Book Review – Africa Uprising

In the capital of Uganda, the police can go places where the public cannot – even when that place is a public square or park. When I tried to walk through Constitution Square in 2013, police vehicles and armed officers blocked the entrance to the only public park in downtown Kampala. One police officer told me that the park was closed.  Over his shoulder, I could see a couple dozen officers from the nearby police station lounging on the grass. The public park named Constitution Square was cordoned off to the public, unconstitutionally.

When an Associated Press reporter asked a police commander about the closure of Constitution Square, the commander responded by posing his own question: “Why should they go there as a group in the first place? The place must be controlled.” It was unclear whether “they” meant protesters, or the broader public. Distinctions such as that did not seem to matter much.

The control the police commander sought was a response to a short-lived popular uprising that rocked Kampala in 2011, one in which the people took to the streets and walked to work in protest against a hail of rubber bullets, tear gas, and dyed water cannons, but even two years later the security presence persisted. As far as I know, it continues to persist today.

The police repression has not let up since. In the weeks prior to my stroll past the square in 2013, police had seized the files of the leading independent newspaper in response to an investigative piece critical of the government and then suppressed the ensuing protests. During my visit to the country, they tear-gassed a crowded market because an opposition politician waved at people from his car. A couple of months later, the Ugandan Parliament passed a law severely restricting public assembly, curtailing the right to protest.

The popular uprising of Walk to Work, however short-lived, had been stifled. More recent protests in Uganda have been of a different nature. Many have a more narrow focus, such as protests against socially conservative legislation such as anti-LGBT laws or the so-called miniskirt ban. Others have continued to criticize the regime, but lack the popular mobilization and have resorted to spectacle instead: last year two students smuggled yellow-painted pigs into parliament to criticize corruption and youth unemployment. Protest lives on, but it has reshaped and retooled itself.

2011’s popular protest, which brought people together in Uganda regardless of ethnicity, class, or geography, uniting them against the state, was just one in a string of protests that have shaken the African continent. The ongoing protests against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for an unconstitutional third term are another. There, too, after a failed coup attempt and the resumption of demonstrations, state repression reached new and higher levels.

In the past decade, demonstrations in Africa have challenged the status quo countless times, though these moments of mass political action seldom make Western headlines. From the popular revolutions that ousted Tunisia and Egypt’s autocrats to the more narrow-focused wildcat strikes at Marikana in South Africa, from the Red Wednesday protests in Benin in West Africa to anti-corruption demonstrations in Kenya in the east, people are taking to the streets seeking change. Amidst this ongoing wave of political upheaval, popular protest is the subject of Africa Uprising, a new book by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly. (I helped organize a panel discussing this book with the authors two years ago).

Charting a course between the blind optimism of the “Africa rising” narrative and the patronizing belief that Africa isn’t ready for political change, these two political scientists carve out a space from which to understand African protest clearly. In particular, they provide several useful perspectives and theorizations on the subject that open up new possibilities both for African protest and for the study of such movements. This book is a much-needed call for more scholarship on political action that has been occurring across the continent.

A central aspect of the book is the crafting of the term “political society.” Pushing aside political leaders and civil society leaders that try to stoke, guide, coopt, or sideline mass protests, the book tries to understand the masses themselves. Retooling Partha Chatterjee’s political society, a group which lacks the institutions that civil society actors use when dealing with the state, Branch and Mampilly define these people in the streets as the urban underclass, marked by its “political identity as it is shaped by the form of state power to which it is subject.”

Time and again, popular protests come to a close when organized labor, students, or the political elite can claim a win, but well before the people who made up the masses in the streets and public squares gained any semblance of victory. The authors show this both in history – postcolonial Ghana cracked down on the very movements that helped usher out the British, and the national conventions of the 1980s arose amidst popular protest, but ultimately only served to grant power to civil society – as well as in today’s politics: Occupy Nigeria was effectively sold out by organized labor in its nascent stages. Reading against the grain of history and of contemporary politics, this book asks if the political society can speak. The answer is a resounding yes, and their voices are demanding change.

A bulk of the book is an exploration of four 21st century case studies – Occupy Nigeria, Walk to Work in Uganda, the 2005 protests in Ethiopia, and the recent Girifna protests in Sudan – but the book also provides a smart, useful history of protest in Africa.

This history is divided into two major “waves” of protest on the continent. The first is, perhaps obviously, the movement towards decolonization. Rather than analyze different movements in different countries or provide a history of decolonization, however, Branch and Mampilly depict the history of decolonization through a history of two men’s theorizations. By creating a dialogue between Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah and revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon, the authors lay out a readymade theory of protest in Africa. Where Nkrumah preached nonviolence and shepherded anti-colonial protest into a nationalist project, Fanon advocated resistance by any means necessary in the face of repressive state violence in Algeria, calling for a full revolution.

In dedicating a chapter to protests against colonization, the authors also identify crucial obstacles to protest which have persisted over time. The twentieth century struggles against colonization faced challenges in unifying people across three major barriers, all of which had been deliberately erected by the colonial project. Across Africa the population had been divided between the urban and the rural due to variations in colonial rule; there were also divisions within each of these as rural populations were carved up according to ethnicity through indirect rule and urban populations developed different social and economic classes thanks to patronage and marginalization.

The anti-colonial movement had to face each of these divisions in order to effectively overthrow the colonial powers, but today’s protests face similar cleavages. Several of the case studies in this book, as well as other recent and ongoing protests this year, have shown the potential of protests that successfully overcome these obstacles and the vulnerability of those that do not.

Since the end of colonialism, however, African politics has seen numerous forms of political change – both non-violent and violent. Despite giving ample space to Fanon’s articulation of a logic to violent uprising, the book’s focus in later years is exclusively on non-violent protest. While Africa has certainly been the setting for a long list of civil wars and coups as well as non-violent political mobilization, the authors write about political mobilization without guns, a deliberate centering on mass protest without slipping into the familiar territory of African insurgencies and guerilla armies (both of which the authors have written about previously).

The second wave of protest, which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to challenge the dual evils of structural adjustment and single party rule, was mostly non-violent but faced the same obstacles as the anti-colonial protests a generation before. The strong developmental states that were forged through independence were gradually captured by neoliberalism and corruption, and popular protest was “a political reaction against the violation of a social pact that developmental African states had made with their populations.” It was at this time that political elites, organized labor, students, and NGOs used protest to regain access to state coffers by demanding multi-party elections.

Elections were, and arguably still are, a goal which only benefited those that were firmly within civil society. The national conferences that swept Francophone Africa during this time ushered in change, sure, but they repeatedly excluded political society and rural society. In the authors’ words, multipartyism was “a way of disciplining long-standing demands for radical change from political society” and “the democratization process also represented a tool for promoting urban interests at the expense of the rural, and urban elite interests at the expense of the poor.”

Instead, Branch and Mampilly see popular protests as about something beyond elections and democracy. “Democratization obscures more than it illuminates” between the different parts of society, they argue. As heads of state try to remain in power by changing constitutions and suppressing protests, this is not so much a rollback of democratic gains of the last few decades as it is the realization of political maneuvering decades in the making.

Notably, two of the book’s four case studies, protests in Uganda and Ethiopia, both took place after elections, but were not necessarily about the election results. Instead, they protested the system itself. While the rest of the world is only now becoming disillusioned with the electoral process, Branch and Mampilly insist that many African protesters never bought into the system at all. Elections are not so much a point at which the incumbent is challenged  – political opposition rarely has that much clout in Africa – but rather are “charged moments when a confluence of political and social factors set the stage for masses of people to take to the streets for a variety of motives.”

The refusal to focus on electoral protests as explicitly about elections is an important decision in the context of African politics, where political protest and economic protest are one and the same. Ever since decolonization, the state’s violent and economic apparatus have been united, regardless of the level of democratization. In emphasizing this importance, the authors remind us that “the presence or absence of multiparty elections” are less important than “the common experience of violent state power and economic deprivation.”

It is because elections are such a breaking point that electoral issues, like recent attempts by authoritarians to overstay their welcome, will continue to be the source of widespread protest. The continent has seen enough of these attempts just in the last few years to offer a wide swathe of anecdotes. Uganda’s president has remained in power longer than I have been alive, manipulating and changing constitutional laws along the way; in Burkina Faso protesters torched the parliament and took over the state television station rather than see it approve Blaise Campaoré’s bid for extended power; when Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade successfully bypassed term limits, the Senegalese people responded by voting him out of office, giving power to the phrase, “ma carte d’électeur, mon arme!” (My voting card, my weapon!); and the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently shelved his attempts to end term limits, although the issue will surely return. Even Ethiopia’s response to protest – a return to developmentalist tactics and party-based state-building that Branch and Mampilly call the “counter-protest state” – gained the ruling EPRDF party wide electoral gains. In 2010 and 2015 they swept general elections with 99% and 100% victories that are disputed.  The outcome of African politics has no pattern – the only constant has been the demonstrations of those unhappy with the status quo. Elections – and protests – will continue to loom ahead as long as political and economic oppression continue across the continent in their many forms.

While their theorizations on African protest illuminate much, perhaps the most important decision Branch and Mampilly make from the outset is to focus on the possibilities opened up by protests rather than the success of protests themselves. In fact, seen from a different perspective, all four of their case studies are failures. Indeed, the closed off public square in Kampala is the only tangible remnant of Uganda’s popular movement, and the Ugandan government remains in a permanent state of counter-protest (as opposed to Ethiopia’s “counter-protest state”). But by looking at these protests with an eye to the future, these uprisings can be seen for the promising rupture that they create in history and in contemporary African politics as well as the future. This focus on the possibilities of protest can also act as praxis for new and emergent forms of political action in Africa’s future.

This optimism is not always shared by their readers. In her review of Africa Uprising, Helen Epstein describes the situation in Burundi as “heartbreaking” due to its place in “a recent pattern that actually seemed hopeful.” Epstein ignores the authors’ argument that protest continues to be hopeful, no matter how many obstacles stand in its way, an argument rooted in Nigerian scholar Claude Ake’s writings on African politics and self-realization through protest. In her interview with the authors, Kim Yi Dionne expresses hesitation at sharing their hope for the future. The authors convince her otherwise, with a cogent argument best summed up by their initial response: “protest is always hopeful!” Indeed, the decision to demonstrate is an optimistic one – the act of protest is itself an important step in changing the society we live in. This is something that Branch and Mampilly recognize, and something that protesters the world over have lived by. Protests in the face of Africa’s authoritarians can be instructive no matter the outcome.

Africa Rising is an important contribution to Africanist scholarship for many of its arguments, and hopefully more scholars will rise to the authors’ argument that in Africa lie lessons and potential futures for political action around the world. There is much to be learned at the front lines of popular politics across the continent, and more attention needs to be paid to these movements and these moments. If this book and others like it help usher in more writing and thinking about African politics from the bottom-up, then we would all benefit.

With over a dozen elections in the next year – many of them contentious and several with term limits playing a key issue – there are many points at which protests may emerge. But it is important to remember that these protests are not necessarily about the elections themselves, but rather political and economic life in general. And it will be important to look not just at the movements’ leaders, but at the rural, the poor, and the youth as well. Challenges to the status quo will continue to arise wherever the status quo fails people – at the margins and along the cleavages of society. Most crucially, it is vital, in Africa and elsewhere, to not only assess protests’ successes and failures but to see the act of protesting itself as a successful step towards liberation.

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