Africa and the Arab Spring: Raising citizens’ democratic expectations


The Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) released its inaugural special report analyzing the effects of the “Arab Spring” on democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Unprecedented popular protests in North Africa demanding greater political freedom, dignity and economic opportunity have captivated the world’s attention since they burst onto the global stage in January 2011. The subsequent resignations of long-time autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia, the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and a shift toward constitutional monarchy in Morocco have dramatically reshaped state-citizen relations in this long static region.

The Arab Spring raised speculation about whether it would be followed by similar mass uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa. Attempts at similar mass protests occurred in a number of countries including Djibouti, Kenya, Swaziland and Uganda but were short-lived and brutally suppressed. The limited spillover effect between North and sub-Saharan Africa led to speculation about Africans being too poor, rural and technologically disconnected and brutalized to organize into the kind of protest movements that would topple the “big men.”

Despite its historic significance, the Arab Spring is not a driver of democratic transformation in sub Saharan-Africa; it will merely accelerate processes that have been unfolding since the democracy movements of the 1990s. Africa has made considerable if not linear progress towards democracy over the past 20 years, a process that was unfolding long before the Arab Spring. Genuine transformation and democratization occurs through sustained pressure for reform rooted in institution building and citizen participation rather than spontaneous protests that flare up for a day and cannot be sustained.

Fanning the Flame

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Despite the major social, cultural and economic differences between North Africa and the rest of the continent, the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt have caught the attention of millions of Africans from all walks of life. Expressions of frustration with political exclusion, corruption, yawning inequality, and impunity seen on the streets of Cairo and Tunis have resonated deeply across the continent. Most importantly, the Arab Spring has increased what Africans expect from their governments in terms of governance, transparency and accountability. While Africa has not seen dramatic, mass-street protests, a democratic transformation is unfolding. Important structural factors such as greater access to information and communication technology, a growing urban population, a more sophisticated civil society, emerging institutional checks and balances, and the expanded awareness of global governance norms, have positioned Africa for a democratic surge. African citizens are much less willing to accept unconstitutional changes, abuses of power, gross corruption and state violence against the population. This new attitude has been influenced by the key lesson from the Arab Spring; that citizens can and must confront excesses of their government if they expect it to change.

While the Arab Spring has not led to public confrontation between the masses and governments in sub-Saharan Africa, it has increased the potential for political transformation. There are powerful expectations for a more robust form of democracy and considerable momentum for democratic gains in sub-Saharan Africa over the next several years; however, these advances will not be automatic. Civil society leaders, development partners and reformist political parties will need to rise to the occasion to seize this window of opportunity, articulating a vision for the future, prioritizing the types of changes that are needed, and organizing societies from the community level up to press for these changes.