Want A Political Revolution? Seven Action Steps From West Africa

Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles demonstration in Kaolack, Senegal, March 15, 2016
Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles demonstration in Kaolack, Senegal, March 15, 2016


It has been a bad year for the Left, at least at the most visible end of the spectrum. There was Brexit, in which the majority of a shamefully low turnout of voters rejected diversity and the free movement of people to retreat into a lost idyll of past ‘greatness’. Then there was the parliamentary coup in Brazil, where corrupt politicians ousted a democratically elected president—replacing her policies with the agenda of the right-wing economic elite. And then in the U.S., a mega-rich megalomaniac ‘won’ the Electoral College, an archaic system that fundamentally gives less value to an urban African American or Latin vote than it does a rural white landowning one. In each instance, the failure of neoliberalism is clear—but a downward spiral into nationalism, racism, and the patriarchy is certainly no solution.

At the same time, at the opposite side of the spectrum that has been largely invisibilized, radical and democratic social justice movements are writing their own headlines—whether or not they will ever make the news. For these movements deeply entrenched in struggles on the frontlines of global crises, it has been a remarkable year of social change.

Of the most inspiring of those alliances, the Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles, is forming its first regional branch in West Africa—one of the most socioeconomically and politically fragile regions in the world. A trailblazer in that process was the Malian Convergence Against Land Grabbing (CMAT), a bare-boned movement with razor-sharp political analysis. Today, social movements from 13 West African countries are gathered in the Malian countryside, putting forward the proposals and solutions that they hope will amount to revolutionary gains won by the most marginalized. Movement building is no easy task, yet as seen in Standing Rock and elsewhere it starts with access to and control over natural resources. Below are seven emerging themes from the multi-day strategy session in Mali that are highly applicable elsewhere.

1. Know the issues, meticulously – The Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles, spearheaded by West African peasant movements in consultation with their grassroots base constituencies and transnational allies, held its first action in March of this year: a caravan than mobilized more than 10,000 people across some 2,200 kilometers of the wide-open Sahel in defense of land, water, and seeds. In doing so, the activists involved not only brought visibility to the global fight against the twin challenges of resource grabbing and climate change, but also became intimately familiar with the details at the core of contention. Making stops throughout Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, the convergence visited with, for example, victims of violent land dispossession, and in doing so was able to track regional trends and match them with ‘official’ accounts of various land deals. Research is a powerful weapon.

2. Build solutions, collectively – Even though pulling off a modern-day African caravan is a visible and concrete action, the real work is an ongoing process that takes place behind the scenes. This is what is happening here in Mali at the moment. Prior to gathering with other regional convergence representatives in Nyéléni, an agroecological organizing center outside of the village of Sélingué, Malian peasant movements held a daylong workshop on a new agricultural land law that they see as a direct threat to their rights. The activists painstakingly went through its 49 articles and offered critiques and alternatives. Now in Nyéléni—the very place where the transnational agrarian movement Vía Campesina and its environmental allies outlined the principles of food sovereignty (2007), issues related to land grabbing (2011), and agroecology (2015)—the convergence is plotting its next steps in breaking down old and new forms of enclosure. And they are clear that it starts with protecting land, water, and seeds.

3. Look inward – The adage ‘act locally, think globally’ is a good one. Put another way, struggles and solutions are highly internalized processes. While intergovernmental organizations, states, and corporations impose projects and programs with little regard for the unique diversity of a given space or place, those living there know it intimately. Solutions that work, of course, can be multiplied through learning exchanges and other grassroots mechanisms. Peasant organizations regularly exchange seeds, where, for example, farmers from the northern deserts that give way to the Sahara share hearty drought-resistant varieties with peasants in climate-affected areas in which once-adequate rainfall has nearly stopped. It is a political act of resistance to the GMO seeds that are routinely dumped on West Africa from abroad. Indigenous knowledge is power.

4. Reach outward – As its name suggests, the Global Convergence for Land and Water Struggles is intended to reach far beyond West Africa—even if its priorities remain unapologetically in the region at this time. Social justice movements at the transnational level are sometimes isolated from one another, even if their members share similar class and identity politics. So rather than reinventing the wheel, the new convergence is committed to working within vast networks and contributing to a movement of movements. The issues that tear apart social structures and ecosystems—capital accumulation and notions of empire—are deeply interconnected at the global level, so the resistance must be as well.

5. Use frameworks that push the system – This is where charity can miss the point; the roads of Mali are literally littered with good intentions. From dried out water tanks provided by foreign governments to boarded-up microcredit booths funded by the most well-meaning NGOs, many projects have done nothing to challenge the systemic nature of inequality—but social movements are filling that gap. They are doing so, in part, by framing their struggles and political proposals in accordance with radical ideology. The Global Convergence for Land and Water Struggles is no exception, making claims for land, water, and territory, as well as food sovereignty through agroecology, and insisting upon system change. These frameworks represent cutting-edge political opportunities.

6. Navigate channels of governance access – The current waves of governance trends sweeping Europe and North America are hardly new to Global South activists who have been working in the trenches under colonial structures, or likewise under oppressive experiments in privatization and nationalism (think of Pinochet’s Chile or Suharto’s Indonesia). The West Africans have seen their share of business-minded bullies as well. Although the state is a laudable political target, global governance structures and institutions have shifted its overall relevance and power. In this vein, activists have three channels through which they are able to challenge policy. First, they can do it the old-fashioned way and pressure their own governments to implement policy. Second, they can demand that their states interact with global governance to legislate policy. And third, they can supersede the state and work directly with governance institutions. All three channels are simultaneously needed where resources, and those who guard them, are increasingly hunted.

7. Take it to the streets – Any of the previous forms of collective action is incomplete without the complementary tactic of nonviolent and calculated political action where possible. Popular protest for redistribution and recognition is an often-underestimated tool that has brought down governments and corporations while cutting off destructive policy at the knees. Slacktivism will not do that job. A highlight of the Global Convergence of the Land and Water Struggle’s caravan was a demonstration in Bamako, Mali where more than 1,500 locals joined the regional delegates in denouncing resource grabbing. Just a few days later across the border in Kaolack, Senegal, the convergence did it again—attracting upwards of 1,000 people to their cause and marching some three kilometers under an unforgiving sun. And this is merely one component of the nascent movement’s action plan that is cautiously optimistic about fostering political revolution in West Africa and beyond.