Civil Unrest on the Rise Globally

According to the latest edition of the Global Peace Index (GPI) report, global civil unrest is on the rise, as every region of the world has experienced hundreds of civil unrest events over the last decade. 

The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in its 2020 report said a key trend identified in this year’s research is the growing level of civil unrest across the world. At least 58% of GPI countries experienced violent protests in 2019, notably in Chile and Hong Kong, as citizens protested a range of issues including economic inequality, police brutality, political leadership and rising prices for key resources. From 2011 to 2019, the number of riots rose by 282% and general strikes rose by 821%.

Europe experienced the most protests, riots and strikes – however only 35% of the approximate 1600 total were recorded as violent: the lowest percent in the world. Civil unrest in sub-Saharan Africa rose by more than 800% over the period, from 32 riots and protests in 2011 to 292 in 2018.

The global increase was driven by rises in seven out of nine regions, the IEP found. “Only the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) had fewer protests, riots and strikes in 2018, when compared to 2011, while levels in North America were stable. Sub-Saharan Africa had the greatest increase, followed by Europe, South Asia, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Asia-Pacific and Russia and Eurasia.

“The MENA region had the most significant decline in violent demonstrations, with total unrest falling by 60 percent and the number of riots falling by 50% from 2011 to 2018. North America had fewer riots over the period, recording a decline of 27%.”

Sub-Saharan Africa

The 800% increase in incidents of civil unrest in sub-Saharan Africa was mostly driven by events occurring after 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest proportion of violent demonstrations, with riots making up 42.6% of total events, the IEP said.

Nigeria accounted for the largest number of demonstrations and the largest increase. In 2018 the number of demonstrations rose from six to 79 in a single year. Perhaps the most prominent issue was the imprisonment of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Supporters of the IMN protested repeatedly throughout the year to call for Zakzaky’s release, who had been imprisoned since 2015.

In South Africa, there was an 86% increase in civil unrest from 2011 to 2018, with most of the increase occurring in 2017 and 2018. University students began protesting following proposed tuition increases in late 2015. These demonstrations led to the temporary closure of the country’s top universities.

Ethiopia experienced a similar trend, as emergency restrictions to contain protests in 2015 expired in late 2017 and citizens returned to the streets. The number of riots and demonstrations rose 500% from 2015 to 2018. Much of the unrest occurred in Oromiya state, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa and reflected long-standing tensions between the province and the federal government. Demonstrations and other ongoing violence led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February of 2018.

In Guinea, protestors and government forces clashed frequently over the last few years, with violence reported in 65% of the demonstrations. Most of the events took place in 2018, as teacher-led protests eventually secured a promised pay increase from the government. At the same time, local political parties marched to demand that the results of municipal elections be released, alleging fraud on the part of the ruling party. Protests and riots have continued since 2018, as President Alpha Conde held a referendum on 22 March 2020 to change the constitution and allow himself a third term in office, sparking further protests that resulted in at least 30 deaths.

Middle East & North Africa

MENA had the second highest number of events, after Europe, with the majority of the riots and protests occurring during the Arab Spring in 2011. MENA was the only world region to record a decline in civil unrest, with the number of demonstrations falling 60% from 2011 to 2018. Nonviolent anti-government demonstrations declined by 68.9%, while riots fell by half. Most of the decline occurred in 2012. In 2011, 17 countries out of 20 had some level of civil unrest, with Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia recording the largest number of riots, protests or general strikes. Only Qatar, Palestine, and the UAE were without major events, although authorities in Palestine and the UAE detained activists and dispersed demonstrations.

Despite the crises and civil wars that followed many movements, the majority of civil unrest in MENA during 2011 was nonviolent. Violent demonstrations were highest in Egypt in 2011, with 36% of events in Egypt that year involving violence.

Events continued throughout the region in 2012. However, by 2013, civil unrest had fallen 70%. The largest decline was in Syria, which had 81 events in 2011, 33 in 2012 and just one in 2013 as the Syrian Revolution gave way to the Syrian Civil War.

The decline in demonstrations in MENA reflects the so-called Arab Winter. Leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were deposed or forced to step down by 2012, but only Tunisia avoided civil war, and all four countries were affected by the various conflicts in the region, including the war against ISIL. While the same volume of demonstrations was no longer possible, the region continued to average roughly 129 events per year through 2018. Demonstrations in Egypt took many years to subside, while civil unrest rose and fell in Lebanon, and has hit Tunisia sporadically throughout the decade. Qatar remained relatively unaffected, and the UAE continued to record no major events.