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From protest to power: The practice of revolution in Africa

| Monday, November 1, 2021

The question of what kind of political organizations Africa needs is important today as ever. Across the African continent, the promise of independence remains elusive for most Africans especially young people bustling with hope and ambition. Africans, particularly young people, in search for better material conditions are pushing for political change. Yet, their efforts are often quashed as politicians co-opt or repress them. This is particularly true in Burkina Faso where a restive civil society has distinguished itself in its valiant fight in defense of civil rights and democracy. On almost all occasions, however, the people’s revolutions in Burkina Faso have been hijacked by either the elites or the military. This was the case in 1987 when Capt. Blaise Compaoré orchestrated the assassination of his comrade, President Thomas Sankara who was presiding over a popular revolution. It was the case in 2014 when the military led by Capt. Isaac Zida usurped the masses following the ouster of President Blaise Compaoré. It was still the case in 2015 when the transitional government hijacked the popular insurrection that had successfully resisted the coup by Gen. Diendéré. On all these occasions, whereas the people successfully mobilized themselves, they were not well organized politically to be in position to defend the gains of their revolution. 

Popular protest provides the opportunity to change the status quo but it does not necessarily change, in the strict sense of the word, the status quo. In other words, popular protest does not necessarily bring with it a fundamental change. The opportunities for change that popular protest avails include putting pressure on leaders to effect change, changing leaders altogether or the people themselves assuming power to bring about the desired change. Yet, to move from protest to power, the people must organize themselves politically. The lesson for the rest of Africa is that whereas popular protest is a necessary condition for political change, it is not sufficient. Political organization is necessary. But what ought to be the organizing principle of such political organizations? How can ‘the people’ organize themselves politically to move from protest to power without losing the popular character of protest movements? Political education is the key and for this we must turn to the work of Franz Fanon.

It is the role of the change-seeking movement to run a program of political education to raise the social and political consciousness of the masses. According to Fanon, “political education means [trying], relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too.” This is not at all to say that the masses are infantile and therefore require tutelage. As Fanon says, “we must above all rid ourselves of the very Western, very bourgeois and therefore contemptuous attitude that the masses are incapable of governing themselves.” My point is simply that the need for political education is one instance where the expression of the will of the people requires mediation. Political education arms the people with ‘the weapon of [revolutionary] theory’ to borrow the words of the revolutionary Amilcar Cabral. Political education is intended to empower the masses in the conduct of the revolution.

At what point is the political consciousness of the masses awakened enough that the expression of their opinion no longer needs to be mediated? In my view, the practice of democracy must go hand in hand with awakening the people. As the process of political education is underway, internal decision-making must always remain democratic. Democracy must be the organizing principle. This is necessary to guard against the possibility of entrenching centralization of power within the organization. As Fanon says, “The movement from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top should be a fixed principle, not through concern for formalism but because simply to respect this principle is the guarantee of salvation. It is from the base that forces mount up which supply the summit with its dynamic and make it possible dialectically for it to leap ahead.” The best way to entrench democracy is by decentralizing both the movement and the decision-making power. 

Trevor Lwere is a senior from Kampala, Uganda studying Economics and Global Affairs with a minor in PPE. He is currently studying abroad at SOAS University of London. He is a dee-jay in his free time and can be reached at [email protected] or @LwereTrevor on Twitter. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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