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Protests in Sub-Saharan African countries

Final Report Summary - PROAFRI (Protests in Sub-Saharan African countries)


This project aimed to study mobilization in sub-Saharan African countries -with a focus on Nigeria and Zimbabwe- by investigating protest activities between the year 1995 and 2010. By articulating the social movement literature with African studies, the research analyzed the impact of the political context and the organizational structure on mobilization in such countries. In addition, it proposed to study the impact of a repressive political context on the organizational structure sustaining mobilization. Empirically, the research explored mobilization in various sub-Saharan African countries by using existing public opinion surveys (Afrobarometer Survey Series Data) containing information on individual engagement in protests and public demonstrations. The project focused on events and actors involved in protests in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, both classified as repressive countries by international indexes.
Within this framework, the specific research objectives were the following:
1.What is the impact of repressive political contexts on the capacity of individuals to mobilize?
2. What is the impact of repressive political contexts on the organizational structure? Why and how do certain repressive contexts, as Nigeria, seem to enable the development of a strong organizational structure while others, as Zimbabwe, succeed in fragmenting organizations?
What is the impact of organizational resources- material and symbolic- on the development of mobilization in repressive contexts?
The main findings show that the structural characteristics of the political context only partly explain patterns of mobilization in the African countries especially when examining repressive countries. The relationship is likely curvilinear: while a moderate level of military capacity and repression may trigger mobilization, a strong military capacity and repressive context represents a deterrent for mobilizing actors to protest and plays a significant defusing effect on mobilization. These results need to be linked to the organizational resources in repressive contexts. Countries where protesters rely on a strong organizational structure, in terms of collaborations and networks among affiliates and organizations, show high rates of mobilization. In contrast, severe repressive measures adopted by authoritarian regimes, its allies, and informal militia occurred along with the suppression of the opposition through harassment, intimidation, targeted displacement, and mass urban demolitions may lead to a fragmented organizational structure and fewer possibilities for people to join protests.
Findings also clarify three conditions whereby organizations find alternative modalities of action therefore contributing to the maintenance of a stable organizational structure in authoritarian settings: first, under repressive measures organizations may become acquainted to use more and more radical forms of activities, including violent actions. Nigeria’s escalation of violence among youth militia groups is an instructive example. Second, another way organizations survive in repressive contexts is through the transnationalization of their action repertoires. Transnational politics includes the emergence of human rights and international law discourses, leading activists to engage in internationally supported NGOs which act within the legal framework. Third, under repressive conditions, organizations may moderate their repertoires of action.


The research shows the importance of considering the macro- and meso-level, the political context and the organizational structures, in a unique frame. As far as the organizational structure is concerned, the research suggests that the political context, especially a repressive one, may either defuse or trigger the development of the organizational structure. The sustainment of a strong organizational structure in a repressive context likely occurs under the three specific conditions outlined above. A strong organizational structure may facilitate and support individual engagement in protests. In contrast, if organizational structures are destabilized and fragmented, then protest mobilization is also weakened.

Socioeconomic impact

The main impact is related to the clarification of three modalities by which organizations survive in a repressive context. In addition, the results suggest that the emergence of mobilization is concomitant to the regime’s alliances as well. As underlined by previous studies, when political, military, and economic elites are cohesive, the political opportunities for challengers are usually minimal. In contrast, the lack of such conditions and the existence of only weak collaborations among different state apparatuses, as well as foreign and international allies, seem to provide open opportunities for mobilizing actors to protest.