The Atbara Moment – A radical website in 2019

ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig looks at a year that has seen two astonishing uprisings in Africa, and protest movements that have rippled across the globe. The first, in Sudan, started in the small city of Atbara in December last year. The second major event of the year was the climate strikes around the world. Though these protests were smaller in Africa, the continent remains deeply affected by the consequences of human-made climate change. Zeilig asks what a radical journal and website like ROAPE can do?

By Leo Zeilig

Two major events stand out in 2019. The first has been the almost frenzied protests and uprisings we have seen – linked, in one way or another, to a rejection of the existing order. Inchoate, unfocused, frequently ‘unorganised’, these protests have yet again highlighted the inherently unstable nature of our period. Spreading like a great arch from Sudan in December 2018, to Algeria in February 2019, and then to a series of astonishing protests in Hong Kong and later in the year rippling across South America, Columbia, Chile, Lebanon and Iraq.

By any measure, the balance sheet has already been extraordinary. By April in Sudan an entire government and National Legislature had been dissolved, and the president ‘removed’; in Algeria, ruled since independence from France in 1962 by a one-party state, the National Liberation Front or FLN,  saw the president replaced, and then, under pressure from the streets, the arrest of Algeria’s richest businessman and three billionaires on the grounds of corruption. Protestors in the streets rallied under the slogan, ‘The system must go.’

Inevitably the dynamics vary enormously, but these complexities should not prevent us from seeing some striking commonalities – the ties of national exhaustion at the variations and forms of austerity, corruption and adjustment. These are common features – to which no appeal to complexity, careful analysis and ‘national factors’ – should be allowed to blind us.

Take Sudan. The country’s economic troubles, were in large part the result of excessive military spending, which intensified following the secession of South Sudan in 2011 (with the country losing 75% of its oil revenue). The regime responded by stepping up austerity measures, encouraged by the IMF. The privatization of public resources and the cutting of food and fuel subsidies contributed to social turmoil.

Events started in the country on 18 and 19 December last year in the small city of Atbara, but soon spread across Sudan. An astonishing movement emerged in early 2019 against an entrenched class with a stake in maintaining the regime: importers, wholesale merchants, bankers, military and security officers, large landowners, sharia scholars and preachers embedded in Islamic banks.

The country and its peoples have been subject to deep and dramatic socio-economic changes of which the wave of protest was a symptom, but, as Magdi el Gizouli commented on, beyond a ‘superficial’ transition a deep and thorough-going revolution would be needed. To dismantle the power of the rich and to fulfil the promise of the Atbara moment would require a revolution in Leninist terms.

Responding to the escalation of protest in Khartoum, and in other towns and regions, on 11 April, the generals deposed Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. The pressure to replace the president was both a direct reaction to the protests and a gamble that a coup would appease the protestors and avoid a collapse of the army – a vital seat of the regime’s power.

In the first of her series of reports on the uprisings in Sudan and Algeria, Emma Wilde Botta quoted the Sudanese activist, Mohamed Mustafa Diab, ‘The Sudanese people understand that the enemy is not a single man; it is the whole regime and everything it represents…“A civilian government or an eternal revolution.” That is one of the most popular slogans right now. As long as we maintain pressure, we — the Sudanese people — will have the final say.’

But as the year draws to a close, and despite astonishing sacrifices and bravery by the protesters, the ‘neighbourhood committees’ – that were on the frontline of the uprisings in Sudan – have not been able to translate their revolutionary zeal into mass political action that has been able to unite rural and urban discontent and challenge the regimes hold on power. Yet mention must be made of the active and often leading role played by women rebels in Sudan, when so many uprisings in Africa are the stage for young men.

By February, the wave of protest spread to Algeria – one of the oldest and most entrenched regimes in North Africa. Fixed, hard-frozen, as the Algerian ‘pouvoir’ was in early 2019, by 2 April Abdelaziz Bouteflika had been removed. The huge weekly protests continued after Bouteflika was forced from office, which saw at their height nearly 10 million people demonstrating, approximately a quarter of the entire population. The street action has witnessed jubilant celebrations of opposition, week after week, month after month, though the participation of organised workers has been weak – the mid-May call for a five-day general strike went largely unheeded. The relative absence of the organised presence of the working class has been a feature of the protest movements in both Algeria and Sudan. In both countries, though particularly Sudan, it was the educated and aspirant, though squeezed, ‘middle classes’ who were frequently at the forefront of the protests.

While there is a continuity of action and protest across the continent, and increasingly the globe, there remains a common set of problems. These can be named, broadly, as organisational and political. These issues remain unavoidable in any serious analysis of the uprisings themselves.

Some essential questions raised by authors in a collection of comments on the uprisings halfway through the year were: What elements have been frustrated in the uprisings? Are we witnessing revolutionary movements? Will the lives of the people involved in these rebellions be fundamentally transformed? How are these uprisings learning from the failed revolutions of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) spring?

In her comments on the Algerian uprisings in May this year, Tinhinan El Kadi pointed to some of the central questions. Khadi noted that the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, spent the first months of 1917 in New York. When the large Russian emigre population in the city celebrated the fall of the Tsar – in what became the first revolution in February that year – only Trotsky and a few radicals around him, remained sceptical. El Kadi reminded us that again and again Trotsky argued that the biggest challenges for the revolution still needed to take place, the real transformation in people’s lives remained elusive. Lenin, in different circumstances, had reached the same conclusion; both men made arguments that were unusual even among experienced revolutionaries at the time.

We return then to Magdi el Gizouli’s challenge, that fulfilling the promise of the Atbara moment will require a revolution in Leninist terms. These terms are organisational and political. The common factor in the struggles in Algeria and Sudan, and the movements and rebellions breaking out elsewhere in the world, is the divided, fragmented and dispersed forces of the radical left. Rebuilding these politics (and organisations) on a national and international stage is a task of the greatest importance.

The decade is ending as it began, on the streets, in occupations and in revolutionary possibilities. The constant grind of capitalism ensures that nothing settles for long. No counter-revolution is secure, but nor is – surely, we have learnt this by now? – the mighty political riposte from below.

The movements of popular classes across Africa that have analysed this year, have taken place in societies riven by economic, political and increasingly ecological crises, that not only generates terrible human misery but recurrent rebellions. As Wilde Botta stated in the final declaratory blogpost in her series, ‘We have little control over the objective conditions necessary for revolutionary crisis. We do have control over what we do to prepare for such a moment. And, sometimes, in some circumstances, the agency of the left can play a decisive role.’

Perhaps the arch of protest we are seeing at the end of the decade, emerging first from Sudan, then Algeria, and breaking out elsewhere, will not generate the new organisations and politics that the radical left need. As we have seen repeatedly in the past, they may, at best, only yield a recycled elite – a renewal of austerity, under new leadership. Though maybe not, and if not, this will require action, agency and intervention.

ROAPE’s efforts and hopes have always been centred, from our first editorial in 1974, on developing arguments and analysis so that a radical left can be constructed, or an existing one strengthened. This continues to be our lodestar.

Climate Emergency

The second major moment, not unconnected to the first, is the explosion of climate activism in 2019. September this year saw seven million people strike together to insist on action to save the world from a climate emergency. While the major protests were in the Global North, activists also mobilised across the continent. From 20 – 27 September, there were protests in Nairobi, Cape Town, Kampala and Lagos. Demonstrators marched and petitioned in their hundreds, and occasionally thousands.

Many made the fundamental point, that although Africa has caused little of the climate crisis it is extremely vulnerable to its effects. The Canadian activist and writer, Naomi Klein, is correct when she wrote earlier this year that the economic system of ‘limitless consumption and ecological depletion’ is at the heart of the climate crisis. Yet this is a story that begins, she argues, ‘with people stolen from Africa and lands stolen from indigenous peoples, two practices of brutal expropriation that were so dizzyingly profitable that they generated the excess capital and power to launch the age of fossil fuel-led industrial revolution and with it the beginning of human-driven climate change.’

Yet while the continent remains marginal to the struggle on the climate, it is central to its consequences. Africa accounts for barely 2–3 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions from energy and industrial sources, yet is impacted by the droughts, famines and rising sea levels which reflect the global catastrophe. Africa’s per capita carbon emissions in the last twenty years were 0.8 metric tons per person, this compared with a global figure of 3.9 tons per person. We have reported how Africa is in the frontline of climate catastrophe – already unravelling on the continent, often intersecting with class, gender and racial cleavages.

As inspiring as the protests on the continent were, outside Johannesburg, Cape Town and Nairobi, they were small, the activist groups lively but narrow. Across the continent, in North Africa, in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – only a few dozen activists took to the streets during the global climate strike. One pressing challenge for these groups and activists, is expanding their networks and growing the links across the continent. Crucially also linking the demands of the mass movements we have seen in Sudan and Algeria against austerity and poverty, with issues of climate justice.

Yet there is another challenge. While has covered the uprisings on the continent, tried to track the dynamics of the movements, and their emerging class dynamics, we have failed to make links with climate activists and researchers. On climate action and environmental change, we have drawn a blank on one of the defining moments in our century (though the work of the Algerian campaigner and writer, Hamza Hamouchene, who has written and worked for our journal, is an important exception). This must be corrected in 2020.

Blogposts in 2019

In other areas we have provided cutting edge radical coverage of developments on the continent. On 13 August the Financial Times reported on Rwanda’s poverty statistics which have been the subject of considerable controversy. They wrote that ‘analysis of government statistics has found that the data looks to have been misrepresented … casting doubt on both the strength of the proclaimed economic miracle and the integrity of Rwanda’s relationship with its biggest donors.’

Their investigation  confirmed World Bank involvement in the statistical fraud and credited ROAPE for publishing and posting the research that has led to the investigation: ‘a small number of academics first challenged Rwanda’s poverty statistics in 2015, leading the country to revise its analysis in 2016 and the World Bank to publish its own response last year. The academics’ findings, some of which have been published by the Review of African Political Economy, are compelling, independent experts say, but have been drowned out by the strength of Rwanda and the World Bank’s comprehensive denials.’, with others, including Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens, has been instrumental in exposing Rwandan poverty data and World Bank complicity in covering for the government. The entire developmental model represented by Rwanda – economic growth, development, anti-corruption (and the ruthless murder of opponents), has been undermined (A recent Briefing in the journal has underlined the main arguments).

In other posts, Lena Grace Anyuolo’s original blog titled, ‘Kenya’s Hunger Games’ was a striking denunciation of media and ruling class sponsorship of the poor, exemplified in the region’s popular TV game show, East Africa’s Got Talent. Sam Broadway wrote on Uganda and how Bobi Wine’s movement, known as People Power, has become a formidable political force in the context of mass unemployment; while Alex Caramento and Richard Saunders investigated the social forces currently shaping resource nationalism in Southern Africa.

We have also had a series of fascinating posts that look at the legacy and writing of Walter Rodney – a debate that we are featuring on This includes a critique of Chinedu Chukwudinma’s blogpost on Walter Rodney by the Caribbean Marxist Cecil Gutzmore. Chinedu argued that Rodney’s version of dependency theory presented a flawed analysis of imperialism, and his 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, is considerably weaker for it. In a spirited piece, Gutzmore refuted these claims.

Finally, ROAPE’s Rama Salla Dieng has been curating a series of interviews with African feminists. The interviews draw our attention to the role woman have played in recent months in the upheavals in Sudan and Algeria, taking to the street to reclaim a fairer and more just world. In interviews conducted by Dieng, African feminists discuss how they are theorising their practice and philosophies. Kenya’s Lyn Ossomo argues that the façade of stability across Africa rests on the super-exploitation, repression and violation of women and gendered bodies more broadly.

ROAPE is more than what we publish – since we were founded, we have brought activists and researchers from the continent together. We recently organised a series of three workshop on radical political economy – the first was held in Accra, at the end of 2017. The second in Dar es Salaam in April and the final meeting in Johannesburg in November, 2018. The workshops linked analysis and activism in contemporary Africa from the perspective of radical political economy – the sine qua non of ROAPE. This year we put a film together of the three workshop and we encourage our readers to watch and share it.

ROAPE – the journal and website – is only as good as our contributors. Where there are gaps in our analysis – and there are immense ones – these need to be filled. We appeal to our readers in 2020 to help us continue and improve our analysis of issues and social processes in Africa, to counter neo-liberal dogma, confront the environmental emergency and provide a framework for understanding the contours of capitalism on the continent. Our assistance to the movements and activists in Africa can only proceed from a close and militant study of what is actually happening, and for that we need the support and contributions of our readers.

Leo Zeilig is editor of Please contact if you want to contribute, or have an idea for a blogpost


  1. Thank you Leo for the excellent review of the year in protest on the continent, and the connections with movements and protests elsewhere!! — and for the brilliant, careful and relevant work you have done for the website and other ROAPE projects on the continent!!

    Just. a brief comment regarding the weakness of the climate justice movement on the continent that, as you correctly say has contributed least to the climate disaster but already suffers, and will suffer most from the consequences of climate change!! How to confront the dire consequences of the imperial life style, will be a significant conversation between activists, researchers and writers in the Global South and North!! Naomi Klein has made some excellent suggestions (as has George Monbiot), and while we are not going to change the world through individual lifestyle changes, they are significant too. What can we do? Politically, collectively and personally?? I personally won’t stop flying (or even will be able to do so) — although I admit freely that I find crossing oceans and connecting continents on a zero-emissions boat a rather attractive option 😀!!

    On a serious note: African climate justice movements are still weak – even in the cities you mention as ‘exceptional’: Nairobi, Johannesburg, Cape Town — I had assigned my third year class at UWC a research project on online and offline protest in the run-up to and during the Global Climate Strike and action week in September 2019. Clearly, hardly any of the students had heard of and had any idea of the challenges and the global protests before the project started in August last year, and some even thought that this was not quite relevant in the South African context, unlike concerns such and gender based violence, tuition fees, and ‘service delivery’. A large number of the students caught up as we proceeded, and some became quite passionate young activist scholars for climate justice NOW!! Students also emphasised in their research reports, again and again, how important it is for movements such as XR and FFF to work from the local contexts and with intersections of class and race!! Most painful perhaps, the responses that some of my students reported from the public, and especially marginal black workers that they encountered in their activist participant observation outside the ESKOM regional headquarters in Cape Town: “Why do you take up the white people’s cause?”, one woman student was accosted by a passer-by, and another heard from a man in blue overalls: “These people (protesters) are killing our jobs” (with demands for alternative energy utilities to replace reliance on coal mining).

    It is great that there have been slowly growing meetings of African climate justice alliances over the past few months, especially since the September Global Climate Strike. The growth of the movement is fabulous, and it also poses critical important questions to activists and activist-scholars in the North, to take issues of race, of colonialism, of class, of gender, and body as much as near-diversity seriously. EVERYWHERE!!

  2. Southern Africa is among the most threatened parts of the world, and gets little attention in the international media (compare say to the current flurry of reports about Oz) there is the local silence and the history of undeniably colonialist (and occasional blatantly racist) dominant strands of local environmentalism. Even where it comes from the left. My piece last year touched on some of it. Shamefully I only started becoming more aware of the urgency of climate justice earlier this year with the cyclones in quick succession. about mobilizations – there were events in Joburg, on a similar scale to Cape Town, and smaller protests elsewhere in the region, even in Windhoek! Small though and very much young upper middle class kids, many white – I recall an interview with XR Gauteng activists. Intersectional is probably a good entry point…

  3. Leo Zeilig is right to draw our attention to the widespread nature of popular protest and class struggle across the world as the second decade of the 21st century comes to an end and the third decade of the 21st century begins, in 2020, not only in Africa but also beyond, and to ask how RoAPE can contribute to the much needed local, national, regional and international mobilisation for a systematic progressive transformation of the global political economy in a way that promotes social, economic, political and environmental justice.

    Beyond all of our immediate concerns, we all need to be better informed and thus to be enabled to recognise the power (as well as the limitations) of the forces from below that constitute not so much a new wave as a persistent tide of ‘global dissent’ and popular struggle against the status quo.

    There is an urgent need to address the theoretical as well as the practical political implications of the forces that we confront, as well as those of the forces of which we aspire to be a part – for if men and women make history, it is always under conditions not of our own choosing. The power of transnational corporations, of the institutions and agencies that defend and uphold their vested interests, including both state and non-state actors cannot be underestimated; but neither can the potential strength of movements from below.

    In the last year or so, the environmental movement has mobilised considerable numbers to confront the severity of the climate emergency.Sometimes this focus has tended to divert attention from the broader issue of environmental pollution, which damages life in all its unimaginable complexity in the oceans, in the rivers, on land and in the atmosphere, and continues to promote the use of nuclear power, oil and other petroleum products, to light and heat and cool our homes and factories, to fuel transport, to manufacture pesticides and fertilizers, and generally to keep the 20th century capitalist economy operational

    We need to document the achievements (and the failures), and to support the endeavours, of environmental activists, to understand and to encourage the links that already do exist and can in future be promoted with other activists involved in various forms of popular protest and struggle, to create a unified and coherent movement for a better world, for ourselves and for future generations and for all the other forms off life on this planet.


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