Africa Uprising examines recent political uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa. It places them in the context of existing, and sometimes forgotten, traditions of resistance.
Its authors lament, “Again and again protests across Africa seem unable to effect substantive reforms in national politics despite their success in bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets.” They describe protest movements in Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.
They rightly complain that African movements are often judged against an abstract ideal of democracy that doesn’t take into account the different circumstances of the participants. The cowardly role of significant Nigerian unions comes under scrutiny, as do the great lengths that the Ethiopian state has gone to in undermining “passive networks of support” that the opposition movement had developed among the dispossessed. But, if future movements are to both overthrow corrupt governments and replace them with something sustainably better wider lessons need to be learned.
The authors discuss divisions between people who live in the cities and the countryside. Within urban protest movements they distinguish between “civil society or those Africans aspiring to inclusion” and those who cannot be included. They include organised workers in the former group, while the urban poor with no formal job they see as centrally important, calling this second group “political society’.”
They note that this group’s protests “may not conform to a liberal model of what protest ‘should’ look like”.
It is a pity that they find Marxist definitions of social class “inadequate”. They are suspicious of an over-prescriptive view of how sections of society relate to each other. The authors look instead for inspiration to anti-colonial leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon. They believe that Fanon’s writings in particular can be useful for rebels today. The authors talk of how African social movements come from a complex social tapestry that is oversimplified by commentators in the West.
But they in turn can occasionally write as if the urbanisation and growth of the working class in Europe were not riven by complex ethnic and class structures. Branch and Mampilly talk about how many African states came to be “choiceless democracies” where citizens formally had the vote but either there was no significant difference between the parties or it was not possible to unseat a leader. This was a problem for country after country as Cold War dictators were overthrown in the 1990s. This is also a problem for those rising now.
Africa Uprising is a welcome addition to the debate but it is better at raising questions than providing answers, so it is a stage, not a conclusion.