To kick-off a new research project on electoral violence in Africa, a group of 19 researchers held a workshop in Uppsala last Friday. The project was initiated and will be coordinated by NAI researchers Jesper Bjarnesen and Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs. Bjarnesen, seen kneeling lower right in the photo, was also invited by the Swedish parliament last week to discuss democratic developments in West Africa.

There are popular uprisings and there are ”popular” uprisings

Asian Spring, Arab Spring and now African Spring. Many experts love to cry “spring” every time people gather to protest in countries lacking democracy. However, Jesper Bjarnesen, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, warns that this willingness to discern positive patterns can be misleading.

When Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Comapaoré, tried last October to amend the country’s constitution so that, after 27 years as president, he could remain in office one more term, opposition factions rose up in unison to force him to resign. Since then, the country has been in a shaky transition that will hopefully lead it away from de facto one-party rule to democracy. In the wake of Burkina Faso’s popular uprising, people have gathered to protest on the streets of other West African countries. It’s easy to interpret this as an “African Spring,” wafting fresh democratic breezes into old autocracies, but appearances can be deceptive.

– There are popular uprisings and there are “popular” uprisings, Jesper Bjarnesen, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, says.

– When the media feed us pictures of angry masses bearing posters and banners on the streets of West African capitals, we assume they’re inspired by the grassroots movement in Burkina Faso. But that’s an over-hasty response. In many cases, covert and violently anti-democratic interests lurk behind these protests, says Bjarnesen, who has recently initiated a research project on electoral violence in Africa.

Weak democracy

Democracy is weakly developed in many African countries, if at all. According to Freedom House, only eight of Africa’s 55 countries can be rated as democratically free.

– When we hear of mass protests, we have to ask what the driving forces are. These manifestations are by no means always spontaneous. Rich and powerful interests may lie behind them, and it’s easy to mobilise masses in countries where people hover on the threshold of poverty. For a few dollars, desperate people will act as “the will of the people,” and win valuable advantages in the battle for public opinion, says Bjarnesen.

Bjarnesen, who last week was invited by the Swedish parliament to discuss democratic development in Africa, points out that several aspects need to be considered in gaining a full picture. How strong is the political opposition? How well evolved are trade unions and other civil society institutions? How well equipped and violent is the regime’s military? What relations and dependencies does the regime have with neighbouring countries and the international community?

– Political resistance in Burkina Faso grew gradually thanks to structural changes. Comprehensive decentralisation gave more influence to municipalities and the opposition has increased in strength over the last few years.

Inspiriation elsewhere

A wave of democratic victories for democracy in West Africa is a too optimistic expectation, adds Bjarnesen, but there are bright spots.

– Much remains to be done before Burkina Faso is a fully functional democracy. But if the Burkinabe succeed in their quest for freedom, the popular uprising that ended nearly three decades of autocracy can surely inspire people elsewhere in the region.

As examples of viable democracy movements, Bjarnesen points to several West African countries.

– The opposition in Togo has called a meeting to protest the present constitution, which places no limits on presidential terms, and we’ve seen demonstrations against President Kabila’s attempts to reform the Congo-Kinshasa constitution. On top of that, Benin’s President Yayi has withdrawn his planned constitutional reforms, probably in reaction to events in Burkina Faso.

No more than two terms of office

The attitudes and actions of the international community also matter, especially the African Union’s, Bjarnesen adds.

– In Paris last fall, opposition representatives from eight African countries with weak or non-existent democracy, met. They sent a clear message to the African Union: it’s time for a referendum on whether to impose on all member states a maximum of two consecutive presidential terms of office.

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