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 is both good news and bad news.
For the dictatorial regimes that still dominate too many countries around the world, que sera, sera. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in this digital era not only are dictators at risk but so 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 have unfolded, I can say without a doubt there are risks for similar destabilizing protests.
Most people around the world get why Libyans chafe at 40 years of Gaddafi rule, or 30 years of repression by Egypt’s Hosni 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 mobilize 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 common than not.
Another reason the world’s emerging democracies are vulnerable is that they share a number of demographic similarities. For starters, their populations are young and overwhelmingly unemployed, and gravitating to urban centers. In dictatorships, it’s 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 uptick 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. The problem is that 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 cruelest 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 is, there are a number of things the leaders of such countries must do if the center is to hold.
First, it’s important for leaders to understand that at a macro-moral level it’s not just the lack of jobs and the desire for meaningful employment that drive 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.
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; and at the same time, they must underscore the value of responsibility and sacrifice, which are essential to the stability that enables economic growth to take effect.
For a leader to sell sacrifice and responsibility means they must have the credibility for this message to be believable. If it’s 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. The entrenched poverty such countries are required to overcome reflects years of neglect; and the brutal fact of the matter is such deprivation and marginalization won’t be overcome overnight. It is only when people understand this reality that they can be expected to temper their expectations.
Finally, stabilizing Africa’s young democracies will hinge on engaging its young people, particularly boys and young men. Having acknowledged that, to ignore the obvious is wrought with peril.
With boys, testosterone and idle time is a toxic mix. In 1994, I was a member of President Clinton’s official delegation to monitor the elections in South Africa. One of the last things we did before heading back to the States was meet with outgoing South African President F. W. de Klerk. 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.”
The bottom line is the same for countries all across the continent of Africa. There are too many young men with too little to do; and unless they are connected to society in constructive ways they can become a destructive force. A crucial 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 U.S and European Union) must be equally supportive of the needs of nascent democracies to deal with the expectations gap that could shake nations at their cores.
One such response might be to establish a Democracy Stabilization Fund to support initiatives specifically focused on engaging citizens more fully and formally in the development process. The funds should support initiatives specifically geared to get young men on a constructive path and off a collision course with authority. This fund is not a replacement for much needed mid- and long-term efforts to further development; but should be seen as a complement to counter a real crisis.
While such a fund could be helpful in encouraging responsible citizenship; there needs to be a complementary emphasis on greater corporate responsibility. Having sold the world on the value of capitalism in creating opportunity; it is also critical to demonstrate its virtue to validate the other elements of society that bring value that doesn’t necessarily drop to the bottom-line. From community-based programs 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 solution 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) punctuate that we are in an economically and politically volatile place. For young democracies it is a time wrought 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. How the West and the rest of the world respond to the looming tensions and trials facing Africa’s young democracies will determine whether what unfolds is a horror show or happy ending.
A former U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, Charles Stith is on the Boston University International Relations faculty and is founder and director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC).