Mounting protests in Sudan highlight the rise of Africa's activist generation

15 Apr 2019

Originally posted on The Hill.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets this past weekend in Sudan in the biggest-yet series of rallies since December 2018 to demand the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir. The 83-year old leader, who has been in power for the past 30 years, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for crimes against humanity and is considered a “Suspect-at-Large.”

What began three months ago as organized civic action to protest the high cost of living triggered by the government’s decision to hike the cost of fuel and bread has taken on a life of its own.

The initial protests were organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a mix of doctors, nurses, lawyers and other highly skilled workers. But the movement has since swelled to include people of all walks of life, young and old, middle class and poor, students, and women.

In fact, women now make as many as two-thirds of the protesters, adding their demands to a list of inequities and historical prejudices which include decade-old morality laws and a society that is sexist, patriarchal and misogynistic.

In late February it appeared that President Bashir might succumb to pressure from the street and step down, but instead he declared a state of emergency, bringing in the army with tear gas, detaining group leaders and responding with deadly force. Physicians for Human Rights estimates that more than 60 people have been killed so far.

The spark for this weekend’s giant citizen march towards the Army Headquarters was the commemoration of the 34th anniversary of the coup that overthrew former President Numeiri. But more was in the air for these activists, including the recent success of their comrades in Algeria where massive street protests forced the resignation of 82-year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20-years of misrule.

Responding to events in Algeria, Sarah Abdel-Jaleel, an SPA spokeswoman, said: “It shows us the success of peaceful resistance within Africa” and “it definitely gives us all hope and reassurance that we must continue."

What’s happening in Sudan is part of the rise of the activist generation, a phenomena that BBC’s Africa Editor Fergal Keane suggests is the most important thing to happen to Africa politics in the last two decades. He, like others, cites several demographic, technological and educational developments empowering this group of citizens who are unsettling politics across the continent. 

This activist generation is succeeding in getting citizens to the streets to demand political and economic reforms. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded 3,791 protests in 2018, compared to 653 demonstrations in 2008. These protests are not single events, they endure. CSIS’s Judd Devermont in analyzing the data said, “the game has changed.” And he is right.

In Senegal, in 2011, the nation’s young people were fed up: Unreliable electricity, corruption, and an 85-year-old president, Abdoulaye Wade, who was attempting to run for a third term. They put their demands to music with Senegalese rappers and formed Y'en a Marre (Fed Up). Despite Wade's attempts to stifle dissent, he was defeated at the polls by Macky Sall in 2012, thanks in no small part, to Y'en a Marre’s mobilization of the youth.

In 2015, in Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaoré, who had ruled the country since 1987, announced his plans to revise the constitution to run for another term, and Balai Citoyen, or the “Citizen's Broom” was born. Like in Senegal, the youth embraced the country’s musicians and local artists. In 2015, Compaoré was forced to resign from office and fled to Côte d'Ivoire, and Burkina Faso held democratic elections later that year.

It sometimes takes time. Students from the city of Goma, in the Eastern Congo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, founded LUCHA in 2012, shorthand for “struggle for changes” demanding improved human rights and respect for the rule of law. Another group, Filimbi, or “Whistle” in Swahili, mobilized alongside for better governance. In 2016 the Citizen’s Front was formed, which included Filimbi, LUCHA and others, all insisting that the sitting president, Joseph Kabila, in power for 18 years, respect the constitution, and hold much delayed presidential elections. In December 2018, elections, although flawed, were held, and Kabila stepped down, in no small part, because of the pressure of these activists supported by a unified international community.  

While from different countries with varied political contexts, these examples follow a pattern. Political elites take advantage of weakened institutions and opaque electoral processes for their personal benefit. In response, citizens mobilize to demand change.

Afrobarometer, the continent’s leading polling institution, calls this group of change-makers “dissatisfied democrats,” citizens who are not only deeply committed to democracy, but who adopt a critical perspective toward their country’s current leaders and institutions. Afrobarometer suggests that it is this subgroup who matter the most in protecting and strengthening democratic institutions

Many variables can impact the outcome of these protest movements, including international support (or isolation), the willingness of a government to deploy security forces against its citizens to suppress dissent, the strength of the economy (or its collapse), and leadership — in the country, in the region, and internationally.

The United States and other foreign donors need to get behind the activist generation and the foundation from which it is built: civil society. That means investing in these organizations, empowering them with management skills, mobilization tools and new technologies, and when the going gets tough, making their own goals subservient to those who must live with the long-term consequences.

In the DRC, the international community — including the United States — walked away from LUCHA and their allies, opting for a negotiated presidential selection process, rather than permit a true democratic choice. It was a betrayal.

The US has leverage in Sudan given its long-standing designation of the regime as a state-sponsor of terrorism resulting in crippling economic sanctions. According to State Department guidelines, the quickest path towards U.S. reconsideration of its policy is through a “fundamental change of leadership and policies.”

Africa’s activist generation has found its voice. They wish to be defined by future possibilities, and not by past constraints. They are empowered, (as their parents never were) through education and technologies, with social media platforms connecting them with like-minded people across the globe.

They are unaccepting of a governing status quo that squanders their national resources and corrupts politics. They are nationalistic and proudly African. They are the future, and we must help to validate that history is on their side.