Collective Mobilisations in Africa: Contestation, Resistance, Revolt

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The historic turn embodied by the Arab “revolutions”, whose repercussions are felt throughout the Sahel; anger, expressed in a range of ways, at the rising cost of living; mobilisations around issues of citizenship; manifold forms of religious revival: all seem to attest to a profound political reconfiguration underway across Africa. These and associated forms of contestation have pushed new actors to the front of the stage, at the crossroads of local and global dynamics. To fully appreciate the complexity of these developments, we must consider longer-term histories of uprising, stand-taking and engagement on the continent, casting a renewed gaze on jihads, slave uprisings, mass conversions and dynastic conflicts. Too, we must reflect in novel ways on the social trajectories of actors involved in present-day contestations and on the responses that the latter elicit from those in power. This in turn should bring us to pay close attention to repertories of collective action, to modes of transgression and subversion, to takes on activism, and to ways in which all of these intersect with social, generational and gender statuses.

In many settings, associations, religious groups and trade unions, all of which play a central part in the articulation of “civil society” – a concept whose pertinence as an analytical category is open to debate – function as mediators and manifest as forms of counter-power. In this capacity, however, they commonly entertain ambiguous relations with the powers that be. It remains to be seen whether political parties, beyond strategies they deploy to capture power and given their oft-observed role as clientelistic electoral reserves, can viably counter established authority. In parallel, attention needs to be focused on the increasing visibility of human rights associations, advocacy groups and related, cause-driven organisations seeking to position themselves as watchdogs of state action. Also requiring particular attention are international and transnational logics, notably of professionalisation, to which many emergent modes of collective action are intimately linked. To understand mobilisation processes, a focus on violence is required as well; the proliferation of militias, their modes of socialisation and politicisation, and the shift to armed protest that their action frequently entails require close scrutiny. The same is true of religious movements, new prophetic teachings, moralisation campaigns, processes of evangelisation and re-Islamisation, and the boom in faith-based NGOs, all of which play a key role in the construction of social imaginaries. Such imaginaries must be considered too in light of less explicitly political mobilisations. This is so, notably, in the realm of urban cultures or, more generally, of artistic and cultural expression. Here, rituals of inversion and rebellion, carnivals, music (Hip-Hop and Kuduro, to cite but two examples), literature, theatre and performance are of particular relevance.