THE LAST couple of weeks have bad been ones for African protesters – or good ones, depending on how you want to look at it.
It began with the ugly teargassing of children at a public primary school in Nairobi, who were protesting the grabbing of their playground by a “private developer”.
In scenes reminiscent of the 1976 Soweto uprising, it was mayhem as children tried to escape the choking fumes, and Kenyans were incredulous that police dogs and assault rifles had been brought to “fight” 6-14 year-old children.
In the DR Congo, 40 people were killed in riots in Kinshasa that started out as a protest against legislation that would see President Joseph Kabila’s extend his rule by a possible three years, but ended as a spate of looting Chinese-owned stores.
And in South Africa, anti-foreign mobs went on a looting rampage mid-week in Soweto, before spreading to other townships west of Johannesburg, where grocery shops owned by Pakistanis, Somalis and Bangladeshis were targeted.
These protests are all part of a bigger trend happening in Africa at the moment.
Extensive data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that since the mid-1990s, the incidence of war, particularly civil wars driven by rebels, has dropped considerably, while that of riots and protests has risen sharply.
2011 a revolutionary year
The biggest spike was in 2011 with the North African protests, but even in the rest of Africa, riots, protests, demonstrations, boycotts and sit-ins are increasingly commonplace.
Egypt has had the greatest number of riots and protests of any African country since the ACLED database began in 1997, with over 3,600 incidents up till 2014.
The biggest single year of demonstrations was 2013 when a seven-month long protest comprising civil disobedience, demonstrations and strikes culminated in President Muhammad Morsi’s ousting on July 13.
But the second-most restive country over the past nearly two decades has not been a repressive or authoritarian regime. On the contrary, its constitution and civil liberties are regarded the most progressive in Africa.
South Africa has recorded nearly as many protests as Egypt, at 3,594 between 1997 and 2014.
Protests in South Africa take the form of strikes and industrial action, but also so-called “service delivery” protests.
It hints to the tensions of the post-apartheid order that the country is grappling with.
There’s a majority of the population on one hand that expects a redistribution of wealth as a form of restitution for apartheid, but the reality is that the ruling African National Congress (ANC), though espousing a pro-people social-democratic rhetoric, in practice is firmly on the side of protecting elite interests.
Culture of protest
Yet the culture of protest is firmly entrenched in South Africa’s political and social fabric. After decades of the apartheid regime successfully keeping a lid on discontent among the black population, in the 1980s violent protests emerged as a form of resistance.
The violence was widespread and systematic, and explicitly encouraged by the ANC at the time as part of a “revolutionary” strategy to make the country “ungovernable”, to force the government to fold or grant democratic concessions under the pressure.
It was one of the dominoes that led to the fall of apartheid, and protest remains a part of the culture: South Africa has perhaps the strongest labour movement in Africa.
Nigeria and Kenya come in at third and fourth place, with 1,727 and 1,432 protests respectively. Tunisia is fifth at 995, but 99% of them happened during and after 2011’s Arab Spring – before that, Tunisia was a very quiet place.
In sixth place, surprisingly, is Somalia. In every way, Somalia and tenth place Democratic Republic of Congo are the odd ones out of the top ten “most restive” countries.
Algeria, Zimbabwe and Sudan round out the top ten, and these ten, with the exception of Somalia and DRC, have a few things in common.
They are all big countries geographically with high literacy rates; a relatively high tax-to-GDP ratio, or an abundance of oil revenues; and a well-developed middle class.
In a way, the riots and street battles are a means of negotiating for democratic space. Since the population is fairly educated, they know their rights, and the country is rich enough to have something to fight over.
In Zimbabwe’s case, although it has experienced a precipitous fall in its economic fortunes since 2000, it remains Africa’s most literate country – 90% of the adult population can read and write – and there’s a distinct, middle-class identity in a city like Harare, a legacy of its colonial settler past.
And in the eight countries, even though it may be the poorer residents who actually do the demonstrating, the fact that there’s a middle-class lifestyle to aspire to – and money to fight over – stokes the discontent more than if everyone was equally poor.
It’s the explosive co-existence of the promise of democracy and prosperity, through the existence of multiple parties and a relatively free media, and the reality of authoritarian repression that drives people to the streets.
So nursing unfulfilled ambitions is more upsetting than outright misery.
But the fact that people are demonstrating for their rights suggests something else – that they actually have faith in the state apparatus. In other words, they recognise that the state has some executive capacity, and what they are really fighting for is that the state machinery would act in their interests.
If they did not believe that the government could act effectively, they would not be demonstrating, they would instead be forming rebel movements and demanding secession to create their own state that works.
Somalia and DRC stand out, however. First, they have recorded far more rebel activity and civil war than the rest of Africa, 4,974 and 4,550 incidents respectively since 1997, according to the ACLED database.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, and has essentially lurched from crisis to crisis since then.
But people still live in Somalia, the country has not been abandoned. One stunning paper by social scientist Peter T. Leeson suggests that the Somali state prior to the 1991 fall was so predatory that it reduced citizen welfare below the level of statelessness – in other words, Somalis have been better off under anarchy.
The government’s collapse and subsequent emergence of statelessness opened the opportunity for Somali progress, and indicators like life expectancy, immunisation, water and sanitation, child survival all improved under anarchy.
In particular, material prosperity, such as radio, telephone and TV ownership have improved dramatically.
Aid money and remittances from the huge Somali diaspora has certainly had a big part to play in these improved fortunes. But there is something else going on.
World’s purest capitalist experiment
Somalia could be said to be the world’s purest experiment of capitalism. The private sector delivers most public goods, such as security, electricity, communications infrastructure, garbage collection, education, healthcare, banking – everything.
For example, electricity is supplied by local businesses, using generators purchased abroad; the private utility companies have divided Somalia’s cities into specific quarters, where each has a monopoly.
A customer is even given a menu of choices for electricity tailored to his or her needs, such as evenings only, daytime only, 24 hour-supply or charge per lightbulb.
Even in “independent” Somaliland and Puntland, the government is so un-intrusive that it could be more accurately described as an “ultra-minimal” state.
So when Somalis are demonstrating, their target is a business that they pay money to, and they expect a service from. If your customers are staying in the dark night after night, or if garbage is piling up outside their home, there are no complicated and distant bureaucratic government processes that can act as a veil to cover up your lousy service.
In that way, Somalis can be said to be Africa’s most democratically-minded people, in the sense of demanding accountability from those they pay “taxes” to.