Winter of discontent spells doom for Africa’s regional powers

Kisumu protests

Kisumu residents light bonfires on Jomo Kenyatta Highway during anti-government protests on March 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega| Nation Media Group

On March 20, 2023, mass protests rocked five anchor states in Africa— Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal.

The protests rekindled memories of the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-government uprisings that swept across much of North Africa and the Arab world in the early 2010s, toppling leaders and stoking civil wars and insurgencies. A decade later, the ‘Arab Spring’ is morphing into an ‘African Spring.’

Moreover, the coincidence that the protests took place the same day in five countries in far-flung corners of Africa has given legs to the theory that there was a hidden external hand behind Africa’s winter of discontent.

The question remains: are protests being weaponised for regime change and neo-colonial control of Africa in the new global geopolitics that characterises the ‘Second Cold War’ in the 21st century—mainly involving America and China?

Protests have heightened the crisis of what the British scholar, Nic Cheeseman (January 2022), described as the dangers of ‘hegemonic instability’ in Africa. They have wreaked havoc in ‘regional powers’ within the African Union’s peace and security architecture.

Nigeria, with 219 million people and a GDP of $514.05 billion, is Africa’s largest economy and the most influential power not only in West Africa but also in Africa. South Africa, with a GDP of $329.53 billion, is Africa’s third-largest economy and the regional power in Southern Africa. And With a GDP of $106.04 billion, Kenya is Africa’s sixth-largest economy and an anchor state in the Eastern and Horn of Africa region.

The crisis of Africa’s regional powers has eerie echoes in the unravelling of the ‘hegemonic stability theory’ in our new multi-polar world. The idea that a single powerful state—with a super-large military, willing and able to provide global public goods—is the guarantor of the stability of the international system is losing its shine. The challenges posed to regional powers by protests have evoked the ancient proverb: ‘physician, heal thyself’.

Towards the end of last year, scholars celebrated the ‘rise of the opposition’ as opposition parties swept to power in Malawi, Zambia and Kenya. But with the new wave of opposition-led anti-government protests, Africa is a tale of the hunter becoming the hunted.

Leading the assault on governments are Julius Malema’s left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in South Africa; the Azimio la Umoja One-Kenya of Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya; the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labour Party of Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi in Nigeria, respectively; the Pastef party of Ousmane Sonko in Senegal; and the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia.

Protesters poured into the streets citing alleged electoral fraud, the rising cost of living, depreciating currencies, inflation, insecurity, spiralling fuel prices, chronic electricity shortages, joblessness, corruption, and unmet electoral promises by populist governments.

Senegal exception

The exception is Senegal. Here, supporters of presidential hopeful Ousmane Sonko poured into the streets of Dakar after the police blocked them from accompanying his motorcade to a courthouse where he faced trial on libel charges.

Sonko’s supporters accused President Macky Sall of using a guilty verdict to eliminate Sonko, who came third in the 2019 presidential election, from the February 2024 presidential race. Triggering protests in Tunisia was alleged authoritarian rule by President Kais Saied who suspended Parliament, sacked the Prime Minister, expanded his legislative and executive powers and suspended some parts of the constitution— measures the opposition decried as a “coup.”

Some protests have been peaceful, but others outrightly violent. Nigerians peacefully carried placards through the streets of Abuja, decrying electoral ‘injustice and fraud.” Thousands of Tunisians marched peacefully near the parliament in central Tunis.

EFF Members march through the streets of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Eastern Cape holding hands and shouting their demands in what was hailed as the best-organised protests. In contrast, Senegalese protesters burned tyres and set fire to buses and a large supermarket. Their counterparts in Kenya also burned tyres, looted businesses, and pelted law enforcement officers with stones.

By and large, the logic of protests was regime change along the lines of the January 6, 2020, United States Capitol attack and January 8, 2023, civilian coup attempt in Brazil. In Kenya, Odinga called for the removal of President Ruto. Malema’s supporters in South Africa called for the resignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa. And Tunisian marchers chanted “the people want to depose the president”.

The ‘African Spring’ brought into sharp focus the paradox of the right to protest. Peaceful protests are like oxygen to democracy. However, these freedoms come with the heavy responsibility by individuals and organisers to do no harm to others in the process.

The recent wave of protests in South Africa rekindled memories of deadly clashes in July 2021 where at least 350 people were killed when protests sparked by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma degenerated into riots and looting.

Ahead of the riots, Ramaphosa vowed to prevent “anarchy.” His government mobilised thousands of police, backed by troops, and arrested at least 87 people. In the aftermath of the protests, more than 550 people were arrested on charges of “public violence, intimidation, damage to critical infrastructure, theft and attempted looting”.

In Tunisia, security forces sealed off the nearby Bardo Square and entrances leading to it to prevent protesters from gathering there and re-staging another ‘Arab Spring’. In Senegal, more than 400 people were arrested.

Tough measures by governments limited the success of protests. Raila failed to lead protesters to State House. In many cases, turnout was low. As a result, the death toll and injuries were kept low. Two people in Kenya, one in the Kibra subcounty in Nairobi and the other in Maseno University were reportedly shot dead by police.

Protests do not always lead to meaningful change. Recent protests have exacted a heavy toll on already struggling African economies. Fear of mayhem and looting forced businesses to shut down in parts of Nairobi and Kisumu, Odinga’s political backyard. According to Kenya’s Deputy President, Rigathi Gachagua, the economy lost Sh2billion in a single day. The riots gave Africa negative publicity, shattering the image of the continent as a new frontier for foreign direct investments, markets and tourism.

Protests are about the next election. Sadly, this is the supreme lesson from Africa’s recent protests. But protests should be about social change to eradicate poverty, bring prosperity and expand liberties—not regime change or elite power-sharing.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya.