From Malawi to Senegal, Signs of a Sub-Saharan ‘Arab Spring’

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A protester throws back a teargas canister fired by police during an anti government demonstration in Lilongwe on July 20, 2011. (Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP / Getty Images)

After months of growing economic struggles, the southern African country of Malawi erupted into protests last week. Rioters took to the streets nationwide last Wednesday to protest the perceived mismanagement of the national economy and an impending fuel shortage. These protesters also stormed the offices of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the northern city of Mzuzu, and demanded that the president step down. Over three days of violence, state officials say 19 people were killed. Most of these deaths were protesters: seriously outnumbered, police forces reportedly fired live rounds into waves of rioters in order to push them away from government offices.

But the bloodshed may just be the beginning of discord in this country of 14 million people. Protest leaders have already submitted an official petition for an audit of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s personal finances, and the president has sworn in official statements to “smoke out” anyone who opposes him. An ongoing feud with the U.K. over an expelled British envoy means that the president could also find himself embattled both at home and abroad with nowhere to turn. In a recent public statement, Mutharika said that the protest leaders are “thugs and sons of Satan,” according to the Associated Press.

Malawi is the latest in a series of sub-Saharan countries to face political unrest in recent months — what some analysts claim are echoes of the Arab Spring that swept North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year. Strikes and protests recently gripped Senegal as supporters of long-ruling President Abdoulaye Wade and his numerous detractors clashed in the streets in the wake of Wade’s announcement he intended to run for reelection in 2012. Questions remain over whether the 85 year-old president’s candidacy — he has been in power since 2000 — violates constitutional term limits.

In Uganda, traders protested rising prices earlier this month, and some political demonstrators have contested President Yoweri Museveni’s age (his disputed claim would allow him to run for another term). Museveni’s government harshly cracked down on April protests complaining of political corruption and rising food prices in the capital Kampala. At least 10 were killed overall as demonstrations got violently quashed. The authorities in Malawi must hope their heavy hand will similarly push back growing unrest.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.