Can the Revolution Go Down South?

January 13, 2024
5 mins read

THE ARMY AND STREET REVOLUTION IN AFRICABy Dibussi Tande  Wednesday, June 15, 2011.In
a recent article on why the streets in sub-Saharan Africa have remained
silent while massive anti-regime protests rock North Africa, the Christian Science Monitor posits that this is due to weak civil society organizations:“Regime
change is common in Africa, but it tends to come from the barrel of a
gun and not because of street demonstrations, says Achille Mbembe, an
historian at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. This means there
are few organizations with the power to challenge the authority of
rulers, to organize dissenters, and to articulate alternative ideas of
government that ordinary people would be willing to give their lives
for.                              “Civil
society organizations are often weak because they are divided along
ethnic lines, and many nongovernmental organizations are simply
revenue-generating activities, so they are not very helpful in building
the values of a deep civil society,” says Mr. Mbembe”.Mbembe
is correct about the absence of viable CSOs in most of sub-Saharan
Africa that can to take control of, and organize sustained mass protest
movements. However, this only partially explains the inability to
ovethrow dictatorial regimes through street protests. The fact that
street demonstrations don’t generally result in regime change in
Sub-Saharan Africa is due in large part to the role of the military
than anything else. Tunisia
is a good example. Even though the country has an impressive middle
class, the ben Ali regime had over the years systematically dismantled
or marginalized those civil society organizations that could threaten
the regime. Which explains why the protests that culminated in the
“Jasmine Revolution” were led by disaffected youth operating at the
margins of (civil) society. And the regime’s surprising collapse in
less than a month was not so much due to street pressure but primarily
because Ben Ali lost the support of the Tunisian army. As one report points out,”The
Tunisian military played an important role in the victory of the
revolution by taking on the elements of the secret police and
presidential guard that were still loyal to Ben Ali. These forces were
engaged in sabotage and looting. They attempted to occupy such
practically and symbolically important sites as the presidential
palace, but were pushed out by the military. Reports indicate that
neighborhood militias in small towns have worked with the regular army
against Ben Ali loyalists.” The Case of CameroonA
good example is Cameroon where opposition forces calling for a
sovereign national conference organized the six-month long Ghost town
campaign in 1991 which included daily mamoth street protests that
paralyzed most of the country and severely damaged the country’s
economic fabric. The protest movement eventually fizzled out thanks in
large part to the army’s unflinching support for the Biya regime.In his 1993 study of military regimes and democratic transitions in Africa [« Régimes militaires et transition démocratique en Afrique : à la recherche d’un cadre d’analyse théorique »], Pierre
Moukoko Mbonjo, who incidentally became Paul Biya’s Minister of
Communications and regime spokesperson in 2004, remarked that:la
problematique de la transition democratique en Afrique noire se pose
donc pour l’armee de son maintien au pouvoir en termes de
couts-avantages. Quel est le cout pour l’armee de son maintien au
pouvoir?. Quel est le cout d’un eventuel retrait dans les casernes?
Quels advantages le desengagement de la scene politque et la
democratisation du systeme procurent-ils a l’armee? Cette serie de
questions, et plus particulierement la derniere indiquent clairement
les enjeux de la transition democratique pour les militaires jaloux de
leurs prerogatives. Le Cameroun peut tres bien s’inscrire dans ce
schema. La confrontation des enjeux et des risques du non-soutien
permet de determiner, voire de predire l’attitude des militaires a
l’egard de la dynamique democratique.Loosely translated:“The
army views the issue of democratic transitions in Africa in terms of
cost-benefits. What would it cost the army to stay in power? What would
be the cost of an eventual retreat to the barracks? What will the army
gain by disengaging from the politics and [allowing] the
democratization of the political scene? This series of questions,
particularly the last one, clearly indicates what the stakes of
democratic transition are for soldiers eager to preserve their
prerogatives. Cameroon may well fall within this framework. The balance
between what is at stake and risks of non-support allows us to
determine, or even predict, the attitude of the military towards
the 1991 ghost town campaign, military concluded after its cost-benefit
analysis that its privileges were better protected under the Biya
regime than in a nouveau regime that might strip it of these
privileges. The military top brass therefore successfully made the case
that a sovereign national conference was a civil coup d’état that would
not be tolerated. As Major General Pierre Semengue, head of the
Cameroonian Armed Forces, recalls in his memoirs,“I
will confess to you today that if the national conference had actually
taken place, there would have been a military coup d’état. What do you
expect? One coup d’état for another. I made everyone understand this
back then. The army has the weapons. Who would have been able to
challenge the military takeover? Fortunately, the President settled the
issue by declaring the sovereign national conference ‘pointless.’”Believing
that the opposition was a threat to its corporate interests, the
military therefore played an active role in the unprecedented
repression of the leaders, members and supporters of the Cameroon
opposition, and went as far as effectively taking over control of seven
of the 10 provinces of the country with the establishment of the Commandements opérationnels.With
the Biya regime assured of the military’s unalloyed support, the
president was able to confidently adopt a stalling strategy referred to
in French as “la politique de pourrissement”
(loosely translated as  “the policy of decay”) whereby regime allows
the political situation to “rot”,  in the face of mounting street
protests, with the expectation that those who have taken to the streets
will ultimately be worn down or beaten into submission by repression
and the government’s intransigence, or that the population tired of the
chaos will turn against the activists. Under this scenario, the regime
in power hopes to eventually weather the storm by using divide and rule
tactics, propaganda, particularly through state media, the threat or
fear of chaos, and the repressive machinery of the state. This strategy
worked in Cameroon in 1991 and 2008, and former President Mubarak tried
to use it in his attempt to crush the Egyptian revolution.Thus,
while a viable civil society is critical and even indispensable in
harnessing, organizing and channeling popular discontent towards regime
change, the success of this venture is largely dependent on what the
army decides to do or not do based on its corporate interests. The army
therefore remains the linchpin in (un)successful transitions in Africa
and/or (un)successful regime change through mass protest as in Tunisia.With
most military in sub-Saharan Africa beholden to, and benefitting
excessively from autocratic regimes in power, it is unlikely the
Africans south of the Sahara will smell the sweet scent of the Tunisian
or the Egyptian Jasmine anytime soon.            Dibussi Tande is a Cameroonian journalist and writer. He blogs at Dibussi. Please e-mail views

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