An overview of the current political situation in 54 African countries shows that many movements are making gains in the struggle against authoritarianism.
This article was written by our Director and was first published by our partners on https://wagingnonviolence.org/
A lot has changed since I arrived in Uganda in 2009. At that time,
mass mobilization for political goals was far more abnormal in Uganda.
For those of us in the struggle against authoritarianism, it is only
natural to dwell on the long distance we must still travel to victory.
We see the goal still ahead of us — a dictator’s removal or a war that
must end — but we rarely look behind to celebrate how far we’ve come.
Even just two years ago, I would’ve hesitated to assert that Ugandans
had begun to coalesce their power. It was the same handful of activists
and disorganized, strategy-less opposition parties making noise at
press conferences. In October 2017, however, all hell broke loose as
dictator Yoweri Museveni orchestrated an amendment to the constitution,
prolonging his three-decade reign. Parliamentary proceedings looked more
like a WWE special,
as legislators brawled with chairs and military personnel infiltrated
their proceedings, along with the offices of progressive organizations
throughout the country.
Despite the crackdown, Ugandans in every region of the country pushed
back. It was the first leaderless, well-dispersed emergence of
anger-begetting-action I had witnessed in Uganda. Conflict between
citizens and the state continues to rise as ghetto-raised Rasta star
Bobi Wine goes head-to-head with Museveni, mobilizing urbanites for
nonviolent resistance. If his campaign team can get beyond the city
context they know well and establish a well-coordinated network of rural
organizers, 2019 could set him up to take power from Museveni’s grip.
I have hope for the year ahead of Africa. It began with unions in Sudan and Zimbabwe putting old and new authoritarian regimes respectively to the test. Togo
stands on the brink of ending a half-century of family rule, and
Algerians continue to flood the streets against their despot, who was
just forced to concede his candidacy for a fifth term. Anti-government
protests in Ethiopia have pushed a traditionally regressive regime into taking steps toward democracy, which its new leaders are doing.
Of course, it wouldn’t be wise to be purely optimistic. Fascism is on
the rise in the southern world as much as it is in the north. The
following overview of national political situations shows just how
promising, if not turbulent, the rest of 2019 may be.
Horn of Africa
There is perhaps no better place to start than Ethiopia: the place
where humanity (arguably) began. This birthplace of civilizations,
religions and many African peoples who have migrated the continent has
also boasted a more modern tradition: minority rule. The early 1990s saw
the rise of a Tigray minority that took control of the government and
suppressed even the most modest forms of dissent for nearly three
decades. Human rights organizations, for example, were not permitted to
exist in Ethiopia. Last April, however, new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
took power following a long bout of protests by the Oromo people and
others yearning for political change.
“Ahmed is pushing reforms faster than anyone has anticipated,” said
Ethiopian journalist and activist Eden Sahle. “Even more impressive is
his ability to serve as a role model and articulate his vision of wiping
out the extreme ethnonationalism through compassion and democracy.”
There is a sense of possibility that has swept Ethiopia for the first
time in the lives of young people. Already the Ethiopian government has
taken progressive measures against foreign investors. In October, the
first female president of the country was installed. Ethiopia is one
African nation with massive potential in 2019.
The rest of the Horn of Africa looks more bleak. Djibouti — home to
the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa — has no legally
instituted independent media outlets. Regional human rights body Defend
Defenders decried the regularity of arrests and torture of artists,
journalists and civil society workers. Little news concerning people
power has leaked beyond the borders of the small country in recent
Somalia still remains a dance of terrorist groups and kleptocrats (with some reports
ranking it 2018’s most corrupt country in the world). More Somalian
activists are integrating issues of gender justice into their push for
political change, but being among the least stable countries, they’ve
still got a long way to go.
Meanwhile, Eritrea just might win the “North Korea of Africa” prize. With no independent legislature, judiciary or media, President Isaias Afwerki is feeling comfortable in his 26th year in power. Every Eritrean serves the state for an indeterminate period upon turning 18, with most being designated to military service. According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, this “national service” often lasts more than 10 years.
Could 2019 be the year of the “Arab Re-awakening?” Sudan continues
bold revolutionary action against longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir.
The resistance has spread to all corners of the country and has
benefitted from the leadership of the professional class, including
lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers and academics.
In Morocco, on Feb. 20, the officially banned Justice and Dignity
movement, with participation from teachers and other trade unionists,
commemorated the anniversary of the Arab Spring by marching on the royal
palace, home to autocrat King Mohammed VI. The once suppressed
population is now said to hold an average of 48 protests daily,
according to Morocco’s human rights ministry.
At the same time, Western Sahara — the only country in Africa still
occupied by a colonial power (Morocco) to this day — continues its long
tradition of resistance. Effectively building a nation in exile, the
Saharawis score incredibly high in women leadership, national solidarity
and large-scale intifadas. With demonstrations on the rise in Morocco,
perhaps 2019 will be the year Morocco’s security apparatus is spread too
thin, weakening its hold on the resource-rich land.
Algeria has not been as resistant to dictatorship over the past
several years, but on Feb. 22, Algerians transitioned immediately from
the mosques to the streets, condemning President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s
intention to pursue a fifth term in the upcoming April elections. These protests began this year
in a few towns and have escalated fast. In protests on March 1, turnout
was on the rise again. Now it seems every town’s streets are
overflowing with Algerians hopeful for an end to Bouteflika reign. At
the threat of public demonstrations, he seems to be resigning his
mission to seize a fifth term and instead delaying elections to prolong
his fourth term in power.
In Tunisia, a journalist named Abderrazk Zorgui set himself ablaze in
December to protest economic hardship. The action calls to mind the
2010 self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi — the event that is
often credited as the start of the Arab Spring. In both Tunisia and
Egypt, there is a growing outrage that the regime changes of 2011-2013
did not produce the desired results in the lives of citizens and the
systems and cultures of governance. Many contend that the situations are
in fact worse than they were in the early 2000s.
Another country that brings to mind the shortcomings of the Arab
Spring is Libya. It is a nation much harder to summarize, and its
political future much more difficult to predict. A mix of armed and
unarmed groups continue to protest and contend for various interests.
Public and private sector actors — and, of course, international
militaries under the banner of NATO and the United States — compete for
various interests, some more virtuous than others. Libya remains a
chaotic and fragile state, if indeed we can call it a state.
Benin had the first post-colonial democratic transition in the region
in 1991 and has often been lauded as an example of democratic values in
West Africa. In recent years, however, there has been some regression
on this legacy. Dissatisfaction from unions and youth movements is
likely to result in more anti-government protests this year. Perhaps
they will pick up some tips from Burkina Faso, home to a recent youth-led revolution and a spirit of restoring the political memory, ideals and systems that once governed her land.
Recent momentum against the half-century family dynasty in Togo has
unfortunately subsided. “Opposition parties broke into factions, seeing
2020 elections ahead,” said activist Farida Nabourema. “There is a
strong demobilization at the moment. Opposition needs to unite around a
civil resistance agenda rather than an electoral one.”
Nabourema, who was also in Nigeria for the recent presidential elections, witnessed massive voter turnout
despite a postponement and then a Boko Haram attack on the rescheduled
election day. “Nigerians are not afraid to go to the extreme to get what
they want,” said Nabourema. Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari won a second
term. In the words of one Nigerian activist, “[Buhari’s] so-called
corruption fight has been lopsided and based on party affiliation,
religion and tribe. I really don’t foresee the leopard changing its
Buhari also congratulated Senegalese incumbent Macky Sall on his
recent electoral victory, which was obtained partially through the
imprisonment of his contenders and partially through the modern
infrastructure he has built in Dakar. Activists in Senegal might turn to
neighbors in The Gambia for advice on restoring democratic practices.
Gambians won defections from despot Yahya Jammeh’s inner circle and
thwarted his 2017 coup. This is likely to be a year of investigations
into rights abuses from members of Jammeh’s past administration.
While Ghana has had more frequent change of presidents than most
African countries, we shouldn’t confuse this with the rights and
freedoms afforded to citizens. 2019 will be another year in which
Ghanaians push for LGBT rights and freedoms of expression and press in
the face of police brutality.
Law enforcement crackdowns have also been a serious problem in
Guinea, where police used sometimes-lethal force against protesters last
year. We may see more of this unfortunate practice in 2019, as a
resumption of teacher strikes and protests for citizen rights in the
mining sector is likely to occur.
Meanwhile, Ivory Coast ex-president (and former leftist and youth
activist) Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted of crimes against humanity by the
International Criminal Court one month ago. His release was met with
resistance back home by those who felt his acquittal was unfair. More
drama should unfold on this matter over the coming months.
After the first year of Liberian President George Weah’s
administration, citizens are critiquing the slow rate at which he has
tackled issues of poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Weah still
enjoys majority support in Liberia, both with government workers and
citizens at the grassroots. Pressure will likely exist in 2019 to push
him to deliver on his campaign promises.
Sierra Leone saw protests in 2018 against fuel price hikes and a
miner’s strike. First Lady Fatima Bio is spearheading her own campaign
to end sexual violence against girls, which other first ladies in the
region have also endorsed. Like many other West African countries, the
current push by protesters isn’t necessarily for regime change, but for
better governance, especially where private corporations are enjoying
profits at the expense of citizens.
Guinea-Bissau has witnessed nine coups or attempted coups since 1980,
but people are now taking matters into their own hands, rising up in
the thousands to oust President Jose Mario Vaz. These demonstrations
follow failed regional talks to settle internal competition within the
Even in the 21st century, slavery is still rampant throughout West
Africa. In Mauritania, there have been protests in recent years against
the enslavement of about 90,000 people. President Ould Abdel Aziz
announced he isn’t running for a third term this 2019, but we have heard
this story before. Resistance will rise if he doesn’t stay true to his
Niger and Mali are currently insecure with the presence of militant
groups, but citizens of the latter managed to hold protests against
fraudulent elections last year. This resistance may reside for a time
before regrouping, as a state of emergency has been declared through
Some Ambazonians continue to fight for succession from autocrat Paul
Biya’s Cameroon amidst widespread insecurity. Public lamentations
organized by Anglophone women last year have reduced the regularity of
violent attacks, but Biya’s grip on power remains firm.
While a military coup attempt was thwarted by the administration of
President Ali Bongo in Gabon earlier this year, Joseph Kabila of the
Democratic Republic of the Congo was not quite as lucky in his direct
coup attempts. Still, he managed to cut his losses by assisting the less
popular Felix Tshisekedi to rig the Dec. 30 elections against popular
opposition figure Martin Fayulu. Tshisekedi took power, rewarding Kabila
with a comfortable transition of power after decades of pillaging the
resource-wealthy country. Such bait-and-switch presidential antics
should be analyzed by movements across the continent, as more
longstanding dictators concede power, but not without insulating
In the neighboring Republic of the Congo, President Denis Sassou
Nguesso’s three-decade rule doesn’t seem to be facing any real threat.
The last formidable resistance took place in 2015, when a sham
referendum resulted in a change to the constitution that allowed Nguesso
to retain his hold on the presidency.
Idriss Déby is another African dictator who has been insulated from
opposition, in his case by the French military, which spared 2,000
troops in February to help suppress mercenary soldiers. In 2018, bishops
in Chad spoke out against the manner in which Déby modified the
constitution to help himself keep power through 2033. Resistance to Déby
mostly comes from violent groups, which means it may be quite some time
before democratic transition takes place in Chad.
Teodoro Obiang, who ousted his uncle in 1979 and has been in power ever since, might just win the award for worst dictator in Africa. With propaganda often spread about his divine abilities, Equatorial Guinea sits at his mercy. Many state resources are essentially private family assets — especially oil — giving him an estimated value is $600 million. Opponents have accused him of cannibalism — specifically, consuming enemy testicles and brains to increase his sexual stamina. Much of the resistance to Obiang has been by non-African states, who have seized assets belonging to his family. Although Obiang announced amnesty for political prisoners last year, the opposition has a long way to go in consolidating its power against his personality cult.
The big ray of hope in Central Africa, however, is Angola. With Jose
Eduardo dos Santos now out of power, following an uprising of artists
and their fans, the culture of resistance hasn’t dissipated. Although
there are many arbitrary arrests of those protesting corruption,
Angolans remain vocal and aggressive.
My home of Uganda has enjoyed the exciting
emergence of musician-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, known affectionately
as Bobi Wine, going head-on with the militaristic three-decade Museveni
regime. The slogan “people power, our power” is chanted by school
pupils and the working class alike. So far, however, Kyagulanyi’s
campaigns have mainly consisted of live concerts in the capital city and
interviews with international media outlets following his arrest and
torture. If he can use 2019 to build networks of rural organizers to
supplement his city strength, he will undoubtedly poke a hole in the
increasingly draconian Museveni government, which has illegally taxed social media.
Rwanda, despite its commendable infrastructural development, remains a
totalitarian state. With one ruling party spy designated to every 10
homes, little if any dissent to dictator Paul Kagame is publicly voiced
without severe retaliation by his security apparatus. Rwanda is
regionally notorious for suppressing dissent through forced
disappearances and killings. Most dissidents still alive remain in
exile. In September, however, female opposition leader Victoire Ingabire
was freed from jail and pledged to continue her fight.
Burundians are nearly as quiet as their Rwandese neighbors. Extreme
repression, including state killings, has discouraged open critique of
Pierre Nkurunziza — who, after defiling Burundi’s constitution, is
eligible to stay in power until 2034.
At the same time, Tanzania’s fascism is escalating. In November,
administrative head of Dar es Salaam Paul Makonda called for public
reporting of gay people, for whom he had assembled a team of police and
officials to jail them. President John Magafuli had run on an
anti-corruption platform, but his administration has become more vicious
with every turn.
Extrajudicial killings remain high in Kenya. A number of activists
documenting killings by police remain at high risk. In February,
organizers of social justice centers based in Nairobi slums held vigils
for Caroline Mwatha, who they allege was murdered for exposing the truth
about police involvement in killings. Nairobi activist and friend of
Mwatha, Florence Kanyua, said, “We went to the city morgue and confirmed
Caroline was dead. The state is blaming it on a botched abortion, yet
police have claimed there is no government pathologist available to
carry out a postmortem.”
South Sudan is in a constant circle of peace negotiations and
violations of these negotiations. Backed by President Museveni of
Uganda, warlord Salva Kiir continues to pillage the country and drive
millions of South Sudanese into refugee camps within South Sudan and in
neighboring countries. Women’s rights organizations, the women’s wing of
South Sudan Council of Churches and youth arts-activism movement
#Anataban are among those who continue to pressure for a total end to
In Mozambique, 2019 has already been characterized by killings and mutilations in resource-rich Cabo Delgado. President Filipe Nyusi had claimed the situation was under control, but youth organizer Cidia Chissungo and her fellow organizers broke through the silence by circulating photos of the atrocities. “During the media blackout on Cabo Delgado, we had thousands of shares in less than 24 hours,” Chissungo said. “Ten days after we began the campaign, the president stated the situation was critical and began paying it more mind.” The Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO, has been in power since Mozambique’s independence
Last year’s protests against corruption in Zimbabwe escalated to a
massive protest against fuel price hikes this January in which over 600
were detained and 12 killed. Trade unions called for general strikes in
February following a multi-day march by the Amalgamated Rural Teachers
Union of Zimbabwe that escalated to occupations in the capital of
In May, Malawi will hold presidential elections where incumbent Peter
Mutharike — tied up in a corruption scandal — will face off against his
own Vice President and former female President Joyce Banda.
Zambia, while often characterized as a country of passive people, may
be the strongest voice against China’s emerging influence over the
continent. The “China equals Hitler” protest slogan was popularized
among Zambians in September. China continues to indebt national
governments throughout Africa, which is understood by some as a type of
long-term colonization strategy. Zambians are also increasingly wary of
their own governments and institutions. For example, a student protest
against the abolition of meal allowances was held in February.
The African National Congress that once played a pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa has in recent years found itself embroiled in scandals, one of which pushed President Jacob Zuma to resign a year ago. 2018 witnessed more protests in the country than any of the previous 13 years. Perhaps it is no coincidence that South Africa has been dubbed the “protest capital of the world.”
is likely to be no slowing down in 2019 either. It is an election year,
and student protests continue even long after the heyday of
#FeesMustFall. Recently installed President Cyril Ramaphosa was a
unionist and anti-apartheid activist, but is now a millionaire with a track record
of human rights abuses. Yet, he once cut a visit to London short to
return to South Africa in order to address protester demands. Such
responsiveness by the head of state to citizen grievances is likely to
encourage more demonstrations in 2019, regardless of his position on
matters being protested.
Meanwhile, Lesotho and Eswatini remain monarchies under traditional
cultural hegemony. Last year, in Lesotho, factory workers organized
protests, whereas in Eswatini, the Rural Women’s Assembly and Swaziland
United Democratic Front are among those leading the charge. Both small
nations have small movements aimed at transitioning from monarchic rule
Southern Africa still sets the bar high, despite its shortcomings.
Botswana and Namibia rank high in political freedoms. Namibia, in fact,
ranks higher than the United States in democracy and press freedom.
We mustn’t forget the islanders — who, in addition to pristine
beaches — are enjoying comparatively adequate governance as African
nations. In particular, it’s the tiny island nations that are really
setting the pace. Cape Verde received a high ranking in the 2011 Ibrahim
Index of African Governance, second only to Mauritius — whose
president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, resigned a year ago due to a corruption
Seychelles President James Michel also resigned in 2016, without
offering explanation, and President Danny Faure is completing his five
year term. Sao Tome and Principe ranks high in all categories assessed
by Freedom House.
The only drama among the small island nations seems to be in Comoros.
Traditionally, the presidency rotates between the three islands, but
President Azali Assoumani won a constitutional referendum in July to
extend term limits and abolish the rotational presidency system. More
than 20 coup attempts have taken places since Comoros’ 1975
independence, and with autocratic trends taking hold, 2019 could yield
some pushback from citizens.
Africa’s largest island, Madagascar, is perhaps the furthest behind,
when it comes to in citizens’ rights. Authoritarian in its governance
culture, the state suppresses the voices of the many environmental
activists who strive to protect the country’s unique species and
ecosystems. Youth movement Wake Up Madagascar and civil society
coalitions are on the frontlines of fighting for political freedoms.
Toward a new Africa
There may be no straightforward way to summarize the political
momentum in Africa. Some places are becoming free. Others are being
driven into suppression. Most nations are experiencing a bit of both.
I want to suggest only one generalization that characterizes most of
Africa: It is wrongly governed by old men. While gerontocracy exists the
world over, it is particularly vicious in Africa, where the median age
is 19. Political and business elites, on the other hand, are above the
age of 50 — or, if they are not, they tend to think and behave as those
who are generations removed from the majority population. Youth are
systematically excluded from political representation, influence and
opportunity — with few exceptions. In almost every country, we see youth
rising up in one way or another to spark change.
Africa is our planet’s second most populous continent and holds the
highest concentration of natural resources. Yet, infrastructure is so
poorly developed — and information so overly censored — that even fellow
Africans must painfully strain to obtain news about their homeland.
Furthermore, the continent is so diverse in every way imaginable that
articles such as this one can only skim the surface. Hopefully, as
events unfold throughout the year, news of African movements will
reverberate throughout the world in ways that cannot be easily ignored