The popular protests that spread across North Africa and the Middle East left many wondering whether sub-Saharan African countries would experience their own “Arab Spring.” In a growing number of countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa citizens are taking to the streets to protest election results, the failure of their governments to deliver basic services, increasing prices of food and fuel, to demand higher wages or to express other grievances. Popular protests across Africa have generally gone under the radar or have been dismissed as not symbolizing a broader movement for change, yet it is clear that there is a growing anger brewing across the continent and large numbers of ordinary citizens have become emboldened to find ways to express this to their governments and the world.
In January 2011, while media attention was focused on Egypt, thousands of protesters took to the streets across sub-Saharan Africa including Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Swaziland and Uganda. More recently, citizens in Guinea stepped up demonstrations to press for transparency in legislative elections. In the run up to recent elections, Angolan rappers organized rare street protests and used social media to spread news not found in the state-run media. This August, South Africa had one of the worst outbreaks of violence since the end of minority rule as police attempted to disperse miners striking for increased wages at the British-owned Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana.
In an effort to get the needs of their communities met, contemporary struggles across Sub-Saharan Africa are being shaped by each country‘s political economy. People are organizing campaigns, demonstrations and strikes in the context of the socioeconomic conditions that structure their daily lives, the Y’en a Marre movement in Senegal is one example. Y’en a Marre (We’re Fed Up/Enough is Enough) emerged as a new political force in Senegalese politics in early 2011 when they first organized protests to denounce injustice in the country and then against the controversial bid by Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade for a third term in office. 85-year-old Wade proposed constitutional changes that would have ensured his success in the next elections by reducing the number of votes needed to win an election from 51 percent to 25 percent. The changes would have also established the post of vice president to which many claim he intended to nominate his son thus creating a family dynasty.
The Y’en a Marre collective was started in a dark apartment during a power outage by well known rap artists Thiat (Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré), Fou Malad (Malal Almamy Talla) and journalist Fadel Barro. Thiat of the hip hop group Keur Gui explained that he was frustrated and angry because there were times when people had electricity for just four hours a day. To add emphasis, Thiat stopped mid sentence and asked me, “Do you understand what I am saying, electricity for four hours?” He went on to explain that he and fellow rapper Fou Malade began venting their frustration over power cuts, unemployment and corruption when Barro urged these and other rappers to use their celebrity status to change the country.
On June 232011, thousands of demonstrators organized by Y’en a Marre and others gathered outside the national assembly to protest the proposed constitutional changes. They chanted “Ne touche pas à ma constitution! (Don’t touch my constitution)” and “Y’en a marre.” In a country in which fewer than 12% of 18 to 22 year-olds had voting cards, encouraged by Y’en a Marre’s campaign, tens of thousands of young Senegalese registered to vote for the first time. The government banned the Y’en a Marre rappers from performing in public and Thiat was arrested for publically disrespecting the President. Thiat explained that Y’en a Marre’s ultimate objective is to cultivate a Nouveau Type de Senegalais (NTS) or new type of Senegalese citizen, one with a heightened sense of civic responsibility. Y’en a Marre achieved its short term objective with the victory of opposition party leader Macky Sall to presidency. However the group remains active and according to Fou Malade, they will continue to “act as watchdogs and speak out when necessary.”
Y’en a Marre embodies the discontent among young people in a country grappling with chronic unemployment, poverty, and increasing cost of living. Given that about 60% of Africa’s nearly 1 billion people are under the age of 30, leaders will continue to emerge from among disaffected youth as they react to the circumstances in which they live. Thiat captures this sentiment when he stated, “if the people of Africa unite, they can force real change in leadership and create new countries and a new Africa.”
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