The Arab awakening, with its inspiring uprisings and historic elections (most recently in Tunisia and Egypt) has been seen by citizens in other African countries as a model of how to instigate change. So far, it has triggered public demands for similar reforms from several African countries, such as Senegal, Malawi, Uganda and Swaziland.
At the same time, governments throughout Africa are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the influence the North African revolutions may have on their countries. In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, for example, the government of Zimbabwe arrested close to 45 activists and initially charged them with treason for watching videos on the revolutions in Egypt and discussing the implications of these events for Africans. Similar experiences have been highlighted in Malawi, Gabon, Uganda and other African countries.
There is a clear lesson: no matter how repressive a regime may be, it can be toppled by committed citizens.
Another lesson of the Arab uprisings for Africa is that people from different political and religious affiliations can converge for a common cause: to demand much-needed reforms. New rulers can replicate such cooperation at the national level by creating governments that include citizens from different spheres in order to improve collaboration, accountability and the manner in which future leaders are elected.
As Zimbabwe moves closer to its next election we may see an increase in repressive acts against civil society, human rights activists and those aligned with the political opposition. But the elections also present an opportunity for citizens to decide who should lead the country using the ballot box rather than violent street protests. Free, fair and transparent elections could provide an alternative to violence and a smooth transition to a new political arrangement.
What is very clear from the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia is that the demise of leaders previously seen as 'unassailable' presents opportunities and unique challenges. Opportunities are evident in newly-opened democratic space, after decades of civil society working in restrictive environments where elections, when conducted, were merely a façade to legitimize regimes in power. The challenges include: rebuilding infrastructure destroyed during the revolutions, improving social and economic conditions and preventing an influx of unwanted actors into these newly opened political spaces – including the military or those with hidden agendas.
As observed in the Arab Spring, social media and a collective realization that democratic and political reforms are long overdue present clear opportunities for joint government-citizen partnerships. But as change occurs, we must beware of replicating past experiences in Africa. We should not forget about new rulers who took over when old governments were replaced and soon forgot the cautionary tales of their comrades and are now no different from the regimes they overthrew.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is time for us to attempt a completely new model of governance. This will entail empowering citizens and providing them with more responsibilities – using a model in which governments and civil society act as partners, both holding each other accountable. After all, a commendable aspect of the Egyptian struggle was that, in the midst of the mayhem of the revolution, security and some basic services continued to be provided to citizens by other citizens.
The Arab spring has clearly portrayed the need for a paradigm shift in which power is decentralized and citizens are allowed to participate actively in shaping their destiny.