Why don’t more African citizens protest?

Thus asks Lisa Mueller, a PhD student at UCLA, in a paper presented at a meeting of the Working Group in African Political Economy last year.  She notes that theories of deprivation and protest clearly predict that the poor, who are worse off in absolute terms, should protest their living conditions more often.  However, African citizens on average protest no more than Latin Americans, who are approximately 5 times as wealthy.

As Mueller points out,”people rise up (1) because they want to and (2) because they can” (p. 4).  Addressing the first part of this statement, theories of relative deprivation suggest that people might want to rise up when they feel that they are currently worse off than other groups in society.  Similarly, theories of the prospect of upward mobility predict that people might protest when they feel that their standards of living will not rise in the future. Using Afrobatometer data, Mueller finds that African citizens who are either absolutely or relatively deprived are no more likely to rise up than people who are not.  (However, she does find that people whose standards of living have absolutely declined in recent years, rather than remaining stable at a low level, are somewhat more likely to protest.)  She also reports that people who believe their prospect of upward mobility to be low are about 2% more likely to protest than those who believe their prospects are better.

One reason why more impoverished African citizens do not protest may be the difficulty of organizing collective action in remote rural areas, where poverty tends to be worst.  Mueller finds that people who have reported attending community meetings are approximately 3 times more likely to protest than those who have not – a much more substantive effect than found for either relative deprivation or upward mobility.  However, she doesn’t address the probability of attending a community meeting conditional on urban or rural residency, so this doesn’t do much to tease out the predictors of protest in different locales.  She does note that urban Africans are no more likely to protest than rural, but drops this interesting finding rather quickly with a comment about fear of police reprisals.

All in all, it’s a very interesting paper on a timely topic.  However, I do question the conclusion she draws: “Africans seem to be refraining from protest because they anticipate changes in their living conditions” (p. 17).  This sits a bit oddly with the fact that “65 percent of respondents in the most recent round of surveys said they believe that government economic policies have hurt most people and benefited only a few” (p. 18).  A discussion of the role of government reprisal would slot in extremely neatly here.

That said, this also put me in mind of a recent post by one of IPA’s staffers in Uganda.  He wrote of Museveni’s re-election that “there are too many people who lived through the terror and who are thus easily enough appeased by ‘peace and stability’ campaign platforms. Change, to the generation(s) that lived through the bad, is synonymous with ‘danger.'”  The welfare improvements of stability might outweigh the problems of bad policy in some cases.

7 thoughts on “Why don’t more African citizens protest?

  1. Rachel, very interesting post.

    I didn’t read the original paper, but the question itself is interesting given the attention that protests have nabbed lately throughout the world.

    What surprises me most is that they are no more likely to protest in cities. It seems to me that this is the most important bit of information here – if there is no difference in likelihood to protest in rural versus urban areas, then the issue is probably not one of lack of technology and community organizing.

    I think a historical/cultural answer is the most likely here, as you suggest. Regions with a history of war, conflict, upheaval and revolution are unlikely to crave change. It does not have positive connotations. Most people, I think, want fairly insular lives. They want peace and a calm sense of stability. I think many people in the world have pretty justifiable fears of ushering in the evils they don’t know through demonstrations and protests.


    1. Nat, I definitely agree. I think as well that many people don’t have any reasonable expectation that the government can or will do much to improve their standards of living – and this is probably doubly true in regions where there’s been recent warfare and the government is weak/divided.

      (BTW, is this your own blog I see taking shape? Yes please!)


  2. The Acemoglu Robinson model focuses on inequality rather than low income per se, which Latin America has plenty of.


Comments are closed.