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How to contain spontaneous social combustions.

While technology has enabled disaffected youth in North Africa to bring down long-standing dictatorships, this trend, ironically, could be just as dangerous for the continent's fragile democracies. Ambassador Charles Stith, former US ambassador to Tanzania, argues that unless sober measures are taken to involve the youth of Africa in constructive activities, the tide of revolutionary fervour could sweep away even functioning democracies.


In 1970, American jazz artist and urban poet Gil Scott-Heron wrote an ode to activism called 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'. With the recent populist explosions against the police states of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, not only is the revolution being televised, it seems to be on every channel. This trend suggests the 'Twitterlutions' (as opposed to old-style revolutions) sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East over the past months are just a preview of the sequels to come. This is both good news and bad news.

For the dictatorial regimes that still dominate too many countries around the world, que sera, sera. That is the good news. The bad news is that in this Twitterlutionary' era, not only are dictators at risk, but so too are some of the world's nascent democracies. I have an intimate familiarity with 16 such democracies in Africa. Having visited a number of them as recent events in North Africa and the Middle East were unfolding, I can say without a doubt there are risks for similar destabilising protests.

Most people around the world understand why Libyans chafe at 40 years of Gaddafi's rule, or 30 years of repression by Egypt's Mubarak. But why would I suggest that young democracies are as vulnerable as old dictatorships to the same backlash?

It starts with technology. In an unprecedented way, citizens are able to mobilise almost magically to express their grievances. The spontaneous combustion that comes from mixing the anger of the people with the ability that new technologies provide to express it, will make such demonstrations more likely than not. Another reason the world's emerging democracies are as vulnerable as more repressive regimes is that they share a number of demographic similarities.

For a start, their populations are young, overwhelmingly unemployed and gravitating to urban centres. Beyond this, the similarities start to become more nuanced. In dictatorships, it is plunging hope that drives the protests; in nascent democracies, it's the rising expectations.

One of the hallmarks of Africa's new democracies is the uptake in education, development and opportunity. The underbelly of this progress is that the literacy rates are rising, creating greater competition for opportunities that are not rising fast enough. Even with the phenomenal rates of growth that have occurred across the continent, it is impossible for those rates to rise as quickly as the expectations. Unless something is done to accommodate those expectations, one of the cruellest ironies that might result is that democracy in developing countries might ultimately be undone by its success.

Does this have to be the case? Well, the short answer is: No. The longer answer involves a number of things the leaders of such countries must do if the centre is to hold.


First, it is important for leaders to understand that at a macro-moral level it is not just the lack of jobs and the desire for meaningful employment opportunities that drives the frustration we are witnessing with the developing world's young people. The protests also reflect a materialism and feeling of entitlement to which young people are exposed 24/7 in the media. What they want, they want now.

Messenger is the message

Leaders must establish a new set of moral moorings if their countries are going to be anchored. On the one hand, leaders in these countries must encourage the sort of hard work and risk taking that leads to innovation and economic growth; at the same time, they must underscore the value of responsibility and sacrifice, which are essential to the sort of stability that enables economic growth to ultimately take effect.

Implicit in this strategy is that the messenger is the message. For a leader to sell sacrifice and responsibility means they must have the credibility and moral authority for this message to be believable.

It cannot be a case of leaders telling their people "Do as I say"; it must be a call to "Do as I do". If it is sacrifice from the people that is needed, it is sacrifice they must see from those that lead.


Secondly, governments in emerging democracies must devise more effective ways of involving people in the process of developing their countries. This engagement must occur from the planning stage to implementation. This makes them stakeholders in the country's success as well as providing a dose of reality about the challenges involved and the time it takes to grow their economies to meet their expectations.

The entrenched poverty such countries are required to overcome reflects years of neglect; and the brutal fact of the matter is such deprivation and marginalisation will not be overcome overnight. It is only when people understand this reality that they can be expected to temper their expectations.

Finally, stabilising Africa's young democracies will hinge on engaging its young people, particularly boys and young men. I am as sensitive as anyone else on the issue of gender equality. I am certainly not suggesting that we take from Paula to help Peter. There are obvious gender inequalities that exist and must be addressed.

Having acknowledged that, to ignore the obvious is fraught with peril. With boys, testosterone and idle time is a toxic mix. A bit of mother wit is instructive at this point - "An idle mind is the devil's workshop".

In 1994 I was a member of President Bill Clinton's official delegation to monitor the elections in South Africa. One of the last things we did before heading back to the US was to meet with outgoing South African President FW de Klerk. During that meeting, he said something that I will never forget. He said that now that the country had crossed its political Rubicon, its next river to cross was engaging a generation of young men and boys whose vocation had been liberation, and were thus totally disaffected from the "system".

Though not for quite the same reason, the bottom line is the same for countries all across the African continent. There are too many young men with too little to do. Unless they are connected to society in constructive ways they can become a destructive force. Not to overhype a phrase, but in a Twitterlutionary era, a crucial continental and national question for Africa's countries is - "How are its young men and boys engaged to develop themselves and their countries?".

The world's dictatorships should, and will be, challenged to make way for more accountable schemes of governance. The world should be supportive of the aspirations of the teeming masses in those nation-states. At the same time, the world (particularly the US and EU) must be equally supportive of the needs of nascent democracies to deal with the expectations gap that could shake such nations at their cores.

One response might be to establish a democracy stabilisation fund to support initiatives focused on engaging citizens in the development process and geared to get young men on a constructive path. While such a fund could encourage responsible citizenship, there needs to be a complementary emphasis on greater corporate responsibility.

From community-based programmes to internship opportunities, there are things that the corporate community can do to help ease the pressure in the countries where they do business and set an example of caring that could go a long way in keeping emerging democracies stable. By including the corporate community in the mix of the solutions is to make clear that the potential problem of instability in young democracies is serious enough to require all hands on deck.

The recent turn of events in North Africa and the Middle East punctuates the fact that we are in an economically and politically volatile place. For young democracies, it is a period fraught with irony. One such irony that Africa's nascent democracies face is that they protect the rights of demigods who would unfairly exploit the frustrations of people and undermine the stability that only democracy has the potential to deliver. Another irony is the danger that the West gets so caught up in cheering to victory the opposition to the world's authoritarian regimes that we lose ground in some of the world's more promising places.

I opened this piece referencing a connection between revolution and television. In conclusion, I want to extend this metaphor one more time. How the West and the rest of the world responds to the looming tensions and trials facing Africa's young democracies will determine whether what unfolds is a horror show or a happy ending. These are the only choices! As we've seen with the recent turn of events: the script has been written, the drama unfolds, and the channel cannot be changed.
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Title Annotation:GUEST COLUMN
Comment:How to contain spontaneous social combustions.(GUEST COLUMN)
Author:Stith, Charles
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:May 1, 2011
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