East Africa needs a liberal restart to protect and promote civil liberties
The past year has been hard for East Africans. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the health and economies of our nations. As the threat of further waves persist and international travel, tourism and business remains largely on hold, things will continue to be difficult. We face a long road ahead in navigating a path to economic recovery and a challenging vaccine roll-out. Yet, as we proceed in forging a ‘new normal’, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from combating a great threat to our sustainability as a region. During the pandemic, the erosion of both civil liberties and the fundamentals of democracy - already under significant threat pre-pandemic - have intensified. We have witnessed first-hand how authoritarians such as John Magufuli and Yoweri Museveni have been emboldened by the pandemic, strengthening their grip on power and trampling on the rights of citizens. In Kenya, we have faced an increasingly violent and abusive police force, often using COVID-19 regulations to curb citizen freedoms.
Over the past six months, unfree and unfair elections have taken place in Sub- Saharan Africa, the consequences of which may hold our development back significantly. For example in Uganda, the trends away from respect for human rights and freedoms were evident long before the election period started. Yet, no one could have predicted the extent of the violence, gross power abuse and limitations on freedom of assembly, speech and media we saw. Accordingly, it is vital that civil society coalesce behind a strategy to promote and protect civil liberties, and then execute it relentlessly and with focus.
Last year, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) commissioned qualitative and quantitative research in East Africa. The purpose was to assess citizen attitudes to promoting and protecting civil liberties in the region. We did this by understanding citizen engagement in elections, the state of civil liberties and how they are restricted, institutions restricting civil liberties, success stories of community activism and the civil liberties the public are motivated to protect. The results of this research will be used to equip civil society with messaging, strategies and tactics to fight back against authoritarianism and anti-democratic practices. Although the qualitative research was conducted amongst participants in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, the quantitative research was rolled out in Uganda and Kenya only due to government restrictions in Tanzania. The difficulty of rolling out quantitative research on such subject matter in Tanzania was an initial, damning indication of the state of repression present in the country.
Today we are launching a playbook encapsulating these messaging, strategy and tactics recommendations. The survey results offer clear guidance for democrats and civil society on the urgent steps that need to be taken. The first step towards sustainable economic recovery post-pandemic is for East Africa drive a liberal restart – aimed at entrenching fundamental civil freedoms.
Underpinning our recommendations is the main finding that the majority of citizens in Uganda and Kenya view the main issues facing them as economic. When viewed independently, civil liberties and rights do not feature high on citizen’s priorities. However, when civil liberties and rights are framed correctly as the essential foundations for development and economic freedom, citizens are far more likely to engage and actively seek to promote core freedoms.
On the campaign trail, John Magufuli and Yoweri Museveni framed civil liberties and democratic practices as obstacles towards development and economic prosperity. They therefore present their actions of banning opposition political activity, internet shutdowns and arresting opposition leaders as reasonable and justifiable limitations on fundamental rights. As a first start, democrats, civil society and media need to expose this as both wrong and false. Worldwide, dictatorships and autocracies where freedoms are restricted and individuals persecuted tend to struggle economically, allow corruption to flourish and plunge citizens into poverty. Evidence abounds that freedom and democracy spur on economic growth. The best way for governments to ensure a solid start to economic recovery post the pandemic will be to guarantee civil liberties and enable freedoms. Economic growth and jobs will result. Our survey suggests that if this conveyed clearly, citizens may be more motivated and prepared to support initiatives aimed to promoting civil liberties.
Our survey did reflect that East Africans believe strongly in democratic principles, especially freedom of speech and freedom of the press. They also believed that one of the key consequences of the right to freedom of expression is the ability to fight against corruption. However, they are reluctant to fight or be seen to support these principles and rights if it means attracting government scrutiny. And there is recognition of the role of the police in being the visible manifestation of this scrutiny from government. How best then to launch civil society action to forge a liberal restart?
It is quite evident that the focus has to be on local initiatives and building coalitions from the ground up. Success stories shared in the in-depth interviews we conducted indicate that working locally and organising in collaboration with local authorities is the best 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. There is less risk of arrest or persecution by the police and government if citizens operate at local level as they will attract far less attention than if they act at national level.
It is also very important for civil society coalitions to use faith leaders, journalists and NGO leaders as advocates for civil liberties. Our research clearly identifies religious institutions, the media and NGOs as being the most trusted potential advocates. A further important finding of the research was for us to recognise that while a digital focus for civil society must be maintained, digital platforms have limited reach in East Africa at the moment. The most effective ways to communicate with citizens is through television and radio. Therefore, in addition to face-to-face initiatives at a local level, community, regional and national earned media tactics should be prioritised.
The full research findings and strategic recommendations of our project can be accessed here. The region faces so many significant challenges and competing priorities as we move beyond Covid-19. What we cannot afford though is to ignore the increasing democratic deficit. There is a strong connection between liberal democracy, development and economic prosperity. We have the insight and direction to forge a liberal restart. We need to use this and work hard to bring enduring freedom to our region.
Inge Herbert is the Regional Director for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa