African leaders snuff out flames of discontent
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:32 PM
HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Mass demonstrations forced out rulers in Egypt and Tunisia after decades in office, but in Zimbabwe - whose leader has been in power for 32 years - even watching video footage of those uprisings can lead to treason charges punishable by death.
With intimidation and arrests, longtime African rulers like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe are trying to prevent people's revolts like the ones that have roiled North Africa from igniting in their own countries.
So far, they have kept the revolts at bay with tear gas, intimidation, arrests, censorship and handouts.
State-controlled TV stations in Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Zimbabwe are not allowed to show video footage from North Africa favorable to the protesters.
In Cameroon, where 77-year-old President Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, the government ordered cell phone companies to suspend mobile services for Twitter. This came after people used the social networking site to report the mass deployment of troops to prevent a "Drive Out Biya" march.
Sub-Saharan Africa shares many of the root causes that have prompted the uprisings in the north: rising food prices, youth unemployment and repressive regimes that subvert democracy by rigging elections. Before the Tunisian uprising, 18 African rulers or their families had held power for more than 20 years.
Analysts point to the cohesion of people in Egypt and Tunisia, and contrast it to sub-Saharan Africa's tribally based politics that leaders use to win allegiance, divide and rule. It's a tribalism that helps sustain Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Zimbabwe's Mugabe.
Still, Na'eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Center, said the revolts in Arab nations have sparked Africans' belief and hope in the power of mass action.
People in Swaziland, a tiny mountain kingdom in South Africa's northeast, staged a mass protest Friday over freezing civil service wages while King Mswati III, who has 14 wives, awarded himself a 24 percent increase in his budget allocation.
"There is no doubt that the Swazi people ... have been inspired by the democracy campaigns in Egypt and elsewhere, and have understood the importance of mass democratic action to change things for the better," said the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Jeenah, whose center is in Johannesburg, said even if the revolts in North Africa have not yet caught fire south of the Sahara, governments are concerned.
Those concerns have often translated into crackdowns aimed at snuffing out opposition protests before they flicker into life.