This article is part of a series on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
On New Year’s Day 2012, the Nigerian government announced the end of a fuel subsidy that had artificially deflated the cost of oil in Africa’s largest country. The government’s actions were timed to take advantage of the fact that many Nigerians had returned to their villages to celebrate the holidays. But its efforts to stymie popular outrage failed. Stranded far from their places of work as fuel prices more than doubled, angry Nigerians took to the streets. In a matter of days, the protests became the largest in Nigerian history, reaching almost every corner of the country.
This is not only the story of an African uprising. Occupy Nigeria, as the two-week movement that rattled the Nigerian government became known, was part of a wave of global Occupy protests inspired by the takeover of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in 2011. With millions of participants flooding the streets of Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and other Nigerian cities and towns, it was the largest Occupy movement in the world. Yet ten years later, little has been written about Occupy Nigeria—or the many other African uprisings that have taken place over the last decade. Instead, it is common to treat these protests as part of the general turmoil afflicting African countries, unworthy of global attention or respect. Even on the left, progressive African movements are ignored or treated as curiosities rather than meaningful political actors.
Consider Y’en a Marre, a Senegalese collective that led mass protests against President Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to rewrite the constitution in the fall of 2011, which led him to abandon his effort to seek a third term in 2012. Y’en a Marre has built a wide network across Senegal and the region, remaining potent and well-organized almost a decade after it first rose to prominence. But a number of leading left publications in the United States, including Dissent and Monthly Review, haven’t mentioned the movement once. Alternet and the New Left Review offered exactly one essay each that references the movement, as did Jacobin (written by yours truly).
Certain countries on the continent, for specific historical or political reasons, do garner greater interest from the Western left—most notably North African countries, especially during the so-called Arab Spring. The overwhelming tendency has been to reinforce the colonial division between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, treating them as disconnected from one another. The main exception is South Africa, which generates attention for its history of racial division (often viewed in parallel to the U.S. legacy of segregation) and its robust tradition of social movements—including the Rhodes Must Fall and #FeesMustFall movements of 2015 and 2016, in which young people challenged racist iconography and economic marginalization in ways that resonated with contemporaneous movements in the United States. Here too, colonial legacies and false narratives about South African exceptionalism reinforce the idea that the country is not part of the “real” Africa.
Africa’s other fifty countries are teeming with dynamic and vibrant movements filled with brave young activists: feminist and anti-police brutality movements in Nigeria, climate change activists in Northern Uganda, pro-democracy movements in eastern Congo, revolutionaries in Sudan, and many other ordinary people fighting against oppressive political and economic systems. Why are they met with silence in the Global North?
Racism is always an important factor when we’re discussing—or not discussing—Africa. In left spaces, racism rarely takes the form of explicit bias, but its subtle, more subconscious forms do their share of work in reinforcing the continent’s marginalization. In addition to these biases on the left, I think it’s worth raising two other explanations for the ongoing exclusion of African social movements from Western left discourse. I offer them not as an excuse, but rather to try to move the conversation forward.
First, there remains a vast gap between those who see the state as a potentially liberating force and those for whom the state has almost always been a predatory actor. It is unsurprising that the Western left imagination is dominated by African politics of the 1960s and ’70s, a period in which several African states—including Tanzania under Julius Nyerere, Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, and Algeria under Ahmed Ben Bella—became darlings of socialists around the world. With a handful of exceptions in the 1980s or ’90s, including Thomas Sankara’s reign in Burkina Faso and certain elements of the Apartheid-era African National Congress in South Africa, there have been few wins at the state level for African leftists in more recent decades, especially in comparison to Asia or Latin America. African leaders today are almost uniformly committed to neoliberal paradigms that relegate citizens to a problem to be solved rather than a constituency to be served. Given the abject failure of governments to improve ordinary people’s lives, most African popular movements view the state with suspicion and fear rather than as a vehicle for emancipation. To Western leftists who pursue state power, African social movements’ lack of interest in capturing the state can appear befuddling.
Second, and related to the above, while most contemporary African social movements are deeply concerned with questions of poverty, they rarely adopt a Marxist program to pursue their strategic objectives. Occupy Nigeria’s dramatic rise and quick fall demonstrate the limits of overtly class-based appeals. (While organized labor was initially at the forefront of the movement, it struggled to connect with the informal workers who formed the bulk of the protesters and eventually engaged in secret negotiations with the government that many considered a betrayal.)
This does not mean that Africans reject class analysis. They consistently question a global economic system that has turned both rich and poor countries across the continent into some of the most unequal in the world. Yet even the most economically marginalized typically call for a more equitable distribution of resources rather than overthrowing capitalism altogether. The decline of a revolutionary Pan-Africanism among ordinary Africans despite the continued appeal of its cultural forms suggests that while the ground is still fertile, progressive intellectuals and movements across the continent are not receiving the support required to challenge the global neoliberal offensive. This raises a serious question for the international left: where does Africa fit in to its imagined post-capitalist future? The fact that China, which despite its capitalist turn remains the most prominent alternative to the neocolonial relations that have devastated African economies, treats Africa as little more than a site for extraction and consumption makes it harder to argue that a socialist world order would actually produce a meaningful improvement in the lives of ordinary Africans.
The best traditions on the left have long been rooted in the real movement of history. But when it comes to Africa, a continent that will soon be home to a quarter of all humanity, there have been precious few attempts to grapple with the realities that structure social movements and popular politics. This is indefensible. Africa is central to the global battle against climate change and inequality, and to the broader struggle for basic human dignity. An international program that fails to incorporate a grounded understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of African social movements will inevitably reinforce the logic of apartheid.
Zachariah Mampilly is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at CUNY and the cofounder of the Program on African Social Research. You can find him on Twitter @Ras_Karya.