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Why Freedom of Speech Eludes Africa’s Elite

Why do Africans indulge in their own destruction as the west cheers them on and hails them as democrats in pursuit of freedom?
Opposition party supporters chant their grievances near to a burning barricade, in Kisumu, western Kenya, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008, the start of three days of planned opposition rallies. Legislators chose an opposition member as Parliament Speaker in a close vote Tuesday, giving a victory to foes of Kenya's president as they prepared for mass protest rallies that raised fears of new violence over last month's disputed election. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

I have usually argued that although Europeans and Americans claim to promote democracy in Africa, the kind that they are accustomed to – liberal democracy – in the end they promote something else: a destructive brand of politics that they do not tolerate in their own societies. The brand sharpens differences in society while undermining citizenship, the very basis for claiming the right to participate in politics in a democracy.

Westerners have developed a consensus that, despite conflicting or competing identities, as citizens they must remain united. This is imposed as a settled debate.  Anyone who debates which race (identity) should be in power is perceived to be indecent as, despite racial differences, whoever ends up in power is a citizen who is capable of representing all the different categories of citizens. Consequently, civilized discourse and political agitation in the quest for political power take place only along social and economic (policy) differences: pro and anti-abortion; pro and anti-immigration; more or less individual and corporate tax; privatized or universal health care; death penalty or preservation of life.

The tragedy of Africa is that the elite has accepted the destructive brand of politics wherein settled debates or questions are open for debate: it includes whether certain citizens are better than others and are therefore worthy of leadership. It is also abominable that, wittingly or not, western democracy promotion for the past 30 years (since the end of the Cold War) encourages this brand that ultimately leads to instability. The January 6 “insurrection” at the House of Congress in Washington DC, and the swift reaction entailing on-the-spot executions, arrests and prosecution, tells you all you need to know about how fast these very countries will react when the brand they promote in Africa, even the semblance of it, is practiced at home. 

In other words, if they know this brand is bad for social cohesion and that political agitation should only take place along social and economic policy differences, why do they recommend the toxic version for Africans? And more importantly, why do Africans indulge in their own destruction as the west cheers them on and hails them as democrats in pursuit of freedom? If this is freedom, why does the west prosecute those who practice it?

These are the questions that ought to be on the minds of the African elite who are interested in democracy. However, to ask these questions and to answer them requires stepping away from the clapping western gallery, for a moment of reflection and soul searching.

Freedom or destruction?

As noted above, Africans ought not to debate settled questions: their citizenship is adequate qualification for political leadership. Like Europeans and Americans, it ought to be taboo and also indecent for such debate to take place. Those who seek to promote it should be excluded from consideration for leadership at the very least. Also, law enforcement measures should kick in when such discourse crosses the line into incitement. For each country, this line is determined by its unique history. In Tanzania, for instance, the discourse on the secession of Zanzibar from the mainland is highly sensitive because the issue of how the two territories should relate to each other is a settled question: they are a single unified territory where all the citizens are Tanzanians. Similarly, Tanzanians would disqualify from consideration for leadership anyone promoting ethnic, regional, or linguistic domination that diverts them from the shared identity around Swahili.

A near consensus amongst Tanzanians regarding what constitutes settled questions has meant that democracy promoters selling the destructive version have made little headway. As a result, unlike much of Africa, dissent in Tanzania tends to focus on policy differences, of which there are few.

In Cameroon, that country’s experience with regionalism would shape its choice of settled questions around which a sense of citizenship and of a shared future can be constructed. Whatever is left would be areas where political agitation is acceptable. That would shift politics in Cameroon towards discourse on policy differences.

In the DRC, it would be around secession since the greatest political nightmare of the Congolese elite is the breakaway of part of the country’s territory, which  Moise Tshombe tried to achieve at independence. Since then, many Congolese remain jittery about that possibility.

For Rwanda, its experience with genocide in general and with media inciting hatred and violence in particular has made that brand of politics a no-go area, and rightly so. Once bitten, twice shy. Countries which have never faced a tragedy like Rwanda has faced can afford to experiment with that brand and some might even get away with doing so. Here, however, anyone who aspires for that kind of politics will find that it is a no-go area, and that dissent along those same lines will not be tolerated.

Something fascinating is happening in Rwanda. Rwanda’s opposition seems entirely incapable of civil discourse, the kind that treats identity as a settled question, affirms that all Rwandans are indistinguishable citizens in terms of rights and that further debate on the matter will not be tolerated regardless of its aims, given experience shows that nothing good comes out of such a debate.

Those who don’t know anything about Rwanda, especially the western audience that pretends to know more than Rwandans regarding their own country, interpret this as president Kagame’s intolerance towards dissent. But Kagame is only a guarantor of the desire of Rwandans to treat identity as a settled question that is not subject to debate. They prefer to put forth citizenship as the vehicle for civic discourse. One would think that Europeans and Americans who desire to export their own ways of doing things would be happy with things taking this direction in Rwanda. But alas! As long as it has not been conceived by Westerners, it is not good enough even when it is a practice which they are otherwise familiar with.

Freedom of speech in Rwanda is at once curtailed and free. It is curtailed for those who are unable to agitate around policy differences and, as a result, go for the destructive but familiar settled questions of identity that magnify differences (ethnicity) and downplay commonalities (citizenship). The form of speech the elite desires cannot be practiced for as long as the memory of genocide remains alive amongst Rwandans. It is unlikely also that a leader will emerge in the near future who will tolerate it. It is not about Kagame’s intolerance for dissent. Rather, it is about responsible leadership that guards against destructive politics and distinguishes between settled questions and acceptable civic agitation.

Ironically, among the ordinary people who comprise the vast majority of Rwandans, speech is thriving. Anyone who listens to radio in the morning, especially on private stations in Kinyarwanda, will notice the extent of free expression that induces sweat among government officials. The exchanges are a sort of “free for all” and “anything goes”: from criticism of policies on land terracing, poor-quality fertilizers, water and electricity shortages, and even the quality of education provided by government schools. Elsewhere, ordinary citizens put officials to task over delayed implementation or unfulfilled promises of road, market, hospital and school projects. In other words, while ordinary citizens insist on topics that affect their daily lives, Rwanda’s opposition is obsessed with capturing power to the extent that it is ready to comprise hard-earned national cohesion.

Kagame’s government is, therefore, open to criticism on economic and social policy, on conditions that those who engage in it agree that they share common citizenship and that any shortcomings do not compromise a shared future.

Rwanda’s opposition insists otherwise because it is incited to do so by the very same actors who adhere to these basic requirements in the “mature democracies” where they live and operate from.

A serious opposition in Rwanda would garner ample votes if they listened to politics-focused programmes on morning radio and engaged those who call in to air their grievances that likely affect many others. This would also spread the reach of these parties across the country and with the appropriate organizational structures, they would give Kagame a meaningful contest at the polls and, at the very least, ensure that he don’t win with an overwhelming majority. This is how incumbents lose power in the democracies that westerners wish others to emulate even as they incite them to take the opposite direction by undermining the sense of common citizenship.

Kagame doesn’t remain in power due to the absence of dissent or because he is a dictator. He does so because of the incompetence of and lack of focus by those who seek to replace him. And because they have chosen to dance to the clapping western gallery instead of going where the votes are.

Unfortunately, politics in much of Africa is stuck in this gear. Political parties in and outside power are ageing, but with little to show for political maturity. When destruction comes out of destructive politics, everyone feigns ignorance and claims they did not know it would come to that. That includes the cheerleaders. 

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