When in late October last year a wave of protest in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou forced the then president Blaise Compaoré to flee after 27 years in power, many political commentators began to wonder which country would be next. Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly, who at the time were working on a book on urban political movements in Africa, instead, suggested their readers to look at what had already happened in the continent.
Africa Uprising. Popular protest and political change had been almost entirely written before the sudden end of the Compaoré regime, and Burkina Faso was not one of the cases taken into consideration. However, the pattern outlined throughout its pages fits perfectly with the events in Ouagadougou, as with several similar – but mainly unsuccessful – uprisings which took place in many parts of the continent, from Tunis and Cairo to Addis Abeba and Kampala. Recognizing those affinities, as Branch and Mampilly do, clearly challenges the picture of Africa as a continent almost unaffected by the wave of protest that had its roots in the so called Arab Spring and whose races can be also found in the Western world: in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, for instance, or in Ferguson, Missouri, or even in the indignados movement which took the streets of Spain in 2011.
Africa, the authors write in the first pages of the book, “is seen as too rural, too traditional and too bound by ethnicity for modern political protest to arise”. As a consequence, they add “violence is seen as the sole driver of political change in Africa by media fixated on warlords, child soldiers and humanitarian intervention. Even when popular protest on the African continent is deemed politically momentous, as it was in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, it is turned into an Arab Spring, divorced from its geographical location, with analysts asking whether Africa might ‘follow’ with an awakening of its own”.
To reverse this dominant paradigm, Branch and Mampilly are using essentially two tools. First of all, from an historical point of view, they point out that, indeed, African history – since the times of colonial rule – is one of popular uprisings that were, however, dismissed by contemporaries, and even by later scholars, as mere riots. On the contrary, if analyzed with the categories provided in this book, the same uprisings can be seen as the first wave of a series of political movements which played a great role on the continent in at least three moments. These were decolonization, the 80s and 90s against, when many countries contested the neoliberal economic reforms advocated (and in most cases imposed) by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and finally the present, when many autocratic regimes are facing mass mobilization, especially in urban areas, against their oppressive policies.
Despite warning that African protests must not be “romanticized” as if they were “part of a perennial struggle of ‘the people’ against colonial, post-colonial or neo-colonial political oppression”, the authors recognize that some common features can be observed beyond temporal, geographical, political and social differences and that these elements also originate in the years of the western domination of the continent. In particular, Branch and Mamphilly write that there “exists a historical continuity to popular protest in Africa, one based in the persistence of the social and political structures shaping the urban milieu from which protest arises. These structures have their origin in colonial rule and the stark divides it enforced”.
It is precisely in those areas, so severely hit by colonialism, that the book finds the main actor of the protests and the second element which enables it to challenge the dominant narrative. What were labeled as shapeless mobs, in fact, represent, according to the authors, a new subject, called “political society”. This is an “urban underclass” which has “immediately political relations with the state, relations unmediated by the law or by the formal procedures or institutions that are available to civil society”. It is dealt with – also making reference to the Ghanaian politician Kwame Nkrumah and the French theorist Frantz Fanon – in the second chapter (the first being an introduction to the whole topic) together with the ‘first wave’ of protest. The other two ‘waves’ are analyzed in chapters 3 and 4, which complete the first half of the book, while the last four chapters describe popular movements in Nigeria (‘Occupy Nigeria’, 2011), Uganda (‘Walk to work’, 2011), Ethiopia (2005) and Sudan (2013).
Each protest is put in context both from an historical and social point of view and, despite that none of them proved to be successful, at the end of each chapter the authors underline the new scenarios those uprisings have opened. The conclusion then argues that, despite it being unclear whether these movements will in the end bring real change or will “dissipate under state violence or [be] steered by elites into ethnic, racial or nationalist violence”, the African protests “can help illuminate today’s worldwide protest upsurge in novel ways”.
Without a doubt, this result can be seen as a major achievement of the book, which is absolutely worth reading, well documented and accurate. Nevertheless, it must not be regarded as a definitive answer to the question about African uprisings. One of the major protests in the last years (the one that went under the name of Y’en a marre, in Senegal), for instance, would have deserved an analysis but it is hardly mentioned, while the events in Burkina Faso and Burundi are providing more material to study for those willing to follow Branch and Mamphilly’s path. The last word has not yet been written on the persistent and always active African ‘political society’. (D.M.)
Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly, Africa uprising. Popular protest and political change, Zed Books, London, 272 pp.