For bloggers, like myself, who focus on human rights, there has never been a more exciting period to write. This world seems to be leaping towards liberty faster than anyone could have anticipated. In an this revolutionary sweep nicknamed “Jasmine”, once mighty dictators, from Cairo to Kigali are beginning to crumble—or at least show major fault lines.
In what will go down in history as the one of the greatest demonstration of human courage, protesters armed with an unquenchable desire for democracy have paralyzed autocratic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa. Protestors have successfully dislodged two horrendous regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, while a third in Libya teeters on the brink. Most astonishingly, is that it all started with a young vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose act of self immolation sparked the uprisings and the subsequent freedom for millions of people.
As we get caught up with jubilant euphoria, which I admit it hard to tame, it is perhaps time to reflect on what this will mean for the rest of Africa, more so the Sub-Saharan region. Many in the media have cast serious doubt on the possibility that the Jasmine revolution will spread to Sub-Saharan Africa. They argue that the Sub-Saharan part of Africa is too ethnically divided, too technologically backwards, to launch a united front against cruel despots. Indeed, just a week ago, Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa quoted Emmanuel Kisangani, a senior researcher at the African Conflict Prevention Programme saying that, “"In most of the countries that have had fairly 'successful riots' the societies are fairly homogeneous compared to sub-Saharan Africa where there are a multiplicity of ethnic groups that are themselves very polarized. In sub-Saharan Africa, where governments have been able to divide people along ethnic-political lines, it becomes easier to hijack an uprising because of ethnic differences, unlike in North Africa."
Elsewhere, in yet another skeptical prediction, Geoffrey York of Canada’s Mail and Globe, wrote that “Technology is another factor: Internet access is still relatively low in most of Africa, making it harder to organize protest. And the ethnic and religious rifts in many African countries are a huge obstacle to the organization of national protests.”
Yet history has shown that sub-Saharan Africa is not foreign to popular uprisings. The region has seen more wars fought, protests formed, than any other region in the past century. Just to mention one vivid example: in 1978, as many as 7,000 young students of South Africa abandoned their segregated townships to protest against the kings of apartheid in Johannesburg. The regime, known for its immoderate use of terror responded by shooting indiscriminately into the crowds, killing at least 60 of them with thousands more injured. The international community responded favorably to the demands of the people and protests around the world were formed in solidarity with the black South Africans.
To change what Essa crudely (and perhaps insensitively) referred to as “the darkest of Africa” the world must accept that Africans do not lack the initiative to bring about political reform. Nor are they indifferent to democratic aspirations. The problem is that the pro-democratic reform movement has often been completely ignored by the entire apparatus of western policy makers and media practitioners. While Africa may be ready for democratic transition, it is unclear whether the west is willing or ready to accept this.
Gabon is the perfect example of this global neglect. With an over abundance of oil and a small population that gives it a GDP on par with most middle income countries, Gabon should be an African success story. Yet, according to the U.S. State Department, “The richest 20% of the population receive over 90% of the income while about a third of all Gabonese live in poverty”. Even worse, the oil giant has less than 27 doctors for 100,000 people. The level of unemployment would make Egypt or Tunisia a paradise to be coveted.
Gabon is ruled by Ali Bongo, a young kleptocrat who succeeded his father after a barbaric rule spanning 40 years. Their family dynasty is believed to be supported by the French government whose oil companies continue to satisfy the unrelenting demand back home. A democratic Gabon, they suspect, might not be “good” for business.
Since the 26th of January, protests started in Gabon first among university students who were protesting the failure of the government to pay their stipends. A former presidential candidate, André Mba Obame, who is regarded by many as the probable winner of the 2009 election, took an oath declaring himself the legitimate president. Since then, protesters have been running endless battlers with the country’s ruthless police—which is staunchly pro-Bongo. There have been similar protests and talk of revolution in Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mauritania, Burkinafaso, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, and Rwanda.
Unfortunately, the international media has paid little, if any, attention to the Gabonese crisis. The lack of Anderson Cooper, Nicholas Kristof, or Aljazeera in the sub-Saharan region, prevents the Sub-Saharan African story from being told. And without such news penetrating the western media, it is almost impossible, for western leaders to act.
Many of us are optimistic about Africa’s future. But before we reach the promised land of freedom, the media must stop ignoring the people of Africa. The same applies to the governments of western countries.