Political Protest in Contemporary Africa (Cambridge University Press 2018)

From spray-painted slogans in Senegal to student uprisings in South Africa, twenty-first century Africa has seen an explosion of protests and social movements. But why? Protests flourish amidst an emerging middle class whose members desire political influence and possess the money, education, and political autonomy to effectively launch movements for democratic renewal. In contrast with pro-democracy protest leaders, rank-and-file protesters live at a subsistence level and are motivated by material concerns over any grievance against a ruling regime. Through extensive field research, this book shows that middle-class political grievances help explain the timing of protests, while lower-class material grievances explain the participation. By adapting a class-based analysis to African cases where class is often assumed to be irrelevant, this book provides a rigorous yet accessible explanation for why sub-Saharan Africa erupted in unrest at a time of apparent economic prosperity.


“Lisa Mueller’s excellent study of protest politics in Africa will no doubt prove to be the standard text on the topic. Based on fascinating primary source materials in several countries, and framed in a careful sociological understanding of the different motivations for protest across social classes, her book forces us to rethink our understanding of contentious politics in Africa.” Nicolas van de Walle – Cornell University, New York

“In this innovative and elegantly written book, Lisa Mueller brings class analysis back to the study of African politics. Based on sophisticated quantitative methods and extensive fieldwork, often in under-studied countries, she weaves together a new model of protest that distinguishes the motivations and actions of protest organizers and participants. Enlightening!” Pierre Englebert – Pomona College, California

“Mueller’s timely book provides a lucid framework for understanding mass protests across Africa. Drawing a bold distinction between middle class leaders and working class joiners, Mueller explains how political protests happen and why they fail to deliver results for the poor and unemployed. Mueller is right to bring class back as an analytic tool.” Alice J. Kang – University of Nebraska, Lincoln

“A useful update on the changing social context driving popular uprisings in Africa. Mueller argues that unequal growth produces both mass economic anxiety and a politically frustrated middle class. In this acutely observed book, she probes the cross-class protest alliances whose demands for change are as much about economic opportunity as democracy. Recommended.” Michael Bratton – Michigan State University

“This book is essential reading for anyone interested in Africa’s ongoing third wave of protest. Combining on the ground interviews with sophisticated social scientific analysis, Mueller convincingly shows how class shapes protest dynamics. Beautifully written and compellingly argued, Political Protest in Contemporary Africa is a deep dive into the internal dynamics of some of Africa’s most transformative social movements.” Zachariah Mampilly – Vassar College, New York

“Personal Politics without Clientelism? Interpreting Citizen-Politician Contact in Africa.” 2018. African Studies Review 61(2): 28-54

This study clarifies the meaning of clientelism and documents its extent in sub-Saharan Africa—a region that political scientists and policy makers often view as especially clientelistic. It proposes an understanding of clientelism as personal contact between citizens and politicians in which citizens request selective rather than public goods in exchange for political loyalty. It then suggests 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 the original open-ended questionnaires employed in an original survey from Niger suggest that the bulk of citizen requests are programmatic. Leveraging detail in Nigeriens’ qualitative accounts of visiting and calling politicians, the highly personalized contact of Nigeriens can be understood 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.

“Niger Falls Back Off Track.” 2018. African Affairs. doi: 10.1093/afraf/ady066. (with Sebastian Elischer)

Western diplomats and donors greeted the election of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou in 2011 with relief and praise. But in recent years, his administration has displayed worrisome authoritarian tendencies. Security forces have denounced, arrested, and deported activists, journalists, and opposition politicians. Given Niger’s growing geostrategic importance, the United States and European countries have redoubled their security presence and development assistance. Despite an increase in Western leverage, donors show indifference to numerous warning signs that Niger has fallen off the track to democratic consolidation.

“The National Elections in Niger, February–March 2016.” 2016. Electoral Studies 43: 203-206. (with Lukas Matthews)

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.

“Religious Violence and Democracy in Niger.” 2016. African Conflict & Peacebuilding Review 6(1): 89-104

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.

“Democratic Revolutionaries or Pocketbook Protesters? The Roots of the 2009–2010 Uprisings in Niger.” 2013. African Affairs 112(448): 398-420

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.

“Nation-State or Nation-Family? Nationalism in Marginalized African Societies” (with Abhit Bhandari; forthcoming in the Journal of Modern African Studies)

Scholars have long puzzled over strong nationalism in weak African states. Existing theories suggest that a) incumbent leaders use nationalistic appeals to distract people from state weakness; or b) citizens use nationalistic claims to exclude rival groups from accessing patronage and public goods. But what explains robust nationalism in places where politicians seldom visit and where the state under-provides resources, as is true across much of Africa? We propose a theory of familial nationalism, arguing that people profess attachment to a nation-family instead of to a nation-state under conditions where the family, and not the state, is the main lifeline. We substantiate it using surveys from the border between Niger and Burkina Faso, where an international court ruling allowed people to choose their citizenship, thus providing a testing ground for nationalism in marginalized communities. We supplement the border data with surveys and focus groups from the capitals of both countries.

Impact Evaluation of the Niger Participatory & Responsive Governance Project (with Philip Roessler and Ariel BenYishay; baseline report available here)

Across most development indicators, Niger ranks close to the bottom of global rankings. Over the past three years, it has been second to last on the United Nation’s Human Development Index—just above Central African Republic. At root of the country’s perennial development crisis are unfavorable structural conditions. A second major challenge is the militarization, or securitization, of the state, in which military and security institutions represent the face of the government for many Nigerien citizens and divert resources from public administration. To help mitigate these governance challenges in Niger and bolster stability in one of the world’s most fragile states, USAID is investing in the Participatory and Responsive Governance (PRG) Project. To better understand how the PRG may affect governance in Niger, a team of researchers from AidData at the College of William and Mary have teamed up with the implementing partner, Counterpart International (CPI), to undertake a rigorous impact evaluation of the program. The impact evaluation focuses on the PRG’s multi-stakeholder dialogues that will bring together community leaders, municipal and regional councilors, private sector actors, professionals and citizens. The evaluation employs a randomized design to test this theory of change, in which the 24 communes where targeted activities be held were randomly selected from a broader pool of 48 eligible communes. The baseline surveys are valuable to gauge levels of perceived legitimacy prior to the implementation of the multi-stakeholder dialogues as well as to evaluate statistical balance between the control and treatment communes, highlighting the governance challenges Niger faces and the importance of the PRG program.

“Coup de Hot: Does Appearance Affect Coup Leader Survival in Office?” (with Tyson Roberts)

There is ample research on the incidence of coups d’état but less on their aftermath. Why do some national leaders who seized power via military coup stay in power longer than others once they unseat their predecessors? This study tests whether facial appearance can explain variation in coup-installed leader survival, building on previous research showing that attractiveness predicts electoral success in democracies. We draw on multiple data sources of coups d’état worldwide from 1950 to 2013, as well as original attractiveness data coded from survey responses. We find that attractive coup-installed leaders retain power longer than unattractive counterparts after successfully ousting the incumbent. The attractiveness advantage is particularly strong for leaders in the first five years of their tenure, those who seized power from a dictatorship as opposed to a democracy, and those who rule without parties in the legislature. We argue that leaders who take power through a military coup lack both traditional and rational-legal authority; for such cases, appearance may signal charismatic authority sufficient to produce a coordinated response of acquiescence rather than challenge to the leader’s rule.

Public Scholarship in the Monkey cage/Washington Post

“Niger’s Protests Are Ramping Up: Here’s Why.” 26 March 2018. (with Sebastian Elischer)

“4 Things You Should Know about Niger’s Recent Elections.” 17 April 2016. (with Lukas Matthews)

“The Upcoming Niger Election and the Drama Surrounding It, Explained.” 17 February 2016. (with Lukas Matthews)

“As Niger Prepares for Elections, It’s Concerned about Security. Should It Be?” 28 January 2016.