African Popular Protest and Political Change

Issue Date July 2024
Volume 35
Issue 3
Page Numbers 99–114
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In the twenty-first century, African countries have hosted more mass movements than any other region in the world. In the last decade, one in every three nonviolent revolutionary campaigns has taken place in Africa. The region also has the highest short-term success rate for people power. But is this success predicated on the mobilizational force of “protest democracy” to hold elites accountable? Or are African social movements’ remarkable successes an environmental artefact, the result of ordinary protests in contexts of extraordinary instability? The evidence suggests that African social movements are uniquely effective and that political and military elites are increasingly trying to harness their power. Ordinary people — marshaled in massive demonstrations and persistent civil society organizing — have played a necessary, often decisive role in agitating for democracy. However, eliciting successful breakthroughs requires the alignment of protester demands with the abandonment of the status quo by elite blocs. Recent cascades of irregular power transfers in African politics illustrate these distinctive dynamics, where diverse domestic political contexts share an important common ingredient: the combination of mass movements pushing for change and military power players who are willing to help them. 

About the Author

Zoe Marks is lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the coauthor (with Erica Chenoweth) of the forthcoming book Bread and Roses: Women on the Frontlines of Revolution, which explores the impact of women’s participation on mass movements.

View all work by Zoe Marks

Image Credit: Zambabwean-eyes on Flickr