Demographic change brings down Africa’s veterans

A wave of youth activism is sweeping North Africa, unseating rulers from Algeria to Sudan.

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Massive protests by the youthful populations of Algeria and Sudan have led to the downfalls of their ageing rulers, but fundamental reforms are still required in both countries

For millions of young citizens in Sudan and Algeria, the decades-long rule of presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika was all they ever knew.

While the swelling ranks of young Sudanese and Algerians struggled to access quality education, held down menial jobs and looked desperately to Europe for a brighter future, the veteran leaders sat immovable at the pinnacle of power, overseeing staid economies underpinned by oil wealth, military might and extensive security organisations.

But in a matter of months, the assumptions that underpinned these giants of North Africa have been undone. In April, 82-year-old Bouteflika’s two-decade long rule crumbled after tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest his decision to run for a fifth term.

The demands quickly escalated into a full-scale challenge to le pouvoir – the shadowy group of businessmen, politicians and military officials thought by many to be the true source of power behind the ruling Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). 

Adapting to this unprecedented challenge, the weakened Bouteflika – considered by many to be little more than a figurehead – was quickly ushered into retirement by his powerful backers, who have announced a transitional period and elections within 90 days.

In Sudan, vast protests anchored by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) – an umbrella group of doctors, teachers and other middle-class workers – triggered the army’s April ousting of Omar al-Bashir.

The 75-year-old had led the country with an iron fist since a military coup in 1989.

Just days after Bashir’s ousting, coup leader and regime veteran Awad Ibn Auf was himself forced to step down following sustained pressure from protestors. The emboldened SPA has called for an immediate transition to civilian rule. 

In both countries, the panicked response of the authorities has followed a familiar pattern.

The FLN and Sudan’s military have sought to shore up their precarious grip on power by jettisoning previously untouchable leaders in events that bear striking similarity to Zimbabwe’s internal Zanu-PF coup to remove Robert Mugabe in 2017.

The intention in all cases is for elites to delay reform and entrench power before protestors notice that nothing has changed.

Real change cannot be postponed

And yet Africa’s young protestors, thirsting for genuine change, are increasingly wise to the tactics of those who claim to turn over a new leaf while retaining the trappings of power.

Even after the resignations, protest leaders have promised to remain on the streets until fundamental overhauls of the vast economic and political systems that underpin Sudan and Algeria’s autocracies are realised. 

Cosmetic changes are no longer acceptable – what citizens demand is a genuine stake in their economic and political destiny.

Demographic change has long been predicted to undermine the continent’s sclerotic leadership.

As the tipping point is finally reached and Africa’s young demand their due, it is time for elites to heed the warning. Real change can no longer be postponed.

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