Burkina Faso’s Printemps Noir: A Black Spring or a fizzle?

When protesters in Burkina Faso’s capital last Thursday burned the parliament to the ground and forced President Compaoré’s resignation the following day, some there and in other sub-Saharan African nations immediately dubbed the uprising the “Black Spring,” in comparison to the ethnically-labeled Arab Spring of North Africa and the Middle East. They were hoping that Black Africans would have their own moment to try to throw out dictators in a big wave.

Francophone (French-speaking) Twitter was flooded with the phrase “printemps noir” — literally “Black Springtime” — used alongside and in comparison to “printemps arabe,” the French term for the Arab Spring uprising that kicked off in Tunisia in December 2010. Tunisia, like Burkina Faso, was formerly part of the French colonial system, and Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali rose to power in November 1987 just weeks after Blaise Compaoré seized power in Burkina Faso, so the comparisons are natural.

Moreover, there are a number of other sub-Saharan African leaders (see map at bottom) who have been in office either nearly as long or significantly longer, who might be vulnerable to a domino effect like that seen in North Africa, while others with authoritarian leanings from the post-Cold War period who might be looking to extend their rule unconstitutionally or excessively. In the latter category, Rwanda, DR Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, etc. In the former, Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been president since 1982 (and remains entrenched despite recent mounting spillover chaos from the Nigeria insurrection); in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s two “1979 Presidents” (now the world’s longest-serving non-monarch leaders) has passed the 35 year mark and shows no sign of stopping; Uganda; Zimbabwe; etc.

In sum, Reuters reports:

[…] several “Big Men” rulers are approaching the end of their mandates amid concerns that they may try to cling to power by changing their countries’ laws.

Particularly in West Africa, some opposition supporters believe they can thwart such ambitions in the same way that Arabs in North Africa forced out the rulers of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

But how likely is that really? For one thing, it’s still not clear yet that Burkina Faso will successfully move from a military-led “transition” government currently in power toward democratic, civilian rule.

For another, it’s distinctly possible that this is an outlier that won’t be replicated domino-style, as in North Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, Burkina Faso isn’t all that similar to other countries that might appear to be primed for mass uprisings:

The poor, cotton-producing state south of the Sahara desert already had a tradition of street protest and military-supported social uprisings. Marxist military captain Thomas Sankara led a popular revolution in 1983 inspired by Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba in the late 1950s.
However, they face more firmly entrenched rulers and elites than did the protesters in Burkina Faso. Crucial to the success of Compaore’s overthrow was army sympathy with the disgruntled masses, following a 2011 military revolt over unpaid bonuses.
By contrast, presidents of wealthy oil-producing states, such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos or Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema [both 35 years in power], can use state resources to grease the wheels of political patronage and invest in the loyalty of their military hierarchies.

Plus, they have the added advantage of seeing this coming from farther off, in part by having watched the missteps and failed suppression of the Arab Spring uprisings in some countries — as well as the far more “successful” suppression or avoidance tactics employed by some of the rulers of potential Arab Spring countries, such as the Kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan.

On the other hand, sometimes these things have a habit of getting away from you and beating expectations:

But veteran leaders cannot underestimate their increasingly vocal young urban populations. Millions of youngsters are coming onto the labour market and if their hunger for jobs, equality and a greater political say is not met, this could be a demographic time bomb for those who are reluctant to go.

After all, most observers (me included, to be sure) didn’t expect the Tunisian revolution’s example to explode so quickly and strongly into Libya, Egypt, or Yemen — and result in the collapse of their strongmen.

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré's 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré’s 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

Tunisia’s paradox

Flag-of-TunisiaTunisia — by comparison to the rest of the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, or Syria — is essentially still the gold standard by leaps and bounds. There’s a moderate government, a fairly liberal constitution, elections were held and are about to be held again, there hasn’t been a coup d’état, there’s no major insurgency, and there’s no civil war.

But on the ground, in non-comparative terms, the picture is a little darker. The irony of the situation in Tunisia, in sum, is that they’ve gotten just enough freedom to be able to recruit for extremism but not enough freedom (and jobs, etc.) to stop a lot of people from being so angry that they want to join extremist causes.

The economic prospects remain about as dire as they were when a popular uprising over joblessness in December 2010 set the rest of the chain in motion, and the new government still hasn’t really managed to rein in the old regime’s extremely abusive police force (whose actions toward one street vendor sparked that uprising in the first place). Resentment is still very high, but the exploitative recruiters from fanatical ideologies now have the ability to recruit more openly than they did under the previous system.

And so it is, as the New York Times reports this week, that Tunisia has become a major source of fighters (and administrators) for the so-called “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and western Iraq, even as most Tunisians disapprove of the extremists.

While religious zealotry is certainly involved, the bigger factor still appears to be a deep-seated anger at the fundamentally unequal economic system of Tunisia, at the cruel security forces maintaining street-level control of people’s lives despite the revolution, and at everyone in the West who helped prop up the regime for decades. They hope to establish an economically fairer, utopian settler state and make new lives for themselves there, and they won’t be dissuaded by inconvenient truths about the realities of ISIS, because their own realities at home are bleak too.

Here’s a snippet from the Times report:

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said.
Imen Triki, a lawyer at a nonprofit that has represented more than 70 returning Tunisians, described the thinking of many young ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis: “If I am going to get arrested and beaten here anyway, I might as well go where I can have an impact.”
Indeed, in dozens of conversations with young Tunisians, almost no one, whether sympathizers or critics, believed the news reports of the Islamic State’s mass killings or beheadings. “It is made up,” echoed Amar Msalmi, 28, a taxi driver. “All of this is manufactured in the West.”

The ruling party, which is moderate Islamist, has pledged to take a harder line against extremist recruitment but argues that the problem will only really be solved by turning the economy around and making serious progress in improving the lives of average citizens.

AFD 71 – Return to No-Ethics Land

Latest Episode:
“AFD 71 – Return to No-Ethics Land”

Half Episode due to UD Athletics: An update on the ethics scandal discussion in Ep 50. Michael from Pound 4 Pound Boxing Report talks about the latest Fox News ignorance. Tunisia gets a new constitution.

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Tunisia still setting regional example

Flag-of-TunisiaAmong the Arab Spring countries, Tunisia was not only the first to get the ball rolling but has also made the most sustained progress toward a durable liberal democracy, with majority rule and minority rights.

Nearly every other Arab Spring nation has regressed severely. For example, Egypt today marked its 3rd anniversary of the January 25 Protests that led to the fall of their dictator by celebrating and lauding … their new dictator. Neighboring Libya also still seems to be making progress, very slowly, but is pretty chaotic. Syria is mired in bitter civil war and the other countries generally suppressed their protests.

In contrast, Tunisian politicians have met their country’s bumps and protests with negotiations and compromise, again and again, thus avoiding disorder and civil war.

The leading, moderate Islamist party was amenable to compromise after last July’s Egypt coup showed them a much darker alternative, and the secular opposition parties were largely also very reasonable in negotiations. When a key opposition figure was assassinated last year, everyone managed to walk back from the brink of chaos and went back to working out their differences.

Yesterday, that resulted in parliament agreeing on a new constitution that exceeded expectations all around. A formal vote within parliament is scheduled for Sunday and it could enter force next week.

It’s still going to be a challenging road ahead but Tunisia is getting a new constitution that seems pretty well balanced and includes some really impressive provisions. Here’s a BBC analysis of the new document by Naveena Kottoor:

The majority of the members of the Tunisian constituent assembly are very keen to stress that this constitution is a consensus document, that reflects the unity as well as the diversity of the country.

Confronted with political stalemate and protests on the domestic front and the removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt last year, the governing Islamist Ennahdha party agreed to a number of concessions, including the removal of references to Islamic law.

The final text states that Islam is the religion of the Tunisian state, but guarantees religious freedom.

Article 45 puts a burden on the state to protect women against violence and ensure equal representation of men and women in elected institutions, a milestone in the Arab world.

But whether this new constitution will indeed pave the way for more democracy, transparency and accountability will depend on whether the principles enshrined in the text will be respected by Tunisian politicians and be put into practice in the coming months and years.

Tunisia is setting an example for the Middle East & North Africa region that there is another course and that societies with big differences can still come together and talk it out until there’s a solution that works for everyone.