Protests Threatening African Leaders Fueled by Economic Woes

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Burundi Protests
A protester throws fuel on a shop kiosk dragged into the road to form a barricade in the Cibitoke neighborhood of Bujumbura on May 7, 2015. Photographer: Phil Moore /AFP via Getty Images

Protests in African countries from Burkina Faso to Burundi have been sparked by youthful populations with little hope of employment and by leaders who have in some cases ruled for decades.

The discontent, which began in Burkina Faso in October, spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo in January, and has now crossed the continent to Burundi, prompting regional leaders to call an emergency meeting after two weeks of protests and at least 14 deaths. Mass demonstrations in Burkina Faso ended Blaise Compaore’s 27 years in power.

“Underpinning a lot of these protests is anger about stalled development, rising food prices and cutting fuel subsidies,” Clive Gabay, an expert on African politics at the Queen Mary University of London, said. “You have this youthful, unemployed population that has been sidelined.”

While sub-Saharan Africa has grown faster than every region except developing Asia in the past 10 years, there aren’t enough jobs for the 1 billion people on the continent. An extra 450 million jobs need to be created in the next 20 years to match the expansion in the number of working-age people in the region, the International Monetary Fund said last month.

Monitoring Elections

About 40 percent of people in Africa are under 15 years old, the most of any region, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The unemployment rate for people 15 to 25 years old living in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, is three times higher than the rest of the working population, according to the African Development Bank.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has warned that the violence in neighboring Burundi threatens stability in East Africa. Youths have led two weeks of protests to prevent President Pierre Nkurunziza from seeking a third term in office next month. The Constitutional Court approved his request, despite the opposition claiming it violates a 15-year-old peace agreement that sets a two-term limit. Nkurunziza submitted his candidacy for the June 26 vote to the electoral commission on Friday.

The nations that will probably watch closely what happens in Burundi are those with elections scheduled in the next two years, said Yolande Bouka, a researcher on conflict prevention at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg. Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania and Uganda all have polls during that period.

Protest Risk

There is “serious discontent with the type of governance offered by the leaders,” Bouka said. Given the large youth population and unemployment rate “it is not surprising that people take to the street to address unresponsive government.”

Burundi ranks eighth-lowest on the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures indicators such as income, child mortality and education. Congo is second-to-last on the 190-member list.

“In many countries it’s a risky thing to go on a protest and you’re not going to risk getting arrested or shot unless there’s something real at stake,” Gabay said. “There’s something else that’s propelling people onto the street and for me they’re economic issues.”

Using social media like Twitter and Facebook, young activists can mobilize faster than in years gone by and can collaborate across borders. The movements in Congo and Burkina Faso draw inspiration from Senegalese artists, who began protests in 2011 against power outages. The Senegalese movement was key in mobilizing youth to vote President Abdoulaye Wade, who had ruled for 12 years, out of power a year later.

Life Presidents

Demonstrations erupted in Congo in January when lawmakers tried to change electoral laws in a way that could have delayed elections. That would have extended the 14-year rule of President Joseph Kabila, who took over when his father was assassinated in 2001.

Congolese activists met with artists and musicians from Senegal and Burkina Faso in March. The police arrested them in the Congolese capital and accused them of “promoting violence.” Kabila, who faced criticism from international rights monitors including New York-based Human Rights Watch, said he will not run for office next year.

While there are countries in sub-Saharan Africa with leaders who have been in power for more than three decades, including Zimbabwe, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, political opposition groups there say they are suppressed.

Rwanda’s Kagame, who has been president since 2000, also hasn’t faced popular opposition as he says he is open to staying another term. Parliament is reviewing a petition signed by 2 million people who support changing the constitution to allow for a third term.

“African people are tired of presidents who aren’t delivering to their people and they’re tired of presidents who want to stay for life,” Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa director for the International Crisis Group, said by phone from Nairobi, Kenya. “There’s a sort of exasperation because governments aren’t delivering.”

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