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In an interview with Azad Essa for Al Jazeera, Firoze Manji, editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News, discusses the rise in protests across Africa and the extent to which the events inspire people’s demands for greater political representation and self-determination.

AZAD ESSA: There are often protests all over Africa – food riots have been the case over the past two years. What is the story this time? Is it possible to say that the protests in Gabon, Djibouti and those in Sudan (earlier in the month) are linked to the uprisings in Egypt? You are in West Africa right now; how are people responding to the events in the Middle East?

FIROZE MANJI: I think that we have to consider what makes masses of people take to the streets, even under conditions where it is dangerous and there is a military or despotic regime. It is partly linked to the so-called 'food riots'. First of all, these were not riots, but protests against the massive (25 per cent) rise in the price of basic foods. These price hikes are a direct result of widespread speculation on food as a commodity by the parasites that occupy the stock exchanges across the world. But this speculation is a reflection of a deeper crisis, that is, the profound crisis of capitalism. As part of that crisis, we have seen the financial meltdowns and economic crisis developing across the advanced capitalist countries. We have to understand, though, that what we are facing is not just a financial crisis, not merely an economic crisis, but also a profound and escalating crisis of confidence, a crisis of credibility in the existing powers and the so-called 'solutions' that they are offering. There is growing mass discontent across the continent. People are being treated as if they are stupid, that the crisis can be solved by the very same economic policies that created the crisis in the first place. It is no wonder that they protest. And it took just the huge hike in food prices to provoke a mass reaction in Egypt. But we have to recognise that what provoked the reaction was not all that people there were protesting about. The mass mobilisations were the outcome of years of repression, abuse and immiseration that the Egyptian people faced for decades from a regime that was maintained militarily, financially and politically by the US as well as by Israel.

The protests in Gabon, Djibouti, Sudan and Libya, as well as elsewhere, are organically a reflection of the crisis of credibility in existing powers: we are living in an era where discontent is the order of the day. There is little doubt that the events in Tunisia and in Egypt have been an inspiration to many - if the Tunisians can expel Ben Ali, if the Egyptian people can expel Mubarak, then of course the oppressed feel inspired. But they are responding to their own oppressions and exploitation, not merely mimicking what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. I think the world's attention has been grabbed by the events in these countries – and Al Jazeera has played an unusually brilliant role in ensuring people knew about what was happening. It is natural that people we feel – well, if the Egyptians can do it, why not us? But drawing inspiration from such events is not the same as saying that this has 'resulted' in protests such as we have seen in Djibouti and elsewhere. But they are linked in the sense that each of these protests are a reflection of the crisis of confidence that is growing because people no longer believe that the solutions offered by their own ruling classes are meaningful.

There is little doubt that people in Senegal and other countries in West Africa draw on the same inspiration as most of us do in the challenge made by ordinary people to the despotism in Tunisia and Egypt. But their conditions are different, and while we can be certain that in due course people will rise up against their rulers, we cannot predict when that might happen.

In any case, we face a long and protracted period of struggle: the situations in Tunisia and Egypt are not resolved. There will be ups and downs in the struggles. But what we are witnessing is the fragility of regimes that are more concerned with creating a conducive environment for corporations than for citizens. Across the continent we have seen 30 years of structural adjustment programmes that have made governments and the state less and less accountable to the citizens, and more and more to corporations and the US, Europe and Japan.

AZAD ESSA: Though the contexts are different, are Africans growing increasingly tired of ‘botched’ elections? Think of Kenya, Zimbabwe, Côte d'Ivoire and now Gabon.

FIROZE MANJI: I don't think it is accurate to talk of 'botched' elections. The elections in Kenya in 2007 were not botched: there was a civilian coup d'état. The election results were stolen. The elections in Côte d'Ivoire were not botched. In both cases though, what the elections showed was how divided these societies are. The so-called international community is obsessed with elections where the choice offered to people is merely voting. What people want is the democratisation of society, of production, of the economy and indeed of all aspects of life. What they are being offered instead is the ballot box. What Kenya, Zimbabwe, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon and other places are increasingly showing is that the ballot box does not represent a solution to the crisis they are facing of pauperisation while a minority get rich in collusion with a small number of oligopolies. There is a desperate desire for democratisation rather than ‘parliamentary cretinism’: elections don't address the fundamental problems that people face. Elections on their own do nothing to enable ordinary people to be able to determine their own destiny.

AZAD ESSA: Are Africans watching these protests in the Middle East? Are they drawing inspiration for their own struggles? Africa also has many young, even educated, but unemployed people. Are the situations increasingly similar to the Middle East in this context?

FIROZE MANJI: There is little doubt that people are watching with enthusiasm what is going on in the Middle East, and drawing inspiration from that for their own struggles. I think that the process of globalisation and the imposition of the neoliberal agenda has resulted in an extraordinary homogenisation of the experience of the majority of people in the global south: increasing pauperisation, growing unemployment, declining power to hold their governments to account, declining income from agricultural production, increasing accumulation by dispossession – something that is growing on a vast scale – and increasing willingness of governments to comply with the political and economic wishes of the North. In that sense, people in Africa recognise the experiences of citizens in the Middle East. There is enormous potential for solidarity to grow out from that. In any case, where does Africa end and the Middle East begin?

AZAD ESSA: Social media has driven a lot of these protests and the coverage. Can Africans match this?

FIROZE MANJI: Social media has clearly played an enormous role in enabling information to be disseminated widely. There are many who think that social media such as Twitter created the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, which of course is idiotic. Young people who were the force behind the revolution, and they have been immensely creative in using whatever tools that they have at their disposal – including social media – to mobilise and to enable solidarity actions to take place. The same potential exists in much of Africa, only the reality is that access to the internet is much more limited in most of Africa than is the case in Egypt or Tunisia. Despite that, I am sure that we will witness creativity in the use of all kinds of media as the struggles emerge.

AZAD ESSA: The scale of revolt in Africa – can it reach the level of Egypt? And if Egypt is the catalyst for the Middle East, what might be the catalyst for Africa?

FIROZE MANJI: First of all, Egypt is in Africa. We should not fool about with the attempts of the North to segregate the countries of North Africa from the rest of the continent. Their histories have been intertwined for millennia. Some Egyptians may not feel they are Africans, but that is neither here nor there. They are part of the heritage of the continent. So Egypt has been an inspiration – as was reflected in the discussions at the recent World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal. I think it is not helpful to talk about the events there being a catalyst. There are enough conditions of repression, oppression, exploitation and dispossession to act as a catalyst without the need for struggles in Egypt to serve as one. Inspiration, for sure; catalyst, I doubt.

AZAD ESSA: International media has largely ignored the ripple effects on to the rest of Africa – how would you rate this assessment? Unfair?

FIROZE MANJI: One of the features of corporate media, especially when it comes to dealing with revolutions, is their own capacity to delude themselves. None of them – perhaps with the exception of Al Jazeera – understood at the beginning what was happening in Tunisia, nor its impact on Egypt. I think it might be reasonable to talk of a 'ripple effect' within the Arab north of Africa: we may well be witnessing the rebirth of the Arab nation. Whether there is a ripple that spreads across the rest of Africa is a moot point. As I said before, Africans are drawing inspiration from the struggles in Egypt: if Mubarak, with all the military, financial and political support from the US, Europe and Israel can be toppled, why not lesser despots?


* Firoze Manji is editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News.
* Azad Essa is an Al Jazeera journalist.
* Thanks to Al Jazeera for the publication of this interview.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.