Raila Odinga of Kenya and Julius Malema of South Africa, born in different circumstances and at different times, are not political allies, but they were at the centre of protests in their respective countries last week.
They capitalised on popular discontent among the poor in their respective countries, upsetting authorities with massive street protests. In total, at least 325 people were apprehended in both countries.
Inspector-General Japhet Koome of Kenya said 238 people had been arrested in Nairobi and Kisumu for looting, attacking police, or participating in illegal protests. The South African National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJOINTS) said 87 people had been arrested, mostly in the Gauteng metropolis, despite the fact that the protests had been mostly peaceful.
In both Kenya and South Africa, police blamed “criminal” protesters while also promising continued vigilance. Since then, Mr Odinga has declared weekly protests every Monday and Thursday “in response to public demand.”
“It is critical that we rein in the nation’s runaway high cost of living for the benefit of ordinary citizens.” This issue motivates and sustains us,” Mr Odinga said this week.
Protests were not limited to these two countries. Tunisians, Nigerians, and Senegalese have also had running battles with police, with groups generally protesting high living costs, alleged electoral fraud, overreaching government, and joblessness. In almost every case, police used brutality, teargassing, or arresting participants.
Demonstrations on a single day
How did the protests all happen on the same day? George Kegoro, executive director of the Open Society Foundations Initiative East Africa, believes that the protesters have been rallied by opposition movements that are in some way connected.
“These countries have an impact on neighbouring regions, and whether we deny it or not, there is an element of coordination between actors responsible for organising those demonstrations,” he told The EastAfrican on Wednesday.
“This appears to be the beginning of an era in which opposition forces will be involved in greater coordination.” The economic grievances that are fueling these protests are seeing people rise up to say we are poor, we have always been poor, and for the first time, people are saying being poor is a problem and that we don’t accept being poor as a natural condition, and that the government or those in authority must do something.
The protests occurred as experts gathered for a workshop organised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. They agreed that unless governments adopt innovative and people-centred development models, persistent poverty and inequality are likely to undermine Africa’s prosperity, peace, and security. Some of these fears will manifest themselves in street protests.
“It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the African States will achieve many of the targets outlined in the SDGs by the 2030 deadline,” said Hanan Morsy, Deputy Executive Secretary and Chief Economist at the Economic Commission for Africa. (ECA). She spoke broadly about Africa’s situation, without referring to specific political situations, but she did suggest that countries bear the brunt of global crises.
“Global shocks have erased the continent’s more than two decades of poverty reduction progress.” “We need long-term interventions,” she said at the 55th Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development (COM 2023), which met to discuss ways to help member countries reduce their economic and social vulnerabilities and inequalities.
As a result, experts believe African governments have been under pressure to address rising poverty, making it difficult to keep pre-election promises. According to Idyat Hassan, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a Nigerian governance watchdog, the protests were a good example of “people power,” in which disgruntled youth take to the streets to demand services.
The Arab Spring
“We’ve seen this in Tunisia since the Arab Spring, as well as in Burkina Faso, Mali, and even Nigeria, where the President lamented the people’s desire to depose him,” she told The EastAfrican on Tuesday.
“In some ways, these protests reflect the renewed citizenship participation,” she said. In Kenya, Mr. Odinga began by demanding reforms at the IEBC, which he claimed had stolen his vote.
His Azimio One Kenya Alliance coalition, on the other hand, had failed to prove the theft before the Supreme Court, which dismissed his petition and approved Dr William Ruto’s election as President.
Mr Odinga has since shifted his focus to criticising the government’s failure to address rising living costs, which the majority of Kenyans now support. In South Africa, Mr Malema demanded President Cyril Ramaphosa resign for failing to address poverty among the majority black population. People in Tunisia are protesting the high cost of living and changes to the country’s legal structures, which have seen President Kais Saied fire judges and dissolve parliament.
However, street demonstrations do not always go as planned. In Sudan in 2019, Omar al-Bashir was deposed after months of protests, but the military took over, exacerbating the situation.
“People in Mali pushed for better governance and elections.” On the one hand, it allowed the military to seize power. “On the other hand, even where it has resulted in democratic elections, the kind of governance that Africans desire has continued to elude them,” Ms Hassan said, referring to coups in the West African country. It has been unable to form a government led by civilians.
“Having elected officials is one thing; having these leaders deliver democratic dividends is quite another.” This is what is lacking, and it is the reason for the increasing number of protests. We must strike a balance in which democratic elections produce good leaders while citizens hold them accountable.”
Finding that happy medium with an equally frustrated police force, on the other hand, can be difficult. Instead, Hassan believes that a radicalised public will turn against the government, creating a vicious cycle until countries build stronger institutions that deliver goods and services to the people.
Protesters are now free.
Those arrested in Nairobi and South Africa were mostly released the next day after appearing in court. According to Kegoro, the purpose of the clampdown is to intimidate protesters rather than address the root causes. “What that means is that the arrests and use of force in response to those demonstrations are a phoney response,” he explained.
“What is required is a rethinking of what the constitutions mean when it comes to rights and how they can protect people in times of social, political, and economic anxiety, as well as making demands that will force the government to address the people’s demands.”