The current historical moment is deeply troubled. Democratic institutions from Mozambique to Mali seem fragile and flawed. Equally distressing, authoritarian governments in Egypt or Zimbabwe have resisted efforts by civil society to bring about their demise. Likewise, in Angola, autocratic rule has survived a civil war, economic breakdown, growing calls for change, and the departure of a leader who had ruled continuously since 1979.
Regrettably, we only briefly realized the “Brave New World,” imagined by Kenyan historian Bethwell Ogot on the election of Barack Obama in 2008: “… which at once recognizes the diversity of humanity but which also rejects the categorization of peoples of the world into thinking and non-thinking human beings.”
The United States, too, is threatened by the authoritarian impulses that plague other countries. The current US administration under Donald Trump lacks a coherent foreign policy with respect to African countries and displays a visceral contempt for Africa and the diaspora. The meagre provision of humanitarian aid following the mudslides in Sierra Leone, the mischaracterization of Nigeria as one of the countries affected by a “horrifying Ebola outbreak,” and the silence regarding the terrible bombing in Mogadishu are some examples of the current administration’s irresponsible and dangerous conduct. Trump’s base and derogatory depictions of African countries and Haiti are unworthy and unbecoming of a democratically elected leader. Taken together, evolving policies and statements demonstrate that the US government has forfeited its global humanitarian obligations in favor of naked, narrow geopolitical pursuits and sheer prejudice towards Africa and the diaspora.
These developments remind us that the decline of democratic institutions can be debilitating. To maintain a commitment to the dissemination of knowledge about Africa, and to retain intellectual integrity, of course, scholars must continue to conduct their research and to engage in critical pedagogy. But I want to suggest that as scholars of Africa—as teachers, policymakers, artists and activists—we might engage in more politically meaningful and more risky forms of dissent in order to advocate for social justice, economic equality and greater political participation.
What political repertoires, what lessons from the continent of Africa might guide us in this struggle? From the efforts by Kwame Nkrumah and others to build a Pan-African movement in the 1950s and 1960s to the collective protests currently mobilized through social media across the continent today, lessons from the insurgent south can embolden us to contest the abuse of power, to re-imagine a more inclusive democracy and to navigate this illiberal age.
Let’s take, for example, the most recent expressions of activism on the African continent: the democratic transitions of the early 1990s, the use of courts, and, finally, the way social media has revolutionized protests. What can we learn from them?
By the early 1990s, broad-based activism was forcing transitions to democracy across the continent of Africa. At a national convention in 1990, political activists in Benin demanded and achieved democratic reforms, catalyzing a decade of transitions across the African continent. Peace accords, protests, rallies and conflict brought about regime change in Mozambique, Madagascar, Mali, South Africa and many other countries.
Most notably, women invoked the symbolic power of the naked body to demand change in Kenya. Congregating at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park, Nairobi during the early 1990s, a dozen poor rural women engaged in a hunger strike. Their aim was to free political prisoners being held by the authoritarian regime of Daniel Arap Moi for participating in prodemocracy activities. These women had not previously taken part directly in political activity themselves, but many of the political prisoners were their sons. The motivation for the strike was that since Section 2a of the Kenyan Constitution mandating a one-party state had been repealed, the legal basis for imprisonment no longer existed. Four days into the strike, which had attracted a crowd of thousands and was joined by the well-known environmental activist Wangari Maathai, President Moi sent in the police. Three women responded by disrobing and running naked toward the police, effectively thwarting their advance.
In this instance, public disrobing constituted a symbolic and locally meaningful repudiation of illegitimate state authority. The nurturing power of motherhood embodied in the display of the naked female form contrasted with the potential for state violence represented by the uniformed police and their weapons. For the nude, it was a bold statement of commitment to a cause. For the police, it forced a reckoning with their own moral sensibilities regarding nakedness and motherhood. Precisely because disrobing entailed a strategic and principled confrontation with the female body, this singular act was disruptive, unsettling, powerful and political. It contributed to the release of 51 political prisoners and, eventually, to the end of dictatorship in Kenya.
Like the unclothed body, the purposely clothed body also articulates powerful messages. In Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017 we observed a deeply reactionary expression of political messaging through the wearing of clothes. We saw pointed hats and white sheets that we in the United States recognize as symbols of white supremacy and reminders of the terror spread by the Ku Klux Klan. We also witnessed attempts to make white power respectable with the wearing of “ordinary” polo shirts and khaki pants. Regarding the new look, one white supremacist stated: “The core of marketing is aesthetic. We need to look appealing. We have to be hip and we have to be sexy.”
If white polo shirts now reflect the sexy aesthetic of white power in the US, then I would say that we as Africanists are well placed to respond with an aesthetic of our own. As the contributors to Jean Allman’s edited volume Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress illustrate, dress and also non-dress have been forms of empowerment, subversion, and political praxis across Africa for decades. Kangas, panos, capulanas, agbadas, babban rigas, kofias, and diracs have played their part in expressing the political preferences and the local subjectivities of those who wear them. My own contribution would be this: to make internationalism fashionable by adorning the pussy hats that were worn at the many women’s marches all over the world last January with a diamond shaped pattern, which is a female signifier in Zulu basketry. Alternatively, we ought to make those hats with prints inspired or created by artists and weavers from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Congo and Mozambique.
Just as activists crafted extensive networks and employed innovative tactics to end apartheid in South Africa or to defeat authoritarianism in Kenya, more recently, they have devised new legal frameworks or looked to the courts to pursue their objectives. The interplay between individual or collective participation and the legal system is particularly evident with respect to struggles for social transformation, human rights and political freedoms on the African continent. From grassroots justice to the use of the formal court system, “litigation as participation” has escalated since the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In Burkina Faso, the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1997 was the main catalyst behind this change. Zongo founded an independent newspaper, L’independent, in 1993 and used his pen to critique the corruption and the malfeasance of the longstanding Blaise Compaoré regime. (Compaoré came to power after the state murder of Thomas Sankara.) Zongo exposed land grabs by elites, shady business deals involving the president and his family, widespread embezzlement, and politically motivated assassinations. In 1997, when the parliament overturned a two-term limit for the presidency and allowed Compaoré to run again in upcoming elections, Zongo assailed the decision. He also launched a blistering attack on the brutality of the President and his brother with respect to the death of a presidential driver David Ouédraogo. Zongo alleged that the security forces tortured and killed Ouédraogo for having stolen money from the President’s brother.
A year later, Zongo’s bullet riddled body and those of three others, including his brother, were found by passersby on the side of the road. All four bodies were burnt nearly beyond recognition. Following their deaths, Zongo’s wife, family, and friends, human rights activists, lawyers, and citizen advocates made repeated calls for justice. After years of litigation, they eventually secured a ruling against the Burkinabe government by the African Court on Human and People’s Rights in 2014. Women then took to the streets with spatulas and brooms to protest and ultimately topple Compaoré’s administration.
Although securing justice for Norbert Zongo and his colleagues took nearly 20 years, the process had unintended consequences: it convinced ordinary citizens of their political power and mobilized them to resume the struggle against a dictatorial regime, and it strengthened legal guarantees regarding freedom of expression in Burkina Faso. The recent conviction for crimes against humanity of Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, is another example of victims successfully using the courts to secure justice.
Finally, it is imperative to highlight social media as a technology of resistance. It contributed to toppling regimes during the Arab Spring, and investigative journalists such as Rafael Marques de Morais have relied on it to challenge the ruling party in Angola with his courageous website, Maka Angola. In the tradition of Carlos Cardoso in Mozambique and Norbert Zongo in Burkina Faso, Marques de Morais has employed his writing to expose the criminality of regime elites, the lack of democracy and the abuse of human rights by the military.
One of social media’s greatest contributions is that it has reinvigorated broad-based, popular mobilization. In South Africa, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and websites facilitated the demonstrations by students over fees at the University of the Witwatersrand and University of Kwazulu-Natal, and the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town. Critics also took to social media to analyze the fault-lines and weaknesses of these same movements. Such social media-driven protests are not only happening in South Africa. In the last 10 years, there have been more than 100 documented popular protests in urban areas of Angola, Gabon, Guinea, Algeria and other African countries. In many cases, the use of social media was essential to bringing them about.
Protests have not always toppled oppressive regimes, secured jobs or enhanced democracy in Africa. But as political scientists Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly illustrate in their book, Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, protests help us to build networks. They cultivate a sense of belonging and they allow us to imagine alternative public arenas. The celebrated historian, Tiya Miles, asserts that, “When protesters insert their bodies into forbidden places or adopt poses unsanctioned for their station, they are engaging in blatant acts of refusal.” With the existence of social media, the act of refusal occurs first as an individual political statement and second as a show of collective defiance when it’s posted on Instagram.
To refuse and to do so publicly for a just cause re-valorizes democracy from the grassroots. Sheldon Wolin, whose prescient work on inverted totalitarianism was largely ignored by the academy, wisely observed:
To become a democrat is to change one’s self, to learn how to act collectively, as a demos. It requires that the individual go ‘public’ and thereby help to constitute a ‘public’ and an ‘open politics,’ in principle accessible for all to take part in it, and visible so that all might see or learn about the deliberations and decision making occurring in public agencies and institutions.
Although we have witnessed the ways in which social media can be used to undermine the integrity of elections or distort the truth, we are also able to find examples from South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria or our own country to demonstrate that it can cultivate or sustain the practice of an open, critical, public and participatory politics. This is not a plea for all of us to engage in a barrage of tweets. Rather, it is a recognition of the power of websites or twitter handles such as Africa Is A Country or the South African #RhodesMustFall movement, respectively to democratize global knowledge production, to mock stereotypes, to build community across social and geographical barriers, to change the status quo. Lastly, in this moment of despotic ascendancy, it’s reassuring to remember what the great satirist and poet Bate Besong quipped about President Paul Biya and his band of tyrants in Cameroon: “their champagne party will end.”