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Sub-Saharan armies are more willing to shoot at anti-government protesters.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When a group of Zimbabwean activists gathered to watch videotaped news reports of the revolutions in North Africa, it was a chance to bypass the heavy censorship that President Robert Mugabe’s regime has imposed on coverage of the historic uprisings.
Zimbabwean authorities saw it as something else: They arrested the activists and accused them of plotting to overthrow Mugabe's government. Forty-six people have been charged with treason, which carries penalties of life imprisonment or death, and were taken to prison in handcuffs and leg irons.
With the governments of Tunisia and Egypt toppled and a revolt in Libya underway, African governments south of the Sahara are casting a nervous eye northward and cracking down on dissent among their own people. While there are vast differences in circumstances throughout the continent, many countries share the common denominators of high unemployment and repressive regimes that have been in power for decades.
But unlike the “Jasmine Revolutions” of North Africa, there has not been a strong, citizen-driven movement to overthrow a repressive government in any of the sub-Saharan countries, despite attempts by protesters in Gabon and Cameroon.
There has also been scant criticism by other African governments of the violence against protesters in Libya, including the brutal attacks that have reportedly been carried out by brigades of mercenaries from African countries such as Niger, Chad and Sudan.
“Every country has its own tipping point against oppression,” said Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the University of Cape Town’s Center for Conflict Resolution. “But it’s not easy to tell where that is. Nobody can predict it.”
“The important thing about Egypt and Tunisia is that at some point the military became the arbitrators and decided they weren’t going to fire on the people,” he said. “Whereas the army did not shoot at the people in those countries, it would shoot at the people in Zimbabwe. The army [of Zimbabwe] has been very repressive.”
In Cameroon, protests Wednesday against President Paul Biya, who has ruled for a quarter century, were quickly crushed by riot police despite hopes by organizers that it would be the start of an Egypt-style revolution.
There were similar attempts by protesters in Gabon, where thousands took to the streets to protest against President Ali Bongo, son of a dictator who had ruled for more than 40 years. They were swiftly dispersed with tear gas.