In Burkina Faso and Beyond, Africa’s Citizens Seek to be Heard

Burkinabe protesters demonstrate against coup leader General Gilbert Diendere. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, September 21, 2015. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

“We the peoples”—these first words of the preamble of the United Nations Charter, adopted 70 years ago by representatives of 50 countries, endeavored to capture an ideal for national and international politics, where legitimate states’ representatives spoke and acted on behalf of and in the best interests of their populations. This paradigm has been challenged in most parts of the world in the intervening years, particularly in Africa, where long-serving leaders have taken their continued legitimacy for granted, impervious to demands for change in the way they govern.

The best recent example is the popular uprising that precipitated the departure of Burkina Faso’s president and helped reverse the September military coup against the transitional authorities. (Five years after the Tunisian people rose up for democratic principles and dignity, the citizen-based “Quartet” organizations that pulled Tunisia back from the edge of chaos nearly two years ago were today awarded the Nobel Peace Prize).

What has been called the “third wave” of democratization in the late 1980s and early 1990s opened more space for conventional political participation through the organization of elections and the creation of opposition parties in many countries. A by-product of this and earlier movements was that elections were considered for a long time as the only barometer for democracy and citizen participation. Significantly, representatives to public office, once elected, tended to view the votes they received as blank checks, and regard demands for participation by constituents as infringements on their legitimacy.

However, in many democracies, including established ones, this is increasingly under stress. Citizens in many countries have complained that they no longer recognize themselves in the decisions taken in their names by their states. A growing disenchantment with traditional representative institutions has become increasingly palpable as is the decline of public trust in governments and low participation in organized politics.

Citizens are no longer waiting for elections to voice their concerns, express their preferences and dissent, and hold their governments accountable. This trend is particularly vibrant in Africa where the “Arab Spring” in early 2011 has inspired  a number of mass protests across the continent and encouraged the creation of leaderless, multiple citizen movements calling for respect of democratic principles and for political change. Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) in Senegal,  Le Balai Citoyen (Civic Broom) in Burkina Faso, and Filimbi (Whistle) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are but a few examples of how citizens are organizing themselves to redefine politics, democracy, and reboot the fraying social contract.

The emergence of these social movements has been facilitated by both internal and external dynamics on the continent. At the national level, the lack of basic social services, the failure to share economic benefits, social injustice, exclusion, government corruption and/or nepotism, and a host of other leadership and governance deficits have led to a crisis of legitimacy between the state and citizens who have had to find alternative ways to make their voices heard. The streets, social media, grassroots actions, and other innovative methods have become the main channels for expressing frustration, despite the intimidation, repression, and criminalization of legitimate political dissent.

At the external level, these citizen movements receive financial and moral support by international donors whether in explicit or implicit ways. It has become the usual practice for Western high-level officials to meet with civil society movements—including those qualified as hostile to the government—during their official visits to specific countries in Africa. Many of these officials, learning from past misguided policies, no longer view international relations as solely a matter for states only and therefore do not see it as interference in internal affairs when reaching out to civil society leaders and citizen networks during their visits.

United States President Barack Obama’s first remarks at the African Union, on July 28, 2015 were addressed “to the People of Africa.” Obama referred to the word “people” 31 times while “government” was mentioned only nine times. Again, Obama urged African leaders to protect the rights of their people, uphold democracy and fundamental freedoms and create better living conditions for their citizens.

French President Francois Hollande took the same approach during a recent visit to the continent. In his statement to the 15th Francophonie Head of States and Government Summit on November 29, 2014 in Dakar he said: “where constitutional rules are abused, where freedom is violated, where the alternation of power is prevented, I affirm here that the citizens of these countries will always find, in the Francophone sphere, the necessary support to uphold justice, law, and democracy.”

The growing number of citizen movements have greatly shaped national governance and the ways politics are played in many countries. They have impacted on conflict resolution and mediation in Africa. Indeed, the recent crisis in Burkina Faso sent a strong message to the international community— including regional and sub-regional organizations—that the position of the street could not and should not be sacrificed on the negotiation table. The image of thousands of men and women protesting peacefully but resolutely in front of the Ouagadougou hotel that hosted the talks between the Economic Community of West African States mediators and perpetrators of the national coup d’état, was a powerful message that the street is a key stakeholder in peace negotiations and cannot be ignored.

Any agreement that betrays the expectations of this “third” actor has little chance of defusing tensions and restoring peace. People across Africa are conscious of their power and are learning from each other on how best to leverage it to bring about change peacefully. The statement of a Burkinabe driving school instructor in his 50s, celebrating the restoration of the civilian transitional government is an eloquent illustration of this newly recovered power: “It’s the people who decide. They did not want to go backwards. We want democracy, and now, everything will go back to normal if God wills it.”

The resilience demonstrated by African citizens in their quest for freedom and democracy, justice, and the rule of law is ushering significant changes in the way power is acquired, exercised and maintained. Citizens are no longer content with demanding access only to basic services but are standing up and fighting for the values enshrined in the UN Charter 70 years ago. These values are universal and indivisible and can no longer be hijacked with impunity under the watchful eyes of engaged citizens. Some have paid the ultimate sacrifice to uphold them. Those who have scoffed at the idea of an “African Spring” in the offing may need to think again.

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute and Amadou Moctar Diallo is an international volunteer, working on peacekeeping and peacebuilding issues, with the International Organization of la Francophonie.