Thursday, March 3, 2011


So far there hasn’t been much political fallout in the rest of Africa from the revolts in the northernmost states.

Of course there are lots of differences between sub-Saharan African countries themselves let alone when you compare them to those north of the desert.

But there are plenty of similarities too: the rest of Africa can point to those leaders entrenched for decades, to so-called democracies where ballots are no more than a waste of paper and to a lack of opportunities for youths even where official growth figures appear startlingly good.

Could the revolt against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi change that dynamic in some places?

After all, he is the man who was once crowned ‘King of Kings’ of Africa by a group of friendly traditional leaders.

Although he is holding out defiantly, a security apparatus more pervasive and better equipped than most on the continent was unable to prevent the uprising – even if ultimately it prevails.

If Gaddafi falls, would it send a message that anyone can be challenged by their people?

If he holds on, would the message be that leaders facing such challenges should unleash an early ‘whiff of grapeshot’ and quickly escalate to aerial bombing runs if need be – making revolt risky at best.

Some argue that pressures are more easily defused in sub-Saharan Africa because it is already more open than the north (this map from Freedom House bears out that point to some extent) and that there is new optimism, particularly in countries which have enjoyed their best decade of growth since independence.

Leaders further south in Africa may also have the advantage of less urbanised populations who are not as well connected as those in the north – although that is changing rapidly with the spread of mobile phone technology and the growth of cities.

A generation ago, popular risings to demand democracy after the Cold War forced leaders to make changes across the continent.

While that brought genuine change in some countries, in plenty of others a new formula was developed where the president holds an election, rigging or intimidating as much as needed to win or get his foes to call a boycott, the opposition cries foul whether or not would have lost fairly, maybe some heads get broken to make a point, Western countries complain but can’t reverse the decision, then everyone pipes down until the cycle repeats itself a few years later.

How significant will be the political impact of the north African rebellions on the rest of Africa?

Matthew Tostevin is Reuters editor for Africa. Based in Johannesburg, he has been covering Africa for nearly two decades. He joined Reuters in 1995 after starting out as a reporter with BBC radio and for a local newspaper in Sierra Leone. He has been posted in Lagos, Abidjan and Kinshasa as well as working for a spell in the Middle East.

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