What do Opposition Protests mean for the Democratization Process in Africa?

On March 20, 2023, Africa witnessed a wave of opposition protests in Kenya, South Africa, the Gambia, Senegal and Tunisia among other countries. In Guinea, the coalition of civil society groups cancelled the protest in Conakry which has now been planned for March 20, 2023.

This begs a number of questions including whether it is by coincidence, or a wave that might sweep across Africa. If yes, what does it depict about the democratization process on the continent? Are these protests being used by the opposition leaders to gain political capital ahead of the next elections? What explains these protests?

In Kenya, opposition leader Raila Amolo Odinga of the Azimio la Umoja political coalition, announced March 20, 2023 as the beginning of protests to ‘resist’ what he calls a high cost of living which he blames on government lethargy. Raila’s ultimate aim is to get a million Kenyans match into state house and dethrone current president William Ruto.

In South Africa, the leftwing opposition leader, Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Party, launched strikes and rallies under heavy security on March 20, 2023 in a bid to force out President Cyril Ramaphosa over his handling of the country’s sickly economy and crippling energy crisis. Malema is also decrying the high unemployment rates amongst the youth and the extended electricity shortages.

In Tunisia, protesters are criticizing the “coup-like” actions of President Kais Saied who in 2021 shut down the elected parliament and replaced the government before moving to rule by decree and rewriting the constitution. Saied was elected in 2019, and has denied mounting a coup, saying his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of chaos, and has denounced his opponents as traitors, criminals and terrorists.

In Senegal, protesters are irked by the deliberate move of incumbent President, Macky Sall of eyeing a third term in office ahead of the 2024 elections. Protestors are also calling for the release of journalist Pape Ndiaye of the privately owned media house Walf TV who was arrested on March 3, 2023 and remains imprisoned while awaiting trial. Ndiaye’s arrest and imprisonment followed comments he made on a controversial court case involving public figure, politician and presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko.

Though Senegal has traditionally been considered as having a relatively strong democracy and protections for press freedom in West Africa, a recent series of arrests and attacks on journalists have called that into question.

In Gambia, the political opposition is riled by the runaway corruption and pilferage of public resources what is derailing the country’s economic recovery. Several corruption allegations have reported about government institutions and other local government councils.

In Guinea, protesters are denouncing the ongoing transition period, demand the liberation of imprisoned FNDC members, and the immediate lifting of a ban on demonstrations. The Coalition of civil society groups which is championing this protest, postponed it but has not ruled it out.

This wave of opposition and citizen protests point to the fact democratic deficits that must be addressed in Africa. Perhaps this can also be a conversation at the second Summit for Democracy convening in Lusaka, Zambia on March 29-30, 2023.

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