Learning the Lessons of Protests 

While the removal of long-term dictatorial leaders is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, it seems that protestors and opposition groups in Algeria and Sudan have learned lessons from the the removal of such leaders by the militaries and ruling parties of countries elsewhere on the continent. Unlike in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s successor and one-time close ally – military darling Emmerson Mnangagwa – received almost a hero’s welcome from oppositionists, demonstrators in both Algeria and Sudan have maintained pressure on their interim leaders after changes in leadership. 

Protestors in both countries have rejected a simple military takeover and have remained on the streets, calling for genuine democratic reforms prior to any electoral process. It appears that demonstrators in these two countries have learned from mistakes elsewhere and this is especially evident in Sudan, where the phrase “either victory or Egypt” has become a popular slogan. This statement is a reference to the failure of the Arab Spring to bring about genuine long-term reforms in Egypt, where recent constitutional changes have enabled former military general turned President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to extend his presidency until 2030.

It is too early to tell whether the protestors and opposition groups in Algeria and Sudan will be successful, as both the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in Sudan and Algeria’s interim government are determined to protect the status-quo. Although the TMC recently agreed to form a joint-governing body with opposition groups, there is good reason to suspect that this will be used to manipulate demonstrators.

Either way, it appears that African opposition groups have learned from experiences elsewhere on the continent and, therefore, militaries and ruling parties will now be less able to quell demonstrations through simply removing a figurehead. The longevity of such pro-democracy protests is likely to increase across the continent and, if they do not lead to meaningful reforms, widespread and lasting unrest should be expected.

This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s May 2019 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.

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Togo: The End of a Dynasty?

On 19th August 2017, protests spread across Togo as people came out onto the streets calling for the end of the Gnassingbé family dynasty. The president – Faure Gnassingbé – has been in power since 2005, following the death of his father – Gnassingbé Eyadéma – who had seized power in a coup in 1967. Thousands took to the streets across the country chanting “50 years is too long!” and calling for Gnassingbé to stand down as president. Organisers have claimed that 800,000 people attended the demonstrations, which, given Togo’s population size, raises serious concerns about the longevity of the Gnassingbé regime. Although the protests were relatively peaceful, the security forces’ attempt to break up the demonstration in Lomé, lead to the deaths of at least two protesters and left dozens more injured. Given the violent suppression of protest movements previously adopted by both the current president and his father, it is unlikely that protests will remain peaceful if they continue.

In reaction to the August demonstrations, and smaller demonstrations in early September, the government announced a constitutional amendment, which would introduce a presidential term limit. Although this could be seen as a victory for the opposition, which played an important role in organising the August demonstrations, the term limit would not be applied retrospectively, which would enable Gnassingbé to serve as president until 2030. Consequently, the opposition boycotted a parliamentary vote on the amendment on 19th September. This meant that it failed to win parliamentary approval and will be put to the public in a referendum, which will similarly be boycotted by opposition parties. Although the date of the referendum has not yet been announced, opposition parties have made it clear that they plan to disrupt it through protests. As one opposition party official stated, “we’ll set the streets against their referendum”. This indicates that the government’s attempt to reconcile with the opposition has failed and it seems that there is very little room for negotiation. Opposition parties, emboldened by the protests in August, are insisting that Gnassingbé cannot compete in the 2020 election and will not accept anything less than this.

Togo’s opposition parties, which have long been divided and largely ineffective, have benefitted from the growing protest movement in the country, which appears to be coalescing around the figure of Tikpi Atchadam. Atchadam, the former leader of the Togolese Student Union, left the country after his party – Parti pour la Démocratie et le Renouveau – joined the presidential majority in 2005 and only returned to Togo in 2014. After returning, he formed the Parti National Panafricain (PNP) and has been a vocal critic of Gnassingbé. Atchadam is considered a charismatic orator, who has been able to draw widespread support from across the country. Significantly, unlike other opposition leaders, he originates from the north of the country, which has long been a Gnassingbé stronghold, and has a large support base in this region. Despite being accused by the government of having links with radical Islamists in Togo’s majority-Muslim north, Atchadam has joined forces with opposition groups in the majority-Christian south and appears to be a unifying figure, who could pose a serious challenge to Gnassingbé’s rule. Since August, Atchadam has apparently been in hiding but, as more protests are planned, it seems likely that he will re-emerge as the opposition seek to force Gnassingbé to stand down.

With further protests planned, and currently happening, the Gnassingbé dynasty is under threat. An emboldened opposition has made it clear that there is no longer any room for negotiation and that it will use public demonstrations to force the government to meet its demands. Unlike previously, the government must contend with an opposition leader who has been able to draw support from both the north and south, which raises the prospect of country-wide demonstrations. Consequently, social unrest will increase, especially around the referendum, and, if Gnassingbé tries to hold on to power, it is likely that protests will become increasingly violent.

Elections in 2015: Cote d’Ivoire

In November 2014, Cote d’Ivoire was struck by protests which highlighted the fragile nature of the country’s armed forces. The protestors, who were former rebels now serving in the army, demanded that the government pay back wages and overdue benefits. The soldiers erected barricades and blocked streets outside army barracks across a number of cities, including the commercial capital Abidjan. Although the protests were eventually resolved peacefully, after the government agreed to meet the soldiers’ demands, the incident raises concerns over the command structure within the army. Due to Cote d’Ivoire’s army being made up of an amalgam of rebel forces following the country’s civil war it lacks a clear chain of command. Commentators have argued that a number of different chains of command exist within the armed forces and that there is little control over these from the civilian government. This has created a dangerous situation as soldiers from different rebel groups have varying grievances and it is likely that they have been emboldened by the protests in November.

As the election approaches soldiers may take the opportunity to air these grievances through protests similar to those seen in November in the knowledge that the president would be under pressure to resolve the disputes as quickly as possible so as to not damage his re-election campaign. If this situation arises, the likelihood of violence will increase dramatically due to the protestors being former rebels. Facing such a threat the government would probably try to placate the soldiers through meeting their demands so as to avoid civil conflict. However, this could have an impact on the civilian population as, if soldiers’ financial demands are met, the government may look to offset it through cuts in public spending. This could potentially give rise to civilian protests and social unrest, which was also seen in November 2014 following the government’s ban of plastic bags used to carry water. The protesters argued that the policy would lead to job losses and restrict the public’s access to clean drinking water. Thus, Cote d’Ivoire’s election in 2015 is likely to be a focal point of protests for both soldiers and civilians and could potentially be marred by large-scale social unrest.

[The above is an extract from a comprehensive report on the political outlook for Africa in 2015 which will be distributed to clients in the New Year]