ACSS debates effect of Arab Spring on sub-Saharan Africa


The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies says a question often asked since the start of the Arab Spring in January 2011 is what effect will these popular protests have on democracy in the rest of Africa.

Frequently overlooked in this discussion is that Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing its own democratic surge during this time with important advances in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia, among other countries. “This progress builds on nearly two decades of democratic institution building on the continent,” the Washington-based institution says in a new research paper (

Even so, the legacy of “big-man” politics continues to cast a long shadow over Africa’s governance norms, it adds. Regime models on the continent, moreover, remain highly varied, ranging from hard core autocrats, to semi-authoritarians, democratisers, and a select number of democracies. The ACSS says the effects of the Arab Spring on Africa must be understood in the much larger and longer-term context of Africa’s democratic evolution. “While highly varied and at different stages of progress, democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa is not starting from scratch, unlike in most of the Arab world. Considered from this broader and more heterogeneous perspective, the direct effects of the Arab Spring on Sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic development are muted. There are few linear relationships linking events in North Africa to specific shifts in democratisation on the continent.
“That said, the angst and frustration propelling the protests and unfolding transitions in the Arab world, particularly Egypt and Tunisia, resonate deeply with many Africans who are closely following events in the north. The Arab Spring is thus serving as a trigger, rather than a driver, for further democratic reforms in the region. There have been protests in more than a dozen African capitals demanding greater political pluralism, transparency, and accountability following the launch of the Arab Spring. Some have even explicitly referenced North Africa as a model.
“Likewise, a number of African governments are so fearful of the Arab Spring’s influence that they have banned mention of the term on the Internet or public media. The democratic protests in North Africa, consequently, are having an impact and shaping the debate on the future of democracy in Africa. They are also teaching important lessons that democracy is not bestowed on but earned by its citizens. Once initiated, it is not a passive or self-perpetuating governance model, but one that requires the active engagement of citizens. Perhaps most meaningfully, then, the Arab Spring is instigating changes in expectations that African citizens have of their governments,” the ACSS says.
“What makes these changed expectations especially potent is that they dovetail with more fundamental drivers of change that are likely to spur further democratic advances in Africa in the next several years. Access to information technology has exploded in Africa, dramatically enhancing the capacity for collective action and accountability. Rapid urbanisation is further facilitating this capacity for mass action. Africa’s youthful and better educated population is restive for more transparency from public officials and expanded livelihood opportunities. These youth are increasingly aware of governance norms elsewhere in the world and yearn for the same basic rights in their societies. Rising governance standards in the region and internationally, in turn, are placing ever greater value on legitimacy while heightening intolerance of unconstitutional transitions of power. Civil society, typically the bottom-up vehicle for governance change, has grown in breadth, sophistication, and influence over the past several decades. And Africa’s democratic institutions have begun to put down roots. Parliaments have become more capable and autonomous, independent media is more diverse and accessible than ever, and elections are becoming increasingly common, transparent, and meaningful.
“Despite the noteworthy progress, significant obstacles to further democratic progress persist. Some 40% of Africa’s states continue to be organised around authoritarian governing principles. Most of
these regimes are sustained by their control over substantial hydrocarbon revenues and politicised security sectors. Norms of personalistic governance, furthermore, remain strong across the continent, including within some of Africa’s heretofore leading democracies. In addition to stymieing the development of robust mechanisms of shared power, this neopatrimonial model has ingrained the belief that politics is a winner-take-all endeavour — undermining the values of inclusion and compromise central to democratic governance.
“Many African countries, moreover, are still building a common national identity around which cooperation toward shared objectives can be organised. This is exacerbated by still fresh civil conflicts in a number of African societies and the polarisation and intercommunal differences they have reinforced.”

The report finds the democratic calculus in Africa has changed. “African populations now have higher expectations that government leaders act in a more democratic and accountable manner. There is a palpable sense that African citizens will no longer passively sit back and accept abuses of power. While positive outcomes are not assured, prospects for further democratic advances in Africa over the next several years are promising. These advances will almost certainly not be as sudden and dramatic as in Egypt, Tunisia, or even Libya — but are likely to be widespread, contingent on the starting point of each given society. To realize these gains, civil society and other reformers will be called upon to step up and champion change in the face of vigorous pushback from vested interests, regional and international bodies will need to reinforce democratic norms, election commissions will be required to become more capable and independent, access to independent media will need to continue to grow, and Africa’s security sector will have to become more aligned with the interests of the state than with incumbent political leaders.”