Street Fighting Men?

Whatever else a city might be, it is at the same time a place inhabited by a concentration of poor people and, in most cases, the locus of political power that affects their lives. Historically, one of the things city populations have done about this is to demonstrate, make riots or insurrections, or otherwise exert direct pressure on the authorities…

This quote, again from Hobsbawm’s collection of essays, Revolutionaries, has been at the back of my mind for the last few days. Compared to Europe’s historical habit of urban revolt and revolution (the city of Palermo alone had 12 popular insurrections between 1512 and 1866), Sub-Saharan Africa has actually had relatively few mass urban mobilizations that seriously threatened or achieved regime changes. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few: the ‘IMF Riots’ that brought down Governments in Zambia, Liberia and Sudan in the early 1990s and the unionist insurrection against the Government in Brazzaville in the early 1960s. Of course there is also Zanzibar’s revolution in 1964, though it was not solely an urban phenomenon. Urban struggle against Apartheid was more complex than an insurrection, but clearly counts as well.

There are plenty of demonstrations, though they rarely seriously threaten Governments. There have been military coups, as in Nigeria; some leaders have been deposed by foreign forces or through full-scale civil war; and there have been regimes which have disintegrated into chaos. But the role of the city as a point at which popular rebellion is fomented, carried out and generates new Government is limited. Even independence movements, characterized by urban unrest, found their greatest success through negotiation with colonial powers or guerilla insurgency directed from outside the country altogether. Regime change is common, but rarely popularly-led and powered.

This is surprising for two main reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of Governments in the region that could do with a good shoeing: undemocratic, kleptocratic, violent and morally bankrupt regimes that maintain their hold on power through electoral fraud and intimidation. Secondly, cities in Africa are teeming with huge numbers of unemployed, dissatisfied young males, often with easy access to affordable weapons.

Yet, organized or spontaneous urban insurrection rarely threatens established regimes. Why has this been the case? Are Sub-Saharan African cities less prone to intrigue, or more docile somehow? I don’t think this is the case. There have been violent riots before, such as those in Nairobi in 1982, and more isolated and often smaller demonstrations or riots still occur with moderate regularity. In late 2008 there were a couple in Malawi, both small scale; last year Kampala witnessed some, and there were also demonstrations in Conakry that were met with a violent response from the army.

I also take issue with the common characterization of Africans as infinitely patient, capable of enduring endless suffering with dignity and acceptance. Like anyone else, people in Africa get angry at misgovernment, and they express it. In Swahili, there is a verb ‘to complain’, kulalamika; but people also use a word, dukuduku which can best be translated as a deep-seated, profound grievance. This word is normally used with the verb kutoa, which means to extract or give out, e.g. anatoa dukuduku lake (‘she is giving out her profound grievance’). This apparently minor piece of linguistic evidence has significance: the idea that Africa is a continent of Atlases, holding the weight of the world on their shoulders stoically and silently is at best incorrect.

Rather, there are rather three or four central reasons why mass urban protest rarely shakes Governments. The first two are related: firstly, there is the geographical and physical structure of modern cities; secondly, there is state violence, realized and potential; and thirdly there are the political realities of urban dwellers. Finally, the role of urban centres as political agents has changed. In sum, they have important implications for governance and reform in Africa.

Take geography first. Hobsbawm, writing about European urban revolt, makes the important point that one reason for the decline of Europe’s tendency to urban revolt was the changing geography of the cities. One such change was the rapid expansion of such cities. He describes how London, Berlin and Tokyo are less true towns with unified identities and social movements and more conglomerations that were created out of an amazing sprawl of humanity; such cities are not unified in motivation and in some cases it may not even be apparent until after the fact that one section is in insurrection. This analysis holds for the huge cities of Africa, such as Nairobi. Even in Kampala during last year’s riots, this characteristic was evident. A friend of mine works there, and her Facebook status on the day was ‘____ is stuck in traffic. Apparently there are mini-riots somewhere in Kampala’. It was amended later in the day to reflect the true situation, after the BBC’s website informed her of what had happened in her very city.

The other issue he raised was the redesign of major cities such as Paris and Vienna after 1848 to better protect their centres of political power. This was achieved firstly by widening roads and access points to allow military protection; secondly by dividing and isolating the traditional centres of revolt, the slums and radical sectors; and thirdly by isolating the obvious meeting and demonstration spaces from real sources of power and control. This was achieved more successfully in some places than others.

This kind of structure is evident in many new African capital cities, common because it makes popular mobilization far more difficult. The capital of Malawi, Lilongwe, is a great example. There are a few areas housing the urban poor, the largest being Kawale. They are rigourously separated from each other, and from the centres of power. What this means is that any potential rising is confronted with the problem that it must be actively organized in two, even three places at once to achieve critical mass; and these groups must converge over long distances without being dispersed. What’s more, the centres of political power are particularly difficult to access. Parliament is in the New Town, surrounded by the comfortable middle class suburbs and well insulated from the slums. While motorized transport can move protests to Parliament, it is virtually impossible to access State House, isolated at the end of straight stretch of wide road several kilometres long, if any organised defence is made at all. Even access to Parliament must be qualified: it is a totally symbolic target. To actually harm the Government’s ability to govern, local authorities, communications and the head of state are far more important than the Parliament building.

Both of these points serve to reinforce state violence. The dispersal of the urban poor most likely to riot only emphasises the superior access to efficient violence that most states have. Similarly, the geographical protection of political and bureaucratic institutions means that state violence in their defence is more easily focused, especially given that police and army barracks are built with easy access to town centres.

Geography and state violence can explain why urban risings are rarely successful, but cannot explain why they are not more common. Risings occur for political and social reasons, often without regard for the odds of success. We must then consider political reasons for constrained urban direct action. John Iliffe addresses these in Africans:

In normal circumstances, the urban poor, while resenting corruption and the gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ were too vulnerable, divided, dependent on patronage, committed to rural values, and aware of recent social mobility to challenge their rulers openly.

There are several important points here. One which resonates with me immediately is Iliffe’s careful use of ‘openly’. One of the most interesting responses I’ve had to my question of why dissent about the electricity situation here seems absent was ‘tunalalamika, lakini vichochoroni’, literally ‘we are complaining, but in the backstreets’, i.e. in public spaces that are not open. Dissent that is too open runs several risks for the urban poor in many countries: firstly of violent retribution, though this is not totally prohibitive to demonstration; more importantly, there is the risk of upsetting a political balance that provides patronage for some members of the poor, and gives them what little they do have. There is also the knowledge that social mobility is rapid: it may occur in one generation or two. This provides a powerful anchor for the status quo, no matter how unfair it can seem until that mobility is realized.

A final point to make is that urban direct action now plays a different role than to directly effect regime change internationally. Revolutionary protest has given way to demonstrative protest: instead of aiming to topple the Government, protest seeks to make clear what the population will tolerate and what it finds intolerable in its leaders. In a world of mass communication this is not simply an internal process either. Protest is equally designed to stimulate international comment and pressure. Iran’s Twitter-protests appeared to have this aim in part.

Taken together, these arguments go some way towards explaining why popular demonstrations remain common, but genuine threats to the Government are infrequent.

This has an important impact on governance. In the absence of any credible domestic popular threat to the Government, the worst excesses of bad governance in non-democratic countries are given free rein. Minor demonstrations can be accepted. Hobsbawm wrote about London riots in the 18th Century: ‘nothing was at stake except a certain amount of property…[so] the general view among the upper classes was phlegmatic…’ and this is probably also true of ruling classes today. If the popular demonstration is devoid of even the potential for real threat to Government, a Government inclined towards bad behaviour faces only two credible threats: coups and external interference. Coups often replace bad Government with marginally better Government or significantly worse Government. External pressure is patchy at best. As Matt pointed out, if you produce a paltry amount of oil, even the toughest talking President will smile and shake your hand, and as long as you aren’t invading other countries or obviously training terrorists you won’t be subject to military intervention. And aid sanctions are generally of dubious effectiveness.

So what do we do? Donors are increasingly looking at ways of stimulating ‘demand-side’ accountability, but the effectiveness of this absent a credible threat associated with it is likely to be negligible. No real policy recommendation leaps out from this discussion. As with a lot of issues concerned with development, a better understanding doesn’t always bring us appreciably closer to a concrete solution.

2 thoughts on “Street Fighting Men?

  1. Stanley

    January 8, 2010 at 4:27pm

    Really interesting post.

    Relating the lack of pressure being able to be exerted by people in poorer urban areas due to the city plans, is something I’ve been thinking of as well. For instance, the recent ‘revolution’ in Ukraine where the demonstrators were able to mobilize with mobile phone text messages, I can’t see that happening any time soon, some countries restrict the traffic to maintain power. Similar in Iran, the use of twitter to bypass the security forces and city plans.

    In some of the Southern African countries I have lived in, the legacy of colonialism is that there is a clear divide, high density areas where many stay, then the city, then the low density areas. With all the poor people in one sector, it is so much easier to contain that threat and quell it, whereas you mention in Europe, there are mostly conurbations that make up the whole city, a big divide from Southern African cities.

    As they say, the dynamics of development are simple but extremely complex!

  2. black magic

    January 12, 2010 at 9:31pm

    First, congrats on the refreshing post and blog. You’ve captured the gist of Fanon’s argument in the Wretched of the Earth on the non-revolutionary tendencies of the urban poor.

    My experience with the urban poor is that psychologically they are more in awe of the riches surrounding them but out of their grip than with the injustice of the situation. As Steve Biko put it, the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

    With this is in mind one understands why revolutionary change is too big a burden for the poor and has historically fallen on the middle class. Africa’s middle class however, new as it is in reaping the benefits of the system, largely believes that whatever is wrong can be reformed. Revolutionary change will happen when a critical mass of the middle class thinks of more than the petty accumulation of property.

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