Are We Witnessing an African Spring?
Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in July 2024. Read more about the special series here.
Just weeks before voters go to polls, Rwandan resistance leader Diane Rwigara is calling on President Paul Kagame to revoke his candidacy for a fourth term. A well-respected women’s rights activist, Rwigara ran against the country’s ruler of twenty-four years in the 2017 presidential elections. While that campaign garnered little support in Rwanda, Rwigara’s subsequent grassroots efforts are now bearing fruit: She mobilized close to 10,000 supporters on Tuesday afternoon to deliver her historic denunciation of Kagame. Rwigara has promised to continue protests until Kagame withdraws from the race.
The unrest in Rwanda is just the latest in a series of anti-regime movements sweeping East Africa, beginning with Zimbabwe’s toppling of Robert Mugabe in 2017 and the protests that forced Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni to resign in 2021. Should Rwigara successfully bring down Kagame, it will be the third such ousting of a leader who’s tenure could be measured in decades: Mugabe held office for thirty-seven years and Museveni for thirty-five.
Rather than simply ridding the region of unpopular leaders, the East Africa protests represent a broader rejection of the strongman politics that characterized the post-colonial era, embracing a pro-democracy agenda just as Middle Eastern activists did during the Arab Spring movement of the last decade. These anti-authoritarian protests, which shaped the political landscape of the Middle East offer an important historical precedent for today’s protest leaders and provide lessons on how to bring about lasting reform.
Robert Mugabe’s presidency came to a swift end in November 2017 after a coup by the the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF). As then-Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa rose to presidential office, first through military appointment and later by popular vote, Zimbabweans turned out en masse to celebrate the downfall of the dictator who oversaw the infamous Gukurahundi massacres, decades of arbitrary arrests, and torture. Now six years into Mnangagwa’s administration, Zimbabwe has seen tremendous progress towards rising standards of living. It was likely the president’s strong track record on economic issues, including his decision to accept an IMF/World Bank relief package amidst Z-dollar hyperinflation that carried Mnangagwa to victory during last year’s general election.
In spite of Mnangagwa’s success on economic issues, his governance agenda, particularly regarding the role of the military, leaves much to be desired. Reports of the ZDF violently breaking up anti-regime rallies recall Mugabe’s use of security forces to further his own political agenda. While sustained popular protests have been absent in Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, probably due to the outsized power wielded by the ZDF, it is clear that continued liberalization will remain out of reach without checks on the military’s influence.
In Uganda, the latent reform movement has centered largely around singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine. Gaining initial support with a 2018 youth campaign, Wine elevated his political activism when he challenged Museveni for presidential office during the 2021 general election. His campaign, run from prison after his 2020 arrest enjoyed strong youth support but ultimately failed. On February 19, 2021 as Museveni was sworn into office for a sixth term a record-breaking 18,000 people gathered in Kampala to demand his resignation. Though Wine remained in prison, young people from all over the country descended on the capital to stage protests on his behalf, maintaining momentum throughout 2021. Finally, on November 1, 2021, Museveni appeared on state TV to officially tender his resignation, citing health concerns.
In the intervening years, little real change has come to Uganda. In the wake of his resignation, Museveni’s vice-president and political ally Edward Ssekandi has come to power, and there is already talk that the former president’s son may run for office in 2026. Wine, who was released from prison shortly after Museveni’s resignation has continued efforts to remake Uganda’s government. His protests, however, have failed to galvanize the sweeping support they once enjoyed. Having unseated a dictator of thirty-five years and secured the freedom of the movement’s figurehead, Uganda’s change-makers seem to consider their work complete.
In both Zimbabwe and Uganda, reformist movements remain unfinished, with protest leaders failing to see liberalizing initiatives through to their conclusion. Shortcomings aside, the East African movements share several important features that suggest a broader regional trend: (1) The role of youth in driving movements; (2) a vision of the future driven by ideological concerns; and (3) a wholesale rejection of entrenched authoritarian leadership. It is important to remember that these are the same features that dominated the Arab Spring. At the time, pundits heralded these protests as a sign of progress in the region. Instead, the Arab Spring gave way to an Arab Winter, with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq witnessing increasingly dictatorial governance, civil war, and extremist terrorism—all trends that have endured to this day.
Rwigara’s activism against Kagame may well be the impetus that inspires Rwanda’s neighbors to resume their reform campaigns. To prevent backsliding activists must be prepared to move beyond the comparatively easy victory of ousting a head of state to address the multilayered structures of power underlying authoritarianism. Transitioning away from dictatorial rule requires sustained activism, both to generate de jure governance changes as well as hearts and minds campaigns. Demonstrating to the public that democracy can surpass authoritarianism in quality of life, civic engagement, and national pride.