The scenes in Sudan were inspiring. Tens of thousands of people risked their own safety to face down a brutal government and demand change. The image of young women standing on cars to address crowds suggested that this was not just a moment of political liberation, but a broader process of social transformation. When President Omar al-Bashir was finally removed from office, the celebrations extended well beyond Khartoum to those in the diaspora who had fled Bashir’s rule, and supporters of democracy worldwide.
Algeria also saw mass demonstrations with a similar result: President Bouteflika was forced to stand down. The sight of two of the continent’s longest serving leaders being humbled in the space of just nine days inevitably triggered a wave of optimism among reformers and opposition parties. Apparently all-powerful presidents were not invincible after all — change is possible, democracy is in reach.
Sadly, though, removing a “Big Man” is not the end of the process of building a democracy but only the beginning. A change of individual, without a change of regime, is unlikely to lead to a freer and fairer political system. And regimes are much harder to reform. Democracy therefore remains a long way off in Algeria and Sudan.
The myth of leadership in Africa
One of the most damaging and misleading myths about African politics is the idea of the all-powerful leader who rules on their own through their cunning and wit. The Big Man, it is often said, retains control by manipulating ethnicity and establishing personal networks in the absence of any formal political organisation. This overly simplistic understanding of how people govern leads to an overly simplistic understanding of what it takes to achieve political change: remove the man at the top, and the whole system will collapse, like the snake that has had its head cut off.
This is a tempting idea that has been reinforced through decades of lazy research, broad generalisations and bad Hollywood movies. But it is wrong.
Individuals cannot sustain a system of government for thirty years on their own. For that, you need institutions. Not inclusive ones or ones that deliver for citizens, but institutions nonetheless. Most obviously, you need a reliable and effective way of forcing people to do what you want when personal loyalty and handing out money is no longer enough. The security forces are therefore particularly important to the ability of a dictator to stay in power. And because leaders tend to get less popular the longer they are in office, they become more dependent on violence as time goes on.
The police and the army are also significant because those working within them have a vested interest to find a way to retain power in order to protect themselves from prosecution for past abuses — and they have many years of experience of doing so.
The organisers of the protests movements in Algeria and Sudan know this well. They understand that the president may have given the orders, but the repression that they have faced was carried out by bureaucrats, police officers and soldiers. Instead of just focusing on an individual, they have demanded broader regime change, stressing that they will not be satisfied by a re-shuffling of the same old elite.
In Algeria, many protesters have come out against the organisation of elections by members of the old regime because they believe that they will be flawed and deliver continuity rather than change. For their part, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has been coordinating the protests in Sudan, has threatened a general strike to try and ensure that the political transition will be driven and managed by civilians.
But the problem that protest leaders face in both countries is that once the person at the top has been removed, it is incredibly difficult to maintain momentum to overthrow the rest of the system.
There are two reasons that it is so difficult to retain momentum. First, it is human nature to focus on the person at the top rather than the system underneath them. While the person is often larger than life, their face on every banknote and on every office wall, the system that underpins their rule typically operates in the shadows. The personalisation of power in popular culture is a global phenomenon, but it is particularly acute in countries where there is a cult of personality around the president.
Second, people have a good reason to want to go home. Protests are costly and dangerous, and many citizens desire a quick return to a more stable and predictable existence. Parents want to be able to send their children back to school, workers want to get back to their jobs.
This means that no matter how much organisers implore people to stay on the streets, there is a tendency for protests to dwindle in size once the leader – the symbolic figurehead – has gone. In turn, this makes it harder to push through genuine reform at precisely the moment when the balance of power between the remnants of the regime and the protest movement is particularly important.
Those in authoritarian regimes know this, and they also know that their ability to regain control depends on being able to divide and demobilize popular opposition. They therefore respond by offering deals that are designed to co-opt some protesters while alienating others. As the attention of foreign governments and the international media moves to the next story, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the unity and focus of civil society.
The lesson from Egypt and many other countries is that this opens the door to the reassertion of authoritarian control.
The military moment
In both Algeria and Sudan the security forces propped up authoritarian leaders so long as it was in their interests to do so. When al-Bashir and Bouteflika became a liability they were pushed out, not because others in the regime had seen the light and converted to democracy, but because sacrificing them was the best way to maintain the political system and their immunity from prosecution.
Ditching dictators also helps with the public relations battle. By removing the president, the military can depict itself as being on the right side of history and amenable to reform. This is important to placate the masses so that people start to go back to their normal lives. It is also necessary to persuade the African Union and the wider international community that what is happening is not a coup — which would make the government vulnerable to sanctions — but rather a transition to civilian rule.
Once a degree of acquiescence to a military managed transition has been established, the work to re-assert control can begin. In Sudan, this process has already started. The Transitional Military Council has set itself up as the body that will set the agenda for the “transition” and determine the speed of change. One of its recent decisions was to postpone talks because protesters had not complied with a demand to remove barricades. This was a smart move. While forcing the protesters to demobilise undermines the power of the street, delaying the process will erode the momentum that opponents of the regime have built-up in recent months.
The next few weeks will be critical to the potential for reform. If the protesters cannot secure early wins to transfer control over the transition process into civilian hands, their revolutions will be subverted. Those who wish to see genuine democratic openings rather than one dictator being replaced by another need to act fast before it is too late.