These winds of change may now reach across the Sahara

The revolutions in the north have inspired sub-Saharan Africans. We can only hope the region’s leaders take note

Wangari Maathai

As protests against authoritarian rule spread throughout north Africa and the Middle East, I’ve been asked whether similar pro-democracy protests could take place in sub-Saharan Africa too.

At first glance, the conditions appear ripe. Many sub-Saharan Africans also struggle daily with the consequences of poor governance, stagnating economies and dehumanising poverty, and rampant violations of human rights.

It’s difficult for an outsider to know the local reasons why people in any society finally decide they’ve had enough of their leaders and rise up against them. It’s also dangerous to assume that revolutions occurring simultaneously have the same root causes. But certain factors do help explain the volatility in north Africa and the relative quiet to the south – and why that may not persist indefinitely. The first is the idea of the nation itself, along with regional identity. Because the great majority of peoples of north Africa and the Middle East are Arabs, their ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural connections provide a degree of solidarity within and across national boundaries. The majority think less along ethnic and more along lines of national identity. Al-Jazeera provides a wealth of information in the region’s common language, Arabic, and allows one country’s news to reach a broad regional swathe practically instantaneously.

Many in the younger generation are well-educated professionals, eager to make their voices heard. And in Tahrir Square, we heard the protesters chant: “We are all Egyptians,” no matter where they came from in Egypt, their social status, or even their religion (Egypt has a small but significant population of Coptic Christians). That sense of national identity was essential to their success. But that national spirit, sadly, is lacking in much of sub-Saharan Africa. For decades, under colonial rule and since independence, many leaders have exploited their peoples’ ethnic rivalries and linguistic differences to sow division and maintain their ethnic group’s hold on power and the country’s purse strings. To this day, in many such states, ethnicity has greater resonance than national identity.

Instead of encouraging inter-ethnic understanding and solidarity, leaders have set communities against each other in a struggle for resources and power, making it difficult for citizens to join together for the national interest.

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16.03.2011 | by martalanca | Revolution, sub-Saharan Africans