LSE’s Gary Blank reviews African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions, published by Pambazuka Press, which also includes an article by LSE’s Lakhdar Ghettas.
Recent moves to eliminate fuel subsidies in Africa’s most populous country awakened unprecedented protests among workers and youth, including a week-long, nationwide general strike. After months tracking the revolt in North Africa, media pundits inevitably looked southward in search of a sequel. Were we witnessing a “Nigerian Spring”? Might there be a new wave of revolutions, this time south of the Sahara?
In making this comparison, few seemed to realise they were issuing an implicit challenge to much received wisdom. The conventional narrative of the Arab Spring, after all, accords primacy to a tech-savvy middle class pursuing liberal virtues – not trade unionists defying market reforms. Indeed, structural adjustment and globalisation were supposed to underwrite a golden era of comparative stability in sub-Saharan Africa, unleashing the animal spirit of a burgeoning middle class and enriching millions. The very possibility of a ‘Nigerian Spring’ seems to call into question prevailing assumptions about the geographical boundaries and social dynamics of African revolt.
Into the breach steps African Awakening, a spirited collection of essays originally “published” in Pambazuka News during the first six months of 2011, when the Arab Spring was at its peak. Styling itself as “a platform for progressive Pan-African perspectives”, Pambazuka News is an online weekly which justly boasts of providing probably the most comprehensive coverage of African struggles for “dignity, self-determination and emancipation”. By bringing a selection of this coverage to a broader audience, African Awakening issues a trenchant and timely challenge to the widespread assumption that the Arab Spring can be understood in splendid isolation from the rest of Africa.
High expectations are built in the two introductory chapters of the book, where the editors sketch a bold portrait of a continent gripped by revolutionary ferment. Events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the Middle East dominated headlines last year, but the tide of revolt extended far beyond the Arab-speaking world. Demonstrations, strikes and other expressions of mass discontent shook ruling classes in every corner of the African continent, from Malawi to Madagascar, South Africa to Sudan.
The movements initiating these protests are hardly homogenous. Yet each is responding to a common experience of social, economic, and political dispossession engendered by three decades of neoliberalism in the global South, and further exacerbated by the current capitalist crisis. If their basic demands for justice and popular self-determination are to be fulfilled, nothing less than a thorough “social transformation” is required. What we are witnessing, the editors conclude, is not an Arab Spring but an African Awakening: emerging revolutions on a continental and even world scale, whose fate will be determined in years and decades to come. Nigeria, it might be added, is not the first, but simply the latest example of this trend in sub-Saharan Africa.
If the rest of the volume proves to be somewhat disappointing, it is only because it never quite succeeds in bringing the pan-African picture into clear focus. It seems that the editors had a precise understanding of the overall theme they wished to convey, but much less of a handle on how to structure coherently the raw material at their disposal.
After debating at length whether to group the essays thematically or geographically, they ultimately decided that a chronological presentation would “give a sense of the growing excitement of catching history on its wings”. This is a rather cheery way of making virtue out of necessity. Most of the “essays” in African Awakening are in fact extended news reports, blog posts, and eyewitness accounts – the type of journalistic pieces which undoubtedly made for exciting reading in an online newsweekly, but which lose more than a little pertinence several months after the fact.
Taken together, the short, journalistic essays do cast a welcome light on social struggles that have otherwise received lamentably little attention, ranging across Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Cameroon, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Morocco and Algeria. Yet overall coverage remains surprisingly uneven for a book devoted to Africa’s “emerging revolutions”. South Africa garners a miserly four pages, Nigeria and Kenya none at all; but Egypt, Tunisia and Libya claim no fewer than 18 of 32 chapters between them. And the deeper the reader delves, the more skewed the coverage becomes. The substantive analytical and comparative pieces are mostly served up at the end of the book – and each, without exception, is devoted to North Africa.
These critical reassessments of the Arab Spring prove to be the gems among the baubles, penned by some of the keenest observers of African political economy. Adam Hanieh, Patrick Bond and Samir Amin uncover the class dynamics behind the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Mass protests targeted not just the idiosyncratic abuses of Mubarak and Ben-Ali, but the brutal social logic of neoliberal capitalism – which Washington and dominant classes now seek to maintain under the rubric of an “orderly transition”.
Mahmoud Mamdani, Charles Abugre and Yash Tandon extend this critical gaze to Libya, exposing the hypocrisy, cynicism, and outright lies underlying Nato’s “humanitarian” intervention. In their telling, the Western powers sought regime change from the start. Whether this was done to test a “new generation of weapons” (as Mamdani off-handedly suggests) or to secure oil and other economic resources (as Tandon and Abugre more convincingly claim), all three authors agree that it illustrates inherent dangers in the “responsibility to protect” doctrine.
Without similarly detailed analyses of uprisings south of the Sahara, African Awakening cannot fully deliver on the promise of its title. Yet this collection deserves to be read not for the breadth of its coverage, but for the novelty of its perspective. By encouraging us to reassess social movements across the continent in terms of a common political-economic dynamic, the book offers a sound and necessary framework for future enquiry. Certainly, any “Nigerian Spring” will not be intelligible without it.
Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine (eds.). African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions. Oxford: Pambazuka Press. 2012. x + 314 pp.