Sub Saharan Africa

Originally published in xxx


Benin 1989-1991

From 1974 to 1989, dictator Mathieu Kérékou ran Benin as a socialist state, earning it the nickname “Africa’s Cuba.” After 17 years of rule by the Marxist-Leninist Kérékou, an economic crisis and massive social unrest spurred a civic movement consisting of students, teachers, university faculty, and union leaders that called for a paralyzing nationwide strike in January 1989. As suppression efforts failed and French political and economic pressure increased, Kérékou was forced to legalize the oppositional parties. He called for the holding of a National Conference in February 1990. Delegates to the conference included leaders from the opposition parties, unions, universities, religious associations, the army, and women’s groups. A new constitution was drafted despite Kérékou’s protests (Karatnycky and Ackerman, 2005). Free elections were reestablished in 1991, and Kérékou was defeated by Nicéphor Soglo.

South Africa 1994

The struggle against apartheid went on for many decades. During this period, the view on nonviolence as the means to change the system changed several times. The struggle included an armed ingredient most of the time, but nonviolence was always a central factor for the resistance and the building a new society. In the following, only a few of the many nonviolent activities are mentioned.

In June 1977 in the township of Soweto, a number of leading citizens and representatives from several organizations met to elect a “Committee of Ten.” These included people with experience from earlier African National Congress (ANC) campaigns. The aim was to develop a nonviolent strategy for democratic self-government in Soweto. The police arrested all of them, obviously very afraid of such ideas. Two years later, the Soweto Civic Association was created, and it planned for the use of several nonviolent techniques. Some tried to learn from history by reading about foreign revolutionaries. Especially influential was a manual written by Filipino activists in 1974, “Organizing People for Power.” The Filipino activists said that success would come from helping people win modest but real improvements in their lives. After a terrible crackdown in 1977, many Africans were afraid of getting involved in political groups. Townships organizing in South Africa in the early 1980s succeeded in doing what Polish dissidents had done in the 1970s. Instead of directly defying a regime steeped in its own orthodoxy and capable of repression, they opened space for independent action within the system, through which they could organize people to help themselves (Ackerman and DuVall, 2003, pp. 343-347).

In August 1983, more than 500 organizations joined forces to form the United Democratic Front (UDF). This was a wide coalition of churches, trade unions, students, women, and many other groups. African people stood side by side with whites and Indians, with the goal being a peaceful and just future. The UDF arranged a number of nonviolent demonstrations and other actions.

An important test for the UDF was the government’s decision to create a new parliament with separate chambers for whites, Coloreds, and Indians. Africans were not to be represented, but would be given greater independence in their towns. Prime Minister P.W. Botha’s motives were to present a better international image and to weaken resistance to apartheid in the country. The UDF called for a boycott of the elections, and the turnout was down a third from the previous election. In elections for Colored and Indian representatives to the racially segregated parliament, less than 20 percent of those eligible voted.[1]

Apartheid depended on the support of the white population, but white-owned businesses also depended on the support of blacks. Several middle-aged women in Port Elizabeth came to their civic committee with a plan to boycott businesses. In the summer of 1985, civic leader Mkhuseli Jack spoke to a large crowd at a funeral, which was the only type of public gathering the government then allowed. “We won’t buy in town on Monday,” he told the crowd. “We won’t even buy a box of matches on Monday!” Though Jack and other leaders were jailed, the boycott cost white business owners 30 percent of their business. Store owners pleaded with government officials to give in to the boycotters. Chief DuPlesssis said, “If they don’t want to buy, what sort of crime is it? . . . You can’t shoot all these people. You can’t lock them all up” (Ackerman and DuVall, 2000, p. 357).

Many whites supported the struggle against apartheid. Young men drafted into in the South African Army started South Africa’s End Conscription Campaign (ECC), which became an important force within that country’s white community to oppose not only obligatory military service but also apartheid minority rule. Many outside South Africa saw the ECC as a way to concretely demonstrate that work against militarism and racism could and should be part of the same movement (Meyer, 2000).

In Alexandra, the Alexandra Action Committee (AAC) also fought apartheid with a consumer boycott targeting black officials who collaborated with the white government. Stores and taxis turned them away. Churchgoers would not listen to their priests. The people of Alexandra demonstrated that if they refused to cooperate with white oppressors or black collaborators, the apartheid system could not remain in power. Under the leadership of the AAC, townspeople proceeded to elect their own town executive and establish their own criminal justice system. As much as possible, they would govern themselves.[2]

Global opposition to apartheid grew in the late 20th century, leading to widespread sanctions and divestment abroad and growing unrest and oppression by the National Party within South Africa. Sanctions, protests, and brutal police and military interventions in demonstrations made South Africa an international outcast. In 1990, after a long period of resistance, strikes, and unrest by various anti-apartheid movements, most notably the ANC, the National Party government took the first step toward relinquishing power when it lifted the ban on the ANC and other left-wing political organizations, and released Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years. Apartheid legislation was gradually removed from the statute books, and the first multiracial elections were held in 1994.[3] When Mandela was elected president, he asked former white leader De Klerk to be his vice president. The first government had representatives from both the former apartheid regime and the ANC as ministers.

The role of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in the liberation of South Africa is highly debated. Some say that MK was more important for the leaders of the apartheid regime than for the ANC. MK made it easier for them to justify the brutal use of violence against all ANC members. They could label all activists potential terrorists. But MK was also important as a symbol of resistance for many Africans, although it was never a military threat to the South African government. An interesting analysis of the ANC’s operational strategy in 1976-1986 is found in Howard Barrell’s Ph.D. dissertation “Conscripts to their Age.”[4] Gail Presby’s recent research on the realities of MK and nonviolent tactics in the ending of apartheid also suggest the need for a more nuanced analysis of the road to revolution in South Africa. (Presbey, 2006)

Madagascar 2002

The outcome of the 2001 presidential election was disputed, as both President Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana both claimed victory. This was the background for Madagascar to be the next scene of a nonviolent revolution. Massive protests with more than half a million people on the streets every day for a week eventually forced Ratsiraka to resign. On January 28, 2002, a several-week-long general strike began. Banks, shops, and other businesses closed. The daily demonstrations began when the island’s High Constitutional Court announced the results of a recount. It declared that Ravalomanana had received 46 percent of the vote, versus 40 percent for Ratsiraka, and that neither candidate had an overall majority. The court ordered a runoff to be held within 30 days. This only strengthened the opposition, and led to what Financial Times described as “daily public demonstrations over the past two weeks not seen since independence from France in 1960.”

For a time Ravalomanana and his supporters controlled the capital Antananarivo and Ratsiraka set up a rival government in the eastern port city of Tamatave. Roadblocks set up around the capital prevented transport of people and goods.

The old rivalries between highland and coastal people were used by both sides to support their case. Propaganda was played every day on the television and radio stations that backed Ratsiraka, but these stations were attacked by students and eventually forced to stop their broadcasting of what the students called propaganda.

For a long time the armed forces refused to take sides, but small groups of supporters on both sides were armed, and around 70 people were killed altogether. Most of the violence came from supporters of Ratsiraka.

In May 2002, the constitutional court declared that Ravalomanana had won the election. He became the new president of Madagascar and then moved to decentralize government power.[5] 


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Posted in In English, Political comment and analysis

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