EARLY last week an estimated one million protestors massed in a square in Ouagadougou, the capital of the west African nation of Burkina Faso and its 17 million people.
It was the height of rallies against president Blaise Compaore’s bid to push through a parliamentary vote to amend the constitution and extend his 27-year rule.
Few would have predicted what would happen on Thursday. Angry demonstrators surged, torching Parliament, ransacking the national television headquarters, burning the homes of pro-government MPs, and setting fire to the ruling party headquarters in Burkina Faso’s second city of Bobo Dioulasso.
Less than 24 hours later, Compaore was fleeing to neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire. Army chief General Honore Traore, seen as a Compaore ally, then laid claim to the throne. The opposition and sections of the military rejected him, and almost immediately the military named a high-ranking officer, Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, leader of a young officers group, to head the country’s transition.
The opposition and civil society won’t have any of it, despite his overtures to them, and have vowed to press on until power is handed to a democratic civilian leadership. The UN has also threatened to impose sanctions if they don’t have over quickly to a civilian authority.
The “Black Spring”
The Burkina Faso activists have nicknamed the square where they gathered “Revolution Square”.
But perhaps the most quoted and famous words of a week of revolt came from Emile Pargui Pare, an official of the Movement of the People for Progress (MPP), a young and influential opposition party.
He said; “October 30 is Burkina Faso’s Black Spring, like the Arab Spring.”
When in 2011 the Arab street in North Africa rose against entrenched autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and in a notably bloody way Libya, it was widely debated whether the uprisings would come down south and topple Big Men in sub-Saharan Africa.
Now, the debate has returned, and there is no shortage of dire predictions for the long-ruling African leaders who are either trying to change constitutions to cling to office, or have been in power well past their sell-by date.
However, it pays to remember that despite the Arab Spring, in a string of elections where ruling parties or leaders had been in power for 30 years and over – from Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe – they not only won, but some (like in Uganda where at that point President Yoweri Museveni office for 25 years) increased their majorities, albeit amidst cries by the opposition of vote cheating.
In the North African epicentre of the Spring, Egypt came close to imploding. It was an anti-democratic party, The Muslim Brotherhood, which won democratic elections after long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Violence and terrorism proliferated, and in the end, the military – much like has happened in Burkina Faso – seized power, ejected the Brotherhood, and organised elections that its chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi handily won.
Libya is being torn apart by sectarian and jihadist violence, and might never be one country again. Things are so bad; there is nostalgia for its dictator Muammar Gaddafi who was lynched by a revolutionary mob in October 2011.
The exception is Tunisia; the birthplace of the Arab Spring where, though faced by the threat of rising terrorism, is still a far freer place today than in 2011 and has made democratic progress.
The secular Nidaa Tounes party just won the country’s landmark legislative polls, beating Islamist rivals Ennahda, who did something one rarely runs into in Africa – just hours after polling stations closed it conceded graciously that it had been beaten into second place by Nidaa Tounes.
It is perhaps not surprising that Tunisia is the outlier. Compared to the other Arab Spring countries, it is a tiny speck in size. That size in turn has meant that without a too-remote hinterland, most parts of it have been directly influenced by cosmopolitan and Mediterranean influences than in Egypt or, worse, Libya.
And that is the point. All the major political changes in Africa since the 20th century have not been shaped not just by events on the continent alone. Other global forces needed to come in play for them to cause an internal shift.
These influences go in all directions - thus the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movements in the west, where young people were angry at the fallout from the financial crisis, but had not figured a form to express it until North Africa erupted.
Again, in Africa’s case, independence would have taken much longer, or come via a different path, if World War I and World War II had not enfeebled European colonial empires, and made their authority easier to challenge.
The wars also produced new powers, the US and the Soviet Union, which wanted geopolitical and economic entry into European colonies, and thus needed colonialism to end so they could negotiate new deals for themselves in former dominions.
Also, African veterans, especially in World War II, returned with a broader worldview, and having killed Europeans in battle, ceased to be beholden to the idea that somehow they were invincible.
Further, Africa has to thank folks like Jamaican politician and theoretician Marcus Garvey for inspiring movement like pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism did many things, one of the most important being to implant the idea that people of colour – and others who believed in the rightness of their cause - irrespective of their country of citizenship, had a moral duty to work for the freedom and dignity of people of colour all over the world.
The result of that was, for example, virtually no country in Africa became independent without either a lobby, or influential intellectuals, in the capitals of imperial powers also campaigning for it.
End of Cold War
The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the “end” of the Cold War that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR) also brought equally dramatic changes.
For Africa, these shifts had started in 1976 with the death of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. It soon became clear that the highly ideologised “solidarity” politics that characterised the relations between African countries like Tanzania and Zambia, that ensured critical infrastructure to keep these economies tottering along like the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) were built, was changing.
Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng, was weak and ruled China for five years before he was eased out by the wily Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s former confidant who had been purged twice.
Africa was placed on the back burner in Beijing and it’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that the love affair has been rekindled with vigour. Regime vulnerabilities started to pile up for those governments on the continent that relied on China.
It is also important to remember that a key point of unity in Africa of the 1970s was “anti-Zionism” and solidarity with the Palestinians. Military dictators of the time, like Uganda’s deranged Idi Amin, played it adroitly to buy themselves diplomatic capital with rich Arab regimes in the Middle East. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) always had a strong statement condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands at every summit.
Then in March 1979, Egypt’s Anwar El Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin signed a peace deal.
With that, another ideological clutch fell away (especially for radical African regimes), so the end of the Cold War found a continent that was already groping for new directions.
A shrinking and broke Soviet Union could no longer prop up its “socialist” allies in Africa. The cost for its former allies like Mozambique, for example, supporting South African anti-apartheid liberation movements on their own without the USSR and Cuba (at a time when commodity prices were tumbling), would be too high.
Equally, the west now had less reason to back anti-communist regimes in South Africa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and rebel groups like Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, at the high price tag they used to, because the communist “menace” had disappeared. They were now on their own.
Running for the middle
Everyone had to cut their losses, so most parties chose to negotiate. Mozambique agreed to have the African National Congress (ANC), especially its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), leave its soil. It relocated far away to Uganda.
The apartheid regime in turn made concessions that opened the way for the independence of Namibia in March 1990. Secret negotiations also started, culminating in the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the beginning of the formal end of apartheid and a democratic dawn in South Africa.
The end of one-party dictatorships, the writing of new constitutions, the opening up of airwaves to independent TV and radio, economic liberalisation, and financial sector and foreign exchange reforms all followed. The premium on being socialist or anti-communist had collapsed. It no longer guaranteed you a cheque to keep your regime functioning from Washington, London, Moscow, or Beijing.
To survive, African regimes needed more consent and economic participation by their citizens. They bribed them with freedom, and gave them the incentive of free markets that allowed them to keep more of their earnings for themselves - but also create new sources of tax in the process.
While the negotiations to end apartheid started immediately, others took longer. Rwanda-backed rebels overthrew one of the top western anti-communist allies in Africa, Zaire/DRC’s Mobutu Sese Seko, in September 1997.
Savimbi fought on, meeting his end the way he lived most of his life – at the end of a gun – in the bushes of Angola in February 2002.
Pool of discontent
The Arab Spring and Burkina’s Black Spring tap into a common pool of discontent you find almost everywhere else in the world; growing corruption; scandalous level of inequality at a time when the world is minting billionaires in record numbers; youth unemployment in countries where record numbers of people of people are below 25 (in Burkina’s Faso’s case 65%).
This particular point should worry the continent’s strongmen and women. Africa’s population is younger than the rest of the world: Today 50% are aged under 20 years. By 2050 this median age will have risen to 25, but still far below the global average of 36 years.
What the Arab Spring and now Black Spring have provided are the forms of protest against the world economic order today. But, as the fizzling out of the Occupy movements and the reversals in Egypt have shown, these youth movements have not found and therefore don’t express a solution.
It explains why these movements can turn an issue like #BringBackOurGirls, a protest against the abduction of over 200 school girls by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria in April into a viral phenomenon, run out of wind some months later, and lurch on to another issue like climate change next.
There is a lot of incoherence, although it is a good thing – it suggests there is a search. But it has its underside, like the “revolutionaries” going on a looting binge, as they did in Ouagadougou - the result of the lack of a greater ideal.
No doubt, times today are more complex. In the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s it was easier and straightforward: End one party rule; adopt term limits; make central banks independent; educate the girl child and expand primary school enrolment; do more to fight AIDS; bring more women into political leadership, and so forth.
Even opposition parties, except in places like Tunisia where there are clear distinctions between secular and regular parties, everywhere else the lines are blurred, and parties are struggling to fashion a counter-narrative to that of the incumbents.
Among the popular posters at the Occupy Wall Street protests were the ones proclaiming, “A different world is possible”. Yes, it is. Problem is, no one seems to have quite figured it out yet.
No one in the world has got a handle on how to comprehensively deal with issues like youth unemployment and inequality, at a time when it is happening partly as a result of something progressive - rapid advancement in technology, and the fact that if you own Facebook your customers are no longer just in America, but the world, which means you will be several times richer than if you did a similar business in 1980.
Until there is either an African, European, or Asian creative solution that feeds into the revolutionary stream, and is tested (even something as basic as a 21st Century scout or peace corps movement), the Burkina Faso Black Spring will only be one leg of the relay.
It can hand the baton to someone else who will run the next leg, but it’s not the one that will take the race to the tape in Africa.