You can’t eat democracy or freedom

By Simon Allison 13 October 2011

Forget the hype about freedom and democracy. Revolutions aren’t about fluffy political concepts, they’re about food and money, as recent protests in Khartoum demonstrate again. This is what makes people really angry, and, as the world prepares for another recession, there’s a lot more anger to come. By SIMON ALLISON.

There are plenty of things about which the citizens of North Sudan have cause to be angry. There’s the fact that President Omar Al Bashir is wanted for war crimes. There’s the fact that there’s barely a semblance of democracy in their country, with opposition parties harassed and free speech firmly muzzled. There’s the fact that, in their name, the Sudanese government committed or authorised mass murder, perhaps even genocide, in Darfur. There’s the fact that the government is currently doing something similar in the southern states of Blue Nile and Abyei. There’s the fact that their lives are closely monitored by Sudan’s brutal intelligence service and anyone who steps out of line is punished. There’s the fact that women have little if any rights.

But the hundreds of people protesting in Khartoum on Tuesday, risking their lives and livelihoods, weren’t angry about any of these things. Democracy, rights, freedom, peace – all lovely concepts, but secondary in importance to the issue which really gets people riled up: money. How much they have, how much they think they should have and how much they have to spend on basic goods. Sudan’s economy is in dire straits, struggling to cope with an unfortunate combination of international sanctions, rising food prices and a huge drop in oil production. Things in Khartoum are getting expensive. “No to high prices. Bread, bread for the poor” ran one chant at the demonstrations, the largest of a series of protests this year against increases in the basic cost of living.

It’s a familiar refrain after a year of protests and revolutions across Africa and the Middle East. For all the grandiose talk of democratic change and people’s hunger for freedom, the truth is that most of the seismic changes in the region this year were primarily a result of economic rather than political frustrations.

The event which sparked the Arab Spring, Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, was caused by the authorities refusal to let him sell his vegetables in the market – he didn’t have the right papers, and couldn’t get the papers. He was jobless, and without prospects, and that’s what pushed him over the edge.

The demonstrations in Egypt became so big so quickly not because of Mubarak’s regime, which let’s face it had been around for decades without too many people kicking up a fuss. Key to his control was keeping food affordable by heavily subsidising bread, a twisted social contract where citizens accepted the loss of freedoms and rights in return for a guarantee that they would be able to eat. It was when Mubarak, in the face of spiralling food costs, could no longer afford to keep prices low that opposition to his rule gained the popular support which ultimately brought him down.

Closer to home, a similar pattern can be seen in Malawi. There’s a telling narrative that the huge July demonstrations there and the subsequent political impasse was a reaction to President Bingu wa Mutharika’s increasingly autocratic leadership style. This isn’t strictly true. It was only when his autocratic leadership started affecting the pockets and businesses of ordinary Malawians that the country began to experience severe instability. The key demands of the protestors weren’t for Mutharika to resign, but for him to take steps to restore the flow of donor aid to the country (which had slowed after he summarily expelled the British ambassador), and to sort out the fuel scarcity which was making petrol almost impossible to come by, and very expensive when it was available.

There’s a lesson to be learnt in all this, especially if you’re an autocratic president trying to maintain your grip on power. People need food and jobs before they need democracy and freedom. Humans are inherently pragmatic and adaptable and can put up with all sorts of nonsense as long as they can achieve the most basic needs of human existence: the ability to provide for yourself and for your dependants. Take that away, and suddenly people lose their fear of the repressive machinery of an autocratic state, because the fear of hunger is much greater, coupled with the anger and loss of dignity that comes from a sudden drop in standard of living.

With the world on the brink of another recession, this is a point world leaders would do well to remember. Food, fuel and other basics are only going to get more expensive and citizens will have less money in their pockets and fewer prospects for improvement. This is particularly pertinent in Africa, where the majority of the population is hovering on or just above the poverty line. And most Africans don’t have the natural outlet for anger that a properly-functioning democracy provides; leaders can’t just be voted out of office when elections are rigged or a state is ruled by one party. It’s here where people are angry and can’t see any other way to change their situation that the next revolutions are most likely to occur.
Protests and revolutions, like most things in life, are all about the money. Everything else is decoration. DM

Read more:

  • Sudan’s capital rocked by fresh protests in the Sudan Tribune;
  • Let them eat…what? High food prices could cause a global revolution on Fast Company.



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