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By Dibussi Tande  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011.

In a recent article on why the streets in sub-Saharan Africa have remained silent while massive anti-regime protests rock North Africa, the Christian Science Monitor posits that this is due to weak civil society organizations:

“Regime change is common in Africa, but it tends to come from the barrel of a gun and not because of street demonstrations, says Achille Mbembe, an historian at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. This means there are few organizations with the power to challenge the authority of rulers, to organize dissenters, and to articulate alternative ideas of government that ordinary people would be willing to give their lives for.                             

“Civil society organizations are often weak because they are divided along ethnic lines, and many nongovernmental organizations are simply revenue-generating activities, so they are not very helpful in building the values of a deep civil society,” says Mr. Mbembe".

Mbembe is correct about the absence of viable CSOs in most of sub-Saharan Africa that can to take control of, and organize sustained mass protest movements. However, this only partially explains the inability to ovethrow dictatorial regimes through street protests. The fact that street demonstrations don’t generally result in regime change in Sub-Saharan Africa is due in large part to the role of the military than anything else.

Tunisia is a good example. Even though the country has an impressive middle class, the ben Ali regime had over the years systematically dismantled or marginalized those civil society organizations that could threaten the regime. Which explains why the protests that culminated in the "Jasmine Revolution" were led by disaffected youth operating at the margins of (civil) society. And the regime’s surprising collapse in less than a month was not so much due to street pressure but primarily because Ben Ali lost the support of the Tunisian army. As one report points out,

"The Tunisian military played an important role in the victory of the revolution by taking on the elements of the secret police and presidential guard that were still loyal to Ben Ali. These forces were engaged in sabotage and looting. They attempted to occupy such practically and symbolically important sites as the presidential palace, but were pushed out by the military. Reports indicate that neighborhood militias in small towns have worked with the regular army against Ben Ali loyalists.”

The Case of Cameroon

A good example is Cameroon where opposition forces calling for a sovereign national conference organized the six-month long Ghost town campaign in 1991 which included daily mamoth street protests that paralyzed most of the country and severely damaged the country’s economic fabric. The protest movement eventually fizzled out thanks in large part to the army’s unflinching support for the Biya regime.

In his 1993 study of military regimes and democratic transitions in Africa [« Régimes militaires et transition démocratique en Afrique : à la recherche d'un cadre d'analyse théorique »], Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, who incidentally became Paul Biya’s Minister of Communications and regime spokesperson in 2004, remarked that:

la problematique de la transition democratique en Afrique noire se pose donc pour l'armee de son maintien au pouvoir en termes de couts-avantages. Quel est le cout pour l'armee de son maintien au pouvoir?. Quel est le cout d'un eventuel retrait dans les casernes? Quels advantages le desengagement de la scene politque et la democratisation du systeme procurent-ils a l'armee? Cette serie de questions, et plus particulierement la derniere indiquent clairement les enjeux de la transition democratique pour les militaires jaloux de leurs prerogatives. Le Cameroun peut tres bien s'inscrire dans ce schema. La confrontation des enjeux et des risques du non-soutien permet de determiner, voire de predire l'attitude des militaires a l'egard de la dynamique democratique.

Loosely translated:
“The army views the issue of democratic transitions in Africa in terms of cost-benefits. What would it cost the army to stay in power? What would be the cost of an eventual retreat to the barracks? What will the army gain by disengaging from the politics and [allowing] the democratization of the political scene? This series of questions, particularly the last one, clearly indicates what the stakes of democratic transition are for soldiers eager to preserve their prerogatives. Cameroon may well fall within this framework. The balance between what is at stake and risks of non-support allows us to determine, or even predict, the attitude of the military towards democratization.”

During the 1991 ghost town campaign, military concluded after its cost-benefit analysis that its privileges were better protected under the Biya regime than in a nouveau regime that might strip it of these privileges. The military top brass therefore successfully made the case that a sovereign national conference was a civil coup d’état that would not be tolerated. As Major General Pierre Semengue, head of the Cameroonian Armed Forces, recalls in his memoirs,

“I will confess to you today that if the national conference had actually taken place, there would have been a military coup d’état. What do you expect? One coup d’état for another. I made everyone understand this back then. The army has the weapons. Who would have been able to challenge the military takeover? Fortunately, the President settled the issue by declaring the sovereign national conference ‘pointless.’”

Believing that the opposition was a threat to its corporate interests, the military therefore played an active role in the unprecedented repression of the leaders, members and supporters of the Cameroon opposition, and went as far as effectively taking over control of seven of the 10 provinces of the country with the establishment of the

Commandements opérationnels.

With the Biya regime assured of the military’s unalloyed support, the president was able to confidently adopt a stalling strategy referred to in French as “la politique de pourrissement” (loosely translated as  “the policy of decay”) whereby regime allows the political situation to “rot”,  in the face of mounting street protests, with the expectation that those who have taken to the streets will ultimately be worn down or beaten into submission by repression and the government’s intransigence, or that the population tired of the chaos will turn against the activists.

Under this scenario, the regime in power hopes to eventually weather the storm by using divide and rule tactics, propaganda, particularly through state media, the threat or fear of chaos, and the repressive machinery of the state. This strategy worked in Cameroon in 1991 and 2008, and former President Mubarak tried to use it in his attempt to crush the Egyptian revolution.

Thus, while a viable civil society is critical and even indispensable in harnessing, organizing and channeling popular discontent towards regime change, the success of this venture is largely dependent on what the army decides to do or not do based on its corporate interests. The army therefore remains the linchpin in (un)successful transitions in Africa and/or (un)successful regime change through mass protest as in Tunisia.

With most military in sub-Saharan Africa beholden to, and benefitting excessively from autocratic regimes in power, it is unlikely the Africans south of the Sahara will smell the sweet scent of the Tunisian or the Egyptian Jasmine anytime soon.

Dibussi Tande is a Cameroonian journalist and writer. He blogs at Dibussi.


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