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Why the Arab Spring stopped at the Saharas edge

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Two years ago, when “Arab Spring” uprisings started toppling regimes of North Africa, many wondered if populations in Sub-Saharan Africa would rise up, too, to challenge the status quo in their respective countries.

There were demonstrations in quite a number of sub-Saharan nations, including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal, Mauritania, the Sudan, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Gabon, South Africa and others. Some of the protests were inspired by North African revolutions, as illustrated by the battle cries of the crowds and the self-immolations copying the act of despair of Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi.

The fate of the North African regimes was sealed by socio-economic factors, amongst them the role of the middle classes and the elites as they eventually sided with the protest movement

Oussama Romdhani
Expectations of an “African Spring” were based on the assumption that countries of Sub-Saharan Africa shared many of the problems, which had led to revolts in North Africa, including youth unemployment, economic hardship, corruption, inefficient governance, restrictions on freedoms, and unhappiness over the long tenure of many of the rulers. There were in fact leaders, like President Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who had been in power since 1979 and 1980.

But the so-called “African Spring” failed to materialize, as Sub-Saharan African governments quickly drew the lessons of the North Africa revolts, each in its own way. Senegal held free elections where the ballot box put an end to the turmoil. Burkina Faso established a consultative council to address protestors’ demands. Rwanda and Kenya introduced fuel subsidies. Others just cracked down on demonstrators.

Socio-economic factors

Such measures do not however fully explain why not one-single Sub-Saharan leader was forced out of power under pressure from rebellious crowds. Analysts point to many other factors setting Arab North Africa apart from its neighbors south of the Sahara.

Among such factors is the fact that many Sub-Saharan nations have already gone through their own major transitions, since the 1990’s. US Institute for Peace Senior Fellow Michael Bratton notes that in the decade from 1991 to 1999, all of the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa have “experienced internal and external pressures to open up politically. In response, all but half a dozen countries held multiparty elections; and some 20 states – from Benin in 1991 to Nigeria in 1999 – installed fledgling democratic regimes.” Transitions, whether successful or not, left some residual confidence in the countries’ institutions. The perception of uprisings as supported by the West was an added source of ambivalence. “Most Africans have great difficulty rising up against their own because they are afraid of being accused of being stooges in imperialist hands”, says Namibia-based analyst Marianne Pretorius.

Different socio-economic conditions, setting apart the two regions, have constituted another important factor. Advances, celebrated by Arab North Africa as signs of progress over the rest of Africa, were ironically among the seeds of rebellion. Higher literacy and schooling rates eventually meant greater potential for frustration and political dissent. It also meant wider access to the Internet and social media, which served as the tool of choice for revolutionary mobilization, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. In 2012, the rate of internet penetration in Morocco was 51%, in Tunisia 39%, in Egypt 35% and in Libya 17%. During the same period, the rate of penetration in other countries such as Madagascar, Niger, Guinea, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone stalled at 1% or less. Low Internet penetration did obviously limit the use of Social media as means of mobilization. Today, 38 out of 50 African countries ranked by the Socialbakers Social media Analytics Platform, have a rate of Facebook penetration of 10% or less. And they are all in sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring”, has a rate of Facebook penetration of 31.5%, the highest on the Continent.

Furthermore, the high rate of access to satellite television in North Africa meant that public opinions there had immediate access to international sources information that were outside the control of their own governments. Communication played the role of “accelerator” to the fire. But the spark was elsewhere.

The fate of the North African regimes was sealed by socio-economic factors, amongst them the role of the middle classes and the elites as they eventually sided with the protest movement. African Development Bank figures show that Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria have the largest middle classes and lowest rates of poverty in Africa. Ethnic and religious divisions, ongoing situations of violence and anarchy as well as painful legacies of internecine conflicts tempered the appeal of radical change in Sub-Saharan Africa. Six Sub-Saharan nations were in fact on the top-ten list of the 2012 Failed States Index.

The problem of youth unemployment and that of university graduates, in particular, were also nowhere more vexing than in North Africa. The terrible mismatch between university training and the job markets, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, created too many unemployed and frustrated young graduates each year. In Tunisia, there were no less than 65,000 new graduates annually, between 2005 and 2010, with only 30,000 new jobs provided. Lopsided academic specialization made the problem worse. According to the African Development Bank, “North Africa has the highest proportion in the world of students specializing in social sciences, business and law.” While 53 % of Egyptian graduates and 46% of Tunisian graduates aspire to public service jobs, much of the youth of Sub-Saharan Africa considers self-employment and informal work a solution to the problem of unemployment.

But socio-economic indicators, alone, cannot tell the whole story of the revolutions that weren’t, in Sub-Saharan Africa. North African realities contained “trigger-paradoxes” that were not present, as acutely, elsewhere on the Continent. Since 1970, Ted Gurr (the author of “Why Men Rebel”), coined the notion of “relative deprivation”. It refers to the discrepancy between what people believe they deserve and what they are likely to get. For university graduates, unemployment clashed with the dream of upward mobility. Regional imbalances and cronyism contradicted the equal opportunity ideal. Furthermore, restrictive policies could not anymore intimidate citizens’ determined to express themselves.

There was eventually no “African Spring”. But Sub-Saharan Africa is not impervious to change. Sporadic protest movements there still could turn into clamoring for radical overhaul of current systems, if living conditions do not improve. Recent events have also shown that the Sahara is not an impenetrable wall. It could not prevent the destabilization of Mali after Tuareg fighters flocked back home following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime.

Challenges abound for both regions. But countries of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa will be better equipped to meet the pressing demands of younger generations, once they realize the need for innovative solutions and a common will to keep pace with the fast-spinning wheels of history.

(Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. A former Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. Appointed as minister in 2009, he is known as one of the best Tunisian communication specialists. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst)


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