The power of mobilisation

AFRICA / Political resistance in Africa is led by the middle-class, while the poor gather in the streets.

Political Protest in Contemporary Africa
Author: Lisa Mueller
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, UK

Lisa Mueller, a young political scientist with a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), now employed at the small, prestigious Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has written a new reference work on African political protests. Based on fieldwork in several countries – Niger, Guinea and Malawi, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali – Mueller describes and analyses the continent’s political resistance movements over the past decade with great credibility. Unlike what Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly do in the book Africa Uprising. Popular Protest and Political Change (2015), Mueller follows one clear idea throughout her book: it is the African middle class that organises the protests, while it is the poor who fill the streets.

But does the middle class exist?

For Mueller’s book to appeal, one would think that one must believe, like her, that the African middle class actually exists and that the concept of class has relevance in Africa. This is not the case. I have spent a lot of time and thought trying to conclude that the middle class in Africa is vanishingly small. In Le Monde diplomatique in March 2016, I argued for this view, and in Samtiden/2 later the same year, I went even further and claimed that the concept of the middle class simply had no relevance in an African context: The so-called middle class in Africa is too poor to deserve the designation. This group does not necessarily desire democratisation either, as so many poor people would then demand their rights that the «middle class» would no longer be able to retain its privileges.

I further argued that class consciousness does not exist in this part of the world because sympathy and solidarity occur vertically within ethnic groups, religious communities, and extended families rather than horizontally between classes. Many people earn a living by working in the informal sector. Even the precariat in Europe has a high degree of income security compared to most Africans.

The political protesters in Africa are not among the 600 millions poor, or the 350 millions earning over two dollars a day.

Not convincing, but good

Lisa Mueller knows that many Africanists do not like class analysis. Therefore, she devotes a lot of space in her book to argue for the relevance of class in an African context. Mueller even points out that «this book’s major contribution to the African politics literature is to ‘bring class back in.’»

I must confess that Mueller has not convinced me that her view aligns with reality. However, the detailed analyses of political protests in many countries, where she speaks with well-educated Africans with decent economic means and excellent public speaking skills, who can gather several thousand people for protest marches in the capitals, are nonetheless good and insightful.

And fortunately, Mueller sees the middle class as much smaller than the African Development Bank does; it claims that approximately 350 million Africans belong to this social stratum. This group’s attitudes, education, and habits mainly define it, according to Mueller. At the same time, she claims that the middle class experienced a boom from the 1990s onwards – but her arguments that this social stratum possesses «consumption power […] occasionally in ostentatious ways» make them, in my view, rather part of the elite. When she claims that «most importantly, the middle class comes with the power to mobilise the masses», I find her explanation tautological; after all, she devotes much space to arguing that the middle class are the general of the protests.

In a historical context

To further convince us of the necessity of the concept of class in the study of African politics, Mueller asks, «Will political analyses become biased if the class perspective is absent? How do classes fit into political parties and voluntary organisations?» Well, I am still not convinced. And despite this, I find Lisa Mueller’s study very worth reading.

The author places the protests of the past decade in historical contexts. She examines the first wave of resistance in Africa – the rebellions against colonial rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which resulted in the liberation of African countries from colonial powers. The author argues that these were top-driven protests where the elite ensured the preservation and even expansion of their economic and political privileges after liberation. The second wave of protests on the continent, around 1989-90, was demonstrations for democracy. 19 African countries opened up to multi-party democracy during the 1990s. This wave of protests was led by middle-class Africans who desired a larger share of the state’s resources but lacked significant popular ideological support.

the most profitable profession in Africa is still to become a politician.

Privileges of the elite

The third – and current – wave of African political resistance is characterised by the middle class not seeing any promised democracy materialise and the poor not benefiting from the increase in the country’s gross national income. The new leaders of the uprisings are born in formal democracies but experience that democratic rights do not exist in practice. They are dissatisfied with the political elite granting themselves privileges that also make them economic elites: the most profitable profession in Africa is still to become a politician. Young middle-class men are the generals of the demonstrations that seek political influence. Still, most of those they bring to the streets are poor foot soldiers who desire better personal economic conditions and are not particularly interested in politics and democratisation.

The historical contexts, along with Mueller’s detailed descriptions from several – by political scientist standards – extensive fieldworks, make the book a new reference work on African political resistance, even for those of us who believe there is no significant middle class in Africa.

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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