Many parts of Africa have witnessed calls for change in recent times. People, organisations and unions have shown dissatisfaction about the way they are governed using hashtags on social media and embarking on physical protests. Africans are increasingly choosing to speak up rather than accept injustice.
Fifty years ago, sociologists considered protests to be an undemocratic intrusion into
politics. They thought it to be what people and organisations do to feel virtuous, useful, and in the right. More importantly, they thought it an unproductive use of political attention. Years down the line, these have proven not to be the case.
Social movements are a central component of democratic systems, expressing fundamental critiques about unfavourable policies. Historically, social movements have created transformational change, with their greatest strength being the ability to gather the powerless in unison against the powerful. In these movements, protests have played an important role in making issues visible to those who were unaware, giving people a platform to be heard.
In 2016, half of Africa experienced major protests that were centred around salary delays, price hikes, police brutality, unemployment and political decisions. 2017 also saw a lot of protests and 2018 was no different, except that many of the protests drew popularity that compelled government action.
In July 2018, Uganda introduced a social media tax where telecom companies in the country deduct a daily or weekly fee from users visiting the highlighted 60 websites and social media apps, including WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook from their phones. After various violent protests, the government was forced to review the controversial tax.
There is a general concern that personal care products marketed toward women cost more and are subject to a luxury tax than similar products for men. In South Africa, it was discovered that women were expected to pay an additional 18 percent for the same products like shaving cream, shaving stick and roll on that are used by men.
With that, the calls to remove the tax, especially the one on sanitary pads and other menstrual products began to grow. People began advocating for the government to make menstrual products totally free especially for those in poor, rural communities. A movement #BecauseWeBleed began to circulate and people started protesting. The government heeded the voices of the masses and the 15 percent tax on sanitary pads is to be scrapped this year.
In 2018, Zimbabwe announced a 2 percent tax on electronic payments to raise money for road constructions and improvements on the health and education sectors in the country. Though the country banned citizens from protesting the tax, Zimbabwe’s Congress of trade Union went against the government ban to demonstrate and though some of their members were arrested, this did not deter Zimbabweans who still found a way to air their grievances. Finally, the government listened and accepted to review the tax.
Presently, the country is witnessing a fresh round of protests as citizens are taking to the streets to express their anger over the fuel hike. The government increased the price of petrol by almost three times its current price to $3.31 per litre from $1.24 much to the displeasure of Zimbabweans, who seem bent on forcing the hand of the government as they set up roadblocks and close shops.
In September 2018, Kenya passed a new finance bill, increasing levies in key sectors, including the petroleum industry, as a way to raise funds and narrow budget-deficit. Following the enforcement of the bill, nationwide protests erupted. That same month, the government was forced to reduce the fuel tax, citing high-cost living.
2018 saw the taxing of social media by many governments and the Benin Republic was one of them. The government in late August, said it was taxing its citizens CFA5 ($0.008) per megabyte for texts messages, calls and accessing the internet and social media applications. After a #TaxePasMesMo (Don’t tax my megabytes) campaign and protests around the country, the government decided to cancel the tax.
Nigerians got fed up with the incessant arrests, torture and extortion from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigeria Police Force, one of the 14 units under the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID). To express their frustrations, citizens took to social media to protest using #EndSARS, as people began sharing their unpleasant stories by SARS personnel.
The campaign which began on social media in 2017 intensified in 2018, with people taking to the streets but people did not stop there. 10,195 people signed a petition and submitted it to Nigeria’s National Assembly calling for the scrapping of SARS. By August 2018, the government overhauled the SARS unit, to the joy of many.
In 2018, thousands of people also took to the streets to protest the ethnically motivated violence that led to the arrest of opposition leaders, including Bekele Gerba, the secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) in December 2015. Gerba was arrested for terrorism and inciting violence but after a mass protest in 2018, Ethiopia was forced to free Gerba.
Protests in Sudan began after the government decided to triple the price of bread from one Sudanese pound to three (from about two U.S. cents to six). The government is yet to do anything tangible about the bread protests that have led to at least eight deaths and these have angered Sudanese who are now calling for a change in government. Resentment against the ruling government has been rising, in part due to perceived economic mismanagement, failing public health/education systems, and corruption, but the increase in the price of bread was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
A 2011 analysis by Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger and David Yanagizawa-Drot discovered that protests do in fact have a major influence, especially on politics. The researchers say that the actual protest or the large crowds were not the reason for the change, but the change was a result of motivated attendees. They argued larger turnout/engagements for protests had lasting effects and positive outcomes.
Interestingly, all the social movements and protests are under one umbrella—citizens’ dissatisfaction of institutions that govern them. With the rising up of Africans and some positive changes gotten from these protests, could it be that Africa is on a tipping point for a positive change where the leaders set things right for exponential growth?