Okungu VincentBy Vincent Okungu (Health Economist, EV 2010, 2012)

In this blog-post, Vincent Okungu attempts to deconstruct the lack of uprisings similar to the so called ‘Arab Springs’ in Sub-Saharan Africa despite the region facing grievous social, economic and political injustices from their own leaders.


In “The State of Africa”, Martin Meredith paints familiar yet petrifying pictures of the economic and social degeneracy of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by successive post-independence leaders. According to Meredith, and of course many other authors, the rise of a promising continent has been stifled by a legion of kleptocrats who ran and continue to run their respective countries like gangsters, dashing the hopes of millions who saw in them heroes who would deliver them to the Promised Land. North to South, East to West, none is worth emulating: From Mobutu to Kenyatta, Obiang Nguema to Abacha, Sossou Ngueso to Haile Selassie, ‘Emperor’ Bokassa to Mugabe, Kamuzu Banda to Moi, Idris Deby, Hissene Habre, Siad Barre, Idi Amin, Museveni: they (and successors) set a pattern of leadership whose mantra remains simple: steal as much as possible and use the wealth to retain power at all costs. Kleptocracy quickly transformed into plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or simply into “kleptoplutocracy” (rule by wealthy thieves). After all, the chief has to be the wealthiest and fattest citizen, even if that means robbing the state and starving infants and their mothers. And so taxpayers’ money and donor aid have been “swallowed…by the billions” without any qualms to morality. The consequences have been tragic: destitution, disease, famine, endless armed conflicts and massive brain drain.


What many a spectator is asking is why people in SSA are not emulating the Arabs to overthrow these nefarious brutes who have brought nothing but generational misery to their citizens.


There are various explanations: First, SSA is largely agrarian, which makes it difficult not only to pass information in several different languages but also to mobilise large numbers of people for collective action (revolution). To draw parallels, the Arab Springs have been facilitated by large cities: Alexandria and Cairo (Egypt), Tunis and Sfax (Tunisia), Benghazi against Tripoli (Libya), Aleppo and Homs vs. Damascus (Syria). Sub-Saharan Africa (except South Africa) is largely rural and too agrarian, and it is difficult to mobilise such societies towards a course that reflects more on a monetised polity (read urban). The effects of unemployment, high food prices, income inequality and poor housing for example, are felt more in urban than rural areas. True, there is increasing urbanization in SSA but large and expanding SSA cities such as Nairobi, Lagos and Abuja cannot support a revolution because of divisions among the population.


Moreover, the agrarian population of SSA is too poor, too disease-prone, poorly educated and too divided to think of a revolution. The struggle to put food on the table (if not to get medicine) preoccupies most Sub-Saharan citizens. A violent uprising is too remote, too energy-supping for this population that has been impoverished by their leaders. Besides, these populations have very low levels of education yet their respective countries have mostly failed to translate national constitutions into vernacular languages. These have made it difficult for citizens to demand for their rights and to understand that political leaders have much to do with their miseries. Even for countries such as Zimbabwe with high levels of education, a revolution is no easy feat because there are only two but bitterly divided ethnic groups, which leaves no space for coalitions and alliances to remove Mugabe. In Equatorial Guinea, almost 90% of the population is Fang, who cannot rise up against one of their own. In Somalia, there is only one ethnic group (Somali) but besides opposition to a Western backed administration, there are bitter divisions among clans, which make the 22-year old war difficult to end.


Thirdly, the Arab Springs have been essentially masterminded by a large and united middle-class. In SSA, there is a small and deeply divided middle-class, mainly along ethnic lines, or one that is too intimidated, to chart a common course: in Kenya, Nigeria, DRC, Uganda, Ethiopia, etc. A revolution requires unity, at least for some time. The overall picture of SSA middle-class is that of a group possessing a mind too weak and too narrow to raise themselves above cultural perimeters. So you get cantankerous tribalists in politicians, company executives, research scientists, PhD holders and professors, whose vision of the state starts and ends in their villages. These archaic cultural residues have whipped up ethnic emotions into mass hysteria and hatred against different cultures (tribes). A similar trend is sadly emerging in South Africa, Africa’s social and economic inspiration. South Africa looks increasingly polarised between haves and have-nots, black and white, tribe against tribe. The black political and economic elite need to prioritise national unity and development, not the ‘self’.


The fourth point is that the Arab Springs are a response to the need for greater liberty and democracy. In a recent lecture, Ali Mazrui describes them as “democratisation from below” with the middle-class rising up against long-term authoritarianism. For SSA, the relative freedom and democracy taking root are the good results of protracted Western pressure for change that started long ago, i.e. immediately after the end of the Cold War; I call it ‘democratisation from the side’. It is only in Turkey where democratisation started from ‘above’. The propensity to war is reduced in more democratic societies unless of course there are Western linked conflicts such as in D.R. Congo or where ethnic groups rise against each other.


The last point that militates against an Arab Spring political emulation in SSA emanates from the African culture of respect for elders. An elder in this context is one older in age or one in position of authority. The blind respect even for thieving elders has established the specifically authoritarian mentality of the African “Big Man”, and the typically submissive state of mind of many of their African subjects, both educated and uneducated. Need I emphasise that a country is shaped by the strength of its institutions, both formal and informal: the judiciary, the executive, the legislature, traditions and cultural norms. The ‘Big Man’, presiding over a submissive, praise-singing lot, ran roughshod over these institutions, rendering them weak and inoperable. Few people dare complain, even when the ‘main chief’ transforms into the ‘main thief’.


There are, however, promising signs of departure from high level debauchery in SSA: Botswana, Rwanda, Namibia, Gabon and Ghana, seem to be turning the corner to prosperity, prioritising the nation rather than ethnicity and thievery. South Africa is in danger of going in the opposite direction unless the political elite think about the way forward for South Africa and not the way forward for individual greed. Kenya on its part is too steeped in tribalism to understand the need for unity in development. All in all, citizens of SSA need to understand that their unity is a key pillar in social and economic development, for in unity they will strengthen institutions of governance and tame the excesses of the ‘Big Man’.


Vincent Okungu’s next blog post will be on how SSA leadership has affected health care.

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