Burundi's spring? A handbook of 'revolution' from Africa on how movements win - and lose

In the past decade, over 90 major protests took place in over 40 African countries

IN the words of Henry Thoreau “disobedience is the true foundation of liberty”. Eyes are increasingly on Burundi as the small East African nation wrangles in yet another battle with a strongman, with 21,000 people already having fled to neighbouring  Rwanda as refugees. 

Protestors are marking a third day of demonstration which was sparked after the ruling party nominated incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for a third term - a move which, critics, say violates the country’s constitution that limits a leader’s term to two.

So far at least seven protestors have been killed, 320 people, including leading human rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, have been arrested and the main independent radio station was shut down on Monday. 

Whether in the form of strikes, marches, rallies, boycotts, or unorganised outbursts of violence, Africa’s increasingly interconnected people these days seem eager to go onto the streets in defence of their rights and to voice their grievances. 

The people get more militant

South Africa for example, where the police diligently record protest data, reported an annual average of 9,300 “crowd management incidents” between 2004 - 2012. 

Meanwhile in 2011, in Senegal alone, the Ministry of the Interior registered 3,295 demonstrations. 

But these incidents are not isolated to a few countries. In their 2015 book, “Africa Uprising”, Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly document over 90 major protests in the past decade occurring in over 40 African countries. The book attributes this in part to many in Africa have lost faith in democratic elections as the solution to structural problems and, in an interview with African Arguments, the authors explain that “by this standard, few African countries are not vulnerable to popular protest.”

In terms of effectiveness, the large number of demonstrations that have taken place have culminated into a mixed batch of successes and perceived failures, with some clear examples of what worked and what didn’t.

Grab attention

In Kenya activists have mastered the art of grabbing attention - a key factor in successful protest, generating social and traditional media coverage for issues and developing a national momentum for the grievance to be addressed. 

There have been branded donkeys dropped off in the central business district as a protest over the government’s inability to protect citizens from terrorist attacks; blood covered pigs to depict newly elected MPs who demanded higher salaries; and protests involving giant mock babies to represent the “childish” apathy of the Kenyan people. The demonstrations have registered some successes, with MPs agreeing to take a pay cut in 2013, though the legislators still earn around $75,000 a year!

Generating widespread media coverage can also get the message across oceans to the diaspora - a group that can garner further support for the movement, either in the form of funding or in demonstrating themselves. 

Using the diaspora

This was seen in 2012 with the “Occupy Nigeria” uprising, one of the largest in the country’s history, in response to the government’s removal of oil subsidies. Nigerians in New York city, Australia, Toronto, South Africa, London, Sweden and Accra all protested outside those embassies ensuring that even though the demonstrations flamed out after two weeks, the uprising had sent shockwaves through both the national and global elites. 

The huge demonstrations at home and abroad resulted in a government concession that saw gasoline prices reduced. In corruption-riddled Nigeria, the oil subsidy has great symbols as the “only thing the people benefit from” the country’s oil wealth.

Central command

Central command structures are key to ensuring a clearer, more effective structure for action along with clearer goals about what to aim for. Jamila Raqib, the executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, explains that this “can also help with practical things like the need for food and water, [so that a] movement can last longer.”

A good example example was South Africa’s 2014 platinum mining strike, spearheaded by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). While the success of the movement can be attributed to crippling the world’s top platinum producer, having a central command structure allowed the strike to last for five months (the longest work stoppage in the country’s history), coordinate 70,000 miners in downing their tools and generate a consensus among workers on signing an agreement with three of the world’s largest platinum mining companies - Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum mining. 

Be disruptive

The South African miners’ protest was also successful because of its massive, disruptive nature within a key sector. Huge disruption was also a key factor in one of the world’s most famous movement’s, the Arab spring when a dramatic wave of social and political unrest in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were so large in nature that they could not be quelled. In Egypt in 2013 for example, 17 million people are reported to have taken to the streets to overturn the government led by President Morsi. The Spring’s mass demonstrations were a force that could not be reckoned with - forcing leaders into exile, overwhelming security and allowing rebel forces to rise. 

The sheer extent of mass demonstrations also led to the ousting of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré last year. In October 2014, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest President Blaise Compaoré’s “constitutional coup,” as they called his plan to force through an amendment enabling him to run for reelection yet again, after more than a quarter century in power.

Army support

What was also evident in the success of Burkina Faso’s movement is the well-known notion that the support of the military is key in the success of any movement. The grip that Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has on military support is one of the key reasons the country’s 2011 “Walk to Work” protest, a peaceful four week-long nationwide demonstration against corruption, rising food and fuel prices, reached a peak and was beaten down. However in Burkina Faso’s, because the military faced a split within its own ranks, military officers quickly decided to declare the government’s dissolution, before the situation in the streets escaped anyone’s control. 

Today, while the Burundi demonstrations go strong, a Monday report stated that soldiers were protecting some of the protestors. The springs in other African nations started the same way, so for a brief moment there Burundi’s activists might have seen a glimmer of something bigger on the horizon. Time will tell.


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