations are very much my own, unless otherwise attributed.

[2] Although the details of such a conference have yet to be defined, the establishment of new national union government and revised constitution are two of the desired outcomes.

An African Lysistrata in Togo

On Saturday 25 August in Lomé Togo, a group of female civil society activists from the organization Let’s Save Togo or ‘Collectif Sauvons le Togo’ (CST) called on Togolese women to abstain from sex for one week to put pressure on men to take action against President Faure Gnassingbe. The unhappiness with the current president stems from new electoral reforms, which protestors believe will make it more difficult for opposition parties to win seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2012.

American-educated President Faure Gnassingbe, who came to power in 2005 after the death of his father President Gnassingbe Eyadema, was re-elected in 2010, continuing the family’s 43-year rule. Faure’s coming to power in 2005 was marred with heavy violence in the country.  UNHCR estimates that between 400-500 protestors were killed, and that human rights abuse of opposition supporters, mainly the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), was widespread. In comparison, the 2010 elections were relatively calm except for some protest from supporters of the UFC when party leader and presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Fabre claimed victory, despite the counter-claim by the Togolese electoral commission that Gnassingbe had won. Since he has been in power, the tiny country of 7 million has experienced little growth and hovers around the rank of 162 on the Human Development Index.

The “Lysistratic non-action” form of protest, currently being used against the Togolese regime, has short roots in Africa. Most notably, this form of protest was used in Liberia in 2003 by the organization Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, headed by Leymah Gboweewho. Gboweewho. In her mobilizing speech for the swift disarmament of fighters and for the end of rape women and young girls at the end of the country’s brutal 14 year civil war, she poignantly told the media, “Our bodies are their battlefield.” In 2009, a sex strike was initiated in Kenya by the Women’s Development Organization in an attempt to draw attention to the country’s “bickering leadership,” which threatened to reignite the post-electoral violence that characterized 2008, during which over 1,000 people were killed.

But why a sex strike? In Liberia, where the strikes centered on sexual violence against women, sex had a symbolic appeal as a tool of protest.  In Kenya in 2009, supporters of the strike admitted to using sex as their protest weapon because sex gets people to listen and to talk. The issue in Kenya was fighting between the president and the prime minister and a fear that the country would relapse into violence. In Togo, it seems that the use of the sex strike follows the same reasoning as the Kenyan protest. By abstaining from sexual interaction it is their hope to spark widespread media attention and spread the message that CST demands a change of power, rather than being directly related to women’s issues.

However successful the strike is in garnering support for the cause, even the state-owned Liberté media site sees the humor in it.