As the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to convulse with political change, contagion in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been conspicuously absent. The region has its fair share of rulers-for-life, but none has to date hinted at granting concessions similar to what is being offered by the leaders of MENA, in an attempt to appease their political opponents. Given the number of highly indebted poor countries in SSA, the region would appear ripe for similar uprisings, yet meaningful protests have only erupted in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon and Zimbabwe.

In the days and weeks following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, 45 social justice activists were arrested and charged with treason in Zimbabwe. Their crime was having viewed video footage of events in Egypt and Tunisia, and trying to organize similar protests. In Gabon, more than 20 protestors were injured as demonstrators were met with rubber bullets and tear gas from riot police in a mass rally. Since then the UN accused the Bongo government of numerous abuses amidst fears that the protests will turn into a wider social conflict. In Cameroon the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that three people were killed and more than 100 arrested over the past month. In Burkina Faso, six deaths and the torching of public buildings followed riots over the death of a student in police custody, which prompted the government to close all six universities in the country. In all these cases the protest movements failed to attract broad-based popular support, so many of SSA’s long-time dictators have not been tested by a wave of popular anger. Are we likely to see mass protests soon, and if not, why not?

Not so different south of the Sahara

Both regions have leaders who have remained in power for decades and become accustomed to abusing power without opposition. While North Africa’s longest serving leaders have been in power ranging from 22 to 40 years, eight countries south of the Sahara have leaders who have been in power for 17 years or more: Equatorial Guinea (32), Angola (32), Zimbabwe (31), Cameroon (31), Uganda (25), Burkina Faso (24), the Gambia (18) and Rwanda (17). In addition, Congo-Brazzaville’s President Sassou Nguesso has been in power for 27 of the last 32 years, and Gabon’s Omar Bongo and his son have ruled since 1967 (44 years).

Many of the statistics regarding health and welfare of citizens in SSA are more severe than those in MENA, and many of the longest-standing regimes in both regions are among the world’s most repressive. The regions also share rampant unemployment and high levels of poverty and corruption. Table 1 below compares levels of unemployment and corruption among states in both regions:

Country GDP per capita

(US$, World Bank 2009)

Unemployment Rate (%)


2010 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (World Ranking) Freedom House; Freedom Index 2011
Libya 9,714 30% (2004) 146 Not free
Egypt 2,270 8.4% 98 Not free
Tunisia 3,792 13.3% 59 Not free
Sudan 1,294 18.7% (2002) 172 Not free
Equatorial Guinea 15,397 22.3%2 168 Not free
Angola 4,081 25%3 168 Not free
Zimbabwe 4001 95% 134 Not free
Cameroon 1,136 9.3%4 146 Not free
Burkina Faso 517 77% (2004) 98 Partly free
Gambia 430 6.7%5 91 Partly free
Uganda 490 3.5%6 127 Partly free
Rwanda 506 0.6%7 66 Not free
Congo-Brazzaville 2,601 Not available 154 Not free
Gabon 7,502 21% (2006) 110 Not free
Swaziland 2,533 40% (2006) 91 Not free

Unemployment rate: CIA World Factbook (2010) unless otherwise stated.

1CIA World Factbook 2010 estimate.

2US State Department (2009).

3National Bank of Angola (2007).

4Cameroon National Institute of Statistics (2006).

5Gambia Bureau of Statisitcs (2008).

6World Bank (2004).

7UNCTAD (2003).

Why then have the populations of SSA’s poorest and most repressed states failed to rise up against their rulers? One reason is that they undoubtedly see the instability and chaos that can result. The rapidly deteriorating crisis in the Ivory Coast appears to have focused minds in the region, with the dislocation of 450,000 new refugees and a crippled economy. A quarter of the African Union’s member states either have presidential elections under way, or will have elections in the next 12 months. This represents 41% of the region’s population.1 That so many people expect to be able to choose their next leaders in a relatively short period of time may well have tempered enthusiasm for immediate regime change – even if the electoral process is likely to be flawed or even rigged, as has been the case in the past. No short-term elections are expected in Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, or Angola, where protest movements there have been either relatively muted or non-existent.

A different dynamic

Much of North Africa boasts an ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic homogeneity that contrasts sharply with SSA’s vast diversity, which helps explain why SSA has not seen popular uprisings on the same scale as MENA. A sense of unity and commonality of purpose between protestors of different socioeconomic strata and ideological, religious and political views coupled Islamists side by side with secularists, with Muslims and Christians praying together in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By and large however, most Arab states — and those of North Africa in particular — have relative cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious homogeneity, which cannot be said of most sub-Saharan states. This shared identity has contributed to a greater sense of national identity amongst North Africans that can transcend political boundaries. In comparison, south of the Sahara, where ethnic, religious and cultural differences have contributed to numerous civil and cross-border wars since the 1960s, this common sense of identity is often subordinate to tribal and ethnic loyalties.

A good example of this is the role played by national armies in North Africa. Largely independent of politics and ideology, the armed forces of both Tunisia and Egypt were praised for their independence and restraint during their respective crises. In many nations in SSA, this type of (largely) neutral military is often not present. Militaries are more often than not loyal to the strong man — who is often drawn from the same ethnic group — and not the nation per se. Militaries and indeed police are often seen as sources of instability and violence, rather than protection. Since it is unlikely that the ethnic group of a president would be protesting, soldiers have been known to fire indiscriminately on protestors, as recently happened in the Ivory Coast. The fear of military brutality may also have been augmented by the response of the Gaddafi regime in Libya – something that has been debated by Western governments in relation to their willingness to intervene, but any public discussion of the impact on budding protest movements has been notably absent.

The proximity of the North African revolts to Europe impacted the relative swiftness of responses from European governments, as did the impact of European responses to the unrest among the Tunisian and Egyptian populations, which are more connected to the Continent than their SSA’n counterparts. The familiarity of MENA’s population with social media stands in stark contrast to their southern counterparts, who are much more accustomed to relying on independent voices from the diaspora population living in Europe and the U.S. Such technological constraints have made it difficult for ordinary Africans to calibrate the power of a united and determined people. Higher levels of urbanization also played a role in the success of the MENA movements, with an average of 52% of North Africans living in cities, compared with 37% of citizens of SSA.2

Self Interest Prevails

It is unlikely that any of the small protest movements in SSA will escalate on the scale necessary to force some of the region’s longest serving rulers to step down. If protests do escalate, it is likely that they will be met with violence and repression, given that the West’s failure to intervene in Libya, and is reluctant to put boots on the ground in countries that are neither resource rich nor otherwise strategically important to the West. Doomsday predictions about potential refugee flows should additional North African regimes fall serve to garner attention from potentially impacted governments in Europe, but the West’s greater fear is an exodus of refugees from SSA to Western shores. So the outcome of any spontaneous uprisings in SSA may ultimately depend on the relative importance of the countries to the developed world, either by virtue of their natural resources or strategic positioning. While not a new element in crafting foreign policy among western governments, it is distasteful, coming at a time when the aspirations of millions rides on their perceived importance to people and countries that already have freedom and democracy.


1Statistic compiled by author

2Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision.

*Daniel Wagner is managing director of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut, and also senior advisor to the PRS Group.