22.- 25.9

Protests in Africa and their outcomes

Julian Friesinger, University of Bremen
Lisa Mueller, Macalester College,  Saint Paul


23/09/20 2 - 3.30 pm

4 - 5.30 pm

Room 1.801 (Casino building)



Protests in Africa have starkly increased over the past decade. Widespread protests challenge governments and their policies. This panel asks: What have protest movements achieved so far? What are the compositions of current movements? What lessons can be drawn from movements in the South for social movement theory?

Protests in Africa have starkly increased over the past decade. The apex of protest movements is closely connected to the limited development efforts of African governments. Widespread protests challenge current governments on issues such as governance issues, income and wealth distribution, and educational topics. Cross-class coalitions between the middle- and lower classes seem to drive these demonstrations.
While the causes for the recent protest peak have been explored, only scant attention has
hitherto been given to the study of the outcomes these protests produced. Additionally, the
question of the internal composition of protest movements deserves further attention.

This panel asks:
• what are the actual outcomes of current protests?
• How and where do protest coalitions push for change? Do their demands translate into
concrete reforms, or have governments been successful in averting fundamental policy
• What are the contextual conditions that influence outcomes of protests?
• What lessons can be drawn from movements in the South for social movement theory?

We welcome comparative analyses as well as in-depth case studies. Moreover, we invite
contributions looking at the micro- and meso-level, studying the processes of coalition


After decades of authoritarian rule, Malawi transitioned to a multi-party system between 1992 and 1994. Since then, the country has seen relative political stability, although protests have occasionally erupted, most notably in 2011-12 amidst grievances over academic freedom, civil liberties, corruption, and economic decline. This paper examines the most recent protest wave in Malawi that emerged in the aftermath of the May 2019 general election. It situates the 2019 election within Malawi’s political history since the 1990s, and provides a brief overview of the most important events leading up to the poll. It then reviews the Constitutional Court’s February 2020 decision to overturn the presidential election results due to widespread allegations of fraud. The court’s decision has been celebrated by Malawian activists, opposition supporters, and international media as a historic moment for democracy and the rule of law in Africa. Sustained protests by Malawi’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) have arguably played a central role in the annulment of the results and the court’s call for new elections within 150 days. Drawing on articles from three Malawian newspapers as well as social media communication, the paper analyzes the emergence, composition, and strategies of the HRDC and interrogates the factors behind the coalition’s purported success. The paper closes with reflections on the Malawian case and potential implications for other protest movements in Africa.

Andrea Beck is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

Mass protests have typically been associated with urban environments, including in Sub-Saharan Africa. Upon independence, many African leaders implemented economic policies that benefitted urban areas to prevent unrest and potential threats to their regimes. As a result of austerity measures adopted in the 1980s, including cuts in food subsidies and public sector employment, many African countries witnessed mass protests in the 1990s. These protests tended to take place in country capitals and other large cities. Nevertheless, they affected countries as a whole and paved the way to democratic transition processes in diverse contexts, though with mixed successes. Yet while urban protests have been associated with democratically driven protests and leadership changes, they have in recent years also been associated with violence and instability. Indeed, urban growth in Africa and other developing societies has raised concerns among policymakers and scholars, especially when this urban growth is insufficiently supported by economic growth. Impoverishment, slumification, and youth unemployment are then viewed as drivers of crime, unrest, and violence against other ethnic and religious groups, or even riots against relatively democratic regimes. These contrasting views on urban mobilization raise questions on the underlying motivations for protest participation, in particular whether they are really driven by democratic values rather than economic grievances. Furthermore, as most attention has been directed to urban contexts, relatively little is known about differences in mobilization motivations across urban and rural contexts in Africa. In this paper I contribute to addressing these gaps by investigating the relationship between democratic values and propensity to engage in protests among youths in urban and rural contexts in Lagos state, Nigeria. By doing so, I contribute to the question of whether urban and rural youths have different views on protest participation, whether democratic values can be considered as predictors of protest participation, and whether the link between democratic values and protest participation is similar among urban and rural youths. I also investigate how protest participation is related to other forms of political participation, including propensity to vote, among both groups of youths. I make use of survey data from an original sample of more than 3000 secondary school students in Lagos state, Nigeria, collected in the period September-October 2019.

Leila Demarest is Assistant Professor of African Politics at the University of Leiden, Netherlands.

In recent years, Uganda has witnessed movements addressing urgent political and economic issues. The people power movement has mobilized the population around the removal of age limits for presidential elections and social media taxes. It has also critizised high levels of unemployment in Uganda. People power has since established a country-wide infrastructure of coordinators and set up fundraising structures. It has turned from a protest platform into a movement that first and foremost aims at winning the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2021.

This paper examines the key mobilizational messages of people power and sheds light on its structure. It uses ethnographic and interview data gathered in early 2020. I illustrate that in the specific environment of rents and competitive authoritarianism, the movement faces tough opposition from the government aiming at diving and containing people power by coopting some of its key figures. Drawing on the idea of repressive tolerance, the paper shows that people power is restricted to urban and controllable settings to mobilize the population. The paper hereby contributes to a better understanding of the specific challenges, movements in African countries are facing by analysing the coordination efforts and the interaction of people power with the Ugandan government.

Julian Friesinger is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Bremen, Germany.

Popular protests are an essential feature in local and global socio-political landscapes. In essence, there is an increasing frequency, intensity and spatial dimension associated with the organisation of popular protests in democratic and non democratic regimes alike. However, while there is a large body of scholarship on popular protests (and by extension social protests movements) in the global North, there is a paucity of research on such movements and popular protest in the global south. This paper contributes in filling this research gap by examining popular protests as tools and modes of dissent, political contestation and resistance especially in autocratic/authoritarian political spaces. In the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, popular protests have become the main weapon of political expression since the 1990s. The focus on Cameroon as an electoral autocracy is pertinent in that, unlike most countries that succumbed to important structural and institutional transitions from presidential dictatorships in the 1990s, Cameroon has successfully tamed the wave of external and internal democratic fervor through an incredible political and institutional isomorphism - given it a veneer of democracy when it is by all elements, intents and purposes an autocracy. As such, public responses to popular demands for institutional and structural change may and can be translated into hollow political and formal structures as "solutions" to protesters concerns. This study thus questions the choice of, utility and effectiveness of popular protests as tools of resistance by applying a case study approach to Cameroon between 1990-2020. The study employs social historical analyses and political economy to excavate the Anglophone community’s use of popular protest to resist Gaullist assimilationist policies/practices while reappropriating and projecting elements of its unique educational, cultural, legal and political Anglo-saxon heritage in Francophone dominated Cameroon.

Kogge Ndille holds a master's degree in Development Studies and is currently pursuing his master studies in Development and Society at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

On the early afternoon of January 30, 2018, veteran Kenyan opposition leader, Raila Odinga, was “sworn in” as the “People’s President of Kenya” in a brief tense ceremony at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. This was a climax of months of intensified hostility, characterised by street battles between Jubilee Alliance-led state security agencies and millions of Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) supporters protesting against yet another stolen presidential election victory against their leader. Months earlier, NASA lawyers had successfully argued at the Supreme Court, for the nullification of the discredited 2017 presidential poll. Instead of participating in the repeat poll ordered by the Court, just hours to the poll, Odinga called on his supporter to boycott the vote. He further announced that NASA was transforming into the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and embarked on a national campaign against the Jubilee government.  Employing what scholar Tilly (2004) calls Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment (WUNC) displays, NRM’s campaign were effective in not just culminating into the mock oath of office, but also forced President Uhuru Kenyatta who clearly lacked popular legitimacy to govern, to secretly seek Odinga’s cooperation. A series of secret talks culminated in the now infamous “handshake” between Odinga and Kenyatta on March 9, 2018, which effectively neutered hostilities between the country’s two main competing coalitions, albeit opening fractures within the ruling Jubilee Alliance.

There is a striking similarity between the opposition leader’s mock-oath and similar events twenty years ago that is yet to receive the necessary analytical gaze. In late December 1999, a largely peaceful protest movement established its own People’s Commission of Kenya and immediately administered the oath of office to the commissioners to challenge the Moi/KANU state for control of the constitutional reform process forcing an autocratic and intolerant regime (which at the time included Raila Odinga and his present–day allies) to capitulate and negotiate a merger between the state process and the Ufungamano Initiative.

Dominant perspectives explain effectiveness of protests from contextual advantageous opportunity structure perspective (Uba 2009). A complementary perspective is that the success of protests is a product of movement’s internal agency, especially in the way the protest is organised and the action repertoires utilised (Wouters and Walgrave 2017). Drawing from previous and ongoing research on political protest in contemporary Kenya (see for example Mati 2020), the proposed paper probes these perspectives with a view to answering the question; what made both the Ufungamano Initiative and Odinga’s mock oaths effective protest strategies that forced compromises by those in power? The paper contributes to scholarly understanding of contemporary political protests strategies that make them effective against their adversaries.

Jacob Mati is Senior Lecturer at the Sol Plaatje University and Research Associate at SWOP Institute, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.


Mati, Jacob Mwathi (2020) Political Protest in Contemporary Kenya: Change and Continuities. Routledge.

Tilly, Charles (2004). Social Movements, 1768-2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Uba, Katrin.(2009).  "The contextual dependence of movement outcomes: a simplified meta-analysis." Mobilization: An International Quarterly 14, no. 4: 433-448.

Wouters, Ruud, and Stefaan Walgrave. (2017). "What Makes Protest Powerful? Reintroducing and Elaborating Charles Tilly's WUNC Concept." Reintroducing and Elaborating Charles Tilly's WUNC Concept, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2909740

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria has emerged as one major civil society movement that attracted largest global attention. It came into existence in April 2014 following the abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok town by Boko Haram insurgents. In pursuance of abhorrence of girl-child education, Boko Haram had stormed the dormitory of a female secondary school in Chibok town on April 14, 2014 and carted away 276 of the schoolgirls. The ease of the operation, the magnitude of the haul and the poor response of Nigerian government sparked massive protests by parents and activists in Abuja. Then, a leader of the protestors, Oby Ezekwezili, a former Minister of Education and a one-time Vice President of the World Bank, asked the Military to ‘bring back our girls’, a phrase that was made into a hashtag as #BringBackOurGirls and tweeted by Ibrahim Abdulahi, a Lawyer, on 23 April, 2014. Immediately, the hashtag became trendy and emerged as the rallying point for global activism for the kidnapped girls, with figures like Clara Delevingne, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafza and the Pope identifying with it. Eventually, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag was to transform beyond the initial demand for release of the abducted girls to become a rallying-point for a global campaign for girls’ rights to formal education and a call to the UN and, indeed the world, for concerted action against Boko Haram menace. This paper sets out to interrogate the outcomes of the protest movement. It employs data sourced through interviews and content analysis of publications.

Azeez Olaniyan is Lecturer in Political Science at Ekiti State University, Nigeria.