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The power of mobilization

Political Protest in Contemporary Africa

Political resistance in Africa is led by middle-class individuals, while the poor are gathering in the streets.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Lisa Mueller, a young State scientist with a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), now employed at the venerable Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has written a new reference work on political protests in Africa. Based on fieldwork in a number of countries – Niger, Guinea and Malawi, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali – Mueller describes and analyzes the continent's political resistance movements over the past decade with great credibility. Contrary to what Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly do in the book Africa Uprising. Popular Protest and Political Change (2015) Mueller follows one clear thought throughout his book: It is the African middle class that organizes the protests, while it is the poor who fill the streets.

But are there the middle class?

For Mueller's book to appeal, one would think that, like her, one must believe that the African middle class actually exists, and that the concept of the class has something in store for Africa as well. This is not the case. I myself have spent a lot of time and thought on finding that the middle class in Africa is vanishingly small. In Le Monde diplomatique in March 2016 I argued for this view, and in Contemporary / 2 later that year I went even further, claiming that the middle class concept simply did not have anything in an African context: the so-called middle class in Africa has too bad advice to deserve the designation. This group also does not necessarily want democratization, since so many poor people will then demand their rights that the "middle class" will no longer be able to retain their privileges.

I further argued that class consciousness does not exist in this continent because sympathy and unity extend vertically within ethnic groups, faiths, and extended families rather than horizontally between classes. Very many people make a living by working in the informal sector. Even the prekariat in Europe has a high degree of income security compared to most Africans.

Not convincing, but good

Lisa Mueller knows that we are many Africanists who do not like class analysis. She therefore uses a lot of space in her book to argue for the relevance of the class concept in an African context as well. Mueller even points out that "this book's major contribution to African politics literature is to 'bring class back in'".

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

I must confess that Mueller has failed to convince me that her view is true to reality. However, the detailed analyzes of political protests in many countries, where she speaks to well-educated Africans with usable economics and very good speeches, which are capable of gathering thousands for protest marches in the capitals, are good and perspective-rich.

And fortunately, Mueller views the middle class as much less than the African Bank does; it claims that about 350 millions of Africans belong in this strata of society. It is this group's attitudes, education and habits that essentially define it, says Mueller. At the same time, she argues that the middle class experienced a boom from the 1990 years of – but her arguments that this social stratum holds "consuming power occasionally in flashy ways" make them, in my eyes, rather part of the elite. When she claims that "most importantly, the middle class comes with the power to mobilize the masses," I think her explanation is tautological; she spends a lot of time arguing that it is the middle class who are the generals of the protests.

In historical context

To further convince us of the necessity of the class concept in the study of African politics, Mueller asks: “Will political analyzes be biased if the class perspective is not included? How do classes form part of political parties and NGOs? ”Well, I'm still not convinced. And despite this, I think Lisa Mueller's study is very worthwhile.

The most profitable in Africa is still to become a politician.

The author puts the protests of the past decade into historical contexts. She envisions the first wave of resistance in Africa – the rebellion against the colonial rule in the late 1950 – and the beginning of the 1960 years, which ended with African countries' liberation from the colonial powers. The author claims that these were top-level protests where the elite made sure to preserve, even expand, their economic and political privileges after the liberation. The second wave of protests on the continent, around 1989 – 90, were demonstrations for democracy. 19 African countries opened up to multi-party democracy during the 1990 years. This wave of protest was led by middle-class Africans who themselves wanted a greater share of state resources, but they were without any major popular, ideological support.

The privileges of the elite

The third – and current – wave of African political opposition is marked by a mixture of the middle class not seeing the promised democracy and the poor seeing nothing of the state's increase in gross national income. The new rebel leaders are born in formal democracies, but feel that democratic rights do not exist in practice. They are dissatisfied that the political elite are giving themselves privileges that also make them economic elites: The most profitable in Africa is still to become a politician. Young middle-class men are generals in the demonstrations who want political influence, but most of the ones they bring out into the streets are poor: foot soldiers who want a better personal economy and aren't really interested in politics and democratization.

The historical contexts, along with Mueller's detailed descriptions of several and long – to state – of – the – field works, make the book a new reference work for African political resistance, even for those of us who believe that there is no middle class of importance in Africa.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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