I've been fascinated by the escalating protests in Burkina Faso which seem to have brought down President Blaise Compaore after 27 years. I don't know much about the country, but after years immersed in studying the Arab uprisings this seems ripe for comparative inquiry. What sparked this level of popular mobilization now? Why did the military behave as it did? Is there a social media or political information dimension? How will its neighbors and supporters of the old regime respond?
This tweet is what really grabbed my attention, though:
If the people of #BurkinaFaso can fight against corrupt leaders, Ghana can also do same! SayNoToCorruptLeaders.October 30, 2014
Could the Burkina Faso uprising spread to Ghana or other African countries the way that Tunisia's uprising spread to Egypt and then out to most of the Arab world? Should other African Presidents be worried, as Ken Opalo asks in his recent Monkey Cage piece?
In The Arab Uprising, I emphasize the causal importance of transnational Arab media, including both satellite television such as al-Jazeera and social media. I argue that this integrated Arab public sphere allowed for the articulation of a shared narrative which bound together a wide variety of very different protest movements in the first few months of 2011. It facilitated the adoption in very different contexts of highly similar, modular forms of protest, whether the seizing of a central public space or mimicking slogans like "the people want the overthrow of the regime." Arabs as far away as Yemen watched the overthrow of President Ben Ali and suddenly contemplated the possibility of change through popular protest, while the fall of Hosni Mubarak made many believe that such change was inevitable. That level of interconnectedness didn't last, of course, but it was extremely important during those feverish months of a genuinely regionwide mobilization.
I'm very curious, therefore, whether or not Africa experts are seeing the same kinds of dynamics which mattered so much in the Arab context a few years ago. Is there a common public sphere in which a collective narrative of popular uprising could be articulated? Are there meaningful efforts to translate Mac-Jordan's sentiments into reality in Ghana or elsewhere, or networks of activists sharing information, ideas and strategies? Are citizens in other countries revising their beliefs about the possibility of successful protest in light of Burkina Faso's uprising?
Consider this an open call for comparative insights - thanks!
Update #1: Most of the feedback from Africa specialists thus far has been discouraging. The Burkina Faso uprising, they point out quite convincingly, was sparked by local causes (the change to term limits), protests had been building for quite a while, and contagion is unlikely:
@abuaardvark Also, there was more potential for an "African Spring" in 2011-2012 with Walk to Work, Burkina mutinies, Mauritania, Sudan, etc— Alex Thurston (@sahelblog) October 30, 2014
I find all of this convincing, and yet... I can't help but remember a piece I wrote on January 26, 2011, addressing the exact same objections about whether Tunisia's uprising would spread to Egypt or other Arab countries (link to the free PDF here). After running through all of the very compelling reasons that it would not, I argued:
There are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off.
And yet… it doesn't feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.
Tunisia has manifestly inspired people across the region and galvanized their willingness to take risks to push for change, even without any clear leadership from political parties, Islamist movements, or even civil society. The Tunisian example has offered the possibility of success, and models for sustained action by a decentralized network, after a long and dispiriting period of authoritarian retrenchment. Al-Jazeera and the new media have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is people who have seized those opportunities. And the core weaknesses of these Arab states --- fierce but feeble, as Nazih Ayubi might have said -- have been exposed. They have massively failed to meet the needs of their people, with awesome problems of unemployment, inflation, youth frustration and inequality combined with the near-complete absence of viable formal political institutions.
It's very likely that the diffusion of the Arab uprisings really was unique to that moment and that there are no lessons for African regional protest diffusion. It would probably be better for my argument about the importance of the Arab media for the diffusion of protest if the Burkina Faso uprising does not spread. But I want to hear a bit more about how the uprising has been received in other African countries, whether it is being linked to a collective political narrative, whether modular forms of protest begin to be adopted, and that sort of thing before I give up the inquiry.