Zachariah Mampilly in The Monkey Cage (Issouf Sanogo/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images):
As events in Burkina Faso move ahead at breakneck pace, I’m struck by how much they encapsulate different political struggles that have defined African protest since the anti-colonial period. Political transformations across Africa have rarely come piecemeal. Instead, they tend to come in waves, sweeping across the region and leaving massive social transformations in their wake.
I am currently finishing a book on African protest with Adam Branch. In it, we examine the two prior waves of African protests and offer evidence that we are currently in the midst of a third. The first wave includes the nationalist protests of the 1950s, a set of uprisings that culminated in the formal independence of almost all African states. The second wave encompasses protests centered in West Africa that occurred between the mid-1980s to early 1990s. These protests, a response to brutal austerity measures imposed upon African states by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, sparked a major era of formal democratization across the continent. With only three democracies prior to the protests, by the mid-1990s Africa could boast 20 democracies, with numerous more states holding elections.
Yet, despite these earlier waves and the political transformations they initiated, African protests are often ignored. We document more than 90 popular uprisings in more than 40 African states since 2005. By our measure, the heralded North African protests of 2011 represented not the first ripple of a wave, but rather its crest, with 26 African countries (including Burkina Faso) experiencing popular protests that year. Since then, protests have continued but have rarely generated the sort of attention devoted to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Why? Political change in the rest of Africa is often thought to result from violent conflict or external intervention. Africans themselves are presumed to be too rural, too ethnic or too poor for popular politics to lead to political transformation. Even today, as protests increasingly shake up ossified regimes and de facto one-party states, little attention is paid to the broader wave of protests unfolding across Africa and what it portends for the future of the continent.