Protesters surround a bonfire on a street as they demand the release of  Ugandan politician Robert Kyagulanyi. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past two weeks, citizens have taken to the streets to protest the Ugandan government’s detention and arrest of opposition leaders (particularly MP Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a.k.a. Bobi Wine), journalists and others. At least one person has died and many more have been injured in the protests. Analysts connect these recent protests to those in 2011, known as the “Walk to Work” protests, which drew large crowds in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

As in Uganda, citizens in Malawi are  taking to the streets to protest their government. Prominent civil society activists are organizing a nationwide demonstration Sept. 7, saying the government has not answered their demands to deal with corruption and poor governance. Also as in Uganda, protests in Malawi today resonate with those in 2011 that ended in violent repression by the government, with at least 20 Malawians killed and scores more injured, harassed  and arrested.

Reports of these protests in Uganda and Malawi — both today and in 2011 — focus largely on political motivations  rather than economic motivations. A new book sheds light on how these different motivations drive protests in Africa.

A 2011 protest in Malawi opens the book in this week’s installment of the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: “Political Protest in Contemporary Africa,” by Lisa Mueller, a political scientist at Macalester College. Mueller was in Malawi in 2011 when students at the University of Malawi were protesting the government of Bingu wa Mutharika, which had harassed Blessings Chinsinga, a professor of political and administrative studies, after he taught about the Arab Spring in one of his courses. Mueller writes about an August 2011 protest that she observed as it unfolded.


Mueller’s study of protests in Africa shows that there are two forces driving them: political grievances among the middle class and material grievances among the poor. Mueller argues that political grievances largely determine when protests will occur, while material grievances largely explain who is likely to participate in the protests. Mueller uses military analogies, likening the middle class to the “generals of the revolution” and the poor as the “foot soldiers of the revolution.”

To make her case, Mueller draws on Afrobarometer survey data collected in 31 African countries and interviews she conducted with protest leaders in Malawi, Senegal, Burkina Faso  and Niger, as well as citizen surveys she collected in urban Niger. Her analysis also draws on historical documents, secondary interviews  and protest leaders’ public statements from across Africa south of the Sahara.

Her original data best capture the interesting divergence in ideology in protest coalitions. Her chapter examining protests in Niger shows that while protest spokespeople and the international media framed the 2009-2010 uprisings in Niger as a defense of constitutional democracy, Mueller’s survey of urban Nigerians showed that economic grievances (rather than dissatisfaction with the president) had a stronger relationship with Nigerians’ decisions to protest.

The divergent motivations for African protests are also evident in a protest slogan’s evolution in Senegal in 2011. Originally, activists from the M23 movement rallied for people to take to the streets with the slogan, “Don’t touch my constitution.” (Then-president Abdoulaye Wade was seeking changes in Senegal’s Constitution to keep his grip on power; he lost his reelection bid in 2012.) But as M23 sympathizers protested in Dakar by burning flammable objects, they singed wooden stalls of street vendors, aborting M23’s coalition with the poor. Street vendors recast the battle cry to “Don’t touch my table!”

Mueller takes a fresh approach to studying protests. Her primary goal is not to explain variation in protest frequency or protest participation (though her book still teaches us quite a bit on the latter). She aims to interpret what we’re actually witnessing when we see crowds of Africans taking to the streets. Are these democratic revolutions? Electoral protests? Populist movements? Or something else?

Through her careful work, Mueller demonstrates the shortcomings of relying on journalistic reports of protests, especially those that characterize the democratic concerns as the primary issues motivating people to take to the streets. Protest leaders rather than rank-and-file protesters are more likely to act as spokespeople for the movement, increasing the frequency of reports that a protest is about “democratic change,”  overlooking the everyday grievances that motivated rank-and-file protesters to take to the streets.

Mueller’s book is an important contribution to the study of protests in Africa, and builds on another recent book by political scientists Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly, “Africa Uprising.” Both books give an overview of protests in Africa, with a focus on what they characterize as the “Third Wave” of African protests. The two books take different (complementary) approaches to studying African protests. The ongoing wave of protests on the continent make these books necessary additions to the libraries of all who want to understand better the issues bringing ordinary citizens to the streets.

FYI, we will include a BONUS book in this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. Tune in next week with a guest piece by American University political scientist Susanna Campbell writing on her new book, “Global Governance and Local Peace.”