When African Social Movements Go Global

In order to acquire a precise idea of civil society in Africa, a knowledge of contemporary social movements is necessary. Social movements in Africa, provide an invaluable key to an understanding of processes of transnationalization. They also provide an avenue for making meaning of the manufacture and sometimes, the somewhat artificialization of dissent. African social movements are concerned with African problems. There indeed many African problems which range from war, genocide, poverty, underdevelopment and HIV/Aids. There are also problems that stem from misgovernment, lack of skills, unemployment and inadequate and improper housing. These broad problems are quite general and within them can be found other issues and challenges that demand considerable attention. For instance, the problem of war leads to the problems and challenges of managing crises caused by the emergence of refugees and large displaced populations. Also connected with the issue of war is the treatment of women under exceptional circumstances. Consequently, social movements concerned with the well-being of women in times of war and after are common in such contexts.

In this brief article, I address how the model of sociopolitical resistance adopted by the social movements associated with the World Social Forum operates within the African continent. Usually, social movements associated with the World Social Forum do not adopt violence in order to accomplish their objectives. Second, by operating under the umbrella of the World Social Forum, they become visible and intelligible within a global context. Accordingly, I evoke the themes of visibility and invisibility in relation to African social movements and where they stand in relation to the World Social Forum.

The World Social Forum is an important umbrella for assessing the impact, visibility and efficacy of social movements in the contemporary age. This is so because they hold conventions at specific places (a recent convention was held in Africa, Nairobi 2007) and at specific times. During such global conventions, social movements from all over the world gather to discuss all sorts of problems some of which have global repercussions while others highly localized issues. Arguably, the presentation of local issues and problems in forums such as the World Social Movement becomes globalized at the moment of presentation.

Accordingly, there is a clear distinction between African social movements connected to the World Social Forum and those that operate outside of its framework. Again this leads to the tropes of visibility and invisibility. African movements that are associated with the World Social Forum not only become a part of globalized processes and initiatives, they also become visible through global circulation and appropriation.

In war torn countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Central Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast widespread violence is a common problem. As such, the politics of reconstruction is one that preoccupies the peoples of those countries.

In north Africa, there is the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and the violence it creates. Countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Algeria are all plagued by the violence caused by Islamic extremists.

In South Africa which has a high number of social movements, there are many social issues that galvanise people. There are problems associated with the HIV/Aids epidemic, the public outcry resulting from the commodification of water, electricity cut-offs, informal settlements, child-headed households, homeless children and crime. These various problems have led to the formation of various social movements to address these social problems.

Unquestionably in relation to other parts of Africa, South African social movements are quite well established. Many reasons are responsible for this development. South Africa emerged from the violence of apartheid with a constitution that has been described as one of the most progressive in the world. Also, as South Africa became de-ostracized after the demise of apartheid, it became more intimately linked to global circuits of production and this has consequently shaped its articulation of social resistance. As South Africa has become the almost unchallenged leader in sub-Saharan Africa, its values and concerns are becoming more widely perceived on the African continent. Accordingly, it can be argued that countries such as Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Botswana and Zambia among others are adopting the South African model of globalised resistance. Globalised resistance according to the World Social Forum model entails a number of issues: struggles against corporate globalization; the advocacy of environmentally-friendly uses of energy; struggles against global warming; support for the rights of sexual minorities; struggles against unfair trade and financial practices as conducted by international institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO). Of course, there are other issues of common concern within the social movements of the world. Nonetheless the social struggles just mentioned are general preoccupations that unite a great bulk of social movements around the globe.

As such, the World Social Forum model of sociopolitical resistance has began to make significant in-roads in many parts of Africa such in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Senegal and Mali. For instance, in Senegal, there are effective social movements that address the problems of illegal settlements and urban management. These particular social movements have strong global links and are therefore visible.

On the other hand, there are social movements within Africa that avoid that kind of visibility and this is usually because they employ violence or they seek to attack the organs the state. For example, many of the social movements have sprung up in the Niger Delta in Nigeria agitating for resource control, environmental sanity, and economic justice have taken to arms. One of most active of such movements, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has not only been particularly violent but has also been keen to avoid visibility. Social movements that push for visibility usually attempt to ensure that processes of democracy are carried out within and among themselves. On the other hand, movements such as MEND do not only perpetrate violence, they do not also uphold the aspects of democracy that entail and demand public accountability. In fairness to the movements in the Niger Delta, the first major such movement to have emerged there, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which was founded by Ken Saro-Wiwa operated according to the World Social Forum model. In other words, it was non-violent and it sought to obtain sociopolitical change by employing the existing channels and structures of the state. But because the Nigerian state was itself undemocratic (we would recall that it was under the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha) it preferred instead to use the instruments of terror to address social grievances.

African social movements are being de-marginalized by acting under the umbrella of the World Social Forum. They are also participating in the globalization of democracy and democratic values and institutions. Those that usually operate under this umbrella are normally non-violent and contribute to the entrenchment of the ethos of public accountability. Perhaps in time, social movements in Africa which do not conform with the expectations of the World Social Forum will come to seen as supporting or using the ways of terrorism. State institutions need to be democratic but increasingly we are also seeing a tendency in which social movements are becoming also democratic in their approaches to social activism and in their understanding of, and engagement with, global processes.

Written by
Sanya Osha
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