Popular Protest & Social Movements – Part 1

By David Seddon


This project is one several being hosted by the ROAPE website. It is coordinated by David Seddon, with the support of Leo Zeilig and Peter Dwyer. But the project anticipates and invites the active involvement of others interested in the topic and we can discuss the ways in which others may make a valuable contribution as the project evolves.

The aim of the project is to provide a constantly updated account (and archive) and analysis of instances of popular protest and examples of social movements across the African continent with a view to identifying patterns and trends.

In this, the first issue of the project, we shall provide an overview of the global context of struggles in Africa to ensure that there can be no African exceptionalism, even if we recognise the distinctive history of imperialism and capitalist development in Africa and the distinctive forms that popular protest, social movements and class struggle take in Africa. In subsequent issues we shall focus more closely and in detail on the African experience, as exemplified by particular instances of popular protest and class struggle, and by the emergence and development of social movements in Africa.

An era of crises?

In September 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared at the opening of the UN General Assembly, “we are living in an era of unprecedented level of crises”. What did he mean, and to what ‘era’ was he referring?

Was he referring to the global economic crisis that began in 2007-08 and has lasted until now, with recession in many countries and a significant slowing down of growth in others? Was he referring to the on-going and arguably deepening set of conflicts associated with the aftermath of foreign intervention and the emergence of new radical Islamist movements across North Africa and the Middle East in particular, from 2001 onwards? Was he referring to the growing militarisation of Russia, its interventions in the Crimea and Ukraine in 2014-15, and the ongoing ‘civil war’ inside Ukraine? Or perhaps he was commenting on the rapid growth over the last two decades of international migration and the increased numbers of desperate migrants fleeing from conflict, famine and general insecurity, only to wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean or of countries in south east Asia, that has become the latest identified major crisis, in 2015?

It is less likely that he was referring to the upsurge in popular protest against economic reform, austerity and the authoritarian or pseudo-democratic regimes that have adopted these policies in recent years, in many parts of the world (including the so-called developed countries of the West, and of course Africa) that some on the left have identified in recent years.

Of course, all of these five examples in different ways represent major current crises in the global political economy, but it is the first four identified above that have received most attention, the fifth significantly less so. This is, in large part, because in their analyses of political crises, the Western media very largely focus on what appear to be major threats associated with international and regional security issues, while in the case of economic crises, most commentators focus on the crisis of capital, whereas those concentrating on the crisis of labour – the impact of capitalist crisis on the urban poor and working classes – are relatively few and far between in the mainstream media (or academia for that matter) – dominated as they are by the interests of capital and of governments that are either obliged or, in many cases, choose to represent those interests rather than those of the mass of their citizens.

Even when the impact on ordinary people of these manifold political-economic ‘crises’ is considered, it is all too often from a perspective that identifies them either as the unwitting and unwilling victims of events, powerless in the face of powerful economic forces and newly emergent political tendencies to be addressed largely through various forms of humanitarian intervention, or else as a terrible existential threat, when identified with Islamist terrorism or hordes of unwanted migrants. Even in the fraught case of the EU and one if its member states, Greece, the ordinary Greek people and their elected government tend to be either seen as victims in the struggle between ‘the powers that be’ in the euro-zone and the ‘left-wing’ government of SYRIZA, or as lazy, tax-avoiding, ouzo-swilling, bouzouki-playing primitives.

It is rarely acknowledged that these ordinary people, whether in their own countries or travelling abroad as migrants, are active players in the political-economic dynamics of contemporary capitalism, even if it is indeed the case that they generally are less able to influence world events than are the bankers and financiers, industrialists, merchants and traders, and the governments, armed forces and international agencies of various kinds.

But there is a growing body of writing on the global political economy that recognises the continuing importance of the class struggle, and particularly of the various forms of direct action from below that stem from the active resistance and opposition of ordinary people to the dominant forces of global capitalism and its national manifestations as well as to the governments of various guises that preside over and actively promote growing inequality, imposing austerity and other measures to control and regulate labour and the working classes as a whole.

Global Dissent?

In the last couple of years, some analysts have identified a ‘new wave’ of global protest. In the March-April 2013 issue of Amandla, for example, Esther Vivas wrote a piece on popular protest entitled ‘From the World Social Forum to the Arab Revolts’, in which she drew attention to the significance of the fact that Tunisia was hosting the World Social Forum at the time of publication: ‘Tunisia, cradle of the revolts in the Arab world, hosts from today [26 March] and until Saturday the World Social Forum (WSF), the most important international meeting of social movements and organizations. And this is not by chance. The promoters of the WSF chose this country in reference to the Arab Spring. The latter has not only given rise to new movements of opposition in North Africa and the Middle East, but has also ‘contaminated’ the south of Europe, in particular with the movement of the ‘indignant’ in the Spanish State, as well as the Occupy movement in the United States’.

Significantly, she identified this phenomenon as ‘a new cycle of protest which has emerged on an international scale, determined by a systemic crisis and debt and austerity policies, in particular in the countries of the periphery of the European Union subjected to harsh measures of adjustment’. Is her idea of a ‘new cycle of protest’ emerging on an international scale, starting with the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 and continuing up to 2013, convincing – and at least congruent with Ban Ki Moon’s notion of an ‘era of crises’? Our reply would be – yes, and no.

Yes, because there can be little doubt that the period of the global recession of 2008-2015 has coincided with a wave of popular protest across the world; no, because this is only the latest of a series of waves of global popular protest that can be identified since the last major recession of the 1970s and early 1980s when numerous countries in the Third World (and in the Second World also) were obliged to undertake economic reforms and ‘structural adjustment’ in the initial stages of what has come to be termed ‘ globalization’[1]. Some, furthermore, see this most recent post-independence series of waves of global protest in a longer historical perspective, going all the way back to 1848, and would regard them as part of the ‘long waves’ of the anti-capitalist movement.

For example, The Economist – that doyen of neo-liberal thinking – carried on the front cover of its 29 June – 5 July 2013 issue, under a banner headline: ‘The March of Protest’, a picture of four figures, the first (a woman bearing aloft the flag of France) representing 1848 in Europe, the second (dressed as a hippie and carrying flowers in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other) representing 1968 in the US and Europe, the third (a man in worker’s clothes) with a spanner in one hand and a candle the other) representing 1989 in Eastern Europe, and finally, a woman (dressed in modern clothes and carrying a Starbucks coffee container in one hand and holding aloft a mobile phone in the other) representing 2013 ‘everywhere’. Interestingly, in light of its own detailed coverage of the phenomenon throughout 2011 and 2012, the Economist of June-July 2013 fails to illustrate the ‘Arab Spring’. There is no figure in Arab dress representing the Arab world in 2011, significant though that was as an example of a concerted and arguably coordinated movement of popular protest.

The lead article in The Economist points out that ‘these protests have many different origins. In Brazil people rose up against bus fares, in Turkey against a building project. Indonesians have rejected higher fuel prices, Bulgarians the government’s cronyism. In the euro zone they march against austerity, and the Arab spring has become a perma-protest against pretty much everything. Each angry demonstration is angry in its own way. Yet just as in 1848, 1968 and 1989, when people also found a collective voice, the demonstrators have much in common’. It notes that ‘over the past few weeks, in one country after another, protesters have risen up with bewildering speed. They have been more active in democracies than dictatorships. They tend to be ordinary, middle-class people, not lobbies with lists of demands. Their mix of revelry and rage condemns the corruption, inefficiency and arrogance of the folk in charge’.

‘Nobody can know how 2013 will change the world—if at all’, concludes the Economist. ‘In 1989, the Soviet empire teetered and fell. But Marx’s belief that 1848 was the first wave of a proletarian revolution was confounded by decades of flourishing capitalism and 1968, which felt so pleasurably radical at the time, did more to change sex than politics. Even now, though, the inchoate significance of 2013 is discernible. And for politicians who want to peddle the same old stuff, the news is not good’. It remarks, tellingly, that, while popular protest might be uncomfortable and even threatening for democracies, ‘democrats may envy the ability of dictators to shut down demonstrations’.

It comments that ‘China has succeeded in preventing its many local protests from cohering into a national movement. Saudi Arabia has bribed its dissidents to be quiet; Russia has bullied them with the threats of fines and prison. But in the long run, the autocrats may pay a higher price. Using force to drive people off the streets can weaken governments fatally, as Sultan Erdogan may yet find; and as the Arab governments discovered two years ago, dictatorships lack the institutions through which to channel protesters’ anger. As they watch democracies struggle in 2013, the leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Riyadh should be feeling uncomfortable’.

Interestingly, given the analysis developed by the Economist in its June-July 2013 issue, the London Review of Books carried an article by Slavoj Zizek in July 2013, entitled ‘Trouble in Paradise’, which begins by observing that ‘in his early writings, Marx described the German situation as one in which the only answer to particular problems was the universal solution: global revolution. This is a succinct expression of the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary period: in a reformist period, global revolution remains a dream which, if it does anything, merely lends weight to attempts to change things locally; in a revolutionary period, it becomes clear that nothing will improve without radical global change. In this purely formal sense, 1990 was a revolutionary year: it was plain that partial reforms of the Communist states would not do the job and that a total break was needed to resolve even such everyday problems as making sure there was enough for people to eat’.

Zizek then asks: ‘where do we stand today with respect to this difference? Are the problems and protests of the last few years signs of an approaching global crisis, or are they just minor obstacles that can be dealt with by means of local interventions?’ He suggests that ‘the most remarkable thing about the eruptions is that they are taking place not only, or even primarily, at the weak points in the system, but in places which were until now perceived as success stories. We know why people are protesting in Greece or Spain; but why is there trouble in such prosperous or fast-developing countries as Turkey, Sweden or Brazil?’

His question about the significance of widespread popular protest in the emerging or rapidly developing countries of what was previously the Third World, as well as in the arguably struggling if not failing ‘developed’ countries of Europe, is very pertinent. For it encourages us to consider the relationship between capitalist development on a world scale (globalisation) and the growth of systematic and widespread popular protest. As a RoAPE project, it is appropriate to turn our attention particularly to Africa, which many have argued is going through an unprecedented phase of capitalist development – as part of the uneven and combined development of capitalism on a world scale in the 21st century – which is sometimes characterised as ‘Africa Rising’.

Africa Rising?

In Amandla no 37/38 2014 and in International Viewpoint online in December 2014, Firoze Manji asked ‘Is Africa Rising?’ He drew attention to the new conventional wisdom that emphasised the importance of GDP growth rates across Africa as a whole of 5 to 6 per cent as year, particularly in the years before the global recession. But he comments on the heavy reliance of Africa on growth and income from the extractive industries, pointing out that natural resource extraction and associated state expenditure account for more than 30 per cent of Africa’s GDP growth since 2000. The primary contributors to the growth in GDP have been a small number of the oil and gas exporters (Algeria, Angola, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Libya, and Nigeria), which have the highest GDP on the continent, but are also the least diversified economies.

Manji argues that ‘international capital sees the possibilities of major profits to be gained from oil, natural gas, minerals, land grabbing and the like. Transnational corporations court African governments to implement policies that include the massive privatisation of state-owned enterprises, low or no taxation of corporate profits and opening markets to a flood of manufactured commodities. All of these measures have had a devastating impact on the ability of local manufacturing to survive. It is hardly surprising that, according to a McKinsey report, the “annual flow of foreign direct investment into Africa increased from $9 billion in 2000 to $62 billion in 2008 – relative to GDP, almost as large as the flow into China”. Most of this investment has been into the extractive industries’.

So how has Africa benefitted from this? According to Carlos Lopes, the executive secretary of UNECA, “average net profits for the top 40 mining companies grew by 156 per cent in 2010 whereas the take for governments grew by only 60 per cent, most of which was accounted for by Australia and Canada.” He remarks that the profit made by the same set of mining companies in 2010 was $110 billion, which was equivalent to the merchandise exports of all African LDCs in the same year. In reality, the GDP growth rates on which the proponents of the idea of ‘Africa Rising’ rely disguises the fact that across the continent there has been a decline in the manufacturing sectors, caused primarily by the neo-liberal policies that opened up the economies to manufactured goods from the more developed industrial capitalist countries.

As pointed out by Rick Rowden in his analysis of the 2011 UNCTAD report, the share of manufacturing value added (MVA) in Africa’s GDP ‘fell from 12.8 per cent in 2000 to 10.5 per cent in 2008’, while in developing Asia it rose from 22 per cent to 35 per cent over the same period: ‘There has also been a decline in the importance of manufacturing in Africa’s exports, with the share of manufactures in Africa’s total exports having fallen from 43 per cent in 2000 to 39 per cent in 2008. In terms of manufacturing growth, while most have stagnated, 23 African countries had negative MVA per capita growth during the period 1990 – 2010, and only five countries achieved an MVA per capita growth above 4 per cent’. The trend of the declining contribution of manufacturing is confirmed once again by the 2014 UNCTAD report on LDCs.

So while ‘Africa Rising’ means a one-dimensional focus on rising GDP and massive profits accrued by transnational corporations, the reality is that in Africa, although governments and national capital may benefit to some extent, the major features of the political economy are: the rape of largely non-renewable resources, land grabs and rising profits for foreign companies, and rising prices of basic goods, including food, increasing landlessness, growing urban poverty and inequality and the effective pauperisation of the mass of the people, including the so-called ‘middle classes’, many of whom also struggle to survive.

Africa Uprising?

In this context, it is highly significant that as Manji goes on to remark, ‘there is another aspect of the idea of ‘Africa Rising’ that gives us hope in the future and potential for self-determination of the people of the continent needs to be given greater attention: that is, risings of people across the continent, which I have highlighted elsewhere’[2]. ‘In addition to the outbreak of revolutionary situations in Tunisia and Egypt that resulted in the ousting of Ben Ali and Mubarak (respectively), there have been popular uprisings in Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Uganda, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe’.

Other commentators, like Ernest Harsch, have also written about the ‘new wave’ of protest as ‘an African perennial [3]. His article starts with references to popular protest in Uganda and Nigeria and then goes on to observe that ‘true revolutions may be few and far between. But that does not mean that Africans have been passive in the face of the serious difficulties they face. While Africa’s elites have many ways to influence policy—bankrolling favorite candidates and parties, evading unwelcome taxes and regulations, subverting state institutions through corruption and bribery—the poor must often resort to one of the few sources of power available to them: public protest’.

He observes that ‘in most African countries, accurate and accessible data on protest activities are scarce. Researchers usually are obliged to rely on media reports, which by their nature are partial, inconsistent, and vary greatly by country (depending on the extent of press freedoms and the capacity of the given media). Such sources, despite their limitations, can nevertheless be quite illuminating. Simple searches on just a few keywords (“protest,” “strike,” “riot”) on the website allAfrica.com, for example, found well over 3,000 reports of protest events in Africa during the first seven months of 2013 alone—even excluding the exceptional cases of Egypt and Tunisia’.

Beyond the sheer numbers of reports, their geographical breadth is notable. ‘With only a half dozen or so exceptions’, Harsch suggests, in 2013, ‘every African country has experienced some form of public protest, even in highly repressive states where demonstrators readily face violent police or military reactions (such as Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Sudan, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe)’…. ‘Once sporadic occurrences, protests have become more common in Africa in recent years. Except in a few countries, it may still be premature to talk of the emergence of African ‘movement societies’; but it is nevertheless evident that active dissent is no longer stigmatized—or so easily repressed—and that public tolerance for disruptive protest has been spreading’.

‘As Firoze Manji observes (writing at the very end of 2014), ‘most recently, uprisings in Burkina Faso have led to the deposing of Blaise Campaore, the murderer of the Burkinabé revolutionary, Thomas Sankara’. Each of these uprisings, Manji suggests, has been fuelled by decades of dispossessions and pauperisation that accompanied the latest phase of capitalism, popularly referred to as ‘neo-liberalism’, which represents a stage in the longer process of ‘globalisation’ (the development of capitalism on a world scale). They were fuelled also by reversals of the gains of independence that established universal education, access to health care, social welfare, water, power and a wide range of social infrastructure. In other words, he identifies this ‘wave’ of popular protest as a distinct and relatively recent phenomenon.

He was in no position, however, given that he was writing at the end of December 2014, to comment that the popular protest movement in Burkina Faso continued into 2015. The ‘wave’, however, continues to roll, as the RoAPE project reveals the similarities and the links between three particular recent instances of popular protest and class struggle.

Three Cases of Popular Protest: 2014-2015

Burkina Faso

The Burkinabè uprising was a series of demonstrations and riots in Burkina Faso in October 2014 that quickly spread to many other towns across the country. They began in response to attempts to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaoré to run again, and extend his 27 years in office. Following a tumultuous day on 30 October, which involved protestors burning the National Assembly and other government buildings as well as the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress party’s headquarters, and a number of deaths, Compaoré dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency before eventually fleeing to Ivory Coast with the support of President Alassane Ouattara[4].

At the beginning of November 2014, army chief, Gen Honore Traore, declared that he had taken over, but it was not clear that he had the backing of all the military. Indeed, shortly afterwards an interim government was announced, with President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida taking on the key ministries of foreign affairs and defence respectively. Of the 26 posts available, the army claimed six, including mines, communications and the interior ministry. Other members were drawn from civil society groups and a medley of political parties. A brief period of army rule ensued, led by Zida, before he bowed to pressure from the African Union to cede power to a civilian president, who was to remain in charge until elections in 2015. At the beginning of February, however, thousands of people took to the streets to call for the scrapping of the presidential guard, following the ousting of Blaise Compaore in October.


During last year’s protests, which left at least 24 people dead and more than 600 injured, Amnesty International accused the elite corps of ‘excessive and lethal’ use of force. The guard was disbanded, but the protest movement, which had brought together a number of different elements of civil society, notably young people, and involved a number of non-governmental organisations, including Le Balai Citoyen (The Citizen’s Broom), remained vigilant.

The Citizen’s Broom is a political grassroots movement in Burkina Faso, which was part of the opposition against President Blaise Compaoré. The movement is part of the Sankarist political tradition, appealing to the legacy and ideals of Captain Thomas Sankara, a radical left-wing revolutionary who ruled the country from 1983 until his death in 1987, killed during a coup orchestrated by his successor Compaoré. Co-founder Sams’K Le Jah received his political education in the Pioneers of the Revolution, the youth movement of Sankara’s Democratic and Popular Revolution. The movement is so named both in reference to ‘sweeping out’ perceived political corruption, and also to the regular street-cleaning exercises – initiated by Thomas Sankara – in which citizens would pick up brooms and clean their neighbourhoods, both an act of community development and a metaphor for societal self-sufficiency. Members carry brooms during protests as a symbol of this.

It was co-founded by two musicians, reggae artist Sams’K Le Jah and rapper Serge Bambara (“Smockey”) in the summer of 2013. They organized several protests in early 2014, for example hosting a joint rally with the newly formed Movement of People for Progress, filling a 35,000-capacity sports stadium to its rafters. When the October 2014 Burkinabé uprising broke out the group became a prominent part of the protests, its activists gaining note due to their presence on the streets. President Compaoré was forced to resign and flee the country on 31 October, after 27 years of rule. The Citizen’s Broom, which organised a symbolic sweeping of Ouagadougou‘s streets following Compaoré’s departure, was reported to be supportive of Zida’s transitional government. But its leaders called for protesters to “remain vigilant and on high alert, to not let anyone steal the victory of the sovereign people.

“We encouraged young people to rise and protest,” says Dramane Zinaba, national co-ordinator of the Citizen’s Broom, which was one of the movements at the forefront of the protests last autumn. “Now we want to keep them mobilised. They need to get their weapon, their voter’s card, to bring real change in 2015.” The movement is currently campaigning to encourage young people to enrol on electoral lists before the elections which are now scheduled not to take place until October 2015.


Manji was also not in a position to comment on the mass protests that broke out in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April 2015, in an initiative not too dissimilar to that of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso, that he would run for a third term in the June elections. The demonstrations continued over a period of three weeks until 13 May, when a military coup took place, while Nkurunziza was out of the country. Forces loyal to the President overturned the coup the next day, but the situation remained tense and uncertain throughout the rest of May and by the third week of the month the UN estimated some 120,000 people had fled from Burundi seeking refuge elsewhere, mainly in Tanzania.

On 18 May 2015, hundreds of protesters took to the streets across the capital once again, despite a ban and official warnings against taking part in demonstrations after the failed coup the previous week. ‘Our politics are different’, protesters chanted in the local Kirundi language, as some stomped in unison, clapped, blew whistles, raised hands and carried branches. ‘Our politics are different because we are against corruption’, said one protestor, Arakata Bonfils, age 32, according to an article by Ismail Kishkush in The Economist online (18 May 2015), ‘The president has become a king’.


During the demonstrations, many shops in the capital, Bujumbura, remained closed, public buses were scarce and Army patrols roamed through town. In areas where protests were expected, soldiers were heavily armed. Ismail Kushkush reported that ‘In the working-class neighborhood of Musaga, demonstrators started to gather in the midmorning, carrying banners that read, ‘No to a third term’ and ‘No war’ in French. A soldier fired warning shots that dispersed the crowd, at least for a few moments. “We are not attacking; why are they shooting?” said Nahimana Jean-Claude, age 35, who ran into an alley. Protesters slowly trickled back, burning tires, setting up a roadblock of stones, branches and trash, chanting and singing choir songs and the national anthem’.

‘As one group of soldiers tried to manage the protest, another unit without numbers on their uniforms walked up from behind, cocking their guns and igniting a quarrel. That led the first group to plead with them to back off. “If you shoot, I will shoot,” one soldier said to another in Kirundi’. The army had largely been seen as neutral throughout the crisis. But the failed coup and divisions among its ranks have led to questions about its future role. “There have been divisions for several years, with the army much more divided than the police,” said Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch. “Some, including senior officers, have become increasingly impatient and disillusioned with President Nkurunziza.”

President Nkurunziza warned the opposition that they were endangering the country, weakening his government ‘at a time when there was a growing threat from Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist extremist group’. “We are not worried about Al-Shabab,” said Patrick Ndumwimana, a student protestor, “We are worried about the Imbonerakure.” The Imbonerakure are members of the youth wing of the governing party and have been accused of intimidating, threatening and even killing opponents.

On 2 June 2015, Burundi opposition leaders called for fresh protests and vowed to keep up the rallies against Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term. But the security forces were deployed and a week or so later, on 11 June 2015, Pierre Nkurikiye, deputy spokesman for the security ministry and the police declared that ‘There are no more demonstrations in Bujumbura or inside the country’, adding that the media were to blame for the remaining pockets of protests. “It is a movement of some journalists — especially those sent by the international media — who… organise groups of people in remote areas, away from police, and ask them to sing, to exhibit placards.”

Civil society leader, Pacifique Nininahazwe, called the claims the protests had ended ‘a joke’. “If there are no more demonstrations, why is it the police fire every morning and every night in Bujumbura’s neighbourhoods? Why do we bury people every day killed by the police?” he asked. In a stronger statement, the government claims were ‘pure lies’ said opposition leader, Frederic Bamvuginyumvira, and expressed concern that little more than two weeks remained before parliamentary elections were to be held. Key opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary elections that took place on 29 June 2015.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

In the middle of January 2015, university students were at the forefront of demonstrations in Kinshasa, as they protested against an attempt by President Joseph Kabila to introduce a draft law that would enable him to extend his presidency beyond his current mandate, which ends in 2016. The law was adopted on 17 January 2015 by the Congolese National Assembly. After several days of violence, in Kinshasa and other towns, at least 42 people had been killed, according to the International Federation of Human Rights (although the government gave an estimate of five). The army and the police arrested dozens of protestors as they hurled rocks at state buildings, public buses and even passing cars. In Brussels, where he was recovering from illness, Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran leader of the main opposition party, the UDPS, urged the Congolese people to force ‘a dying regime’ from power.

On 23 January 2015, the International Crisis Group commented that ‘this surge of protest is the latest and, so far, most violent confrontation between the government and the opposition since the deeply flawed November 2011 elections and is a clear demonstration of the continuing crisis of legitimacy that faces Kabila’s presidency. While regional and international actors have largely focused on crises in the east, there has been little effort to encourage the national government and opposition to create a more consensual political environment. The Senate decision proves that there is no consensus even among the majority group that supports the president’. It also remarked that ‘the reaction of the Kabila government to the protests has been heavy-handed, involving the deployment of riot police and troops, including the Republican Guard. Demonstrators were violently repressed and there are reports of several casualties. Several opposition leaders have been arrested or had their freedom of movement limited. From 20 January, the government has blocked or limited SMS and internet access’.

Protesters stand next to tyres set on fire on January 20, 2015, in Kinshasa, during a protest against moves to allow Democratic Republic of Congo’s president to extend his hold on power ©Papy Mulongo (AFP/File)

At the end of January AFP reported that ‘a call by the Congolese opposition for peaceful demonstrations to oust President Joseph Kabila went unheeded Monday as authorities maintained a crippling block on text messages and social networks used to rally demonstrators. Only about 50 people gathered at the headquarters of veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS) in the capital Kinshasa, despite the party calling for mass protests. The small crowd dispersed shortly before midday (1100 GMT) when several jeeploads of police arrived at the scene after authorities warned no opposition demonstrations would be permitted’.

On 12 February 2015, election officials announced that presidential elections would be held in November, thereby satisfying a key demand of the opposition. Violent protests had broken out the previous month over fears that President Joseph Kabila was trying to delay polls. President Kabila is currently constitutionally barred from contesting the poll; but he has not officially declared his intentions for the election, although the government denies he is deliberately seeking to extend his presidency and has dropped plans for a controversial census to be held before elections. The United States has repeatedly urged Kabila to respect term limits and set a date for the election.

A month later, on 18 March 2015, it was reported that the government had ordered the immediate expulsion of four foreign pro-democracy activists detained over the weekend during and criticized the United States for supporting the event. Government spokesman, Lambert Mende, said the foreign activists including a Burkinabe and three Senegalese activists were part of a “subversive movement inspired from abroad.” Authorities had found military uniforms in their luggage but Congo has dropped a criminal investigation into them, he added. The foreign activists were said to have organized protests in their home countries supporting presidential term limits ahead of elections. The Burkinabe activist, significantly, was a member of the grassroots political group ‘Balai Citoyen’ (The Citizen’s Broom), which played a leading role in toppling long-term President Blaise Compaore as he – like President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and President Kabila of the DRC – sought to extend his mandate.

The four detainees were among some 40 activists, musicians and journalists arrested in the capital. A US diplomat was also briefly detained. Mende said a “black hand” had been active in Congolese politics this year and singled out the role of the U.S. embassy, which has acknowledged partially sponsoring Sunday’s news conference. ‘The U.S. embassy does not have the status to organize political events in Democratic Republic of Congo’, Mende said. The US embassy declined to give an immediate response to this comment, although it has previously said that representatives at the event were respected and non-partisan. One Congolese journalist in Kinshasa was released shortly after his arrest but the remainder of the local activists remained in custody. Mende said their cases would be ‘closed very soon’. In the eastern city of Goma, about a dozen youth activists were released after having been detained earlier in the day by intelligence agents while protesting the Kinshasa arrests.

Comparisons and Cross-Country Cooperation

These three instances of popular protest resemble each other in a number of important respects. In all cases the trigger for the demonstrations was an attempt by the President of the county concerned to extend his period of office beyond the limited allowed by the Constitution. This tendency to wish to consolidate and extend power is not, of course, confined to these three cases – there are several other examples in other parts of Africa which we intend also to consider in future issues – but it is significant that direct action and popular protest appears to be an increasingly common response in countries where efforts by the officially recognised opposition parties in these pseudo-democracies to prevent a further consolidation of power in the hands of a very few prove ineffective.

It is also clear that there has been at least some success in developing linkages between the social movements promoting direct action against illegitimate attempts by existing pseudo-democratic regimes to consolidate power and undermine democracy – the presence of Le Balai Citoyen – ‘The Citizen’s Broom’ – from Burkina Faso in the DRC, is a case in point.


Space does not allow for a more protracted consideration, in this issue, of the larger patterns and trends of ‘popular protest, social movements and class struggle’ in Africa in recent years, or indeed even in the last year or so, indicated by the contributions by Firoze Manji, Ernest Harsch and Esther Vivas, referred to above. We shall be concerned, therefore, in future issues to examine and to analyse in a more comprehensive fashion the main patterns and trends in the incidents and instances across the continent, and to explore in particular the extent of cooperation between pro-democracy and anti-capitalist movements across countries in Africa to see whether it is possible to discern any sign of a growing integration of these incidents and instances to constitute some kind of pan-African movement – Up-rising Africa – as part of the rise of global dissent (or what some would call ‘anti-capitalism’).

Some recent attempts to explore these issues include ‘African Struggle Today: social movements since independence’, by Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig (Haymarket Books, 2012), and Africa Uprising: popular protest and political change’, by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly (Zed Books, 2015). Also see African Awakening: the emerging revolutions, edited by Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine (Pambazuka Press, 2012) and Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa, edited by Leo Zeilig (Haymarket Books, 2009).

See also the RoAPE article by Leo Zeilig and David Seddon, ‘Class and Protest in Africa: new waves’, RoAPE, 32, 103 (2005)

David Seddon is a researcher and scholar who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.



[1] Discussed in John Walton & David Seddon (eds), Free Markets and Food Riots: the politics of global adjustment, Blackwells (1994). Also more recently in Leo Zeilig & David Seddon, ‘Class and Protest in Africa: new waves’, Review of African Political Economy, 32, 103 (2005).

[2] African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions (eds) Sokari Ekine & Firoze Manji, 15 Nov 2011.

[3] Ernest Harsch, ‘Social Protest: an African perennial’, African Futures, 7 October 2013. (http://forums.ssrc.org/african-futures/2013/10/07/social-protest-an-african-perennial/#sthash.WV57dwgi.dpuf)

[4] Ernest Harsch, ‘Citizens’ Revolt in Burkina Faso, African Futures, http://forums.ssrc.org/african-futures/2014/12/09/citizens-revolt-in-burkina-faso/; Firoze Manji, ‘Burkina Faso: liberation not looting’, Red Pepper, March 2015


  1. This is an interesting report; Thanks so much! I understand it also as a call for more comparative analysis. There can be no doubt that the experience of, past and present, protest movements is often uneven and paradoxical. This is true even where countries share much of their history and current political economy; it becomes strikingly clear in the instance of the ex-Apartheid post colonies of South Africa and Namibia. Both countries have seen vibrant popular protests by young people, especially students, over the past year. While the South African movements from #RhodesMustFall to #FeesMustFall have found considerable international attention, Namibia’s recent movement has gone virtually unnoticed. In the following, a brief note on ‘Affirmative Repositioning’ in Namibia:

    A very interesting example of recent popular protest is ‘Affirmative Repositioning (AR)’ in Namibia, a movement of urban youth, started in November 2014 when it occupied land in an affluent suburb of Windhoek. The activists highlighted high rental and property prices, which make life in Windhoek impossibly expensive even for young professionals, let alone the large numbers of the urban poor. Over the next few months the movement embarked upon the biggest mass action since Namibia’s independence in 1990.

    AR embodies a groundswell of profound anger and frustration about the enormous social inequality twenty-five years after Namibian Independence in 1990. It is Namibia’s urban young, and particularly university and technikon students and graduates that mobilise for social justice. A new generation has entered the social scene and asks new questions during Namibia’s ‘Fanonian moment’, to extrapolate the term Achille Mbembe has first used in relation to the South African student movements of 2015. Like the South African movements AR is led by and has massive support among urban, well-educated young people. Like in South Africa, social media platforms are instrumental to the mobilization. Unlike in South Africa though, ‘race’ has not presented an issue in their quest for social justice.

    AR’s popular activism seems to have been perceived as a threat by the national-liberation-movement-turned–ruling party SWAPO, which expelled and publicly tongue-lashed the AR activists. However, sections of the political establishment have taken AR’s demands more seriously. When the movement threatened to take urban land by force in mid-2015 the country’s new President, Hage Geingob personally negotiated with the activists, apparently to their satisfaction. Geingob has not only pronounced more social equality and poverty alleviation as a key dimension of his programme but has indeed begun steps of implementation. Most recently AR leader Job Amupanda told the media that the movement was glad that despite the difficulties they had got government to work with them to have their ‘dream realised’. (THE NAMIBIAN, 16/12/2015) AR thus has also come to embody the new hope, which many young Namibians associate at this point in time with Geingob, whose politics appear to differ from his predecessors’ in both substance and style.

  2. Thanks to Heike for a valuable contribution to the comparative analysis of popular protest, social movements and class struggle in Africa with a consideration of recent developments in Namibia. There seems, from what Heike tells us, to have been some positive reaction to the AR from the new President at least. It would be good to have an updated analysis following events over the last year.


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