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Why the Arab Spring never engulfed sub-Saharan Africa

December 16, 2020

A decade ago, a wave of protests swept across North Africa in what came to be known as the Arab Spring, bringing down Arab rulers with it. Despite facing similar challenges, an "African Spring" has not happened.

A woman standing on top of a car addresses a crowd
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Ten years ago, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in Sidi Bouzid after being mistreated by security forces. His self-immolation sparked an unprecedented wave of protests in North Africa and the Middle East, known today as the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, angry demonstrators deposed their long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He later died in exile in 2019 in Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali had been at the helm of Tunisian politics for 23 years. Although initially credited with delivering stability and some economic prosperity, Ben Ali received widespread criticism for suppressing political freedoms and widespread corruption.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Head of State Ali Abdullah Salih, and Libya's ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi followed suit.

Poster of Mohamed Bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring that saw several leaders being kicked out of powerImage: picture alliance/dpa

But 10 years later, there is little hope of a new beginning. Repressive regimes, civil wars, and jihadism have instead shaped everyday life in some of these countries. Yet, the Arab Spring inspired people in many other countries around the world, including Africa.

Read more: Will Africa have its own 'Arab Spring?'

Protests against Africa's despots 

For example, in Burkina Faso, in 2014, thousands of people protested against another term of office for long-term President Blaise Compaore, who had ruled for 27 years. 

In Senegal, the youth movement "Y'en a marre" successfully fought against the constitutional court's decision in 2012 to allow President Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third time. And in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir was ousted from office in 2019 after months of civil unrest.

Feet stepping on a poster of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir
Weeks of mass protests finally ended the reign of Sudan's President Omar-al BashirImage: Reuters

"I believe that many African movements that advocate for democracy and more openness were emboldened by what had happened in North African countries and the Middle East," German-Africa analyst Robert Kappel told DW. The Arab Spring had a learning effect for African countries away from decades of authoritarian regimes towards more freedom.

Africa ahead of Middle East

But protest movements like those in Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Sudan are exceptions. "There was already a great wave of democratization in sub-Saharan Africa to the extent that there was no need to break up region-wide authoritarianism," says Matthias Basedau, director of the GIGA Institute for African Studies. In many countries, autocratic rulers had already been overthrown at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.

Rockets are fired from a pick-up truck as Libyan rebels look on
Libya has not known peace since the ousting and killing of President Muammar Gaddafi Image: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/M. Messara

"In terms of freedom, Sub-Saharan Africa is already far ahead of the Middle East and North Africa. Besides, there is only a slight cultural similarity, and in southern Africa, one may relate more towards neighboring countries or European countries," says Basedau. 

He considers the revolution in Sudan to be an exception: linguistically and culturally, the country belongs more to the Arab region than sub-Saharan Africa.

Read more: Opinion: Ghana's peaceful elections mask a weak democracy

The dark side of spring

Even so, some autocratic governments feared an "Arab Spring" in their countries: In 2012, a former legislator in Zimbabwe and five others were charged with subversion after attending a meeting where they watched videos of protests in Tunisia and Egypt. The arrests indicated that authorities were worried the winds of change sweeping across North Africa might inspire Zimbabweans.

In Malawi, a lecturer was questioned for referring to the Egyptian uprising after police killed several protesters for speaking out against high prices. On the other hand, some African countries indirectly experienced the negative consequences of the Arab Spring. Like in the Sahel region, the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya plunged the region into crisis. 

"The rebellion in northern Mali became even more dangerous after his fall," says analyst Basedau. Malian and Nigerien mercenaries had defended the Gaddafi regime, and since then, they have been fighting alongside Islamists against the government.

No African Spring?

The "African Spring" lacks all the essential prerequisites and ingredients of the Arab Spring, says Gilbert Achcar, Professor of International Relations at SOAS University London. "Countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the same structural crisis," Achcar told DW. 

"In African countries, there is fighting over politics and elections, but this is different from a movement that aims to overthrow the whole system."

Besides, youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa has been the highest in the world for over 25 years, according to the US think tank, Brookings. In 2017, unemployment in these regions stood at 30%.

A man casts his ballot
Unlike North Africa and the Middle East, many African countries regularly hold elections and enjoy relative freedomImage: Ofoe Amegavie/AP/picture alliance

Kappel warns of a dangerous trend that will make an "African Spring" even less likely. His grim conclusion of the situation is that "massive armament of the police, authoritarian behavior, constitutional rights that are trodden upon as is the case in Ivory Coast and Rwanda, rolls back democracy movements and agitators."

However, Kappel believes that even in countries that have been ruled in an authoritarian manner for decades, the spark of resistance could still awaken because there are still countries striving for more freedom and thus for their own 'African spring.'

Sudan: Women's new freedom

This article was adapted from German by Isaac Mugabi.


DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.