/ 6 May 2012

After the Arab Spring: The winter of Africa’s discontent

Egyptian supporters of the hardline Salafist Al-Nur party demonstrate against the expulsion of their presidential candidate Hamza Abu Ismail
Egyptian supporters of the hardline Salafist Al-Nur party demonstrate against the expulsion of their presidential candidate Hamza Abu Ismail

The year 2011 began with the Arab Spring that changed the face of North Africa and possibly beyond. The question asked further down the continent — by both the people and their leaders — was when, if at all, the popular uprisings fuelled by social networks would spread southwards.

Midyear, the normally tranquil and grindingly poor Malawi saw at least 18 people die in protests against Bingu wa Mutharika’s autocratic rule and economic mismanagement. Eventually it was a heart attack and not the people that brought him down, but more about that later.

By Easter, unconstitutional changes in power, reminiscent of West Africa’s past, had ruled out two of the two dozen elections scheduled for continent in 2012. Between 1963 — when the first elected president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, was overthrown — and the year 2000, there were 27 successful military takeovers in West Africa. One could have been forgiven for thinking that coups were an infectious disease endemic in West Africa.

Mutiny in Mali

With less than a month to go before stepping down at the end of his constitutional limit of two-terms in power, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré was forced to flee from a military mutiny on March 22 this year.

The soldiers were ostensibly disenchanted with government’s inability or unwillingness adequately to equip forces fighting Tuareg rebels in the northern part of the kidney shaped country.

The 15-million Malians have had democracy since 1991.The mutineers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo were unable to garner the civilian support generally needed to allow a junta to make the noises, however hollow, about restoring democracy and returning to barracks.

The coup drew muscular opposition from Mali’s neighbours. When a delegation from the Economic Community of West African State (Ecowas) was prevented from landing in the capital Bamako on March 29, the 15-nation regional grouping imposed tough sanctions on Mali.

These punitive measures froze international banks transactions and cut off the fuel supply to the landlocked country. The junta caved. Within a week, it withdrew the new Constitution it had tried to impose and returned to the 1992 basic law. In a deal negotiated by Ecowas, the junta stood down in favour of parliamentary speaker Dianconda Traore.

Fulfilling his part of the bargain Touré resigned “without pressure, in good faith and out of love for the country”.

The military continued to flex their muscle, arresting at least 10 of Touré’s close allies as the deposed president took refuge in the Senegalese embassy in Bamako before actually relocating to that neighbouring country with his family and bodyguards.

The long-term damage caused by the coup has been manifest by the new strength of separatists and Islamists in the northern half of the kidney-shaped country who returned to the country after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who armed and paid them as mercenaries.

They have taken the main towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and imposed Sharia law. The flow of refugees into neighbouring Mauritania became a flood as it became increasingly unclear which wing of the rebels — the Tuareg separatists or Islamist jihadists with links to al-Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb (AQIM) — was in control.

Traore has made threatening noises against the separatists who have declared independence in northern Mali, knowing full well this will not be internationally recognised. The new leader has the impossible task of organising elections in Mali by June.

Guinea Bissau

Ecowas and the rest of the African Union took an equally hard line against the April 12 coup in Guinea Bissau.

No president in the former Portuguese colony has ever served a full term since its independence in 1974. In 1984 a woman president, Carmen Pereira, served for only three days. Deposed president Carlos Gomes was facing a runoff election on April 29.

Victory was assured because his opponent Kumba Yala had withdrawn from the contest. In the past three years there have been six assassinations of senior politicians, including a president — Joao Bernardo Viera in 2009, apparently in retaliation for the killing army chief Tagme na Waie.

Guinea Bissau is the world’s sixth largest producer of cashew nuts, and has one of the highest birth rates in the world with 5.6 children per woman. A major source of revenue comes from its being a key transit point for Latin American cocaine headed for Europe and some army officials are known to have become involved in the trade.


In Senegal, which has had democracy since before it became independent from France in 1960, president Abdoulaye Wade was booed by a crowd when he went to cast his ballot. The 85-year-old brought in a term limit for the president but believed he was above this because the regulation came into force after his first election win in 2002.

He easily regained the mandate in 2007. By 2012, however, there were fears he was trying to build a dynasty. At least 13 people died in violence during campaigning. To his credit, Wade quickly conceded defeat when it became clear he had lost the run-off in March to his former prime minister Macky Sall.

Popular musician and entrepreneur Youssou N’Dour, who was among those disqualified from competing in the election, was made culture minister in Sall’s Cabinet.


Malawi’s Bing wa Mutharika, whose enigmatic handling of the affairs of one of the world’s poorest countries lost him development aid from major donors, suffered a heart attack in April.

Constitutionally, his vice president Joyce Banda was next in line. Mutharika’s body was flown to Johannesburg by insider determined to prevent Banda from taking the reins. She had been expelled from the ruling party and had not spoken to the president in a year. The insiders wanted to promote foreign minister Peter Mutharika — the late president’s brother, who had unconstitutionally deputised for him — causing the rift with Banda.

In the event, constitutional and international pressure prevailed and she was sworn in. She declared there was no room for revenge in Malawian politics. Nevertheless she signalled her intention of pursuing officials guilty of excesses under Mutharika.