Is it the dawn of the African spring?

Portrait of a boy with the map of the world painted on his face

Portrait of a boy with the map of the world painted on his face

By Niall Love

While it has gone mostly unnoticed by British media, we could be witnessing the dawn of the African Spring with protests erupting in both the (not so) Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Ethiopia. While the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were well documented, the recent protests in Africa have gone oddly unnoticed. I’m willing to bet very few of you know that two years ago there was a relatively peaceful revolution in Burkina Faso, and it is now a democracy at long last. Now, while the protests in DR Congo and Ethiopia are over different things and unconnected, the two countries have similar histories. Both have never had any real history of democracy, and both have been ruled by bloodthirsty dictators (Mubutu and Mengistu), whose tyrannical rule stared massive civil wars. Both Mubutu and Mengistu were replaced by a new authoritarian ruling parties (PPRD and Woyane).  Both are led by the successor of the militia leader who won said civil war. In both the gap between the ruling clique and the commoners is wider than the Grand Canyon, billionaires lording it over peasants. And both have terrible Human Rights records.

The pro-democracy Congolese protesters have taken to the streets because President Joseph Kabila’s 2nd presidential term ends in December, and a president can only have two terms, like in America. He first came to power in 2001 after the then president and his father (some sources say adoptive father) was assassinated by his own bodyguard. However, the Supreme Court of DR Congo has ruled that he can stay president until the new elections are held – elections which have been “delayed” till 2018. The police have so far shot, stabbed and even burnt to death at least 48 protestors. The police themselves have suffered four fatalities, three of whom have been killed by the protestors, according to a UN Human Rights report. Many more protesters have been injured and jailed. In response to this two of Kabila’s henchmen have been sanctioned by the USA and France, and the Pope has openly scorned him.

In Ethiopia things are a little more complex, as the ruling Woyane is running a racist regime and is – after Eretria – Africa’s 2nd biggest jailer of journalists. Since sizing powers in 1991 the Woyane has been enriching the Tigrayan race at the expense of the dozens of other groups in Ethiopia. The Woyane has been accused of stealing land of the Orromo people by trying to expand the capital Addis Abba into the Orromo home region, which sparked the protest movement last November. In July other groups also joined in the protests after the Woyane arrested locals who demanded that they return the land that had been annexed into the Tigray region.

People of Tigrayan decent only make up 6.1% of Ethiopia’s population. Protests have also erupted over the lack of any real political representation among the non-Tigrayan peoples as all the seats in the Parliament are controlled by the EPDRF coalition which won an implausible 99% of the vote and is basically a front for the Woyane. The Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has declared a state of emergency in response to the protests, arrested over 1000 people, and tried to shut down the internet. 55 protestors in Orriamo were killed by security forces in October alone – Desalegn sickeningly called this slaughter “great efforts”.

At this stage anything could happen – either the protest movements will fizzle out and the status quo remain (though given how many have been killed in both countries this seems unlikely), or the incumbent dictators will agree to the protestors’ demands and make real reforms. They might even step down and allow their nations to transition to democracy at long last. If that happens it may inspire other revolutions in African dictatorships such as Zimbabwe and Angola. The worst case scenario? The regimes try crush the protests and fight to cling to power. This would be a disaster for all involved and will result in the deaths of many – as many Ethiopians and Congolese have raw memories of.

Joseph Kabila and Hailemariam Desalegn have the ultimate power that to decide the destiny of your countries; if you make the right choice history may vindicate you; if you choose wrong then you cause misery to millions and join the long list of despots who lived and died by the sword.  Welcome to either democratic transition or destructive war and tyranicide – the choice is yours.