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When will North Africa's revolutions spread south?

By Tolu Ogunlesi, Special to CNN
  • Truly democratic sub-Saharan countries don't need revolution, argues Tolu Ogunlesi
  • Citizens must instead hold their governments accountable, he says
  • Sub-Saharan democracies must strengthen justice systems, press and civil society groups

Editor's note: Tolu Ogunlesi is a Features Editor with Next, a daily newspaper in Nigeria. He was awarded the Arts and Culture prize in the 2009 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards and he writes a weekly column, Ongoing Concerns, for Next.

(CNN) -- "So when will it be the turn of sub-Saharan Africa? When will the revolution move south?" That appears to be the "question-of-the-moment," inspired by the dictator-toppling protests of North Africa.

Nigerians, masters of the art of self-flagellation that they are, waste no time proclaiming that Tunisia or Egypt will never happen here; we are too cowardly, too obsessed with self-comfort. This revolution will not be coming to a city near you anytime soon, we gleefully tell ourselves.

But the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that the answer to that question should be: "Why would anyone imagine that Nigeria needs a Tahrir-Square-style uprising at this time?"

Anyone following the protests in North Africa will realize that what is at stake is freedom. After decades of iron-handed rule, the Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans deserve "freedom."

Since democracy is supposed to guarantee this freedom (which is actually a melange of freedoms: of speech; of association; of having a say in the way one's country is being run and its wealth distributed), clearly what is happening across North Africa can be summarized as a push for democracy.

The only sub-Saharan African countries, therefore, that should be seeking to replicate Tahrir Square are those still in the grip of Egypt-style tyranny: for example Equatorial Guinea (where Teodoro Obiang has ruled since 1979), Gabon and Cameroon (where Paul Biya keeps altering the constitution.)

A giant leap has been made from a time in the not-too-distant past when warlords and dictators strutted around unchallenged.
--Tolu Ogunlesi

Truly democratic countries, like Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Benin -- flawed as their political class may currently be -- have no business fantasizing about Tahrir Square.

The problem is that we are often so busy complaining about the admittedly numerous flaws of new-born democracy in African states that we often overlook the change that has brought us where we are today. It is easy to forget that only a decade ago The Economist magazine could get away with labeling Africa "The Hopeless Continent."

Today, Africa's democracy club is growing, so that it is clear a giant leap has been made from a time in the not-too-distant past when warlords and dictators strutted around unchallenged. Today, it's tougher than ever before to be a dictator in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to say there's no room for urgent and radical transformation. Twelve years on as a democratic state, Nigeria still hasn't shed its dysfunction.

But, like a good number of other sub-Saharan African countries, it today possesses the "freedom" that the Egyptians and Libyans are currently clamoring for -- and this is evident in a regular cycle of elections, a free press, an active civil society, and growing political enlightenment amongst its citizens.

The fact that we, as citizens, are not making use of that freedom to hold our leaders accountable does not in any way diminish its significance.

What we should be concerned about at the moment is getting ourselves to realize, as citizens of newly democratic states, that democracy's dividends will be made available only when its cheques are taken to the bank and payment demanded.

Our concern should be with strengthening our justice systems, parliaments, regional governments, press, civil society groups, etc -- all those institutions that Barack Obama was alluding to when he declared, in Accra in 2009, that "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions."

The more important task of building and rebuilding values and institutions will have to start very soon.
--Tolu Ogunlesi
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These days, strongmen fall in full glare of all -- live on Twitter and 24-hour-news networks. The building of strong institutions, however, doesn't quite happen in the same way. That slow, laborious, and often untweetable work will happen well away from placard-littered squares.

Now is the time for Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and hopefully Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, to pull down their strongmen.

The more important task of building and rebuilding values and institutions will have to start very soon. When it starts, they should turn to Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda for lessons. They should realize, from the histories of Nigeria and Liberia, that it is very easy to exchange one set of tyrants for another.

They should also look south to learn about the inevitable risks of freedom, and brace themselves for the explosion of the resentments and frustration (ethnic, religious, racial) that Mubarak and Gadhafi suppressed for decades (it happened with the Shariah controversy in Northern Nigeria in 2001/2, and the militant violence in the Delta, and with Kenya's "post-election violence" in 2007/8).

Last week, Nigeria's lower house of parliament finally had the good sense to pass the Freedom of Information Bill, more than a decade after it was first debated. Surely there is something revolutionary in that?

Last year the Kenyans, chastened by the murderous rage of a few years ago, enthusiastically participated in voting for a new constitution, to replace one that was a legacy of the colonial era.

Expecting a Tahrir-style uprising in Lagos or Nairobi would be akin to asking us to start all over again -- from 1999 (Nigeria), or 2002 (Kenya).

We'd achieve a lot more using our time and energy -- and not forgetting our tweets -- to mobilize citizens to show more interest in politics, to vote and insist on our votes being counted, and to expose corruption wherever we find it. Not to forget supporting our North African comrades as they start the long, difficult journey that lies ahead.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tolu Ogunlesi. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter.