Panel 7

African spring?

Panel organiser: Jesper Bjarnesen, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden

E-mail of panel organiser:

Since the popular uprising in Burkina Faso in September 2014, renewed attention has been directed towards public protests in Africa as a platform for political contestation and a potential source of further democratization and regime change. Following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-11, which have become symbols of an “Arab awakening” or “Arab spring”, hopes, wishes and speculations about a similar wave of regime change in other parts of the continent evoke images of an “African spring” of democratic reform and popular participation.

In evoking the similarities between the northern African uprisings and recent events in Burkina Faso and Burundi in particular, several factors may be listed as prominent across these cases. Firstly, popular protests were organized primarily in capital cities with public squares as a central platform for congregation. Secondly, the primary demand of the protesters was for regime change and a respect for the constitution. Thirdly, social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been prominent in organizing and publicizing protests. Fourthly, the importance of young people taking a lead role in mobilization as well as in articulating the grievances of the population has been instructive.

At the same time, popular protests in many African countries continue a longer historical trend of being met with state brutality, making the successful toppling of Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré a remarkable exception rather than the catalyst for a region- or continent-wide “wave” of regime change. Raising the question of an African Spring, this panel invites reflections on both the expression and the relative absence of popular dissent in the face of semi-authoritarian regimes across the continent. Papers are encouraged to discuss the dynamics of case-specific political contestations in contexts where electoral politics and constitutional amendments play a crucial role in regime governmentality, reflecting specifically on the dynamics of mobilization and/or oppression of dissent; the communication strategies of protesters, activists, as well as of the state in relation to public protests; the generational, gendered, and socioeconomic characteristics of those actors mobilizing dissent; and the extent to which the imagery of and “Arab” or an “African Spring” has been used explicitly by those involved, or those commenting on, specific instances of political mobilization.

Approved abstracts panel 7

1. ‘Fire for Fire’: Political competition and the dynamic of local electoral violence in Sierra Leone

Authors: Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs, (Folke Bernadotte Academy, Sweden)
Ibrahim Bangura, (University of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone)

Why are some regions in a country more likely than others to see election-induced violence? In spite of recent promising scholarly developments, we still know little about the causes of such violence. In particular, few studies have explored these issues on a sub-national level, seeking to explain why some geographical localities are more violence-prone than others. The purpose of this paper is to address this research question. We do so through an in-depth case study of the district of Kono in Eastern Sierra Leone, an region where elections has been accompanied with high levels of violence throughout the post-war period, ranging from violent rallies and campaign meetings to attacks on both political candidates and voters.

We argue that the reason is to be found in Kono’s position as a political swing state. In a country otherwise strongly governed by an overlapping ethnic and regional logic, Kono is ethnically diversified and political split, and may swing in either direction. This renders Kono a highly courted district by all political parties, contributing to raise the stakes of elections. Aspiring politicians approach the large number of young people – many of which are ex-combatants – who reside in Kono in the hope of profiting from the diamond mining business, and promise them short-term benefits in exchange for mobilising electoral support and carrying out attacks on their political opponents. Similarly, they make use of local chiefs who are dependent on political connections and economic resources to retain their influence. In this way, national and local interests collide in the establishment of mutually dependent relations that contribute to increase the risk of violence around elections in Kono.

The findings have the potential to make an important contribution to both theory development and to policy and practice aimed at preventing and managing election-induced violence in new democracies in developing states.

2. Including the subaltern in regime change in Burkina Faso: Reflections on a case study on students’ capacities and strategies from 2011-2016

Author: Heidi Bojsen (Roskilde University, Denmark)

This paper will focus on the social movement Le movement des sans voix ( (MSV), which has worked with the Balai citoyen since 2013. Currently, at least two members of MVS, a man and a woman, are holding central positions in the Balai citoyen.

The paper discusses the members, still mainly students’ capacities and strategies to build bridges between literate educated social groups and illiterate underprivileged ‘subaltern’ social groups including how gender positions become part of or cut across obstacles and strategies. In doing so, the notion of ‘subaltern’ will also have to be discussed and situated in relation to the particular context of Burkina Faso. In the years 2009-2014, the MSV was involved in activities that served to assist urban farmers and other people threatened by eviction in unregulated circumstances. In addition to the heritage from Sankara and other conditions explores by Mazzochetti, Hilgers and others, these activities have formed their experience and mode of action and thus, how they act within or in relation to the Balai citoyen today. While traditional gender roles remain an important parameter, there are also examples of different strategies that succeed in circumventing those positions. In addition, the multilingual capacity of the social movements – and the ability of the students to communicate with different social authorities - prove to be useful assets in the ongoing process of assuring some sort of dialogue between illiterate, but far from ignorant or indifferent social groups, in both rural and urban areas on the one hand and on the other, the literate, political and economic elites whose knowledge and reasoning are increasingly – but not consistently - disconnected from those of the majority of the population.

3. Guinea’s tumultuous transition (2006­2013); An analysis of framing strategies and crystallization dynamics in popular protest

Author: Joschka Philipps (Centre for African Studies, Basel, Switzerland)

From 2006 to 2013, Guinea­Conakry traversed an extraordinarily turbulent political period, with three different regimes and four acting presidents, and a plethora of strikes, rallies, riots and demonstrations, all of which turned Conakry’s streets into a primary site for political competition, popular demands and frustrations, as well as violent clashes between protesters and state forces. This paper inquires into the different framing strategies that political actors in Conakry used to mobilize support on different levels of political protest. The political opposition and labor unions, for instance, who represented the political movements vis­ā­vis the government and the international community, tended to emphasize constitutional and electoral issues such as the restoration of the constitutional order, the constitution of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) or electoral fraud. Politicians addressing their specific constituencies also introduced ethnic grievances, which are said to have played a crucial role in the process of popular upheavals. Finally, Conakry’s militant youth groups—so­called staffs, clans, and gangs that were instrumental in mobilizing Conakry’s urban underclass—focused in particular on broader concerns of corruption amongst the general political elite, on class inequality and injustice, and on their hopes to gain employment within a ‘new’ state apparatus. On the basis of ongoing empirical fieldwork in Conakry since 2009, the key question of this paper will be how these different imageries and framing strategies were translated from one level to the next, i.e. how they were mediated, and how such diversity and heterogeneity of different motives and actions finally crystallized into what is today referred to as Guinea’s transition to democracy. Discussing the broader theoretical context of African Studies scholarship on social movements and protests, this paper situates this process beyond the analytical dichotomies of global vs. local and high vs. low politics.

4. Socializing Warlord Democrats: explaining violent discursive practices in post-war democratic politics

Roxanna Sjöstedt (Lund University, Sweden)
Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs (Folke Bernadotte Academy, Sweden)
Anders Themnér (Uppsala University, Sweden)

Why is it that former leaders of armed groups that take part in electoral politics – so called Warlord Democrats (WDs)– sometimes (re) engage in belligerent discursive practices? Following the ending of a civil war, when state institutions are weak, the economy is in shambles and fears continue to permeate society, WDs often come to dominate electoral politics. Yet, we know very little about the consequences of their entry into post-war electoral politics.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the micro-level dynamics that determine the individual decision-making processes of WDs. We do so through a comparative study of two WDs in two post-war countries – Julius Maada Bio in Sierra Leone and Prince Yormie Johnson in Liberia – that display interesting changes of behaviour across time and space.

We argue that the answer is to be found in the process of socialization, that is, “the process through which actors adopt the norms and rules of a given community” (Checkel 2016, 1). WDs adopt and adjust to the norms and practices governing post-war electoral politics. However, the ending of a civil war rarely constitutes a clean break with the past. In addition to the conflicting values with individual in the transition from war to peace, most post-war societies are characterised by a multitude of conflicting norms being pursued by different global and local norm entrepreneurs. In this process, the final integration process is dependent of the WDs individual role recognition, learning process and the specific institutional setting.

To the top