The first edition of the Université Populaire de l’Engagement Citoyen was launched in Dakar, in July 2018, with the aim of bringing together social movements from the continent to reflect on Africa’s pressing challenges. Discussions focused on the legacy of Pan-Africanism, the political and economic challenges that Africa is currently facing and the need of greater solidarity between citizens and social movements.
The late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who was for many years the Secretary General of the Pan-African Movement, and a great intellectual, used to end his weekly “Thursday Postcard” with the following words: “Don’t agonise, organise”!
The birth and rise to prominence of social movements of young people, including raptivists, hip-hop musicians, artivists, and other movements for rights and change across the continent, particularly since the “Arab Spring” of 2010-2011 seems to be an indication that African youth are beginning to heed that wise counsel. Beginning at the country level, where they establish their firm anchorage, these movements also inspire and support each other, particularly in times of trouble (their leaders and militants are in some countries often harassed, detained, and subjected to enormous pressure). They have now begun to form a much better structured network among themselves.
From 23 to 27 July 2018, the Université Populaire de l’Engagement Citoyen (UPEC) (Popular University of Citizens’ Engagement) launched its first edition, at La Place du Souvenir (Place of Remembrance), in Dakar, Senegal. A venue carefully chosen, situated on the Corniche at the corner of the Aimé Césaire Street, this place “is the receptacle of the memory of black people, its martyrs, activists and symbol of African dignity. A place of rendez-vous for giving and receiving the black people [on the continent] and the diaspora, the place of the African remembrance is a framework of convergences of communication and cultural, scientific and intellectual exchanges but also documentation on the great historical figures and intellectuals of the black world.”[[i]]
While walking on the Remembrance Place, you can see pictures and short sentences describing some of the most influential Africans. From Kwame N’Krumah to Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Cheikh Anta Diop or Malcolm X, they all bring you to reflect on Africa and Black People’s struggles. Adding to that, a gigantesque Map of Africa overlooking the ocean rests at the end of the square, providing a breath-taking scenery which again forces the reflection on Africa’s history, and where we are standing now. Which kind of legacy did most of these influential pan-Africanists leave us? How are we keeping their passion, reflection and struggle for the emancipation, well-being, and dignity of Africans alive?
These reflections are at the centre of the UPEC, which is a kind of “summer school” initiated and run by citizens movements, gave the opportunity to African social movements to discuss their countries’ challenges and Africa’s future. But before diving into UPEC details, let us take a step back to understand what motivated the creation of this continental event.
Background: Beyond protest
In January 2011, after recurrent power cuts happening in the country, a group of young Senegalese (engaged artists, journalists, an executive banker, an information technology expert) discussed about their country’s issues and challenges and decided to break with fatalism. On 18 January 2011 precisely, Y’en a Marre (Enough is Enough) Movement was launched at the Place of Remembrance. Corruption, nepotism, political patronage were at the heart of the political context. [[ii]] Fed up with President Abdoulaye Wade, who was 85 at that time, the group promoting democracy and good governance by engaging the Senegalese people through its music, drew international attention in 2012 for helping to vote Wade out of power, after he announced that he would be running for an unconstitutional third term. [[iii]]
The movement, described as social, civil, non-partisan and secular, gained a lot of support because they were talking to the people directly, and believed in the power of the youth. They played a major role in mobilising the people of Senegal, particularly the youth, to vote out Abdoulaye Wade. [[iv]]
Y’en a Marre, alongside with Le Balai Citoyen [[v]] (the Citizen Broom) from Burkina Faso, which played a leading role in the mass movement that “swept” away President Blaise Compaoré in 2014, inspired other youth around the continent to start their own social movements. In recent years, African social movements have experienced an effervescence animated by young people. Citizens’ mobilisations in several African countries, such as Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar to name a few, have questioned and revolutionised democratic processes.
These citizens’ movements are often born on the eve of elections and stand up against constitutional changes and the will of certain elites to perpetuate themselves in power. They bring citizens together to discuss about and denounce social, economic, political and environmental issues they are facing in their countries. Some movements have succeeded in making the revolutionary change in regimes that they wanted out – example of Y’en a Marre, Le Balai Citoyen, and #GambiaHasDecided –, but are now facing new challenges concerning the aftermath of the revolution, while others are still struggling to strengthen themselves and are facing strong repression from their governments.
The need for a continental solidarity between these movements arose a couple of years ago, when citizens’ movements from The Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Republic of Congo, Chad, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal met in December 2016 at the Gorée Institute, allowing the movements to agree on the creation of a pan-African framework of actions. Thus, was born the pan-African platform gathering citizens’ movements of the continent, which promotes five central axes: 1) Solidarity of actions between the movements of the different countries; 2) Impulse of an African citizen conscience and reinforcement of the image of the African citizen movements; 3) Strengthen the action and advocacy capacities of the movements of citizens; 4) Development of fast and flexible financing mechanisms independently guaranteed by a common fund; 5) Creation of an African Summit of Citizen Engagement.[[vi]]
Based on that fifth axe, the continental platform, composed of social movements scattered throughout the African continent, with sometimes restrictions on the means of communication or simply lacking opportunities to meet, decided to formally create the African Summit of Citizen Engagement. Led by Y’en a Marre, La Lucha (DRC) and Wake Up Madagascar, the first edition of the UPEC, with the theme “Citizenship and the Right to Decide”, was launched in July 2018. It aimed to bring together actors of social change coming from social movements, such as activists, artists, journalists, civil society actors, and students, all driven by the same desire for a positive evolution of their country, and especially for the continent, in one place, during one week.
The event attracted 100 participants composed of 30 different African social movements from 23 countries and the diaspora, including Troisième Voie from Comoros; Sindumuja from Burundi; #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall from South Africa; Filimbi from DRC; Iyina from Chad; Project South and Black Lives Matter from the United States of America; Wake Up Madagascar; La Lucha from DRC; Claudy Siar from Radio Couleurs Tropicales; Ras le Bol from the Republic of Congo; Our Destiny from Cameroon; Balai Citoyen from Burkina Faso; Gom Sa Boppa from The Gambia; Anataban from South Sudan; and En Aucun Cas from Togo.
The Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi and the Burundian singer Khadja Nin participated in discussions as well. Different artists performed during the opening ceremony such as Ismaël Lô and Awadi from Senegal; and some of them, in addition of performing also participated to discussions such as Tiken Jah Fakoly from Côte d’Ivoire, Killa Ace from the Gambia, Smockey from Le Balai Citoyen, Caylah from Wake-Up Madagascar, Valsero from Our Destiny or Croque Mort from Iyina, to name a few.
The week was organised around three axes, namely Teaching and Reflection on Citizen Engagement; “Ted Talks” giving a stand to social movements sharing their experiences; and Social Movements’ Advocacy and Cultural activities, such as the opening ceremony concert, and group photos of activists holding up placards with messages destined to African elites hanging on to power.
Afrotopia, or our own continental Wakanda?
During teaching and reflections sessions, professors such as Zachariah Mampilly, Saïd Abbas, Jason Stearns, Felwin Sarr (author of a great book titled Afrotopia), and activist Pascal Kambale engaged the participants in Africa’s challenges, its revolutions and the history of social movements. The names of Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and other prominent pan-Africanists (Fathers of Pan-Africanism) kept coming back in the discussions. How would be Africa if these “Fathers” were still alive? The past is the foundation of any country and continent’s history, and it is always useful to build on it and learn from it in order to move forward consciously.
But it was highlighted that we often speak about Africa either in its past tense, or future tense, which by installing Africa in the future, we are saying that its present is deficit. We spend our time looking at what others have, and not what we have now, and what we can do now. How do we want Africa to be now? An emancipatory political project at the continental level is needed. The utopia, according to Felwin Sarr, is the first action in the emancipatory project. Nothing can be done without utopia because it first solves what is the space of the imaginary. There has been lack of utopia and projects in Africa. It is important therefore to rehabilitate the civilisational project, and ask the question: what kind of society do we want to build?
One important actor to develop and implement such projects are social movements. But they also need to be transformative politically, socially, physically and mentally. There is an urgency to seek a moral revolution on the continent, and to do it; social movements need to project their own “Wakanda”[[vii]]. It is not possible to reform from outside, change has to come from the inside. To trust other people to come and fix African countries will inevitably lead to problems, lack of ownership and identity. Only Africans can change the course of events happening on the continent, not outsiders. African leaders often, if not always, rely on foreign aid accompanied by specific agendas, which are not in the interest of African citizens.
According to Pascal Kambale, economic answers are frequently given to political problems, and they are based on foreign interests. The question of whether or not the economic realm will take precedence over, or be led by the political realm, will determine the future of African democracies. Political problems need to be addressed with political answers. In order to do that, social movements need to mobilise citizens, and voices that are forgotten and missing during elections, and therefore to propose political projects.
As much as most social movements want to stay away from the political scene, whether they want it or not, they do politics on a daily basis. There is need for them to develop political projects in order to propose alternative models that place people at the centre of their membership and programmes, and therefore help create new political leaders that would have social movements backgrounds when, and if, they enrol in politics.
But the question remains: which kind of society are social movements projecting when addressing citizens? Which kind of economic and political frames are they proposing that are different from the current ones? What vocabulary are they using to capture citizens’ attention? Mobilising citizens has been one of the biggest challenges of social movements. There is need to explain to people “why” social movements and activists are mobilising, and often risking their lives, and to connect the purpose of the action to emotional activities, such as concerts, which often lead to emotions and can more easily connect citizens to the “why”.
These challenges and discussions underscored the importance of a continental solidarity between social movements and the need to share knowledge and experience of what has been done, and what still needs to be done. It sets the path for the formal creation of the African continental platform. During the last day of the UPEC, the continental platform called Afrikki, where the Azimiyo la Dakar (Dakar’s Declaration in Kiswahili) was been read and shared with the media, was formally launched. This platform is composed of a Steering Committee that will work on everything related to the formalisation of the platform, the next General Assembly of African social movements, and the next UPEC. It will also be the focal point to contact when activists are in danger in order to create chains of solidarity and reactions with other social movements.
In conclusion, the first edition of the UPEC can be considered a success. It brought 100 participants coming from different parts of the continent, with different backgrounds, experiences, strengths and means of action, but having the same passion and love for their countries and continent. The next UPEC will face greater demands, new challenges, and will have to adapt to the different remarks and suggestions shared during the inaugural edition. For example, few spaces were given to artists to formally express themselves and share what they have done and continue doing to alleviate their communities, when both social movements and artists should work hand in hand.
The platform would need also to expand itself to Africa’s Anglophone countries, which were underrepresented during the first UPEC, and including more women and grassroots citizens in the event would also be in order. But one thing is certain; they all have the will and strength to work together for a continental awakening and citizens’ control of society’s spheres, all for the sake of a healthy and peaceful Africa.
*Amandine Rushenguziminega is Programme Associate at TrustAfrica. Follow her @AmIrigoga
[iii] World Policy Website, “Changing Senegal Through Rap: Y En A Marre”, by Atul Bhattarai, 10 March 2016, https://worldpolicy.org/2016/03/10/changing-senegal-through-rap-yen-a-marre-2/ accessed on 11 September 2018
[vii] An African utopia of good governance and technological superiority that forms the core of Black Panther, a recent, extremely popular Hollywood movie.