Essays | October 7, 2013

Social Protest, an African Perennial

Y en a Marre pic - sm
“Y en a Marre” protests in Paris, Sept 2011
Source: Gwenaël Piaser via Flickr

Early one morning in March 2013, residents of Bujagali in eastern Uganda, upset by the deplorable state of the road through their village blocked it with logs and large stones. The protesters expressed anger that President Yoweri Museveni had not kept a promise to pave the road, which becomes virtually impassable during heavy rains and throws up dust clouds in dry weather. Although the residents seemed determined to keep the road closed—some youths jokingly planted banana suckers and maize across it—riot police eventually came from nearby Jinja, arrested several demonstrators, and dispersed the remainder.[1]

A few months later, and some 4,500 kilometers across the continent in Nigeria, women traders in an Onitsha marketplace launched a tax strike against a new fee of 3,000 naira imposed by the Anambra state government. The strikers were familiar with the history of popular protest in Nigeria, noting that market taxes had been a central cause of the 1929 Aba Women’s Riot. When security forces shut down the marketplace in retaliation, the women barricaded a main road, marched on the state legislature, and threatened to demonstrate naked in front of state government offices if the tax was not lifted.

These were just two of thousands of protests held across Africa this year. Whether in the form of strikes, marches, rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, or unorganized outbursts of violence, Africans have taken to the streets in large numbers to voice diverse social and political grievances.

In early 2011, in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, some African analysts wondered why people south of the Sahara were not similarly revolting, since conditions in many sub-Saharan countries are comparably bad, if not worse.[2] Their assumption that the North African example should easily spread southward—if not for ethnic fragmentation, political passivity, or other factors—failed to take into account the complex conditions that historically give rise to large-scale popular mobilizations. It also ignored how people’s movements in North and sub-Saharan Africa have in fact inspired each other over the decades.[3] And by adopting a rather narrow focus on only explicitly political actions aimed at toppling sitting governments, such a view tended to discount the significance of protests focused on immediate social and economic concerns.

A Turbulent Continent

True revolutions may be few and far between. But that does not mean that Africans have been passive in the face of the serious difficulties they face. While Africa’s elites have many ways to influence policy—bankrolling favorite candidates and parties, evading unwelcome taxes and regulations, subverting state institutions through corruption and bribery—the poor must often resort to one of the few sources of power available to them: public protest. In most African countries, accurate and accessible data on protest activities are scarce. Researchers usually are obliged to rely on media reports, which by their nature are partial, inconsistent, and vary greatly by country (depending on the extent of press freedoms and the capacity of the given media). Such sources, despite their limitations, can nevertheless be quite illuminating. Simple searches on just a few keywords (“protest,” “strike,” “riot”) on the website, for example, found well over 3,000 reports of protest events in Africa during the first seven months of 2013 alone—even excluding the exceptional cases of Egypt and Tunisia.

Beyond the sheer numbers of reports, their geographical breadth is notable. With only a half dozen or so exceptions, every African country has experienced some form of public protest, even in highly repressive states where demonstrators readily face violent police or military reactions (such as Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Sudan, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe).

Across the continent, Egypt and Tunisia stand out. The overthrow of long-entrenched authoritarian governments in early 2011 lifted the lid on popular protest—although the recent bloodshed in Egypt may well dampen citizens’ continued willingness to hit the streets. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights recorded 3,817 separate protest acts in 2012. Another group, the International Development Center in Cairo, reported 1,354 protests in just the month of March 2013, an average of 44 per day. In Tunisia, the Ministry of the Interior recorded 12,270 protests in that country during the first eleven months of 2012.[4]

In the rest of Africa, a few countries are notable for frequent demonstrations and strikes. Kenya and Nigeria, both of which have plentiful and active civil society groups and relatively free medias, yield reports of scores of incidents each month. If police tallies were available, they might well give much higher numbers. For example, the Ministry of the Interior in Senegal—which has a much smaller population—registered 3,295 demonstrations in 2011.[5] The South African police, who diligently record such data, reported an annual average of 9,300 “crowd management incidents” there between 2004/05 and 2011/12, a category that included mostly protests but also some sporting events.[6]

Once sporadic occurrences, protests have become more common in Africa in recent years. Except in a few countries, it may still be premature to talk of the emergence of African “movement societies.”[7] But it is nevertheless evident that active dissent is no longer stigmatized—or so easily repressed—and that public tolerance for disruptive protest has been spreading.

Social Grievances at the Fore

Most often, it is explicitly political protests that make headlines, especially when they include some violence. And with Africa still beset by so many flawed governing systems, overt political unrest remains a prominent feature. During the first half of this year, deadly election-related clashes repeatedly broke out in Guinea and Togo. Local residents and demonstrators clashed with riot police in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and other countries. Political activists staged dramatic “Occupy Parliament” protests against legislators’ high salaries in Kenya. Western Sahara residents—often led by women—mounted some of the largest and most sustained demonstrations for independence since Morocco occupied the territory in 1975.

Yet overall, the bulk of protest activity in Africa (as elsewhere in the world) has focused on social and economic grievances, much of it carried out by particular sectors of the population or for very specific demands. Like youths in general, students often strike or demonstrate, sometimes over major political issues affecting society as a whole, but frequently over immediate complaints particular to their institutions, as they have recently in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Labor actions have been most common across the continent. During the first half of 2013, teachers struck in Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, and Senegal; doctors, nurses, and other health workers in Burkina Faso, the DRC, Kenya, and Mozambique; transport workers in Cameroon, the DRC, Nigeria, Morocco, and South Africa; miners in Liberia, Niger, and Zimbabwe; and oil workers in Gabon, Nigeria, and Mauritania. Municipal workers walked off their jobs in Senegal and farm workers struck in Kenya and South Africa. In August, some 30,000 workers went on strike against major auto manufacturers across South Africa. Such labor actions have often been called by trade unions, pointing to the importance of organization for successful mobilization. Their frequency also belies notions among some scholars of “new social movements” that working-class action has been largely superseded.[8]

Protests have occurred over a wide range of other issues as well. Government moves to lift food price subsidies prompted an upsurge of labor, student, and broader citizen protest in Zambia. Merchants shut their markets in Uganda. Women marched against rape in Nigeria. Bakers struck in Senegal. Residents staged protests against electricity outages in Guinea and Madagascar and poor refuse collection in Nigeria and South Africa. Deaf people demonstrated in Kenya to demand better services. In June, youths led violent protests in Ashaiman, near the Ghanaian industrial city of Tema, to protest government neglect. In Tanzania’s southeastern region of Mtwara, residents rose up over plans for a gas pipeline that promised few benefits for local residents.

Political Connotations

It is often not easy—or useful—to categorize a given protest as simply “political” or “social.” Based on the predominant demands or nature of the organizations leading them, some may lean more in one direction than the other. But some can reflect multiple demands and motivations. Take, for example, the large demonstrations in Burkina Faso on July 20. Many thousands of trade unionists, civil society activists, and other citizens marched through the capital and other cities to protest high prices, low wages, poor health and education services, corruption, and numerous other maladies. But like the political opposition parties, which had demonstrated separately against creation of a controversial and costly 89-member Senate, the unionists’ also called on the authorities to scrap the new institution and use the funds for social needs instead. “One midwife is worth more than 89 senators,” chanted the marchers.[9]

Given the weakness of African state institutions and the multitude of social networks, noted the editors of a collection of research papers on social movements in Africa, African movements frequently exhibit a “rather hybrid nature” when viewed through the categories of conventional social science. “They often display social, political and religious characteristics that overlap one another.”[10]

Some activists try to maintain distinctions, however. The unionists in Burkina Faso denied that their demonstrations were political, meaning they were not organized by the opposition parties, which they distrust to some extent. Most often, activists worry that explicitly political alliances or demands may invite repression or make it less likely the authorities will concede their demands.

Whether openly political or not, most protests, even those for seemingly modest reforms or concessions, have political implications. In Africa’s more repressive states, any protest can implicitly challenge rulers’ authority. Even in Africa’s more democratic systems, popular agitation around day-to-day grievances can highlight the limits of government performance or the wide gaps in social and political power between ruling elites and ordinary citizens.

Widespread social and economic unrest can influence the tenor and tempo of overt political life. It may encourage political challengers to step up their opposition activities and sap the resolve of a regime’s supporters. From time to time, seemingly “non-political” protest may converge with mounting political opposition to yield genuinely revolutionary occurrences. In sub-Saharan Africa, the anti-austerity protests of the 1970s and 1980s laid the groundwork for the massive pro-democracy movements that shook dozens of countries in the early 1990s. In North Africa, the Arab Spring was preceded by years of labor and other social agitation, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia.[11]

And when a seemingly significant political turnover does take place, the persistence of social protests after that change can point to uncompleted agendas, especially for poor people who may experience little improvement in their daily lives. In Senegal, the popular “Y’en a marre” youth movement is credited with helping initiate a massive citizens’ insurgency on June 23, 2011, which blocked President Abdoulaye Wade from subverting the constitution and contributed to his electoral defeat some months later. This year, on the second anniversary of that event, Fadel Barro, a leader of “Y’en a marre,” noted that under the new government of Macky Sall unemployment, high prices, and illegal land acquisitions continue to afflict Senegal’s youth, contributing to ongoing unrest. For a clear break with the past, Barro said, “we are still waiting.”[12]





[1]  New Vision (Kampala), March 26, 2013, and The Observer (Kampala), March 28, 2013.

[2]  See, for example: Charles Onyango-Obbo, “The Revolution in Black Africa Won’t Be Played Out in the Streets,” and Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi, “As the Arabs Rise Up and Conquer Fear, Black Africa Looks On in Gloomy Envy,” both in the East African, February 14, 2011.

[3]  Ernest Harsch, “An African Spring in the Making: Protest and Voice Across a Continent,” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2012, pp. 45-61.

[4]  La Presse (Tunis), January 14, 2013.

[5]  Le Soleil (Dakar), February 17, 2012.

[6]  Peter Alexander, “Protests and Police Statistics: Some Commentary,” paper, University of Johannesburg, March 2012, and Peter Alexander, “A Massive Rebellion of the Poor,” Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), April 13, 2013.

[7]  David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow (eds.), Towards a Movement Society? Contentious Politics for a New Century, Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

[8]  Such as Jean Cohen, Alain Touraine, and Alberto Melucci. For a critical review, see Steven M. Buechler, “New Social Movement Theories,” Sociological Forum, Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer 1995, pp. 441-464.

[9]  L’Evènement (Ouagadougou), No. 260, July 25, 2013.

[10]  Stephen Ellis and Ineke van Kessel, “Introduction: African Social Movements or Social Movements in Africa?”, in Ellis and van Kessel (eds.), Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009, p. 4.

[11]  On the role of economic and climatic “stressors” in contributing to North Africa’s political upheavals, see: Caitlan E. Werrell and Francesco Femia (eds.), The Arab Spring and Climate Change: A Climate and Security Correlations Series, Washington, DC: Stimson, Center for American Progress, and the Center for Climate and Security, 2013. Available at:

[12]  Le Soleil (Dakar), June 22-23, 2013.

One Response to “Social Protest, an African Perennial”

  1. david seddon

    The Review of African Political Economy will shortly (August 2015) be going live with a new website which will include, among other things, project on particular topics. The first of these will be on ‘popular protest, social movements and class struggle’. This will be coordinated by David Seddon. The first issue or output of the project on ‘A New Era of Crises?’ will include a reference to this excellent article by Ernest Harsch.


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