the arab spring’s reverse orientalism: africa edition

Last week, author Sarah Kendzior offered a rousing condemnation of the “reverse Orientalism” of the democratization discourse in Central Asia.  Riffing on Edward Said’s seminal work of postcolonial theory, Kendzior depicts a mutually destructive interaction between the Arab Spring’s contemporary legacy and public perceptions of political unrest in Central Asia. As with most cases of essentialization and generalization, Kendzior’s “reverse orientalism” reduces the inherent agency of democratic participation, reducing Tahrir Square to an easily replicable, undifferentiated phenomenon, as well as Kazakh opposition activity to a static instance of political-change-by-analogy. Broad cultural, political, and economic similarities substitute for nuanced analysis, with few credible conclusions on the role of technology, social change, and ideology in producing democratic reform.

If, in popular discourse, Central Asia’s political upheavals are the ambiguous step-cousin of the Arab Spring, social movements in sub-Saharan Africa are its sickly younger brother, susceptible to North Africa’s democratic epidemic–in a piece on 2012’s looming “sub-Saharan” spring, The Economist noted that, throughout the African continent, “the protest bug is catching.” Uganda’s Walk2Work movement, political transition in Sata’s Zambia, and opposition protests in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burkina Faso are no longer localized displays of human dignity, civic participation, and civil society strength; rather, the so-called “African Spring” relies on the causal contagion of technological growth, economic uncertainty, and ideological mimicry. The democratic epidemic ignores sixty years of postcolonial social mobilization by diverse civil society organizations, organized labor movements, and political parties. Similarly, the contagion effect perceives the collective power of political action throughout the Middle East and North Africa as a passing phase, democratization with a kindergartener’s attention span.

In her essay, Kendzior neglected to discuss the flip-side of Said’s Orientalism: in addition to its implications for the orientalizing/orientalized hierarchy, the Orientalist ideology becomes integral to the orientalized’s processes of self-definition and social participation. The “African Spring” is an illustrative example of the Global Revolution’s discursive impact. As Sahel Blog’s Alex Thurston observes, the economic, political, and social origins of Nigeria’s fuel subsidy protests lie far earlier in the country’s muddled postcolonial history than its “Occupy Nigeria” label would suggest. Even in an era of democratizing media access, the global flow of information brands provides tangible incentives for Nigerian labor unions and fuel subsidy protesters to cast their lot with the international revolutionaries. In the spirit of social upheaval, #OccupyNigeria is a much more compelling hashtag than #fuelsubsidyprotests, as a remarkably unscientific Hash Tag Battle analysis indicates.

One can only hope that, as the local distinctions in sub-Saharan Africa’s “revolutionary” outcomes emerge, the appeal of the “African Spring” meme will wane. There are encouraging indications, but they’re few and far between. When it comes down to an analysis of inequality, political abuse, and failed governance in sub-Saharan Africa, we need more of Malawian academic Jimmy Kainja’s perspective, both from Western media sources and from African intellectuals, civil society leaders, and opposition politicians themselves:

These demands and the eagerness by the people to be heard–to hold their governments to account–can only be addressed by developing strong democratic institutions–and not simply by getting rid of presidents and their governments.

This is what is necessary in the next stage of Africa’s democracy–not an African Spring in the mould of the Arab Spring.

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