How citizens’ activism brings hope to Africa

On October 13, 2015, after 28 years of omerta imposed by the government of Blaise Compaoré, the remains of former President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara (1983-1987), one of the emblematic figures of African citizens' movements, was exhumed for autopsy. The conclusion is clear: the body of the revolutionary riddled with bullets confirms that it was an assassination, a fate reserved to democrats by authoritarian regimes.

“Y’en a marre” (Fed up), “le balai citoyen”(The Citizen’s Broom) or “Filimbi”, these movements identifying with Sankara, Patrice Lumumba or Mandela, emerged in the 2010s.

From 2012, they yielded strong democratic victories:  fall of the "old" Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal, Compaoré’s expulsion of Burkina throne and (provisional) sanctuarization of the Congolese Constitution against Joseph Kabila’s will to extend his stay in power.

What are these innovative initiatives? What are their influences and how are they organized?


A diplomatic strategy that embraces the international codes…

Although quite unusual, these citizens’ movements are different from existing social movements because they have managed to seize all conventional political legitimacy levers while focusing on African values ​​and advocating cultural references.

First of all, the rhetoric used is very much appreciated by international organizations. The terms "democracy", "non-violence", the rejection of radicalism and even "good governance” feature prominently in the African Citizens Movements Declaration written and co-signed in Ouagadougou during summer 2015 by more than 30 movements of the continent.

These organizations are “legitimists”. They do not advocate revolutionary uprisings, as social movements created under colonization, nor the denunciation of structural adjustments plans imposed by the IMF, like those of the 1980s, but they advocate respect for constitutions in place. This is the case for  “Filimbi”, "Ras-le-bol"(Fed up), and "Touche pas à mon 220"(Don’t touch my -article- 220) movements started in Congo – Brazzaville, that fight for the respect of the limitation of presidential terms imposed by the laws.

In addition to speaking the language of western investors, these movements rely on their negotiation boards and seek to bring their demands to the UN and the African Union (AU), while their representatives do not hesitate to meet with influential politicians of the international scene  (the "yenamaristes" have been received by Laurent Fabius and Barack Obama, among others).


… And that advocates the continent’s own values

However, while using western communication vehicles, they emancipate themselves with ideological references specific to Africa. Charismatic leaders of these groups openly criticize the models and methods used by developed countries. "In Senegal, as in France, we are fighting the same form of social injustice, the same pangs of uncontrolled and wild liberalism" said Fadel Barro at the French NGO Survie.

This is the concept of liberalism, as a whole, that is rejected:  one of the main objectives of these movements is to propose "an alternative political project to the dominant neoliberal system. The vocabulary used, as well, is close to Marxist philosophy: "the labor" must fight against "land grabbing", while the terms "capital" and "struggle" are hammered. We find similarities with references to Marxism-Leninism of the social movements of the 1970s, which had caused agitation mainly in Portuguese-speaking countries.


But, the work of Senegalese, Burkinabe, and Congolese movements are not limited to a strict rejection of a discredited model. Their ambition is to create an "Africa-centered" academic reflection promoting their cause: the Ouagadougou Declaration therefore "encourages the production of academic research (…) to promote the existence of African experts on the citizens movements in Africa” The emancipation however has its limits, particularly when it comes to the issue of funding. Accusations that have been made ​​against them, to be supported by Washington and Ottawa, even if they haven’t been proven, however, raise the issue of the actual independence of these movements.


The ideal of panafricanism, for the expansion of a movement that is still an exception

Another interesting aspect of the philosophy of citizen initiatives is panafricanism. Promoted in 1949 by the Central African Barthélémy BOGANDA and by Kwame Nkrumah, panafricanism represents the hope that one day the “United States of Africa” will emerge. From the first clashes in Burundi, the “Balai Citoyen” (Citizen’s Broom) sent messages of support to the Burundian people, while the 30 movements gathered in Ouagadougou last summer asked for the release of political prisoners held in Kinshasa. There are exchanges between their structures, they advise each other on action and training of their members: for example, members of the Congolese organizations “Filimbi” and “Lucha” met their counterparts from the “Balai Citoyen” and “Y’en a marre” in march 2015 in Kinshasa.

This dynamic and variable proven successes should remind us that such organized and influential movements are still missing in too many countries of the continent, in opposition to authoritarian regimes from Pierre Nkurunziza or Robert Mugabe, just to name a few.

Where the civil war is still too fresh or repression too harsh, it is difficult to consider any organized and claimed opposition before a long time.

But the statement is full of hope: in just five years, concrete civic organizations rose up and brought down political figures that once seemed unshakeable. These movements are rooted locally, branched with their counterparts in neighboring countries and work to establish a philosophy of their own, and the more capable of mobilizing energies. Many obstacles still await citizen movements of the continent, the fifteen elections scheduled for 2016 will be an uncompromising test, but there are reasons for hope.

Translated by Anne-Sophie Cadet