Democratic uprisings brutally suppressed in many African countries – Interview with Firoze Manji (Pambazuka)

Northern Africa is not the only part of Africa where uprisings are taking place. In countries like Swaziland, Gabon, Cameroon, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso we’ve seen massive student uprisings and worker demonstrations brutally suppressed in most cases. Editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News Firoze Manji talks to the Real News Network about what’s happening in Southern Africa. Watch the video or read the transcript.n
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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Northern Africa is not the only part of Africa where uprisings are taking place. In countries like Swaziland, Gabon, Cameroon, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso we’ve seen massive student uprisings and worker demonstrations brutally suppressed in most cases. Now joining us to talk about what’s happening in Southern Africa is Firoze Manji. He’s the editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News, which involves hundreds of bloggers and journalists across Africa. So, Firoze, how are the people of Southern Africa responding to what they’re seeing in Northern Africa and in the uprisings across the Arab world?

FIROZE MANJI: Well, I think what we’re seeing is two things. First of all, I think people are inspired by what has been happening in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya. It’s been quite extraordinary how there’s been a resonance. And what we have seen also, which is being underreported in the Western press, has been the events happening in places like Swaziland, in Gabon, in Cameroon, in Djibouti, where there have been massive uprises. Last week in Burkina Faso there were mass demonstrations of students and of workers there, and the universities have just been closed down. The reason why this is happening is that everyone shares that same experience as the Egyptians and the Tunisians. Yes, most of the focus has been on the dictators and getting rid of dictators. But the real, real thing is and real common thing that everyone faces has been 30 years of structural adjustment programs, 30 years where all social services have been privatized, 30 years where there has been massive accumulation by dispossession. You have the peasantry losing land. You have people migrating to the cities. You have a huge decline in income. And what we have most seriously is not just dispossession of land and of resources and services, but also a dispossession politically. Our governments today are more inclined to listen to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the international aid agencies than they are to citizenry. So in effect what’s happened is that our countries have become much less democratic, and we are unable to hold our governments to account. So I think there’s a sense of discontent which is percolating through the continent. It’s a phenomenon that we’ve not seen since the 1950s in the rise of the anticolonial revolution. So I think these are really interesting times. Obviously, in each of those countries, their specific situation will be different, and so it’ll be manifested in different ways.

JAY: So, Firoze, go through the different countries and talk about how the protests are manifesting themselves. And also, specifically, are people demanding downfall of a dictator, or like in many of the Northern African and Arab protests, calling for actually the downfall of whole regimes?

MANJI: I think it starts with a sort of focus on a dictator, but it very soon becomes a question of the regime as well. And I think we saw that in Egypt. In Gabon we have seen mass uprisings–and focusing on exactly the same thing. In Swaziland, where you’ve had a royal family ruling the country, you had mass protests over the years against the despotic behavior of the royal families. But now people are organizing. And it’s the same issues that are arising, it’s the same thing about decline in income, the same thing about the lack of democratic processes, the lack of accountability of the government through the demands of the masses. In Cameroon you’ve seen the beginnings of some of the protests, which have been rather brutally suppressed. In Djibouti we have seen also a massive uprising–and took everyone by surprise. And that has been very brutally suppressed. So you’re seeing these kind of things happening. And I think we will see in Nairobi, in Kenya, we will see similar things beginning to happen. In South Africa you’ve already had a number of protests beginning to arise in amongst shack dwellers, who have been marginalized, who’ve been promised housing, according to the Constitution, but who have never been provided with the housing. So you’re seeing protests arising around there.

JAY: President Obama and his administration have been trying to position themselves as being on the side of the peoples movements in Northern Africa and in the Arab world. What have they been saying about the struggles in southern Africa?

MANJI: No, I think there’s been more or less silence, at least in public. I’m sure that the US missions in each country are sufficiently anxious about what is going on. But, I mean, I think, you know, one has to be rather skeptical about the sort of military actions that have been taken recently through the UN under the pressure of the US government on Libya. I mean, one has to ask the question: why is it that last year, when Gaza was under siege, when people in Palestine were appealing for international support, that there was no attempt to impose a no-fly zone? So the question is: why is it now for Libya that they are imposing a no-fly zone? The same is happening in Bahrain. There has been huge protests in the streets there, and Saudi troops have moved in. Why has there been no response there? Why has there been no attempt to side with their democratic movement?

JAY: Has the US administration in some way said to countries like Gabon or Cameroon they should at least mitigate what they’re doing, not to be so brutal in their suppression? Have they spoken out at all about this?

MANJI: Well, I’m not so sure that that they have an interest in suppressing those or preventing the suppression. I think that the US has very substantial interests, especially amongst the oil-producing countries of Africa, and if they can make sure that these governments stay in power–it is, after all, the US who has been arming them, it is the US who’ve been backing them with the USAFRICOM forces–then they don’t really have a direct interest in seeing any change. But I think the African governments are all quaking, especially as a result of the no-fly zone and military intervention in Libya, because they all fear that the same thing might happen to them. So you can imagine that they, on the one hand, didn’t want to protest at Gaddafi to begin with, but now are protesting against the US and UN intervention.

JAY: And what about China? China has major investments in Africa. Have they said anything about the suppression of the protests?

MANJI: Well, unfortunately, China abstained on the UN intervention into Libya, but they have not really said anything at all. I think they still play their role of noninterference in the internal affairs of countries. But I think, you know, we have to get this point clear. The US has far greater foreign direct investments, far greater interests in oil than does China. China, if you look, for example, in Nigeria, it has less than 5 percent of the oil fields there. In Sudan it has quite substantial interest there, but that was because the US government prohibited Excom and others from mining oil there. In Angola, they got a foot in mainly because the IMF refused to give any loans to Angola around their oil infrastructure, and China moved in and said, yes, we’ll provide it. So I think while a lot of attention is paid to China’s huge interests in Africa, it is small, it is–compared to the US, compared to the UK, compared to France, compared to Germany, it is very small. India is larger in Africa than is China. Why are we not complaining about India?

JAY: Has India said anything about the protests?

MANJI: No. Indeed, they have been rather silent. But I think we can understand their silence as well, because in their own territories, there are now considerable resurgence of–and some of it’s turned into armed struggle. But there have been massive protests in India. The Naxalite movement has, you know, resuscitated after many years of being more or less disappeared. And so you are seeing mass uprisings happening there. And I think what we are seeing is that across the global south, people who have suffered the same indignities of the structural adjustment programs, the same indignities of privatization of health care, privatization of education, you know, it’s the kind of response that you are seeing in Ohio and in the US. I think, you know, it’s beginning to happen here, too. And I think it’s very interesting how in some of the demonstrations recently they’ve been talking about turning their squares into Tahrir Square. So I think what we’re seeing is something, a discontent that’s happening on a very wide scale. I think that at this stage we’re talking, really, mainly about Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. But I think we are beginning to see the stirrings. We’ve had massive repression of the uprisings in Djibouti, and we don’t know exactly what the next phase is. The same thing has happened in Gabon. I think Burkina Faso this last week has had such enormous eruptions, and there is a continuity of something that began in about 2008, 2009. We’ve had a series of strikes and demonstrations. Actually, the parallels with Egypt are quite remarkable, because in Egypt also for the last two years–again not very well reported, but over the last two years you’ve seen wildcat strikes up and down the country, you’ve seen students come out on strikes and workers coming out in solidarity with them and vice versa. So, you know, people forget that actually what happened in Egypt appeared to have happened overnight, but actually was a buildup of discontent that had been happening over many, many years.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Firoze.

MANJI: Thank you for having me on your show.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


* This interview first appeared on the Real News Network
* Please send comments to gro.akuzabmap@rotide or comment online at Pambazuka News.


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