The paradox of hope

10 March 2011

Written by: Erdem Koc

They have been dubbed the Arab generation that is demanding change.

Across the Middle East and northern Africa, young people are taking to the streets in protest to demand more democratic regimes.

Recently, I was asked by a friend why the rest of Africa wasn’t joining in the wave of protests, which continue to consume the north of the continent.

Why aren’t people in Uganda or Kenya for example, demanding some kind of reform, be it political, economical or both, my friend asked.

The answer is complicated.

Africa’s long-serving leaders are often accused of corruption and nepotism, as well as having pervasive and cruel security forces that will carry out the most gruesome human rights violations.

Unemployment and high food prices are rife, and the frustration is felt across the continent.

The question which has beckoned — why aren’t people in Zimbabwe protesting, calling for ‘the Bob’ to step down? Or those in Ivory Coast demanding Laurent Gbagbo hand over power? Or why isn’t Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, giving someone else a go?

There are a few countries which are crying out for reforms.  The two prominent ones are Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Both countries have had leaders who are clocking the three-decade mark and people are getting frustrated.

Since the formation of a power sharing government a few years ago in  Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, disputes and disagreements have been in place with most of the power still being held by Bobby M.

South Africa has been leading the process of facilitating a solution to the power struggle between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.  This has left many people wondering why they would outsource to fix problems within their own country.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that led to the ouster of their respective leaders, are said to be all mobilised by the people, not by outside governments.  The immolation of the young man in Tunisia selling fruit began the wave of protests in the north of the continent.

So, is that what the south, east or west needs?

Why aren’t people mobilising themselves and encouraging others to join in to bring an end to the injustices they feel they suffer? And is it fair to seek intervention from Western and other forces when it is said that they themselves should be creating the change they wish to see?

Again, the answer is complicated.

People have taken to the streets.  They’ve done this in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya and most recently in Ivory Coast. On all of these occasions these somewhat peaceful protests have been met with brutal force.

Unlike in Tunisia, where the military sided with the people, or in Egypt, where the military’s link with Hosni Mubarak weakened as the protests carried on, the military in most of the other African countries is very repressive and brutal.

And there’s another side to the story.  That is, that most of these countries have democratic structures in place – although these are not always, if ever, actually followed. Many people still turn out to voting booths in huge numbers, waiting for hours in line with the hope their vote might just bring the change they long for.  However, often the case is that leaders still remain in power, through fraudulent and corrupt means.  As I type this, Laurent Gbagbo is defiant in stepping down as leader of Ivory Coast, despite calls from the international community who recognize his opponent Alassane Ouattara as the rightfully elected president of the country.

How does eastern, western and southern Africa then move forward in attaining freedom and democracy that most of its people continue to demand?

Especially when their leaders have warned that citizens who think of attempting Egypt or Tunisia-style uprisings will be “dealt with”. In Zimbabwe for example, more than 40 activists have been charged with treason for simply watching videos of the north Africa uprisings.

So, where does the rest of the continent begin?

The solution does not lie in outside models, be it from the West or even from within the continent. What’s happening in the North cannot be asked of other parts.  For a revolution to occur, people within these countries have to find a solution that works for them.

And for many, being hopeful is often simply enough on its own.

Santilla Chingaipe is a Zambian-born journalist currently working for SBS Radio News.  She has spent every summer for the past 20 years travelling through Africa.  This is her first piece for upstart.