Monday, May 30, 2011

Why No Youth Revolution for the Sub-Saharan Africa?

Last week I attended an opened debate on the Arab awakening organised by a major African nonprofit organisation and realised that nobody was tweeting nor the organiser had a functioning Twitter profile. Bang!!! That was a wake up call.

Since the beginning of this year, there has been hysteria about information communication technologies (ICTs) especially the use of mobile and online media. Nonprofit organisations and mainstream media have been stressing the importance and role that ICTs can play for human rights, development and social justice. More importantly, the Arabe awakening in the Middle East countries which echo the youth revolution in Tunisia has been an historical moment, evidence of the importance of new media for democracy.

While we acknowledge successful stories with the use of these tools and their potential in galvanising youth for civil activism and other sensitive issues, there is feeling that the sub-Saharan Africa region is behind and seems unable to seize the momentum with revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Should youth in Sub-Saharan countries expect identic revolutions or what should they do?

There are lessons to learn from these revolutions.

I strongly believe that every revolution has something specific and its media coverage has particular dimensions. Just as the army played a major role in the Egyptian uprising, I will expect tribes to define the outcomes of unrest in Yemen.

Therefore, I would oppose ideas that Africa or more specifically the sub-Saharan Africa will not experience a youth revolution because internet penetration and social media user numbers are lower, or because the role of tribes in Sub-Saharan countries is not as powerful as in Arabic countries.

Rather, I suggest looking at factors which played in favor of youth in Tunisia, Egypt and at certain extend Yemen. Doing such exercise will help us understand where Africa’s revolution may start and how should we approach what still be a dream for freedom and better life for millions of Africans oppressed in authoritarian regimes. There must be something specific that Sub-Saharan youth should build from.

Here are four small social facts which I think play a major role in youth revolution in North Africa and the Middle East:

1. Friday prayers: Is Islam more favorable to revolution than the Christian religion? – one could ask. This is a pertinent question worth a research that I will not try here to discuss. To say the truth I have not an answer to the question. However, on a simple consideration of the role Friday prayers play, we should realise that they served as catalysers to gather thousands. Consequently, though governments may have declared state-of-emergency and ipso facto restricts movement of population, they could not deny them their right to pray.
As young, old, children and women go to pray on Friday and get to the street soon after, that was a blow to security forces. I personnaly believe that this wouldn’t be easy if people had to come from their home.

The context of Sub-Saharan African countries where religions are far more diversified, people are scattered between so many believes. The hope of a Friday prayer meeting effect in such a case is very small unless interfaith and faith based organisations take the lead to galvanised masses to get into street after their Sunday services.

2. Use of social media: While many things are still being said about Twitter and Facebook. I would like to emphasise that there are many other tools that have been used such as other arab networking sites. But more importantly, the fact that English was used mainly and not the Arabic, contributed to raise awareness to a far more bigger audience especially in the west. Which outcomes into more pressure on the regime.

In the Sub-Saharan region, there are particularities/preferences which must be taken in account. The region has francophone, anglophone and lusophone countries and each group has specific social networks. For example, in South Africa, more youth use Mxit while in French speaking countries Yahoo Messenger chat and MySpace not long ago were top social networking sites. A prerequisite research on most used network on the ground is indispensable if social medial as to play an important role alike in Middle East.

3. Geopolitic: International institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union have been criticised of double stardard when dealing with human rights abuses in some countries or regions. We cannot ignore the strategic importance that stability in some countries play for peace in the region or countries resources role in the global economy. I was not surprised to see how the USA/the West acted with urgency on the Egyptian revolution than they did in Tunisia. Egypt weights in the balance for Israel/Middle East peace process.

The chance for most sub-Saharan countries to get at the eye of the USA/the West and translate into their action will take Africa youth/protestors to play the right tune. Colonial powers, alike France and Great Britain have each different interest and often take firm action in their colonies. I was not surprised that France almost played it solo in Ivory Cost to help the elected president Alassane Ouattara gets into power. A concerted action such as in Libya, should it be needed in a Sub-Saharan francophone or Anglophone country is not likely I personally think.

4. Revolutions with no face: The fact that there was no leader to the revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen made it even more popular. Since the protest could not or abstain to get politicised, consequently it gained credibility to thousands of citizens.

Peaceful protest in the street of many African countries still has to be seen. Yet, if that should happen, protesters will have to stand their ground against the crackdown from regimes in place as well as resist opportunistic politicians who may highjack or weaken their revolution.

Overall, whatever we see or have seen in Egypt and Tunisia did not start this year. The revolution in Egypt did not just happened in Tahrir squared. It has been in gestation underground, inside and outside Egypt borders. Many events and circumstances contributed to shaping a revolution.

Just as the case in North Africa, many African countries are going through phase of protest and repression.

- DR Congo: Congolese diaspora in Europe, USA, Canada and South Africa have been protesting and disturbing gathering of whoever endorse publically president Kabila for the upcoming elections. Though these protests show a lack of coordination, more and more Congolese have started supporting this cause and oppose the reelection of Kabila who has been in charge for 10 years. Unless those in Kinshasa join and get to the street, they won’t be pressure on the regime.

- Uganda: People got to the street to protest against the president Museveni reelection, the rising fuel price as well as food cost. Museveni regime did crackdown on the protest which since seem have lost momentum. I find it unfortunate that protestors endorsed Besigye, Museveni’s main opposant as the main figure to their cause. I still not see how events in Uganda can lead to a revolution because tribal alliances and citizens’ affinities toward Besigye will weaken it. Protestors’ grieves may not be viewed by other Ugandans as a common concern.

- Zimbabwe and Swaziland: We have heard about civil society organisations protests which had been violently suppressed. In these countries, internet penetration still at its lowest compared to other African countries and the cost of telecommunication is among the highest in the continent. Putting in place a massive protest would require the use of adequate off-line media that organisers do not have despite backing and supports from South African trade unions like COSATU which has been a think-tank for civil rights activists in the region.

- Rwanda: The government in Rwanda has nothing to fear from inside. The threat is outside – the opposition to Kagame has been organising. Reports that the Rwandans government made death threats onto two Rwandans in exile is not surprising. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu still in exile and some of them have been leaving in refugee camps in DR Congo and Central African Republic for more than 17 years fearing repression in Rwanda. Now, using social media and traditional media such as Al Jazeera, this group is lobbying its cause for freedom in Rwanda. Soon or later, if the regime in Kigali doesn’t become inclusive of other ethnic groups, another violent revolution is to be feared.

Definitely, the African continent is the host to the world longest regimes, with head-of-state into power for more than 20 years in countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Republic of Congo, Gabon and Burkina Faso. More than in any other continent, Africans as a whole deserve the right to freedom and development. However, the possibility with a revolution in sub-Saharan African countries will also rely on the youth’s courage to overcome institutional repression and the ability to coordinate massive protests.

There is no doubt that both African youth and head-of-states are learning from unfolding events in the Middle East and North Africa. Given this circumstance, only the courage, unpredictability and creativity of African youth will give them the upper hand over dictatorship. The digital divide is a fact in Sub-Saharan Africa with household crippled by unemployment and HIV/AIDS. Unless African youth learn to use what they have and bypass states censorship to mobilise the masses, the revolution will never happen.