It is the story of an African revolution which is captivating young people and damning of what has become unbearable leadership. It is doing so through rap, reggae and R&B, as well as word of mouth, mass media, WhatsApp and all other online social media. This revolution whispers into the ears of those who feel a rising anger, but have decided that the best approach is not to burn cars and tyres, but to take to the streets with hands and arms held high – clearly visible – to proclaim to the political dinosaurs who refuse to give up their seats of power that enough is enough and to get rid of them via the ballot box. The exile of those who torture their own people is a one-way ticket. No return to the political arena is permitted and anyone who tries will have to face an ‘army’ of young people who have made a principle of the rejection of violence, but who are no longer willing to be pushed around.
These young people are the future of Africa. UN statistics indicate that there will be a billion young people under the age of 18 in Africa by 2050. For African youth, the future begins today. It includes those who believe the time has come to channel this anger into launching a challenge based on political awareness, and the desire to enter into politics in order to change the world.
In Senegal, it all began in 2011 with electricity being cut off for the umpteenth time in Dakar. When the lights came back on, the students at Cheick Anta Diop University started to dance as though the national football team had won the African Cup of Nations. Resignation interspersed with brief outbreaks of anger prevailed in the working-class districts. The years of independence are now long gone, and together with them the process of democratisation which has generated only disappointment and frustration since the 1990s. Today, anger is culminating after an “economic revival of the continent of Africa” in the last decade, for which people have been left waiting as if for Godot.
This was an utterly corrupt political-economic system in which ordinary Senegalese citizens counted for nothing. They were clearly on a different planet.
An unprecedented wave of youth protest
A few months after the Tunisian revolution and following the umpteenth electricity cut, four Senegalese looked one another in the eye and said “enough is enough.” You cannot celebrate or remain indifferent to a service which the state should guarantee around the clock. It is time to challenge the spectres of decades of political wrongdoing. The ‘revolutionaries’ started to plan the first steps for mobilising young people. The Senegalese journalist Aliou Sane recounts how it came into being as if it were yesterday. Y’en a marre (‘We’re fed up’ in the Wolof language) emerged in 2011, even though it was in fact the “result of a long process of sedimentation of Senegalese social battles. We did not come out of the blue.”
During these days, the national and international media were covering scandals about President Abdoulaye Wade, a fake believer of African liberalism who promised dreams and miracles to his people only to then spend most of his time filling the bank accounts of family members, friends, religious leaders and politicians, who benefited greatly. “This was an utterly corrupt political-economic system in which ordinary Senegalese citizens counted for nothing. They were clearly on a different planet. However, instead of seeing young people set tyres and buses alight, we persuaded them that the best way to bring about change was to register on electoral rolls.” The movement took shape, campaigned on public buses, in neighbourhoods, on mass and social media, while word of mouth and, above all, social inequality did the rest. “Channelling this anger is the greatest challenge for a movement like ours. The situation can get out of hand in an instant,” explained Sane.
This evening at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, he is accompanied by three other African leaders. The first is Floribert Anzulini, founder of the Filimbi movement (‘whistleblowing’ in Swahili) and coordinator of Front citoyen 2016, the largest group seeking to defend the Congolese constitution, and which President Kabila considers a cheat sheet for political novices. He is seeking to stand again for the third time since 2005. Beside him is Didier Lalaye, a Chadian artist and writer who recently successfully launched a new movement called Iyina and finally, the most charismatic of all, Serge Bambara, also known by his stage name Smockey: the founder of Le Balai citoyen (‘The Citizen’s Broom’) who between making records decided to bring an end to the authoritarian regime of President Burkinabé Blaise Campaoré and contribute to leading the country through a transitional period.
The four leaders were guests of honour at Africa Week, held from 5 to 11 April at the EU Parliament by the S&D Group which has decided to make the continent of Africa an absolute priority in its foreign policy. “In all of our resolutions we are continually denouncing violations of human rights and the freedom of expression,” stated Cecile Kyenge, a member of the S&D Group, which is extremely active on African issues. “In Africa, some people say that these movements are violent, but they are not. This is why the European Parliament, starting with our political group, has decided to support and defend them.”
Maintaining independence and developing the leadership of the future
On the closing evening of the Africa Week, they reiterated to the point of exhaustion that the movements they founded are “citizen-oriented”: belonging to everyone and certainly not to any political party, international donor or even civil society “which we respect but do not want to be part of.” The real breaking point is nevertheless another one, as Smockey explained in his own words: “We have been broken by corrupt and incompetent leaders who have trampled all over our rights. There are many extremely well-connected young people amongst us who know exactly what goes on in the world and understand perfectly well that there is no future in their country.” Thanks to him and his supporters, Burkina Faso can boast a peaceful revolution, which, with the exception of Tunisia, rarely occurs in Africa. There was little interest at first, because people feared it would all end in a bloodbath. “Nobody believed in us in the beginning. In the diplomatic missions where we set out our political project, they looked at us as though we were from another planet. At most, they told us they could not expose themselves too much for diplomatic reasons. The only one to have publicly stated what he thought of the Campaoré regime was the US ambassador. In fact, everyone remembers him today, whilst we have forgotten the others. This is also because we don’t need them. We can bring about change on our own, the Burkinabe in Burkina, the Senegalese in Senegal and the Africans in Africa. We rely on as little international support as possible.”
We have been broken by corrupt and incompetent leaders who have trampled all over our rights. There are many extremely well-connected young people amongst us who know exactly what goes on in the world and understand perfectly well that there is no future in their country.
Dictators being swept away with a broom in Burkina Faso
When Balai citoyen was set up in 2013, Serge Bambara and fellow reggae musician Sams’K Le Jah focused on sweeping away those wishing to stay in power for life, including the former president Blaise Campaoré who ruled the country at the time, using an iron fist in a velvet glove as he pleased. This situation went on for almost 30 years until he committed yet another venial sin amongst his counterparts in 2014, by amending the constitution so that he could stand in another electoral farce. But the people on the street and tens of thousands of young people said no and sent him into exile. The broom triumphed over the gun and Campaoré and his entire entourage were swept away. “We moved forwards step by step, the first of which was getting rid of him. They laughed in our faces but we did it,” emphasised Smockey. The memories of bullets whistling past his head while confronting the army and police on the Place de la Nation remain fresh in his mind. “My friends thought I was mad but I did not want to stop.”
Hey Smockey, are you crazy? “Maybe, but you cannot pass for a leader if you send in the people while you are taking a backseat. I am a leader and I wanted to demonstrate that by trying to save the lives of my companions. There is a very fine line between the risks you take and those you make others take in order to save human lives from the repressive machine of the state.” And strategies drawn up around the table do not always end well or they do but in an unexpected way. “I remember one day during the attempted military putsch when I was convinced we had to fight to the bitter end. It seemed a key moment in our revolution.” In the middle of the demonstration, the law enforcement agencies decided to charge. “We met with other leaders beneath a tree to decide what to do. We had little time – five minutes at most – but when we decided that we could not back down, we turned around and saw all the protesters retreating. That day I understood that running for cover was a means of coming back stronger than before, which turned out to be the case.”
For Smockey, organisation is the key factor that determines the success of a people’s movement like those which are spreading in Africa. He understood this two years ago during a chance encounter on the streets of Casablanca. “A tramp asked me for a cigarette. After I handed him one he said ‘winning means being organised.’ These words changed my life.” Credibility is another equally important factor. “I’m still a committed artist – people know who I am, where I come from and who I’ve fought for all these years.”
After the fall of Campaoré, Smockey and Balai citoyen moved onto the second stage of the upheaval – the organisation of free and transparent elections for the first time in Burkina Faso’s history. “They were all smirking, but we turned the tables on them.” In fact, in December 2015 the ‘land of the just’ got a new president, Roch Marc Kaboré, after a challenging electoral process but one which was lawful and, most importantly, free. So is Smockey satisfied? “Not at all, in fact the most complicated part is just beginning today. We are working on two fronts – firstly, we are scrutinising everything the new government proposes and implements from the national assembly to local authority level. And if we believe the decisions taken do not represent the interests of the Burkinabe people, we condemn them.”
How? “By the same means used during the revolution: social media, theatre, music and concerts where we bring together singers and new leaders able to convey clear and comprehensible messages to the people, and above all to young people. Secondly, and even more importantly, we are continuing to inspire disillusioned young people to get involved in politics. The leaders of the future are amongst them.” Some people in Burkina believe Smockey has other ideas in his head, such as transforming his people’s movement into a political party and gaining power. “That’s nonsense. I’m only interested in young people developing political awareness and taking hold of their own destiny. Nobody will do it on their own, least of all the intellectuals. They are partly to blame for the failure of the system, because they thought they could change our lives from their ivory towers. If you want to be credible, you have to get your hands dirty. It’s better to understand terrible suffering from the people at the sharp end.”
Since I’ve been in Brussels, I’ve constantly received messages from very remote villages in my country. The secret is word of mouth, and skilful use of social and mass media.
The challenges of mobilisation – the case of Congo
Floribert Anzuluni is of the same opinion but adopts a less dogmatic tone. The difference the founder of the Congolese Filimbi movement is faced with is “an extremely repressive regime”, in a country the size of Western Europe.
How do you mobilise people in a country the size of the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Since I’ve been in Brussels, I’ve constantly received messages from very remote villages in my country. The secret is word of mouth, and skilful use of social and mass media. People are so tired of armed conflict and extreme poverty that they can no longer watch rulers pocket money while the country starves. In the DRC, 95% of business is controlled by those in power - in other words the Kabila clan.
What strategies are you pursuing to achieve change such as Balai citoyen?
We are focusing on the short term, and working towards one objective: protecting the constitution, and achieving political change through rejuvenation of the Congolese political class. President Kabila is prohibited by law from standing for presidential election for a third time. But he and his entourage have set up a disgraceful mechanism to delay the elections, which are due to take place at the end of the year, with the aim of hanging onto power and supressing movements like ours. Filimbi is a citizen-based, non-partisan collective made up of political activists, artists, entrepreneurs and managers created by young people for young people. Hopefully, we can rely on the support of the international community.
Unfortunately, for Floribert Anzuluni things have gotten worse from the day Filimbi was founded on 15 March 2015. The movement’s opening assembly was closed down, the activists Fred Bauma (the founder of another movement called LUCHA) and Yves Makwambala were arrested and put in Makala prison and accused of “threatening the security of the state.” They have not been released, and face a sentence ranging from 10 years in prison to the death penalty. Floribert decided to go into exile. From abroad, he is keeping Filimbi alive and is coordinating the Front citoyen 2016 platform, which was behind a large-scale social protest last February that forced much of the country to shut down during the Villes mortes day (‘dead cities day’, involving the shutdown of activity in urban centres). “Unfortunately, many activists have been imprisoned and tried under absurd conditions,” explained Anzuluni, who in a previous life was a risk manager at one of Congo’s largest private banks (Ecobank RDC). “Today I manage other kind of risks. My path to political activism is very symbolic. Not everyone who belongs to dissident movements comes from artistic and intellectual circles. There are many business people who cannot put up with this system any longer.”
Suppressing us is a real problem for many senior officials and the army because their children are often amongst the protesters.
The gravedigger vs. the president
Inyina is the latest movement to appear on the African protest map. It is led by Didier Lalaye, a multi-award-winning artist and writer. In Chad, everyone knows him as Croque-mort (‘the gravedigger’). He is famous in his country for being a forerunner of slam, a form of urban poetry which is a cross between rap and literature. He also believes that “it is only the young who can change things. Inyina is the only movement in Chad that has been able to speak to young people.” Never before have the protests seen as many people turn out in the square to denounce President Idriss Deby’s regime. “Suppressing us is a real problem for many senior officials and the army because their children are often amongst the protesters.” In other words, it is generational change, which in some cases also includes a very particular relation with police forces. “In Senegal, many policemen supported our protests but could not expressed it openly,” says Aliou Sane. “Some of them also suggested their support proposing concrete trainings on bombs explosion, but of course we refused!”
Some experts are already comparing the African youth revolts against the establishment to the European and American student protests of 1968. In South Africa, unprecedented student protests are taking place in Mandela’s country. Then there are the protests which people do not talk about simply because they have been stamped out as soon as they emerged. This is the case in Burundi, where thousands of young people have taken to the streets to protest against the candidacy – yet again in Africa – of the outgoing president Pierre Nkurunziza for a third unconstitutional term. As a result, 500 people have been killed, including many young people.
However, all of Africa has been shaken by a phenomenon which many people believed was over: the desire of those who are elected to make themselves irreplaceable or eternally answerable to those who – seeking influence – brought them to power.
Here are just some cases:
Omar Al-Bashir, 72-year-old, President of Sudan since 1993
Robert Mugabe, 92-year-old, President of Zimbabwe since 1987
Idriss Deby, 63-year-old, just re-elected for a fifth mandate
Paul Biya, 83-year-old, President of Camerun since 1982
Ismael Omar Guelleh, 68-year-old, President of Djibouti since 1999 and re-elected for a fourth mandate in 2016
Yoweri Museveni, 71-year-old, President of Uganda since 1986 and re-elected in 2016 for a fourth mandate
The generational divide is not a random occurrence.
© Vita International, Afronline.org
Translated by ISO Translation, edited by Kimberley Evans
The original version was published on Vita.it
Credit pictures: Getty images