Political Protest in Contemporary Africa; Lisa Mueller; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2018; 264 pages; ISBN (978-1-108-43825-4)

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Overview

Prof Lisa Mueller has written an interesting, informative, engaging and controversial book. Interesting, especially in the way the author employs clear and simple language that is accessible to all levels of readers, scholars and activists alike. Informative based on the wide array of experiential and empirical evidence marshalled in the book to prove key arguments. Engaging to scholars and activists in the manner it unpacks and provides insights to a wide terrain of contemporary protests and social movements on the African continent. Controversial, especially in the terms, definitions and references it conjures of the middle class and the centrality of this class in contemporary protests and claims on the undercurrents in the rise and fall of protest waves across the continent.

Arguments

Starting from the introduction, the author points to the central roles of the middle classes in the timing of protests, the class subsequently referred to in the book as “generals of the revolution’ and the role of the poor classes that are referred to in the book as “foot soldiers of the revolution.” Drawing mainly from Afrobarometer surveys from thirty – one African countries and original data from seven months of field research in Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Malawi, the author presents arguments that “ middle – class political grievances help explain the timing of protests, while lower – class materialist grievances help explain protest participation.” (p. 7). The author posits that middle class people serve as strategic leaders of political opposition movements while the poor as strategic joiners. This categorization of participants in protests either as generals or soldiers of the revolution brings a contention. Equally contentious is the author’s assertion of the middle class as the leaders of protests. The middle class could be having advanced communication skills and access to resources, but the assertion of their willingness to accept risk is questionable. Also questionable is the author’s assertion that “salaried people have flexible schedules and regular incomes allowing them to spend time on networking and activism.” (p 14).

The middle class

Especially contentious is the author’s definition of the African middle class “as the stratum of Africans who meet their basic material needs with income sources outside the state.” (p 9) This definition departs fundamentally from the classical Marxist understanding of the middle classes as the bourgeoisie, the class between the ruling class and the proletariat. Although the author argues that the book does not attempt to advance a universal theory of the middle class, but rather to avoid the conceptual stretching, the definition of the African middle class underlies prevalent arguments whether conditions in Africa are distinct from the rest of the global South, or indeed internationally to warrant specific and unique categorization. This argument is extended as to whether to make reference to African social movements or social movements, or generally as social movements in Africa.

Waves of protests

The author casts contemporary protests in Africa rising in three waves. From the 1940s to early 1960s, first wave against colonial rule; the second wave from 1990s to early 2000s against one party dictatorships and the third wave, the current one starting around 2011 against democratic backsliding and the expansion of the democratic space.  Whereas the periodization of waves is in agreement with contemporary experiences, the author’s reference to “African history’, starting in 1940s narrows African experiences in the struggles for freedom and self – determination sparked by the advent of colonialism. The basis of the author’s argument is the view that “African protests before the late 1980s did not constitute a wave.”(p 42). This historical trajectory also ensnares the African experiences of social movements within western descriptions of social movements that are argued as largely ignited by the urban middle classes through the amplification of the mass media.

Importance

This book is important in a number of ways. It’s analysis of waves of protests in Africa in a manner that addresses the puzzle of the timing and scale of contemporary African protests. The book also tackles the broader trends and strategies of protests and social movements in Africa that are a continuous puzzle to scholars and activists. Besides, the book is zoomed on current protests in Africa, showing how macroeconomic trends shape protests over time.  The book also attempts to bring a class analysis into discourses on protests and social movements. However, the rethinking of classes in the book is limited by the author’s definitions of classes, especially in the definition of the middle class.  The author’s definition of the middle class reduces class to be reactive, rather than being pro-active agents of social transformation.

Avenues for future research and corrections

The book points to various avenues for future research that can animate scholars, activists and policy makers in understanding, determining and timing waves of protests in sub – Saharan Africa. The book however would do well in future editions by correcting some inconsistencies and anomalies. For example, the book alludes to Jomo Kenyatta, the first post – independence president of Kenya, as having been the editor of the pre- independence local vernacular newspaper known as Mumenyereri. Kenyatta was the editor of Muiguithania, also a local language newspaper in Gikuyu that was published by the pre – independence Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Henry Mworia Mwaniki was the founder and editor of Mumenyereri. The treatment of the book on the Ufungamano Initiative in Kenya is also flippant and sketchy, focused more on the weaknesses of the initiative, downplaying the crucial role played by the initiative in the pro – democracy and constitutional social movement in Kenya in the 1990s.

Audience

This book addresses in its conclusion the development community and policy makers, arguing that it’s useful in the vetting to recognize certain protesters as legitimate political actors eligible for assistance. However, the book is much more useful to scholars, activists, students and all those who are keenly interested in the role of African social movements in the transformation of Africa, especially in their capacity of social movements to mobilise collective actions among classes. The book is a worthwhile read.  

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