RDL Polaf n° 165: Mueller (Lisa), Political Protest in Contemporary Africa, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018, 264 pages

Since 2011, and the so-called wave of the “Arab Springs”, the academic debate around protests and social mobilisation in sub-Saharan Africa has expanded, often questioning the perspective of political regime change or the role of social media networks mostly disseminated by young people[1]. Researchers also seek to analyse the consequences of the limited media coverage of protests in sub-Saharan Africa compared to what is taking place in North Africa. This book seeks to go beyond such restrictive analytical lines and to understand the social, economic, and political processes underlying the Arab Spring and the more recent protests in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa (chapters 1 and 2). There was a first wave of protests in the 1940s and 1950s, and a second in the 1990s (chapter 2, p. 49). Lisa Mueller’s book shows that what we call the “third wave of protests” is broader than had been imagined. It attempts to set out the essential elements that need to be considered when discussing the emergence of these protests, with a special emphasis on the importance of urban dynamics (p. 28 and 47).

The introduction (chapter 1) covers the literature on third-wave protests in general. Chapter 2 clarifies the concepts used throughout the book, particularly what should be understood to be a third wave protest in sub-Saharan Africa. In chapter 3, the author argues that two important paradoxes need to be considered when it comes to understanding the third wave, based on an economic perspective. First, despite impressive economic growth and rising incomes, uneven distribution has allowed poverty to persist, and second, prosperity has not equalled more political power for the middle class. In chapter 4, focusing on the case of Senegal (the Y’en a Marre Movement, and the June 23rd Movement, or M23), and to a lesser extent on Kenya, Malawi, Burkina Faso and Niger, Mueller analyses the strategies and tactics used by leaders to mobilise the most disadvantaged people to hold protests in sub-Saharan Africa, leading to “cross-class coalitions” (p. 106). The fifth chapter adopts a statistical approach, and uses data from the Afrobarometer surveys on democracy and citizenship conducted in 31 countries to understand what motivates people to join a protest. In particular, it questions the often overstated importance attached to variables like wellbeing and the ability to mobilise economic resources when explaining people’s participation in protests (p. 150). Chapter 6 focuses on Niger, suggesting that protesters do not necessarily support anti-regime political action, but fear for their economic future. Finally, chapter 7 summarises the book’s main arguments, findings, and contributions to the literature around what has motivated the emergence of third-wave protests in Sub-Saharan Africa, and highlights the avenues for future research.

Mueller’s research is interesting because it adopts a perspective that views different socio-demographic variables such as educational level and professional occupation as components that must be taken into consideration if one is to understand the motivations behind a protest by a specific social class, although the author acknowledges that economic capacity determines the way citizens do or do not protest (chapter 2). Through this approach, Mueller explains that the main reason for protests before independence was the need for democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, but after freedom had been secured, the economy became the main motive (chapter 3), although this is not always explicit from the point of view of those leading the protests (p. 105 and 122).

One of the book’s central arguments is that the debate around protests in sub-Saharan Africa needs to acquire an understanding of the profiles of those who take part in or finance protests. The author argues that there is a middle class that lies at the centre of these mobilisations. These “generals of the revolution” (p. 13, 18, and 33) use their intellectual and financial resources to mobilise the more disadvantaged groups to lead the protests (chapters 3 and 4). Mueller terms the poorer mobilised people “the foot soldiers of the revolution” (p. 7). She makes the claim that “protests are more successful when their leaders actively call for popular insurrection than when they concentrate on their own interests” (p. 21).

Mueller also recalls that protests existed in sub-Saharan Africa prior to independence, from the mid-1940s until the early 1960s (chapter 2), as has been well documented by historians. For the author however, many studies have failed to address the importance of social class in explaining contemporary Africa’s protest, which involves members of both the middle and popular classes. The concept of protest is multidimensional, she argues, because what motivates a certain social class to protest is not the same as what motivates another (p. 13). The richness of Lisa Mueller’s work lies in its ability to apply mixed, yet complementary, methods: statistics from the Afrobarometer on the one hand, and seven months of fieldwork across Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Malawi on the other. She uses this combined quantitative and qualitative method to study participation in the protests by the different social classes and explain the post-protest scenarios, concluding that “protests do not always lead to democratic reforms, they can instead lead to the formation of authoritarian governments, violence, and economic decline” (chapter 1). These findings can then be completed by referring to two other books, Les prix de la colère. Une histoire de la vie chère au Burkina Faso by Vincent Bonnecase (Éditions de l’EHESS, 2019), and Contester au Mali. Formes de la mobilisation et de la critique à Bamako by Johanna Siméant (Karthala, 2014). These two books use a purely qualitative method, and complement Mueller’s approach, in that they also reveal the causes of the recent protests in sub-Saharan Africa, and study the political configurations of the post-protest phase.

In our view, the book raises two arguments that still need to be emphasised. The first is part of a wide-ranging discussion about the middle class. Mueller takes an audacious approach that contradicts some of the broad body of literature that has regularly claimed that we cannot refer to the middle class in Africa, or that it is an unclear concept that is better captured by notions like the rise of “new poverties” [2] (chap. 7). The second is that although it is innovative in the way it separates the role of social classes during protests, Mueller may essentialise their differences and characteristics. She considers that particular sub-groups of the population (for example, the young or the poor) may be actors of violence, or can be easily manipulated as “foot soldiers of the revolution”. This perspective can be seen as a continuation of a form of essentialist analysis that has been used for many years, particularly with reference to young people, one that also looks at them through the dimension of violence and misconduct[3].


Dércio Tsandzana

Sciences Po Bordeaux,

Les Afriques dans le monde (LAM)



[1]. A. Honwana, « “Enough is Enough!”: Youth Protests and Political Change in Africa », in K. Tall, M.-E. Pommerolle et M. Cahen (dir.), Collective Mobilisations in Africa: Enough is Enough! / Mobilisations collectives en Afrique. Ça suffit !, Leiden/Boston, Brill. 2015, p. 45-66.

[2]. D. Darbon et C. Toulabor (dir.), L’invention des classes moyennes africaines. Enjeux politiques d’une catégorie incertaine, Paris, Karthala. 2014.

[3]. M. Sommers, The Outcast Majority: War, Development, and Youth in Africa, Athens, The University of Georgia Press. 2015.

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