Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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"Protest democracy" : how African on-going social movements are redefining democracy and (re)inventing the future

An interview with Zachariah Mampilly, University of Vassar

What is the « protest democracy » you speak of ? How would you define it, and in what sense is it a form of renewing, redefining democracy ?

Scholars and policy makers measure democracy using technical indicators like whether elections are regularly scheduled, the number of opposition parties, the relative freedom of speech, and so on. This is why there are so many pieces talking about how we are living through a period of global “democratic backsliding.” But to speak of the United States under Trump, for example, how do we reconcile the supposed decline of democracy with the fact that more people than ever before have been taking to the streets to protest the government? Equally important, these have been sustained protests carrying on since the day after the election and pretty much continuing unabated ever since. And they are taking place in more parts of the country—from small towns to big cities—than ever before. Equally important, topics like ending economic inequality, defunding the police, and abolishing prisons or ICE, which under Obama were ridiculed as silly dreams, are now part of the mainstream discussion due to the protesters’ insistence. To me, these are signs of a robust democracy, a democracy that is moving away from a state-centric technocratic approach towards one grounded in the views and actions of ordinary people. By calling this “protest democracy,” I want to highlight how it is both a protest against how democracy is usually understood and center protest as a more elementary and engaged component of democracy than casting a vote every so often.

In a context of growing repression, what victories have these African protests obtained? What have been their limits ?

The ongoing third wave of African protests has achieved extraordinary victories in the past decade, overthrowing corrupt governments in Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan. They have also succeeded in preventing corrupt leaders from manipulating elections in places like Senegal and Malawi. Even in places where the movements were successfully fended off by the government, like Nigeria’s 2012 Occupy movement, they changed the conversation to more basic questions around the relationship between the state and the people. So even as Occupy was crushed, it produced new leaders and new ideas that are at the forefront of the #EndSars protests ongoing today. This is how protests work, in stutter steps making progress followed by setbacks that lead the pundits to declare, prematurely, the failure of people power.

So even where protests are successful at their immediate objective, we should be prepared for movements to face setbacks, as we have seen in Egypt and more recently in Sudan. Yet rather than declaring that the movement has failed, we need to pay attention to those spaces where activists continue to work behind the scenes. And more importantly, we need to work to understand how every experience of protest transforms the consciousness of those involved for it is in these often occluded spaces that the next surge of popular energies is being flamed, ready to burn hot once again when the conditions demand.

What are the characteristics of these protests? How do they interact and/or influence social structures and institutions from outside ?

As we wrote about in our 2015 book, Africa Uprising, the main difference of the third wave of African protest is the demographic composition of the protesters. While earlier waves of protest were led by political elites or formal civil society groups like labor unions, the current wave is notable for the number of marginalized people at the forefront, what we refer to as political society. Of course, this population has the most direct experience with state repression and marginalization and hence face the greatest consequences for their involvement. But as we have seen from Sudan to South Africa, they also have the most to gain and have emerged as the truly revolutionary force in Africa today. The challenge, of course, is that they often lack formal organizational structures and are unable or unwilling to negotiate with governments which usually resort to violence to crush the movement. The power asymmetry is massive. But it is precisely the depth of their marginalization that makes them the greatest threat to African elites who cannot bestow upon them meager concessions to subdue their energies.

Are they more often the reject of something (a president’s third term, a military government, etc.) or are there also alternative horizons, propositions, plateform of demands ?

Focusing on the specific issue that triggers the protests is missing the point. While police brutality, price increases, or electoral malfeasance have all caused people to pour out on to the streets, what keeps them there for weeks or even months is their broader disillusionment with the economic and political system that produces these specific dysfunctions. So whether most Nigerians have had negative experiences with police brutality is irrelevant. What matters is how they connect the issue of police brutality to the broader crisis of governance affecting African nations today. In this sense, it is a far more difficult challenge to articulate a clear agenda for a post-revolutionary world as we see in Sudan today. This is not a critique—rather it is a recognition that the act of imagining an alternative future is always a contingent experience, one based on learning from successes and setbacks. What I have seen is that these movements and many activists are always learning and gaining more and more capacity that will prepare them to handle the challenges as they arise.

Listening to Thiat (a Senegalese singer) for instance, his disillusion of electoral politics is palpable. Assuming his view is largely shared – as it is in France for example – what is it the protesters aspire to ? Would the solutions they envision come from inside or outside the State ?

Thiat is an important figure for he could articulate a kind of inchoate rage against the existing system that many young people in Senegal felt but did not have the words to express. But I think Thiat would say himself that he is but one figure in the broader struggle and that the only path forward is to build a broad based movement that can bring together all the different forces within Senegalese society to build an alternative future. Whether this will be a state-centric approach or whether they will conceptualize alternate, more engaged and participatory forms of governance is for the Senegalese people to decide. And I believe Y’en a Marre (which Thiat helped found) is working to build that movement today.

Activists Linda Masarira (Zimbabwe), Teddy Mazina (Burundi) and Thiat (Senegal) unite in support of pro-democracy protest movements Africa UPrising. Credit : Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Do these movements also address non state actors (for example, transnational companies, armed groups, etc.) who also affect human rights and fundamental liberties ?

Most movements have focused on the most visible site of their oppression, i.e. their own governments. But the frustration with non-state actors is palpable. Take DR Congo, for example, where the LUCHA movement has been critiquing foreign corporations, non-state armed groups, and even the UN peacekeeping force and foreign NGOs. Or consider Sudan and Tanzania where rural communities are challenging the sale of their lands to Saudi and other Asian investors. What is clear is that connections are being drawn between the precarity of African life and the position of African economies within global capitalism.

Why do you think music is playing such an important role ?

Again, the social composition of these protests is very different than earlier waves where African elites were at the forefront. Figures like Kwame Nkrumah and others often looked outside of Africa for inspiration and often adopted the language of foreign intellectuals and leaders to justify their cause. This is unsurprising as many nationalist leaders were educated in the West and embraced a langue of liberalism and human rights reflecting their social position. In contrast, the young Africans at the forefront of these protests are often drawn from the most marginalized communities and lack the educational opportunities due to the neoliberalization of African economies over the past four decades. As such, it is not surprising that they are drawn to more organic intellectuals especially musicians like Thiat or Seun Kuti and others in Nigeria who are able to articulate complex ideas about politics in a language that is accessible.

What lessons do you think western activists could learn from the long and on-going African movements evolving in highly repressive socio-political environment (first colonial, then post-colonial, often within dictatorships), facing both brutal austerity policies and harsh repression ?

Pretty much everything. The West, including the Left in North America and Europe, is extraordinarily parochial and still tinged by the racism more common among their right wing counterparts. As such, the thought that they could learn anything from African activists is considered ridiculous. Instead, even as the West descends into dysfunction with leaders like Trump and Boris Johnson in the UK, western activists still want to send “democracy experts” to Africa to teach African activists how to democratize. Instead of such a patronizing attitude, we need more solidarity which implies a non-hierarchical relationship designed to create a united front against common forms of oppression. Luckily, there are exceptions. I would point to the work of Project South and the Southern Movement Assembly in the U.S. South which is engaged with a number of specific African social movements and has lent its support to the Afrikki Network, a network of over 50 African movements. In a moment of global crisis, it is these still lonely acts of solidarity across continental boundaries that gives me hope.