As the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring is being celebrated in the media, some journalists have asked, “What about the rest of Africa?” Lisa Mullins of PRI’s The World put it this way on January 24: “The pro-democracy revolts of last year … got people in sub-Saharan Africa wondering if they’d ever see an African Spring. That hasn’t happened.”
Yet it has happened before, as my research assistant Max Rennebohm recently reminded me, and it could happen again. There was a startling wave of pro-democracy struggles in Africa—seven countries with mass people-power campaigns—around the early 1990s. All seven were sub-Saharan: Benin, Madagascar, Cameroon, Mali, Togo, Malawi and Kenya. As with the Arab countries currently in the headlines, the seven from the early ’90s had varying outcomes. What is striking is that, on our Global Nonviolent Action Database’s success scale of 0 to 10, while one was rated 4 and another 7, the rest scored 9 or 10.
Benin was one of the most successful among the seven. High school and college students launched the campaign there with a student strike in January of 1989. The dictatorial government immediately tried to crush the campaign with troops and arrests. Rennebohm describes what motivated the students to act; the economy had been failing and the government wasn’t paying out student scholarship money—nor salaries to teachers and civil servants.
Inspired by the students’ bold action, the teachers and civil servants themselves began striking. The campaigners attracted allies despite—or because of—government repression; the broader movement added a demand for democracy to their economic grievances. By the end of a 15-month struggle, the government yielded on both counts: the economic demands that began the campaign and the demand for a democratic election that arose during it.
In Madagascar, the ruler Didier Ratsiraka had been in office for 15 years, and in the late 1980s the economy was going from bad to worse. Researcher Elena Ruyter writes that a broad coalition of opposition groups launched a general strike in May 1991, followed by mass demonstrations. They demanded that Ratsiraka step down in favor of free elections.
The government responded with guns and grenades. When the National Council of Christian Churches failed in its mediating attempt, many churches threw their support behind the campaign. The military began to back away from Ratsiraka, which forced him to accept a transitional government and free elections.
Madagascar illustrates a general strategic principle of any struggle: a campaign’s success may be only temporary unless campaigners take additional steps to defend the victory. Although Ratsiraka was ousted—he ran for president in the free election, lost and went into exile—he returned to the country in 1997 and resumed the presidency.
Women holding up more than half the sky
In both Mali and Kenya, women played important leadership roles in successful struggles. In the Malian case, as Aly Passanante and Max Rennebohm tell us, repression escalated soon after the campaign’s start, even though 100,000 people joined the initial demonstration on March 17, 1991. Days later, troops opened fire on students and other protesters and killed at least 22 people.
Women then stepped up, taking a highly visible role in demonstrations because of cultural taboos against killing women. Even though the women didn’t quench the violence fully—soldiers did kill five of them—they had an impact.
As a result, the Malians regained their momentum and mounted a general strike. Many soldiers put down their weapons and joined the protesters. In that atmosphere, a group of military officers arrested General Moussa Traoré (just a week and a half after the campaign began!) and promised free elections. A national congress of civil and political groups soon drafted a new, democratic constitution, and Malians democratically elected a new president.
Kenyan mothers between 60 and 70 years old launched a direct action campaign with a public hunger strike in 1992, camping in Freedom Park across from the parliament building. They demanded that the dictator release their sons who had been detained as political prisoners. Researcher Aden Tedla explains that the women, led by Wangari Maathai—who later received a Nobel Peace Prize—rapidly gained public support. Police beat up and tear-gassed the women. Three of the mothers stripped off their clothing, shook their breasts, and shouted “What kind of government is this that beats women! Kill us! Kill us now! We shall die with our children.” The police retreated.
The movement grew rapidly as the news spread, and many kinds of nonviolent methods, as well as riots, were tried. There was a general strike. The mothers continued to occupy the moral high ground through the growing tumult, and their sons were finally released to them. It would take more extended struggle to democratize Kenya, though; conditions were not as ripe as in Mali. But the 1992–93 campaign initiated by the bold mothers gave Kenya an important step forward.
General strikes: the downside
In the African pro-democracy wave, the campaigns in Mali, Togo, Madagascar and Benin all included general strikes, as did Kenya’s—although it’s unclear how widespread Kenya’s strike was. As anarchists and socialists have long claimed, the general strike can be a powerful nonviolent method. Cameroon, however, reveals a downside of the general strike, which seems to be related to timing.
By April 1991, pro-democracy organizers had managed to gain a rough unity of many political parties who opposed the authoritarian government of the Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement. The stage was set for a direct action campaign. Sachie Hopkins-Hayakawa tells us that students were among those taking the initiative, and the government didn’t hesitate; in five days, eight demonstrators were killed and several were wounded.
The movement responded by declaring an immediate general strike across Cameroon: “Operation Ghost Town.” The plan was to strike from Monday to Friday, giving the people a chance to restock on weekends.
The government responded by creating a new organization to act as the enforcer, sometimes even outstripping the military in authority and violence. The government also began a crackdown on mass media. It asked for and received international aid, evidently having decided to wait out the campaigners.
This strategy worked. By October, the strain of the strike on the population was too great; too many people were suffering without enough signs of progress. The coalition splintered, and many of the factions agreed to a negotiating conference with the government. The conference failed to achieve their hopes.
The fact that the Cameroon campaign started with a general strike at the beginning—while the other campaigns relied on multiple tactics early on, saving “the big one” for later—raises a strategic question for further study: is the timing of a general strike critical to its success?
The embedded dictator: a contrast
Dictatorships can have remarkable staying power; Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema was in power for 23 years by the time the 1990 pro-democracy campaign started. Malawi’s President Hastings Banda had been ruling for 30 years when the 1992 campaign began.
Rennebohm tells us that the Togo campaigners had two goals: a national conference to set the stage for democratic reform, and the resignation of Eyadema. A ten-day campaign was initiated by students and shortly blossomed into a general strike. The organizers quickly gained such wide participation that Eyadema announced the legalization of political parties in addition to his own, and he accepted a national conference. Once the pressure of direct action was off, however, the dictator was able to outmaneuver the campaigners and remained strong enough to defeat several military coups. He remained in power until his death in 2005.
The Malawi campaigners also wanted to legalize political parties and end single-party rule; in the short term, they wanted to release political prisoners. Their campaign went from March 1992 to June 1993, GNAD researcher Lindsay Carpenter writes. In Malawi, the leadership was taken by Catholic bishops rather than students and opposition politicians, and the bishops leaned hard on the church’s infrastructure and support from the pope to build their campaign.
That didn’t stop Banda from arresting the bishops, nor did it keep the university students from joining the struggle. In this context the army decided to stay neutral; junior officers even protected the students from the police and encouraged them to protest. When tapes were discovered in which government members discussed assassinating bishops, the people responded with even larger demonstrations.
Three thousand textile factory workers went on strike, demanding democracy. The Presbyterians and other Protestants, as well as Muslims, joined the campaign. Because Banda wasn’t getting support from his army, he organized his own enforcers, the Young Pioneers, to beat and intimidate protesters, supplementing his police. Later in the campaign, however, the army intervened to disband the Young Pioneers.
Banda realized he was finished and a free election was set. His own party, in control for thirty years, was defeated, and democracy came to Malawi.
Even while the Global Nonviolent Action Database includes dozens of cases of sub-Saharan African nonviolent action going back to 1906, we realize that there are thousands of cases we haven’t yet researched. But there is at least enough to know that the common assumption that Sub-Saharan Africans don’t do nonviolent struggle is just an unfounded stereotype.
This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.