This year has been a year of resistance and revolution in Africa, not just in North Africa but across the entire continent. It has exposed brutal dictatorships, and has brought hope to millions, argues Tansy Hoskins.
Coverage of protests, strikes and brutal reprisals south of Egypt has been scant. When events are covered, certain words are used time and again to describe the situation. ‘Unprecedented’ is one such word. On a continent burdened by hard-line dictators and their armies, people are risking everything to demonstrate their desire for change on an unprecedented scale.
‘Fear’ is another word that keeps coming up, but with reference to governments and dictators not the protestors. Inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, people in many African countries have embarked on the process of change. Their governments on the other hand are doing everything they can to deny any similarities between their rule and that of Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi. They are desperate to hide the fact that their countries are sinking into food shortages, unemployment and inflation. Spurred by fear, the crackdown on protestors across Africa has been brutal but still governments seek to deny that that they have suppressed democracy, freedom of speech and the right to political participation. "There is no dictatorship here whatsoever," stated Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos who has been in power since 1979.
But these increasingly violent and desperate claims that "We have nothing to do with North Africa" are wearing thin. In today’s world, governments that cannot provide their people with jobs or food are increasingly being held accountable. Contrary to popular opinion, Africa is not a continent of poor countries. Only the people are poor – governments, companies and armies are very rich. Now, as in New York and Athens, the voices of people asking where all the money has gone are getting louder.
But unfortunately dictators don’t come without backup. The worst kept secret in the Middle East finally got exposed this year – that its brutal dictators are propped up by the West. France offered to send troops to help Ben Ali and the King of Bahrain only survived because of US weapons wielded by Saudi soldiers. Recent reports also state that the lethal teargas being used on demonstrators in Tahrir Square is supplied by a US company. Things are not different further south. Take Djibouti for example - the Bahrain of Africa – which leases Camp Lemonnier to the US in return for massive quantities of aid which sustain the government. In return for the aid, Djibouti has just sent 850 of its soldiers to fight in Somalia on behalf of the US.
‘War’ is the other unavoidable word for Africa in 2011. The last year has seen the West at war in Libya, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Uganda. The US already has its base in Djibouti and has finally admitted using bases in Ethiopia to launch drones destined for Somalia. The US has military agreements with a dozen African countries and has made the establishment of AFRICOM a top priority. The US, it seems, are just as nervous about current events as the dictators.
This could well be because the main watch-words that come up time and time again with regards to the Africa protests are ‘democracy’ and ‘the cost of living.’ Unless these two issues are urgently addressed, upheaval is unavoidable. Under the current system, there seems little chance of things getting better economically for Africa. The economic crisis that has the world by its throat is hitting Africa hard and hedge fund speculation on commodities like food is causing starvation.
Whilst the US seeks to dominate Africa militarily, China is taking the economic route. But how much more money African governments can borrow from China remains to be seen – in 2010 Ghana borrowed $16 billion from China – which amounts to half of Ghana’s GDP. It would appear that a situation like that of South Africa where according to the Financial Times, youth unemployment is about 50 per cent and almost half the population live below the poverty line, is unsustainable. However its worth remembering with Tony Cliff that “empty stomachs, besides encouraging rebellion, lead also to submission.”
What follows is a brief examination of just eight countries across a vast continent. Whilst these struggles are occurring under different flags, they share the same deep roots of oppression. But they also share the wellspring of inspiration that is flowing from Tunisia and Egypt across the world. Above all, one thing remains clear – what happens next in Egypt is absolutely key. Both for Egyptians but also for Africa.
Swaziland has been extremely hard hit by a financial crisis after revenue from the country’s main source of income, a regional customs union, dropped by 60 per cent. The loss was due to changes in the way customs money is distributed to countries in the region, a planned change which the government failed to budget for.
The result is a government unable to pay its employees or provide healthcare for the 26% of its population that is infected with Aids. Reports also state that the financial crisis has prevented Aids orphans from receiving $10m in Government grants.
Unprecedented street protests have begun despite being illegal, along with political parties. Police violence against protests, strikes and boycotts by public servants, lawyers and students has been severe. However Unions have so far flatly rejected any proposed pay cuts.
Anger is fuelled by the ruler of Swaziland – Africa’s last constitutional monarch. King Mswati III has a personal fortune of $100million and fourteen wives each of whom has her own palace. In the meantime most people in Swaziland exist on less than $2 a day.
A mysterious loan was eventually found this month to pay government workers but other than an announcement that it came from a ‘host of companies,’ its source remains unknown. One news agency reported an exiled Swazi businessman Mandla Hlatswayo as saying that “nobody knows what conditions are involved, nor is it through a public process, allowing scrutiny. It is not based on market value. There has been no comparative bidding.”
When asked how government employees are to be paid next month, a Government Minister stated: "We will cross that bridge when we come to it."
Youth activists in Swaziland are calling for help from abroad, for the ‘oxygen of international attention’: “We are not getting the attention the other countries are getting, solely because we don’t have anything in hand. If you look at Libya, you look at Tunisia, almost all those northern countries, they are rich in oil, they have minerals. So when you bring up the Swazi case, what does Swaziland have? If I try to help Swaziland, what will I get in return?”
In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, ending decades of civil war and unrest. But when South Sudan split, it took its oil with it, leaving Sudan without its main source of state revenue.
The Sudanese government’s response to this crisis has been to suggest increasing food exports to pay for the loss of oil money. However rather than help Sudan cope with its spiralling inflation, which reached 21 per cent in September 2011, this strategy may well fuel inflation and cause food prices to rise as sellers aim for high export prices. People in Sudan are struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living soars, this has led to protests against the deteriorating economic conditions.
The government’s response to these protests has been waves of what Amnesty international described as ‘arbitrary arrests of activists, trade unionists and perceived or known members of opposition parties and peaceful demonstrators.’ Reports of the torture and ill-treatment of arrestees are widespread. Those arrested include leaders of Youth for Change and in January 2011 student demonstrator Mohamed Abdelrahman died after police violence – no one has been charged for his death.
Students are playing a key role in Sudan’s protests. The University of Kassala in eastern Sudan remained under student occupation for three weeks in October 2011 until the storming of the University by police turned it into a battle ground.
Somalia and Ivory Coast
Famine-hit and war-ravaged, Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991. As well as enduring the worst regional drought in sixty years, people in Somalia are also being subjected to a war that shows no signs of ending. The people of Somalia are caught between two opposing sides, on the one hand is Al-Shabaab, an Islamic organisation labelled terrorists by the US and supposedly linked to Al Qaeda. On the other hand there is AMISOM (African Union Mission In Somalia) who are carrying out a ‘peace-keeping mission’ in Somalia. AMISOM currently comprises of troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, supported by the USA and France.
The US is unwilling to commit its own soldiers to the conflict having hastily left after ‘Black Hawk Down’ two decades ago. This has led to the conflict being ‘outsourced’ to African soldiers and private companies – see Uganda. The US has provided $45million in arms shipments for AMISOM and has used its drones to fly repeated bombing raids which have hit dozens of villages and killed countless Somalis.
According to a report in The Washington Post, the U.S. “has been secretly flying Reaper drones from a remote civilian airport in southern Ethiopia,” spending “millions of dollars to update an airfield in Arba Minch… The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighbouring Somalia.”
As well as pushing for war on Libya and fighting in Afghanistan, France also took it upon itself to intervene militarily in its former colony, Ivory Coast. France attacked military vehicles and the presidential palace of former President, Laurent Gbagbo, who was clinging to power despite losing elections in 2010. His refusal to leave office caused a civil war. The ICC now intends to investigate both sides of the conflict in which at least 3,000 people are thought to have been killed and during which over 100 cases of rape were reported.
As the news broke that Obama had started war number eight by sending troops to Uganda, this insightful article by John Glaser linked the discovery of the largest sub-Saharan onshore oil in twenty years with the war in Somalia and Obama’s attempts to keep Ugandan dictator Museveni on side and in power. Glaser quotes the Washington Post: “military advisers in Uganda could be payback for US-funded Ugandan troops in Somalia.”
Whilst the US wages yet another war and funds yet another dictator, people in Uganda have been protesting against the increasing difficulty of living their lives. Inflation has reached 28 per cent and living costs are spiralling out of control. The crackdown against peaceful protests has been deadly. Nine demonstrators were murdered in April and demonstrations in October were met with tear gas and heavy handed police. Campaigners had instigated the ‘Walk to Work’ protest whereby workers walked into work to protest against the rising cost of fuel.
Opposition leaders were rounded up and arrested, including Ingrid Turinawe, the Forum for Democratic Change’s Women’s League leader and key leader of the ‘Walk to Work’ campaign. She is now in prison, denied bail and charged with treason.
Facing its staunchest protests in April of this year, the Ugandan government tried to get Facebook and Twitter shut down; however, unlike Vodafone in Egypt, the service providers refused.
Ugandan writer Vincent Nzaramba recently released a book called "People Power, Battle the Mighty General.’ Its cover features the face of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni above the words ‘He is finished.’ Nzaramba’s book was confiscated and Nzaramba jailed, beaten and charged with inciting violence – despite the book being based on Ghandian principles of non-violence. The book includes the line: ‘They use money, intimidation, and brutal means to perpetuate themselves in power but once the people get rid of their fear and withdraw their consent then the world gets surprised at how weak the dictatorship has been.’
At the start of this month, Cameroon's President Paul Biya began his 30th year in office. Whilst opponents condemned his re-election for another seven years as fraudulent there has not been an outbreak of protests against the government.
What there has been however is an outbreak of women’s protests in the north-west of the country. Thousands of female farmers have staged protests and gone on strike demanding government action against a spate of rapes and sexual attacks carried out on them.
Cameroon has one of the highest incidences of rapes in the world. Almost half a million rapes are recorded each year although the real number will be much higher as many victims are reluctant to come forward. Whilst being convicted of rape carries a life sentence, only about 5 percent of rapists are convicted.
The women farmers in the Wum district of Cameroon rallied at the palace of a local chief to demand protection. Government officials then called a public meeting on the issue but according to the BBC some of the women walked out of the meeting, saying no clear solution had been found to end the attacks.
June 23, 2011 was such a landmark day in Senegal that it now has an organisation named after it. The June 23rd Movement or M23 came about after unprecedented clashes occurred in Senegal against the rule of 85 year old President Abdoulaye Wade and his plans to reform the constitution to ensure his re-election and the succession of his son.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets and caused a government U-turn which prevented a reduction in the number of votes needed to win a presidential election and the introduction of a Vice President post that would have shoe-horned Wades’s French educated banker son Karim into power.
The week after the U-turn thousands again took to the streets to protest against rising costs of living and frequent power blackouts. Government buildings were set on fire including the offices of the state electricity firm, Senelec.
"When we demonstrated, the president withdrew his reform - so now we are going to protest for his resignation and that of his government." One woman told the BBC.
As well as M23 a loose youth based network including rap groups has formed, organising under the slogan “Y’En a Marre!” (“Enough is enough!”). What started with political discontent around President Wade has developed to protests over the economic crisis. One member described the continent of Africa as being shaped like a question mark. Africans, he said, are starting to ask how the people of such resource rich countries remain so poor?
Writer Mbaye Sanou drew parallels with the Tunisian uprising, saying that if President Wade had not made concessions he might have ended up ousted like Ben Ali. "We were just waiting for a detonator. Everywhere else in the world people are rising up – Tunisia, Egypt. But nothing was happening here. This is the drop of water that made the vase run over."
Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for 32 years. Now a new youth protest movement is calling for him to resign and has staged an unprecedented series of protests.
Angola is Africa’s second largest producer of oil yet most Angolans live in abject poverty. Most Angolans will only spend 4.4 years at school, life expectancy is 38.2 years, and a horrific 22 per cent of newborn babies do not live past their fifth birthday.
Protesters state that the oil wealth simply does not reach the vast majority of Angolans, 70 per cent of whom live in cramped urban areas. As one protestor stated: "When I see my brothers and sisters living in these terrible conditions when the country is so rich yet people are dying of hunger and from not having clean water or medicines, I have to fight for this because I am Angolan."
The youth movement has built itself using social networking sites like Facebook and the frustration felt by ordinary people. In October 2011, 700 people protested in Luanda with placards that read "Down with the dictator" and "32 years is too long". There are also reports of industrial action taking place across the country. This is despite Government control of both state and private media outlets and the use of patronage to silence any critics.
But protestors report being made redundant, being followed by security forces and arbitrary arrests. They also face harsh reprisals at demonstrations. Despite this they show no signs of giving up with another protest scheduled for December.
In Angola, one protester succinctly summed up the struggle faced by Africa today: "The millions of Angolans who have no food, no homes, no jobs and no hope, these are the people we are trying to mobilise, and we believe things are changing, people are starting to question."
Tansy Hoskins is the activist author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She has worked for Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Islam Channel. As a political commentator she has discussed fashion, politics and change on Woman's Hour, BBC Breakfast and Channel 4's Ten O'Clock Live.
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- Introduction to Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion
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