How not to write about Africa: Use “African Spring”

On October 30, as thousands of determined Burkinabe put an end to the 27 year rule of their Western-backed autocratic leader, Blaise Compaoré, journalist Hewete Haileselassie asked a question (in a tweet) that pops up whenever mass protests break out somewhere in Africa: “So is #BurkinaFaso the beginning of the African #Arabspring?”

It is one thing to wonder about the possibility of the Burkinabe revolution setting off domino-effect ripples in the region similar to the 2011 uprisings. After all, few periods in modern history have seen so much turbulence affecting so many millions of people as the early months of 2011. The “Arab Spring” has become our reference point for revolutions in this digital age. Yet, a far longer and rich history of African civil struggle is often missing in contextualizing today’s protest movements on the continent.

Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in December 2010, sparking the widespread Arab revolt, follows a long line of men and women whose self-sacrifices inspired others in action, forcing social change. For example, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was killed in 1922 after stripping naked and fearlessly walking into police bayonettes during a peaceful protest in Nairobi against the arrest of an activist who had campaigned against sexual exploitation of women and girls in colonial plantations in Kenya. Saal Bouzid’s determination to fly the flag of independent Algeria during a peaceful protest against French colonial rule made him one of the first victims of the 08 May 1945 Setif massacre. There’s Hector Pieterson, one of the first victims of the Soweto student uprising of 1976. The list goes on. Lest we forget, there were also extraordinarily effective acts of mass civil disobedience, such as the market women’s protests against British colonial tax in Nigeria in 1929 and 1946, the defiance campaign against Apartheid’s unfair laws in 1952 in South Africa and the 1947 railway strikes in Senegal.

Historian W.J. Berridge wrote in a column last month that, “many Sudanese intellectuals watched on with wry amusement as, in 2011, the global media announced that the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were the first civilian movements to overthrow military autocracies in the Arab world.” In fact, the temerity of the Sudanese deserves special recognition for their success in twice overthrowing military dictatorships within two decades—first in October 1964 and then in April 1985. It is worth imagining the amplified effect of the internet and social media on such popular protests from the past: would Sudan’s revolts have stirred a haboob (the name of a fierce sandstorm common in central Sudan) in neighboring countries in the region? We’ll never know, but Berridge’s book “Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The ‘Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985” is an attempt to reconsider this overlooked past with the present.

Between the two Sudanese uprisings was the 1974 popular uprising that ended the reign of Ethiopia’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie. A hike in the price of fuel resulting from the Arab-Israeli conflict in January 1974 compounded simmering social problems and injustices of a decaying feudal system in the throes of modernization. A perfect political storm of protests by taxi drivers, teachers, students, trade unions, and soldiers ended in the military coup that deposed the imperial regime in September 1974. This pattern of political protest growing out of socio-economic grievances is the common thread of almost all the other popular revolutions in the last four decades in Africa. For example, during Sudan’s 1985 revolution, many of the protesters chanted slogans against the International Monetary Fund over its imposition of the removal of a bread subsidy. Austerity measures imposed by the IMF in response to the African debt crisis that began in the 1970s and deepened in the 1980s sparked much popular discontentment.

In Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, the “food riots” effectively pressured rulers from Kenya to Senegal and Benin to Zambia to end one-party regimes in favor of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s. The African rulers that refused to accept the new democratic arrangement, such as Mali’s military dictator Moussa Traoré, were rare and doomed – a popular revolution swept Traoré from power in 1991. In his book “African Struggles Today,” Peter Dwyer writes that “Africa exploded in a convulsion of pro-democracy revolts that saw eighty-six major protest movements across thirty countries in 1991 alone.” From 1990 to 1994, some “35 regimes were swept away” by protest movements and strikes.  Many held elections for the first time in a generation,” Dwyer added.  The impact, domino effect and geographical spread of these democratic revolutions arguably dwarf the “Arab Spring.” 

More recently, between 2007 and 2010, renewed “food riots” for bread and freedom swept again across Africa (and the world), from Burkina Faso to Cameroon, and from Senegal to Mozambique. This time, they were largely brutally suppressed, but the unmet popular demands behind them contributed to popular discontent that led to the military overthrow of leaders in Madagascar in 2009 and Niger in 2010.

Every time mass protests break out somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, the international media is quick to use the term “African Spring,” however this catchphrase not only carries a near-sighted historical perspective of African protest movements but is also unfit for the context.  According to Foreign Policy Associate Editor Joshua Keating, “the term ‘Arab Spring’ was originally used, primarily by U.S. conservative commentators, to refer to a short-lived flowering of Middle Eastern democracy movements in 2005.” It resurfaced in January 2011 in the title of an FP article by Marc Lynch before wide adoption by the Western media (and rejection by the Arab press). Going back further into history, the figurative spring as a movement of political renewal flows from the “Spring of Nations,” a wave of anti-feudal movements that began to shake Europe in February 1848.

When you consider that spring is rather an alien notion to millions of Africans living between the tropics, using a spring metaphor to describe their efforts at political renewal is inadequate. The notion of a renewal event or period, however, is universal and coded in all cultures and languages, and is often tied in the African context to the onset of seasonal rains or winds. This is why many writers in the francophone African press have, for example, attributed the sweeping change in Burkina Faso to harmattan, a hot, dry and dusty wind blowing over West Africa. Perhaps incorporating the local perspectives and culture can produce better informed headlines and analysis and prevent coloring complex events with facile catchphrases.

Mohamed Keita

Mohamed Keita is a Harlem-based freelance writer. A native of Mali, he has written about journalism, politics, and arts and culture in Africa. His articles have appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Al Jazeera America, Africa Review, and Africa Is A Country. He has appeared on NPR, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, Arise America, Deutsche Welle, Press TV and Radio France Internationale. He has also given presentations at the World Bank, U.S. State Department, and universities, including Yale, UPenn and Columbia.

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