by Virgil Hawkins
One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia's ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt's iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.
The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.
It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration's grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).
But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they needed each time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia's main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government's prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.
As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata's Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.
This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.
The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party 'democracies' in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.
Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small 'victories' for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.
The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.