Although there have been prolonged protests in the Middle Eastern countries of Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the successful revolutions of the “Arab Spring” have occurred in North Africa. The regimes of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen and Libya, which lies between them, is still mired in violent revolt. The African character of the revolutions has been largely ignored in the Western media, probably because “Arab” and “Middle East” are more resonant frames for Western audiences, but heads of state in Sub-Saharan Africa have been taking notice.
Though activists have seen great victories in North Africa, below the Sahara the main result has been increased government paranoia. In late February, activists in Zimbabwe were arrested and charged with treason simply for meeting to discuss the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. (In Zimbabwe, a charge of treason carries the possibility of the death penalty.) Though most of the activists were release for lack of evidence, six are awaiting trial, though they are out on bail.
In addition, Cameroon has sought to block digital activism by asking local mobile provider MTN Cameroon to halt their Twitter via SMS service. The company reported on their Twitter page: “We can’t comment further than ‘security reasons’ on #Government instructions,” a seeming attempt to distance themselves from the decision. Paul Biya has been President of Cameroon since 1982, a year after Hosni Mubarak took office, so maybe he sees a troubling parallel. Biya may also be looking west and noticing how popular Twitter has become as a venue for political discussion of the unrest in Cote d’Ivoire.
In Senegal, Sidy Lamine Niasse, head of opposition media group Walfadjri, called on Senegalese to protest in a Day of Action on March 19th, which led to light efforts at mobilization on Twitter and Facebook, as well as offline. Though there was a large protest in Dakar, a few hours before the rally authorities arrested a number of suspects who they claimed were plotting a coup d’etat, not a protest, including an official of the fan club of Walfadjri. Four of those people were released last week for lack of evidence. Like repressive Zimbabwe, democratic Senegal charged activists with ridiculously out-sized crimes, though the judiciary was independent enough to see that they were released.
The situation was much the same in Gabon where in late January, two weeks after the successful revolution in Tunisia, security forces fired tear gas andarresteddozens of supporters of Andre Mba Obame,an opposition politician,during a protest in the capital Libreville. Global Voices contributor Julie Owono reported:
The current wave of popular protests for free elections sweeping the African continent (Tunisia, Egypt and Côte d’Ivoire) has made the Gabonese government very wary of allowing protests to grow any larger.
So far it is the state – not activists – that have the upper hand in Sub-Saharan Africa. By responding to nascent protest movements with excessive force they hope to nip democratic reform in the bud.