Thoughts on Egypt…looking south

Mubarak has resigned and Egyptians are dancing in the streets. The road ahead will be bumpy and Egyptians will face many challenges, but what the people have achieved today is truly breathtaking.  Amazing, absolutely amazing.  And, twenty years to the day after Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, a free man!  Remember: February 11th is a special day.

Of course, I can’t help but think what implications Mubarak’s resignation may have for those leaders south of the Sahara who have also been in power for decades and who, seemingly, have no intention of vacating their posts. Here’s an interesting excerpt from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal:

(Mubarak’s) downfall was as swift as it was unexpected. Mr. Mubarak had inherited and shaped a system of patronage, nepotism and brutality that seemed beyond challenge. He also endeared himself to successive American administrations, serving as a dependable and efficient bulwark against both Islamist extremism and the rise of Iranian influence, while standing behind a peace deal with Israel that was deeply unpopular at home.

But in a matter of weeks, as a popular revolt erupted in the streets and demanded his ouster, his system failed him. His biggest international sponsor, the U.S., pulled its support.

Mr. Mubarak was the most prominent of a cohort of autocratic rulers across the Middle East, many of them backed by the U.S., who championed stability at the expense of political and economic freedom.

Reading this, I thought how easy it would be to replace Mubarak with the names of various African presidents, a number of whom are also supported by the U.S. (and France).  In Sub-Saharan Africa, oil (and other resource wealth) is what pushes the U.S. to favor “stability at the expense of political and economic freedom.”

Here’s another excerpt from, U.S. diplomat calls African dictator a good guy, about Equatorial Guinea in  today’s Washington Post:

In a March 9, 2009 report to the newly installed administration of President Barack Obama, Smith (Anton K. Smith, the ranking U.S. diplomat at the time) said: “It is time to abandon a moral narrative that has left us with a retrospective bias and an ambivalent approach to one of the most-promising success stories in the region.

“U.S. involvement is needed to shape EG’s future,” the cable continued, using an acronym for the country’s name. “Relatively minor U.S. technical assistance and advice in key areas (justice, human rights and democracy, social development, education,conservation, maritime security) will be effective in giving EG the future we want it to have.”

The alternative, he said, could be “a revolution that brings sudden, uncertain change and unpredictability … (with) potentially dire consequences for our interests, most notably our energy security.”

Bad timing! The article, based on one of the cables released through Wikileaks, is referring to a 2009 report, but it should be noted that U.S. policy towards Obiang and other autocratic leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa has not changed in light of the events in North Africa.

I’ve read a number of articles over the past few weeks about the likelihood (or not) of a popular uprising in Sub-Saharan Africa. Responding to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, Why Tunisia’s winds of change aren’t blowing south to Sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroonian blogger, Dibussi Tande, wrote an interesting piece about the role of the army as a determining factor:

A good example is Cameroon where opposition forces calling for a sovereign national conference organized the six-month long Ghost town campaign in 1991 which included daily mamoth street protests that paralyzed most of the country and severely damaged the country’s economic fabric. The protest movement eventually fizzled out thanks in large part to the army’s unflinching support for the Biya regime.

In 2008, Cameroonians took to the streets again and were met with tear gas, water cannons and bullets. The protests, which began in Douala on February 23rd in response to President Paul Biya’s proposed constitutional amendment abolishing term limits, resulted in somewhere between 40 and more than 100 deaths. Despite the protests, the government amended the constitution; Biya is likely running for president again this year. There has never been an investigation of the 2008 killings.

Fear of the army is widespread in Cameroon, yet in Douala today, there are calls for action on February 23rd.

Since January 29th protestors have also been in the streets of Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Their protests, which have received scant news coverage, have also been met with state violence. Global Voices in English has a page devoted to the Gabonese unrest.

So, let’s celebrate now with the Egyptians and keep our eyes on developments to the south.

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