We have an obligation to help democrats in East Africa achieve a liberal restart: Here’s how

Civic liberties

The COVID-19 pandemic has not just devastated the health and economies of nations. It has profoundly threatened civil liberties and the fundamentals of democracy throughout the world. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in East Africa where authoritarians such as John Magufuli and Yoweri Museveni have used the opportunity presented by the pandemic to strengthen their grip on power and further erode civil freedoms in their respective countries.

With the world distracted and international election observers unable to travel, recent elections in Tanzania and Uganda were patently not free and fair and characterised by violence, gross power abuse and severe limitations on freedoms of assembly, speech and media. Both elections marked the culmination of trends away from fundamental human rights and freedoms that was expedited by the cover provided by the pandemic.

As an organisation committed to leading a liberal restart after the current pandemic, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) commissioned qualitative and quantitative research in East Africa. The intention behind this research was to better understand citizen attitudes to promoting and protecting civil liberties in the Region. The results of the research will be used to inform our partners, donor organisations, European governments and organisations active in the region on what support, strategies and tactics will have the most impact in fighting back against authoritarian creep and strengthening civil liberties and freedoms.

The results of the research have proven to be extremely insightful and not only offer solid guidance for East Africa, but have resonance for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and parts of the world that are currently facing similar challenges.

A key, foundational finding of our survey is that a majority of citizens in Uganda and Kenya view their problems as economic rather than specifically linked to restrictions on personal freedoms.  Viewed independently of combating poverty and seeking employment, civil liberties and rights do not feature high on citizen’s priorities. However, if civil liberties and rights are framed (rightly) as paving a pathway to development and economic freedom, citizens are far more likely to engage and involve themselves in activities that entrench and promote core freedoms. Given that the number one priority for most countries post pandemic will be economic recovery, it stands to reason that it will be vital for liberal democrats to drive the message that core civil freedoms are an essential ‘sine qua non’ for free economic activity and prosperity.

Interestingly, a number of authoritarians frame democracy and civil liberties as obstacles towards achieving development. They therefore justify imposing restrictions on key freedoms as essential in attaining economic freedom for citizens. It is incumbent upon liberal democrats worldwide to highlight this as a dangerous falsehood. Over the long term, freedom and democracy have shown a clear correlation with economic growth. Dictatorships and autocracies have more than often resulted in poverty, hardship and unemployment.

Citizens surveyed did indicate a strong belief in core democratic principles, especially freedom of speech and the press. However, they are reluctant to fight or be seen to support these principles and rights if it means attracting government scrutiny. This is especially so if government scrutiny ends up being exercised by the police, who have regularly resorted to violence and intimidation in East Africa over the past year. This reticence to promote core freedoms was particularly evident with ‘signing petitions’, ‘posting on social media’ and ‘joining in protests’, garnering the least amount of interest from citizens out of a list of potential civic activities.

Our research found that the best way to involve citizens in protecting and defending democratic principles is to focus on local initiatives and building coalitions from the ground up. Success stories shared in the in-depth interviews (IDIs) we conducted indicate that working locally and organising in collaboration with local authorities is a successful way to build support from the ground up. Furthermore, coalition building from the ground up achieves power in numbers, encouraging more citizens to join and engage as they are less fearful of being targeted individually. A further benefit is the degree of anonymity that is afforded to those taking part.

Despite the current environment, citizens surveyed are optimistic that civil liberties will improve over the next year and many are interested in activities at local level such as starting an event or community group or raising issues relating to their community with village headmen, local councillors, friends and family. This once again points to the strong potential of organising from the ground up in the region.

For many organisations in Europe, the UK and North America committed to promoting and protecting democratic freedoms, it is particularly difficult to judge where best to focus our efforts. The results of the research give us some direction on where to start.

Firstly, police and justice reform are critical areas. Both the IDIs and survey showed categorically that the police in East African countries are at the forefront of restricting democratic rights. Organisations and initiatives focused on reforming the police in East Africa should be supported. Justice reform is another sector we should support. Many East Africans value fair trials and see them as being restricted. This aligns with reports this year of numerous infringements by governments on the right to a fair trial.

Secondly, we should priortise support for small business associations and NGOs supporting small business and entrepreneurship. In Kenya and Uganda, an overwhelming majority of citizens agree that small businesses benefit communities and should grow. This aligns strongly with the finding that a top civil and political freedom for East Africans is the freedom to open a business. Accordingly, initiatives and organisations focused on supporting entrepreneurs at a local level will aid the promotion and protection of civil liberties, particularly given the link between core democratic rights and a conducive enabling environment for small business.

Thirdly, journalists and the media greatly aid the protection and promotion of civil liberties in the region. Freedom of the press is highly valued as a democratic right, and journalists are highly trusted. Given the disproportionate victimisation of journalists in the region over the past few years, it would be of great value for there to be increased collaboration with and support for the fourth estate.

Finally, greater support for voter education and organisations supporting voter choice and participatory democracy must be provided. East Africans value democracy, want opposition parties to be able to organise freely and prioritise the freedom of citizens to vote for whoever they want. A significant proportion of citizens though say that their ability to vote freely is limited, especially in Uganda.

For many of us, the challenges and difficulties of the past year have been intensified by the pain of witnessing citizens in East Africa and many other parts of the world endure increased repression and the restriction of their core freedoms. There are many priorities to focus on as we navigate our way through the turbulent ‘new normal’ of a world forever changed by Covid-19. What we cannot ignore though is the core connection between liberal democracy, development and economic prosperity. We have the insight and direction. We need to employ it and work to empower the brave crusaders for liberal democracy in East Africa to achieve a liberal restart.

Sabine Leutheusser Schnarrenberger is the Deputy Chairperson of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. She served two terms as Germany’s Federal Minister of Justice.