Crackdown on protests in Africa threatens investment

Civil unrest, its suppression, and the technology that fuels it all may affect investment in Africa, says international security analyst Jesper Bak-Christensen
As documented in a new book called Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, the African continent is currently experiencing a wave of popular protest against long time incumbents.
Like the unrest that rocked the Middle East in 2011, these protests have showcased the power of the African street. Moreover, organised urban movements like those seen Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria, and Uganda defy the stereotype of a rural and underdeveloped Africa.
Part and parcel of these movements is the widespread use of technology, like the Arab Spring, to organise and communicate. The use of social media has caught on with African protestors and proven hard to control for African regimes.
The #Telema protests in the DRC are the latest example, which led Joseph Kabila’s government to shut down internet and cell phone access for days to combat organisers. Telema largely followed the formula of Burkina Faso’s ‘Revolution 2.0’, which used the hashtag ‘Lwili’ to rally protestors.
With the proliferation of technology to organise protest, African leaders are scrambling to keep tabs on protest movements and human rights campaigners. In a Wikileaks release of the Italian spyware company HackingTeam’s emails, it was made clear that several African governments are using spyware to monitor opposition groups.
Among those on list are Nigeria, Sudan, and Ethiopia. In the case of Ethiopia, HackingTeam has been accused of deliberately ignoring abuse by the government using their products. The alleged contributory negligence poses significant risk for companies looking to do business in Africa.
The use of private companies’ products, technology, or assets in the repression of the wider public may not only be illegal, but could also have severe consequences for long term investments. By supporting repressive governments or ignoring political stability, companies may expose themselves to lengthy litigation in their parent country and locally, as well as lose revenue from disruptions caused by these protests.
At any rate, a company’s complicity in government human rights abuses and violent crackdowns may cause shareholders and consumers to divest. Thus, navigating the political risk of public uprisings for foreign companies can be a dicey proposition precisely because of the murky processes and inner workings of a country’s political system.
The highly networked protests are a testament to the new form of community organizing seen in The Middle East that is spreading to previously unconnected places in the world. It is therefore imperative that investors inform themselves of political protest and how they can spread across several countries following the same formula.
Investors should follow the evolution of these protests in order to anticipate the attendant risks they pose. Further, investors must study the government’s response and ensure they steer clear of any abuses and violations committed by these regimes. In the case of HackingTeam, the due diligence was spotty at best, and the fact that repressive governments are using their products seriously questions their business ethics.
Whatever the outcome of this new wave of political protests for the people of Africa, businesses need to navigate sophisticated, highly connected urban protest movements and potentially repressive governments in order to succeed.
With a trend as powerful as this on the rise, and governmental response being heavier handed than ever, investors cannot afford to ignore the political risk.

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