Arab Spring’s Impact on Sub-Saharan Africa
In 2011, the actions of a young street vendor in Tunisia initiated a movement that reverberated throughout the Arab world. Bouazizi’s startling act of self-immolation highlighted the subdued political dissatisfaction brewing within the modern Arab state. Within weeks, the leadership of Tunisia had fallen to dissident forces, and one by one other nations followed suit. Hundreds of people were left dead in what many considered political martyrdom while US policymakers struggled to react to the sudden change in this Arab state. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed, “the fact that no one had even appeared to entertain the possibility of events unfolding in the way they did raises troubling questions about the assumptions made about countries and the strength of the contingency plans put in place to deal with unexpected events.”
With Africa’s increasingly potent ties to the Middle East under the southern spread of Islam, the extension of Arab Spring’s effects into its sub-continental region could threaten US influence in what has historically been a region of Westernized colonialism, a growing example of globalization, and a testimony to the effects of aid on influence. Should the events of Arab Spring cause a significant impact on Sub-Saharan Africa, the US would be faced with either setting a precedent for other Western nations, or remaining silent in what could be a massive allegiance sector for the Middle East.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States cemented its role as a superpower in international politics and a new era in democracy was ushered in. Since that time, democratic uprisings have occurred across the world from Portugal to South Korea and Taiwan.
The collapse of the Soviet satellites in the Balkans and the gradual democratization of Western Europe’s massive African empire officially signaled an end to international colonialism and the global shift towards democratic principles.
As a region highly vulnerable to outside interference and stunted by the arbitrary divisions of its land, the continent of Africa has struggled to adjust to the novel ideology of this new democratic era. Despite the intended purpose of democratic imposition, the economic and developmental shortcomings of these nations resulted in a series of unstable or transitional semi-dictatorship democracies. The causes 0f the Arab Spring; underdevelopment, frequent human rights violations, political suspicions and minority oppression are undisputed indicators that were evident before the catalyst occurred, which point towards increasing possibilities of another wave of democratic uprisings against non-functional democratic dictatorships in the near future.
According to the BBC, roughly 98 percent of Africa’s fifty-seven nations are currently “partly free” or “not free” at all, highlighting the difficulty of discerning true democracy in a region where votes are easily bought or coerced by those in power. Frequent internal conflicts and civil wars further complicate the task of attributing authority to a single entity within each nation, such as the case in Cote d’Ivoire, the Congo and Somalia. The prevalence of internal conflict as well as the modern African state’s notoriety for its semi-monarchial tendencies indicate a substantial and fundamental issue with their progress towards a democratic status, one unlikely to be resolved without significant changes in political and social infrastructure.
In 2011, Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, told the BBC that “I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so,” also declaring that “critics who accused him of winning last month’s elections through intimidation and fraud could ‘go to hell.’” President Jammeh took the presidency in a coup four elections ago, and has retained office despite numerous accounts of journalist murder, rigged elections, and voter bribery, as is similar in other African states. These situations leave citizens vulnerable to the enticements of political subversion and easy manipulation by their leaders.
As corruption and civil unrest manifest itself in current African politics, a political rendition of Newton’s third law reflects a corresponding increase in protests and demonstrations across the continent as well. Massive police raids, arson, protests, and riots have erupted in nearly twelve African states in 2011 alone. Some discount the likelihood of an “African Spring,” attributing the recent increase in political protests in Sub-Saharan Africa as an indication of their freedom to protest. These assertions fail to consider the lack of progress such protests seem to hold. When coup d’états become the norm for political articulation, more and more citizens are pushed towards drastic means of securing their best interests in the face of a stagnant and non-functional, if not oppressive, government.
Just as in Tunisia, Africa’s economy is poised to be a major contributing factor to the conflict. In the Arab Spring, the issue was as much about “bad governance as it was about the economy.” The United States’ intervention in helping Africa past its economic barriers to development have caused a significant increase in economic growth as well as education. Changes in education during a nation’s transitioning period often precede increased participation (and subsequent dissent) in politics, as many of those who fuel such movements tend to be the nation’s youth.
Coincidentally, Africa’s rise in political dissidents coincides with its steadily increasing educations rates, as is shown in UN reports. In addition to this, US-based NGO involvement aiding Africa’s climbing education rates as well as American media’s arrival through attempts at sub-continental technological development have shown their influence in African politics. Many African countries have adopted the same electoral systems, democratic-republican natures and bicameral legislatures inherent to Western political ideals.
This growing attraction to Western society is reflected in the mass emigration of sub-continental Africans to Europe and the United States. Increasing amounts of the African elites migrate to the West every year to receive an education. This foreign perspective leads to an increased awareness among the youth of their personal rights, triggering a wave of internal dissatisfaction when they return to their native countries. Further conflict is caused by the friction between the inherited tribal aristocracies within African nations and the educated self-made youth who often return to their homes bearing unconventional ideas on interest articulation, political freedom, and the importance of the common man. As such, African civil wars are often waged between the older and more established ethno-political dominant tribes, and the impressionable youth who seek to rise above the confines of a preset aristocracy.
North African nations have seen the culmination of this in the Arab Spring movement, whereas in Sub-Saharan nations frequent political dissatisfaction has often led to a permanent gridlock of ethno-political civil war. These trends point towards a gradually developing resentment towards political authority in Sub-Saharan Africa, likely to boil over with increased influence from their Arab counterparts. Given the gradual spread of Islam from Northern Africa to the Sub-Sahara Africa, it is not surprising that such new religious affiliation bears implications within the sphere of politics. Islamic principles of charity, unity, and humility are what make it a prime cultivator for democratic uprising. As a largely democratic and egalitarian faith, autocratic or corrupt governments are more than ever subject to the scrutiny of the common man. Considering Africa’s steady conversion, social instability, and increasing education rates, it is not improbable to suspect an impending revolution in the near future.
As past evidence has shown, the United States is significantly rooted in the cause of Africa enough to require significant thought concerning future revolutions in the region. Not only would further political unrest threaten the lives of numerous American NGO workers (several have been the subject of kidnappings throughout the continent), but America’s efforts at resuscitating Africa’s ailing economy has proved successful in making Africa an important investment especially with respect to oil. Although African citizens may not be experiencing the benefits, according to the International Monetary Fund, Africa is experiencing high growth levels which make it the third-fastest growing economy reflect prominent returns in the future. As the United States seeks to loosen its dependence on Middle East oil, developing closer ties with Africa would inherently aid both its economic and political prospects concerning the Middle East.
In light of such statistics, it is evident that a neutral stance in the political development of Africa is not an option. Irrespective of policymakers’ intentions, any US actions concerning the region, be it silence or transparent, will have far-reaching effects in their consequences and the precedence they set for other Western nations. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in relation to the Arab Spring, “We recognize that these transitions are not America’s to manage, and certainly not ours to win or lose. But we have to stand with those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth. That will produce more capable partners and more durable security over the long term.”