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What's driving Africa's demonstrations?

Felix Maringa
April 6, 2023

Large anti-government protests have rocked Africa during the last few weeks. DW looks at what's driving Africans to take to the streets across the continent?

A person walks in front of a banner demanding the resignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria, South Africa
South Africa's woes are very real: A crippling electricity crisis, rampant crime and an ailing economyImage: Alet Pretorius/REUTERS

The African continent experienced a wave of protests in February and March. Electoral justice, the increased cost of living and a narrowing democratic space headlined the various demonstrations.

But were these protests — separated by thousands of kilometers, languages and political systems — all somehow connected? 

"The protests usually have many triggers, but they share a general disillusionment with the state of governance in these countries," explained Zachariah Mampilly, of City University of New York (CUNY), who has been studying protests across Africa for years.

South Africa: Lights out, beleaguered president, muted demonstrations

In South Africa, opposition politician and president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema called for a "national shutdown," and demanded President Cyril Ramaphosa resign.

"All South Africans should be protesting with us right now because load shedding (power cuts) is affecting all of us. The government must know that we are suffering, especially us who are running small businesses," said Cedric Cele, who joined the EFF demonstration in Kempton Park, near Johannesburg.

Presidential elections are due in 2024, and while the national shutdown never quite happened, the problems facing Africa's second biggest economy are still very real: a crippling electricity crisis, with some areas getting only 12 hours of power a day, rampant crime, and an ailing economy.

Protester hold a placard calling for Ramaphosa to step down
EFF protesters demanded the resignation of South African President Cyril RamaphosaImage: Themba Hadebe/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Mozambique: Voice of urban discontent silenced

Also in late March, across the border in Maputo, Mozambique, over 1,000 people gathered to take part in a memorial march for popular musician Azagaia, who, before his unexpected death, rapped about poverty, corruption and human rights in his country. Some of his work had had been censored by authorities who accused him of inciting violence. Mourners were met with tear gas and rubber bullets fired by Maputo security forces, triggering rare anti-government protests.

"Azagaia never sided with any political party because he was the voice of the people," Tirso Sitoe, an organizer of the vigil, told The Associated Press.

"He showed us that things have not changed since independence. The only thing that has changed is the color of the rulers' skin."

Young Mozambicans hold a poster of rapper Azagaia in Mapuot, Mozambique
Rapper Azagaia was honored among young Mozambicans in the country's capital MaputoImage: Madalena Sampaio/DW

Kenya: Popular opposition leader

In Kenya, Africa's longest serving opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has fueled the protests, and he enjoys support especially in Kenya's informal settlements. Odinga has called for direct, bi-partisan talks with President William Ruto's government, and has warned of further protest actions, which have historically turned violent, if Ruto does not address his concerns over electoral reform, the high cost of living and the government fulfilling its campaigns promises.

Man holds rock during protests in front of a burning fire
Protests in Kenya have a history of turning violentImage: Luis Tato/AFP

Nigeria: New president, same problems

Even before this year's presidential election in February, people in Nigeria had to contend with a cash crunch blamed on the Central Bank of Nigeria's decision to introduce new naira bills. Straight after new president Bola Tinubu was elected, rival Atiku Abubakar demanded a fresh election. He claimed the vote had massive irregularities and the delay in uploading results, after Nigeria's Independent National Election Commission experienced problems with its new Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, created suspicion of foul play.

EU mission Chief Observer Barry Andrews on Monday said Nigerians' expectations for Saturday's election were not met in many parts of the country.

"Many were disappointed and we witnessed voter apathy that is a clear consequence of failures by political elites and, unfortunately, also by INEC," he said.

The Flip Side: Does tech solve election transparency issues?

Separate problems, common triggers

While the protests may have started because of hikes in living costs or inflation, Mampilly said they can quickly morph into wider issues around whether governments are actually delivering on their mandates, such as maintaining citizens' welfare.

Importantly, he pointed out, there is "a general disillusionment with the state of governance where there is a disconnect between the ordinary people and the government."

Asked whether the protests are a sign that democracy is not working in these countries, Mampilly disagreed.

"The threat for democracy doesn't come from the protesters but I do think instability is a real threat and does produce dynamics which can be co-opted by more nefarious political forces that could turn these countries towards coup d'etats, or ethnic clashes," he told DW.

Instead, there should be concern about how governments respond to these protests because they are being conducted by citizens of the respective countries, he argued.

"These are not actions of outside terrorist organizations, they are their own citizens and as such there should be a different kind of response available," Mampilly added.

Edited by Keith Walker and Cai Nebe