Book Manuscript – Political Protest in Contemporary Africa (under contract at Cambridge University Press)
Some observers see the third wave of protests in sub-Saharan Africa as a politically motivated revolution of the middle class akin to the Arab Spring, whereas others label it a materially-driven revolt of the chronically poor. I submit that these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Members of an emerging middle class desire political influence commensurate with their economic status and possess the money, education, and communication skills that make them effective protest organizers. Meanwhile, most rank-and-file protesters in sub-Saharan Africa are not middle-class but rather live at a subsistence level. This group is motivated mainly by material concerns—especially low expectations of upward mobility—and not by grievances against a ruling regime.
I argue that Africa’s third wave of protests resulted when middle-class people reacted to sudden political events by deploying their talents and resources to mobilize poor people who harbored latent material grievances. Afrobarometer surveys from 25 African countries and original data from field research in Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Malawi show that middle-class political grievances help explain the timing of protests, while lower-class material grievances help explain protest participation. Analyzing these data in their historical context, I observe some continuity with the past: The middle class and the poor have protested in sub-Saharan Africa since before independence, often against one another. What sets the third wave apart, I assert, is the symbiotic roles that these groups increasingly play: Middle-class people serve as strategic leaders of political opposition movements (what I call “the generals of the revolution”) and poorer people serve as strategic joiners (“the foot soldiers of the revolution”). I adapt a class-based analysis to African cases where class is often assumed to be irrelevant.
This election note analyzes the major events and actors of the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections in Niger. Sections include institutional context, candidates, results, and international dynamics.
Deadly attacks on Christians and mounting resistance to secularism in Niger raise the question of whether the Muslim-majority country is turning away from democracy and toward Shari’a law. I argue that religious extremism in Niger is largely a foreign phenomenon and that domestic Islamists are not pursuing a revolutionary agenda, even though they are increasingly involved in organizing social movements. The foreign nature of terrorist threats may even help preserve democracy by raising nationalist support for the state.
This article investigates whether political or economic grievances were the main driver of the mass demonstrations in Niger in 2009–10, which occurred at a time of famine and the President’s attempt to defy the constitution and seek a third term in office. Using original survey data from a quasi-random sample of Niamey residents, the article shows that low prospects of upward mobility are associated with a higher likelihood of protest participation, whereas opposition to the President’s anti-constitutional politics is not. Membership in civic organizations is also associated with higher protest participation, but not because these groups are effective at framing the issues: what matters is the capacity of organizations to mobilize individuals. This suggests that civil society may have a galvanizing effect on citizens, even if efforts to win hearts and minds fail. The article concludes that the uprisings were driven mainly by economic grievances, thus contradicting international perceptions of the protests as a public outcry for democracy and casting doubt on the motivations behind supposedly pro-democracy movements, especially in contexts where autocracy and poverty coincide.
“Personal Politics without Clientelism? Interpreting Citizen-Politician Contact in Africa” (revise and resubmit)
This article clarifies the meaning of clientelism and documents its extent in sub-Saharan Africa, a region which political scientists and policy makers often view as especially clientelistic. I propose an understanding of clientelism as personal contact between citizens and politicians in which citizens request selective rather than public goods. I then show that assessments of clientelism in Africa are sensitive to the amount of information about personal contact that surveys provide. Closed-ended Afrobarometer surveys suggest that personal contact is mostly clientelistic, whereas my original open-ended surveys from Niger suggest that the bulk of citizen requests are programmatic. Leveraging detail in Nigeriens’ qualitative accounts of visiting and calling politicians, I interpret highly personalized contact as an adaptation to limits on impersonal contact, not a sign that politicians are circumventing formal channels of communication in order to distribute patronage under the table.