- Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change by Adam Branch, and Zachariah Mampilly
In June 2015, protests erupted in Burundi after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would be running for another three years in office. These protests brought thousands of people to the streets and pushed even more to adopt refugee status in neighboring countries. Conceptually engaging with protest narratives in Africa is a timely project, well worthy of scholarly attention.
In Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly document more than ninety political protests in forty African countries from 2005 to 2014 and many of these protests occurred from 2009 to 2014. The book offers insights into ways of understanding the recent Burundi case, and after the protests there, readers can appreciate the mounting list of African protests included in the book. The authors do not “lament the failure of protests to effect formal political change”; instead, they offer a productive approach to analyzing protest in Africa (p. 7). They tease out the political realities of protest and focus on the actual experience of protest across the continent. On this front, they diverge from the Africa Rising narrative and concentrate on “Africa’s Uprisings” (p. 2).
Branch and Mampilly engage with and work to theorize the category of political society, developed to add greater explanatory value to assist readers’ understanding of “the politics of popular urban protest” (p. 11). Political society refers to and emphasizes an urban underclass and its relations with the state. It is a category that typically includes “the economically most deprived,” acting as a direct response to state violence (p. 21). In the authors’ view, political society thinks and acts outside the state-civil society dichotomy and “attempts to change one’s conditions of life” (p. 207). The overarching argument of the book is that there is in Africa a historical continuity of protest that is based on the persistence of “social and political structures shaping the urban milieu from which protest arises” (p. 8). By bringing in the works of Chatterjee and Fanon, the authors contribute to debates on the politics of the masses and ways of understanding the social forces involved in protest.
Research on the topic involved interviews and the analysis of past protests, protest songs, slogans, and news items to weave together narratives on protests in four countries. The book has eight chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter positions Africa’s protest in a Pan-African perspective. The [End Page 127] following three chapters introduce three waves of protest across Africa: anticolonial protests, antiausterity protests, and today’s protest wave. Chapter four is the strongest chapter on the protest waves: it not only is strongly situated in the realities of the global economy and local elites, but highlights the experiences of the urban poor and the conditions that can lead to protest. Chapters five, six, seven, and eight present case studies of protests in four countries, discussing the Occupy Nigeria movement, the meaning of walking to work in Uganda, protests and counterprotests in Ethiopia, and Sudan’s “unfinished uprisings.” The conclusion situates Africa’s protests in a global perspective and draws out linkages between political society in Africa and political society in other parts of the world.
For a thread seamlessly woven throughout each country case study, Branch and Mampilly develop and engage with the political society concept. Each country’s case delivers examples of the possibilities and limitations of protest and assists our thinking about protest today. The authors stress the importance of protesters’ political identities and visions for political change. Despite their success in doing so, the book left this reviewer wanting more: more case studies for comparison’s sake, and more case studies drawn from a wider geographical scope. Interestingly, the book does not delve into the Arab Spring—but it does not have to, the rationale being that many protests have occurred and are occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Given Branch and Mampilly’s expertly careful handling of history, motivation, and political economy, the...