When, If Ever, Will We See an "African Spring"?

In 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in front of a government building, protesting the unjust confiscation of his produce cart and, on a broader scale, the rampant political oppression and corruption in Tunisia. Shortly thereafter, 22-year president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled the country.

In 2014, Burkinabé protesters set fire to a government building (the National Assembly), protesting the unjust amendments to the constitution to abolish term limits, and, on a broader scale, the rampant political oppression and corruption in Burkina Faso. Shortly thereafter, 27-year president Blaise Compaoré resigned and fled the country.


There are more parallels between the historic Arab Spring and the current sociopolitical state of Sub-Saharan Africa than an apparent shared affinity for arson. Aside from the obvious frequent similarity of despotic and unconstitutionally long-tenured dictators at the helm, both the Arab world at the start of the Arab Spring and current Sub-Saharan African nations share the traits of 1) a very young population, 2) an increasing exposure to the Internet and social media, and 3) a clear desire for financial stability. Such similarities beg the question: is the stage set for an "African Spring"?

Since Burkina Faso's revolution in October 2014, violent protests in Kinshasa and Burundi, a failed coup attempt in The Gambia, and religious conflicts in Nigeria and the Central African Republic have shaken the continent. Additionally, the ostensible failure of several West African governments to successfully prevent or fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak has seemingly exposed the many shortcomings of a fundamentally corrupt and inept system of government, unsettlingly commonplace across the continent. It certainly appears that there is justification for discontent to be brewing, whether due to economic troubles, social inequalities, or the fact that there are currently 17 African heads of state who have ruled for over a decade.

However, more is required than just discontent to spark a revolution, not to mention a chain of revolutions on par with the Arab Spring. For one, the correct demographics are needed, and by many means does Africa fit the bill. Modern revolutions are almost exclusively carried out by the young. The median age in Africa, the world's youngest region by far, is just 18.6 years (some nations, such as Uganda and Niger, even dip into the 15's). The median age in Yemen in 2010? Also 18.6 years. Similarly, though generally older, around 20% of the populations of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were aged 15-24 at the start of the Arab Spring, substantial enough to usher in the movements which occurred.

Additionally, knowledge of prior revolutions, exposure to a variety of opinions, and a presence on the Internet and social media play huge roles in fomenting popular movements for change in the modern world. This is an area requiring improvement for many African populaces, as coverage and knowledge of the events of the Arab Spring remain limited in Sub-Saharan Africa. When asked by a 2014 Gallup poll how closely they had followed the events, only 6% of respondents from 29 African nations answered "very closely", while a whopping 70% said they had not followed the events "closely at all". That said, however, there are prospects for change; Burkina Faso, the nation with the most recent successful coup, led the way by a mile in terms of cognizance of the Arab Spring, with a whole 45% of citizens following the events "very closely". Other nations in which there is at least some reason for discontent (Cameroon, Mauritania, Senegal) followed Burkina Faso in the rankings, as well as some nations (Gabon, Niger) that actually experienced coup attempts take place in the wake of the Arab Spring.

It is evident that there is at least a relative interest in revolution in these Sub-Saharan nations, but in which light do their citizens actually view the events of the Arab Spring? Overwhelmingly, the same Gallup poll points to a resoundingly negative view of the Arab Spring developments. Out of 26 Sub-Saharan African nations polled, only 6 had more respondents claim that the Arab Spring developments were positive for their country than negative. In fact in some countries like Sierra Leone and Madagascar (which experienced its own coup attempt in 2010), the "approval rate" of the Arab Spring dips as low as 7%. This negativity can probably be attributed to the disastrous post-Arab Spring developments like the Syrian Civil War and the instability in Mali. However, this information, gathered before the successful ousting of President Compaoré in Burkina Faso, records that Burkinabé opinion was originally overwhelming negative in regards to the developments of the Arab Spring. It's interesting to take that into consideration when you realize that just a short time later, hundreds of Burkinabé were in the streets undertaking the most recent successful revolution in Africa, which would later inspire similar protests currently occurring in Burundi.

Another crucial development in Africa's potential for revolution is the rapidly expanding connection to mobile technology and social media. A separate 2014 Gallup poll recorded that 65% of Sub-Saharan households own at least one mobile phone, and, most important, the rate of growth in this are continues to increase. Singling in once more on Burkina Faso, the nation led the continent with a median annual growth of a whopping 9% in terms of households owning a mobile phone. Out of 23 African nations, only South Africa's mobile growth has slowed since 2008 (and, even then, just by 1%). In Mauritania, 96% of households have at least one mobile phone, and the mobile market there is growing at an annual rate of 5%, while Zimbabwe has leaped from just 26% of households in 2008 to an entire 80% now (the same rate as Burkina Faso). Critically as well, while the majority of mobile phones remain in wealthier urban househoulds, mobile growth among rural househoulds (which comprise 20% of the African population) and the poorest househoulds has exploded. Currently, 55% of even the poorest 20% of households own a mobile phone, and the next poorest 20% have juped 28% since 2008. Rural households have jumped from 43% to 63% over the past 6 years, and the numbers continue to expand. These numbers become especially important when one considers that social media (closely linked with the emergence of mobile phones) played an undeniably influential role in fomenting revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. According to an article by Catherine O'Donnell at Washington.edu based on a study by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam, Twitter and blogs transcended borders, connected like-minded young people together, and raised awareness of the political situation. According to the study, an average of 230,000 tweets came out of Egypt every day talking about political change in the country, while in Tunisia 20% of blogs were evaluating the president's rule during the month before the revolution itself (up from 5% the month before).

So, what is the bottom line; what is the answer to the question posed in this article's title? When will we see an 'African Spring'? Will we ever? It is impossible to definitively say whether a string of revolutions akin to those in 2010 in North Africa and the Middle East will occur, and when, but it is more than rational to look at the quantitative evidence laid out above and realize the parallels between African developments and Arab Spring developments. Do these similarities point to an imminent African Spring? Not necessarily. Have there been revolutions, both successful and unsuccessful, in African nations in the past (even the recent past)? Of course there have. One thing can be said for certain, though: it is in the hands of African citizens, who recognize the undeniable power of mobile technology and social media, who strive for greater financial and political stability, and who are frustrated that their political leadership has too often locked them out of the great economic growth the continent could be enjoying, to enact social and political change. Only time will tell if they seize their opportunity, and I hope the world watches with bated breath.