Protests, especially peaceful ones, have always been a potent political weapon. But in Africa, in the decades following independence from colonial rule, they all but disappeared. They are now making a big comeback.
They made their return at the beginning of this decade in Tunisia and Egypt where they removed long-serving presidents from power. They are happening again at the close of the decade and are increasingly successful in causing change in a number of countries.
In Sudan, the ongoing protests have led to the fall of the seemingly immovable Omar el Bashir. They have since then paralysed the military government that replaced him and are intent on fashioning a path to civilian rule.
In Algeria, protesters led to the removal of the wheelchair-bound and seldom seen in public Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been in power for close to twenty years. But they are not content with that alone. They want a complete change from the set up that he supervised.
Earlier, similar protests in Ethiopia had led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the appointment of his replacement, Abiy Ahmed who moved quickly to make far-reaching reforms.
The earlier protests had been dubbed the Arab Spring, as an expression of hope of a fresh start. In the event, that promise of a new beginning was scorched in the desert sands of North Africa before it could really get underway.
The ones currently underway have not been given a common name. The fate of the protests at the beginning of the decade has probably advised caution. Or it might be superstition, yes, even in the twenty-first century. In some places they are still reluctant to name a good thing before it happens lest it turns out differently. Whatever the reason, there is a more cautious wait and see attitude than the excited optimism of nine years ago.
As mentioned earlier, protests as a political tool are not new in Africa. Boycotts, civil disobedience, strikes and other forms of demonstrations were used in the anti-colonial struggle to great effect. After independence they were used less frequently, for a number of reasons.
The first few years were a sort of period of grace. Africans were now governing themselves. It was not right to demonstrate against their own. It was deemed only fair to give them a chance at governing even if they didn’t get everything right. Sort of give them the benefit of the doubt.
There was also no more common enemy to unite all the disparate groups that formed the new nations. In the tribalised or ethnicised politics of the time, if some tried to protest, others whose members were in power saw them as attacking their own and would not join in the protests. Instead they rallied behind those in power against the protesters.
In later years when many countries were ruled by the military, any form of protest was met by brute force. Demonstrations invariably ended up in massacres. In such circumstances, self-preservation instincts took over.
Governments that were not so brutal, but still intolerant of any protest, employed two types of response to them. One was the pre-emptive strike: hit them hard before they could build any momentum. Two, play a waiting game and try to outlast them, and indeed many protesters did not have the means to enable them stay longer on the streets.
The last ten years have seen a return of the protest and with different fortunes. They are succeeding more, if at times only partially. So what has changed?
First, the tactics of the thirty years following independence no longer apply because of changes in the political climate. There is more openness and greater likelihood of condemnation and sanctions against offending governments. Savage brutality and massacres can no longer be hidden. Thanks to modern technology, they are committed in full view of the whole world.
And so, while brute force, including murder, may still be used to put down protest as happened seen in Sudan last week, it is likely to be met with more censure than in the past. That is why the African Union was swift to suspend Sudan from the organisation. West African states were even more emphatic in the Gambia. They removed Yaya Jammeh from power when he refused to respect the results of elections and threatened to use force against his own people.
Second, the new protests are mass action movements and emanate from general grievances, and not from partisan or group political interests. You cannot attach a face or ideology to them. And so it is difficult for the authorities to isolate and target any individual or group for punitive action.
Third, they have largely been peaceful even when provoked by violence against them.
Fourth, they are aware that removing the head of state is not the end goal. They know that they will succeed only when they have uprooted the whole entrenched structure that kept him in power all that long and replaced it with a more just one. So they are prepared to stay on the streets or change tactics to achieve that objective.
In this sense they are different from what we saw in Uganda in the last few years. There, protests lack mass appeal. They are identified with Kiiza Besigye or Bobi Wine and their political organisations and are therefore easier to neutralise.
Their objectives seem more limited to removing President Yoweri Museveni from power. They have said nothing about dismantling his system or what would happen after his removal.
Often, they have turned violent and played into the hands of the state, which then has the excuse to respond with even greater force to disband them.
The type of protests in Algeria, Ethiopia and Sudan might have useful lessons for countries where elections are routinely rigged and governance is so bad, with no chance of getting better. They might turn out to be an alternative route to democracy.
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