Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms

By Wanyama, Fredrick O. | African Studies Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms


Wanyama, Fredrick O., African Studies Review


Robert M. Press. Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006. xix + 227 pp. Tables. Bibliography. Index. $99.95. Cloth.

Most studies on democratization in Africa tend to credit civil society organizations (CSOs) for the gains made in advancing democratic reforms, but they hardly explain how these organizations mobilize force to compel authoritarian states to give concessions. In the circumstances, it has been assumed that the existence of CSOs is a prerequisite for democratic transition in these countries. The book under review departs from this trend not only to explain how elements of civil society initiate the struggle for political reforms, but also to highlight the role of individuals, rather than organizations, in this struggle. Press uses a Kenyan case study to argue that it is individual activists who initiate a culture of resistance on their own, with partial organizational and external support, to pressure an authoritarian state to make concessions on human rights and democratic governance.

Organized into seven chapters, the book employs the agency-based version of social movement theory to explain the three phases that characterize the establishment of a culture of resistance. The first phase is initiated by individual activists, motivated by democratic principles. In the second phase organizational activists build on this groundwork to advance the culture of resistance. The third phase entails mass participation in demonstrations that compel the state to make concessions on human rights and democracy. Thus the culture of resistance responsible for political reforms revolves around "individual activism, organizational activism, and mass participation" (182), not just CSOs and the donor community, as most studies have argued.

Whereas this well-argued study should be commended for such a refreshing perspective in explaining democratic reforms in Africa, the claim that "most social movement literature does not address... how a movement actually starts" (185), but tends to focus on organizations that are assumed to exist at the beginning of the movement (xvii), cannot go unchallenged. For instance, in The True Believer (Mentor Books, 1958), Eric Hoffer explained that social movements are always started not by organizations but by individual activists, whom he calls the "men and women of words. …

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