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November 12th, 2012

Conditions are not yet fertile for an African Spring south of the Sahara

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Editor

November 12th, 2012

Conditions are not yet fertile for an African Spring south of the Sahara

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

LSE alumnus Olivier Bucyana examines the factors why the Arab Spring has not spread into sub-Saharan Africa. This post also appears on The Africanist.

What happened to the wave of “revolutions” sweeping across North Africa? Why has this force not swept into sub-Saharan Africa? Is there an ingredient missing in some African countries south of the Sahara that have prevented uprisings?

Early in 2011, in Tunisia, after 24 years in power, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled with his family to Saudi Arabia, following protests against his rule. These protests were mainly centred on the people’s discontent over corruption, high unemployment and the inflation of food prices. Discontent over the lack of political freedoms and free speech were also among the issues that drove the people to question the legitimacy of the regime in place. Similar revolts occurred in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak remained in power for 30 years, and in Libya, after 40 years of Muammar Gaddafi.

In sub-Saharan Africa, one also finds strong men who have been in power for decades. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore have governed since 1987, while Jose Eduardo Dos Santos has been at the helm of Angola since 1979, just to name a few. Despite the fact that the countries they lead are not very different from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya when it comes to corruption[1], unemployment rate[2] and political freedoms[3], these men remain in power. Political and economic grievances do play a role in starting “revolutions”, as we can see in the northern African countries mentioned above, however, they are not enough to successfully change the status quo, as we can see in some sub-Saharan countries today.

Access to information is another factor that gets things moving. In Tunisia, 3.6 million people have access to the Internet and this represents approximately a third of the Tunisian population, which, according to Internet World Stats, has one of the highest penetration rates on the African continent[4]. This access has allowed regular people to broadcast information abroad about, not only the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, but also about the uprising going on in the country, which local media outlets did not cover. This has also allowed the Diaspora to be informed about what was going on in their country, although it is important to note that, apart from the very determined activists, many in Tunisia were afraid to repost any of the events on their Facebook accounts, up to the final hours of Ben Ali’s rule[5]

Looking at internet access in sub-Saharan African countries, one notices the stark contrasts when compared to northern African countries, with the exception of the likes of Kenya, Nigeria and a few others. For instance, in Burkina Faso only 1.4% of the population has access to the internet and that rises to a mere 5.6%[6] in Angola. While state-controlled media outlets avoid covering certain events threatening “national security”, the lack of access to information greatly hinders a people’s ability to know what is going on in their country, and therefore their ability to effectively organize large protests as well. For that reason, access to the Internet and other means of communication do play a role in challenging the status quo and, in the case of many sub-Saharan African countries, that access is very limited. Also, generally, in order to use the Internet, one must know how to read and write. However, comparing the literacy rates in some sub-Saharan African countries to the northern African countries, we see several differences. For instance, in Tunisia, as of 2008, 77.6% of individuals above the age of 15 could read and write, while in Burkina Faso, for example, the literacy rate was only 28.7% in 2009.

As political grievances play a role in popular discontent, so does poverty. However, is it enough for people to change the status quo?

When comparing the levels of poverty across Africa, one comes to the conclusion that many sub-Saharan African countries are trailing behind those in the north, yet, so far, no revolutions have occurred in the former since the Arab Spring. According to World Bank data, as of 2005, 3.8% of the Tunisian population was living below the poverty line. In contrast, for instance in Burkina Faso, 46.7% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2009. Considering these statistics, one would expect protests to take place in the country with more people living in poverty; however that is not the case today. Why?

According to political scientist Ted Gurr, relative deprivation, which he defines as the “actors’ perception of discrepancy between their value expectation and their environment’s apparent value capabilities”, is an important precondition for violent conflict[7]. In other words, relative deprivation is the discrepancy between what you have and what you expect to have. For instance, a PhD holder in Engineering expects to have a job with a salary and standard of living that is equal to his or her qualifications and not for example, be a cattle herder. Basically, the more educated or well off you are, the higher expectations you have, in terms of comfort and wellbeing, especially when deprived. Gurr further adds that the more an individual feels s/he is being deprived of what s/he believes to be entitled to have, the greater the likelihood and intensity of civil violence.

In Tunisia, when it comes to school enrollment, 98.5% of children of the official primary school age were enrolled in a primary school, in 2009. In secondary school, 90.5% of Tunisians, regardless of age and as a percentage of the official secondary education age, were attending a secondary school. Finally, in tertiary education, again regardless of age and as a percentage of the five-year age group following on from secondary school, 34.4% of Tunisians were attending a higher learning institution[8].

In Burkina Faso, 60.4% of children of the official primary school age were enrolled in a primary school in 2009. Compared to Tunisia, Burkina Faso trails behind, with only 19.1% of students attending secondary school, again, regardless of age and as a percentage of the official secondary education age. Finally, when it comes to tertiary education, Burkina Faso is behind with only 3.3% enrolled in higher learning institutions[9].

In brief, when it comes to education, Tunisia performs much better than Burkina Faso. By using Gurr’s theory, one could say that the high unemployment rates in a relatively well-educated society triggered a feeling of relative deprivation among the unemployed in Tunisia. The use of the internet allowed the people to organise protests and express their feelings to the outside world, by bypassing state-controlled media outlets. Finally, the lack of political freedoms and democratic institutions, did not allow this discontent to be resolved by a regime that had already lost its legitimacy. The status quo had to be changed.

In the case of some sub-Saharan African countries, although grievances are present, due to the high levels of poverty, corruption and issues over political freedoms, the inability of the people to challenge the status quo is caused by many factors, such as the low levels of education and the limited access to the Internet, which has prevented the people from diffusing independent information at the national and international level.


[1] See Transparency International (http://www.transparency.org/)

[2] See World Bank Data (http://data.worldbank.org/)

[3] See Freedom House (http://www.freedomhouse.org/)

[4] See Internet World Stats (http://www.internetworldstats.com/)

[5] Ryan, Jasmine. “How Tunisia’s Revolution Began”. Al Jazeera 2011.

[6] See Internet World Stats (http://www.internetworldstats.com/)

[7] Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1970)

[8] See World Bank Data (http://data.worldbank.org/)

[9] See World Bank Data (http://data.worldbank.org/)

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