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.