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Longread: The constant battle against oppression and the evolution of African democracy

Current Affairs

Longread: The constant battle against oppression and the evolution of African democracy

The current tug of war in Sudan is  a test case for the evolution of both the nation state as well as African democracy.  Anver Versi explains why in this in-depth analysis.

The events in Sudan which have been unfolding since the beginning of the year have generated a massive amount of interest all over Africa as well as in many developing countries. The interest is understandable. 

Globally, there has been a marked shift in the pattern of governance and the relationship between the ruled and the rulers. At best, one can characterise this relationship as being unusually fractious with the populations of many countries bitterly divided either over the person of the leader or on issues.

The election of Donald Trump, a political outsider and who had been given virtually no chance at all at the start of the 2016 Presidential election campaign perhaps best underscores this trend.

He was anything but the accepted Presidential material – his language and manners were not cultured, his views verged on the extreme, his vocabulary was limited.

Trump’s  position changed with each viewing of Fox news, he lied easily and frequently, his attitude towards women and minorities were incendiary, his knowledge of the workings of government were virtually none existent, his understanding of the world was both miniscule as well as alarming and he seemed unable to inspire any devotion or loyalty among the senior staff he picked to work in his cabinet.

American history

Each one of these shortcomings could have proved fatal to his chances of advancing through the ranks in during any of the previous election periods in American history.

Collectively, they seemed to have doomed his bid from the outset. Yet, against all expectation, he won the election and inherited a country more polarised and divided than it had ever been before.

We learn from Global Citizen that the overall turnout for marches, rallies, vigils and other protests since the 2017 Presidential inauguration falls somewhere between 10 and 15m – of which 90% have been anti-Trump. “That is certainly more people in absolute terms than have ever protested before in the US,” says Global Citizen.

Elsewhere too, there has been a spike in the number of people organising themselves into protest movements and in the case of Armenia, massive protests led to the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan in 2018.

There has been a spike in the number of people organising themselves into protest movements.

There have been other massive anti-government protests in Nicaragua against Daniel Ortega, in Russia against the banning of a messaging service, in India against police and politicians implicated in brutal rapes, in Palestine during the March of Return campaign and several more.

More than a million Britons demonstrated against Brexit in the UK and the Gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protestors against President Macron brought France to a standstill on several occasions. As we write, some two million in Hong Kong have been protesting against changes to the extradition laws.

This is not counting hundreds more protests across the world, including one in Liberia against the rule of President George Weah.

Why and how do such massive protests happen? According to political science, “Mass protests throughout history have come at a time when enough of the population has been affected by policies of the rulers and elite. They have often been met with brutal, efficient crackdown by the guardians of the elite, be they local police, militias, national militaries, or even another nation’s military forces”.

Fear among populations

Clearly, there is a correlation between the huge numbers of people who have been protesting and the swing to right wing governments in many parts of the world.

These protests also signify a fear among populations that their democratic rights are under threat from increasingly authoritarian governments and their supporters who almost invariably also attack and attempt to muzzle the free press.

It is against this global backdrop that the current situation in Sudan must be viewed. However, there is a major difference. In most of the above cases, the protests have taken place in countries that are at least nominally democratic but in which the protestors feel the prevailing systems do not address their concerns.

In Sudan, the protests, although initially directed against the government, are in fact an attempt to wrest true democracy from a system that has been using sham democratic rituals such as elections to perpetuate an undemocratic oligarchy.

In Sudan, the protests, although initially directed against the government, are in fact an attempt to wrest true democracy.

Thus the outcome of the current battle for power between the military and the people in Sudan is being viewed with great interest across the globe as well as in the rest of Africa since victory for one or the other side will most likely lay the template for the future of true democracy in the near future.

Africa and democracy

The current tug of war in Sudan is also a test case for the evolution of both the nation state as well as democracy in the continent. One of the great myths imposed on Africa at the time of its independence was that it could and should democratise immediately. The failure to do so for many decades was blamed on the ‘African character’.

What was ignored was the historical truth that neither the nation state nor the institution of democracy are ‘natural attributes’ to be installed as easily as internal plumbing but that both need to evolve.

Prior to colonisation, neither the concept of boundary delineated nation states nor its concomitant forms of governments existed in Africa. Group identity was based on language and kinship and effective boundaries were established by modes of living or natural barriers.

Governance in each of these entities had evolved over centuries of trial and error and ranged from monarchies to chieftainships. The prevailing social order was maintained largely by consensus rather than confrontational debate.

Prior to colonisation, neither the concept of boundary delineated nation states nor its concomitant forms of governments existed in Africa.

It was different in Europe where centuries of constant warfare between kings and various princes had led to the creation of nation states with borders which often changed over time following conquest and defeat. Some of these nation states coincided with dominant language groups, sometimes they spilled over.

Within these nation states, the power dynamics rested between the heavily armed and organised lords and kings and the subjugated serfs, mostly peasant farmers and artisans.

Although the concept of partial democracy had first been articulated in ancient Greece, the actual realisation of democracy itself took thousands of years of evolution and often bloody struggle to attain its current shape.

The concept of nation states was foisted on Africa during the colonial period and the partition of the continent on maps drawn in Europe.

But the concept of democracy was not extended to these nation states – in fact, democracy was prohibited and the desire for it was considered a criminal offense for which many freedom fighters were killed or were jailed.

After independence, Africa was left with nation states they had not shaped and were expected to easily slip straight into democracy. It was like expecting a child to instantly grown into an adult simply by observing its parents. It never happens that way – a child evolves over time into an adult.

The concept of democracy was not extended to these nation states – in fact, democracy was prohibited and the desire for it was considered a criminal offense for which many freedom fighters were killed or were jailed.

This to my mind led to the ‘democratic deficiency’ so decried by foreign observers. As had happened in Europe and Asia over centuries, those with power seized the throne and used their power, most often military, to maintain themselves in it unless ousted by another armed group.

Playing catch up

In this, Africa was simply following the natural course of social evolution that other nations had treaded before it. Yet from a political science point of view, it is amazing that so many nations not only adapted to the nation state but also leapt over the evolutionary ladder to become democracies.

Africa was under pressure to cram in several centuries of social and political evolution into a timespan of just decades.

At the same time, the continent was playing catch up with the rest of the world in technology, education, health, infrastructure, finance, food production and social and political organisation – all areas in which, during colonial times, it had been shut out from developments taking place elsewhere.

It was being asked to move from subsistence agriculture and very basic industry – the only activities it was permitted to engage in during colonialism – and into the 20th century and to do so at breakneck speed.

The tensions this created led to the fracturing of societies and, in accordance with the laws of politics, the strongest organised armed group, the military stepped into the breech. This yielded the era of military dictatorships in many African countries.

Nevertheless, the quest for an evolution towards popular representation was never abandoned and against all rational expectations, the majority of African countries somehow managed to bridge the gulf of centuries and become democratic.

These democracies are far from perfect – but which one is?  But that Africa by and large has become democratic is, (from the historical perspective) little short of miraculous.

Evolutionary wave

But pockets of the continent, such as Sudan, seemed to have been bypassed by this evolutionary wave. It was not for lack of trying by the people but perhaps the stars were not properly aligned. That is until this current wave now unfolding in the country.

It is led by the youth and the youth now makes up the majority of Africa’s population. It is a battle not only for democracy, it is a battle for the dignity of the common person, for the birth right of every individual African.

It is a desire to break through the ossified outdated carapace that the Al Bashir era represented and move into the modern world as modern citizens with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of their modern counterparts across the globe.

But no organism will willingly lay down and die and what we have just seen has been, hopefully, the dying lashing out of an outdated and oppressive system.

The brave struggle of the people of Sudan is not simply their concern, it stands for the constant battle of goodness and decency against the ugliness of oppression

But democracy and freedom have always been fragile – always under attack from new manifestations of the urge to oppress and dominate. We saw this with the rise of fascism in Europe when Hitler and Mussolini attempted to turn the clock back, We see threatening versions of the same malignancy today with the rise of far right nationalism.

Thus the brave struggle of the people of Sudan is not simply their concern, it stands for the constant battle of goodness and decency against the ugliness of oppression.

Those Sudanese protestors and those who have lost their lives are heroes not only for the whole of Africa, but for the world. We should all take some time to appreciate what they are doing for all of us and to salute their heroism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

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Written by Anver Versi

Anver Versi is the award-winning former editor of African Business Magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in Accra, Ghana.

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