Sunday May 4 2014

The challenge of advancing the cause of freedom in Africa

By Harold Acemah

Why are millions of Africans held in bondage and in chains like slaves in much of the continent today; in countries such as the Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Swaziland and Zimbabwe to mention but a few? Why are thousands of educated Africans so indifferent, helpless, powerless and unwilling to do anything to put an end to rampant oppression and suffering which has reduced wananchi across the length and breadth of Africa to the status of second class citizens in their own countries?

Whether Leviathan is a king, as in Swaziland; or a dictator, as in the Gambia and Zimbabwe; or a powerful political party or a cabal of greedy, violent and ethnic gunmen who have grabbed power by the barrel of the gun, it is impossible to dislodge them unless a vanguard of the masses has the courage to challenge the monster, without fear or favour.

Pericles (Athenian statesman) observed long ago that “the secret of liberty is courage.” Courage to stand up for truth, justice and what is right; courage to stand up for your rights and principles; courage to stand up for your friends when they are in trouble; courage to stand up and defend human rights everywhere; courage to champion the cause of the wananchi and speak boldly for the silent majority; and courage to admit one’s mistakes and apologise to those who have been wronged.

It is not a safe world anymore and only free men and women dare to stick their necks out while the vast majority of people who are not free, for one reason or another, hide or sing praises to the oppressor or dance to the dictator’s tune in return for small pieces of nyama choma which may fall under his high table.

What Pericles said is not new; he could have taken it from the Scriptures. In chapter 1 of the book of Joshua, we read of the Lord’s command to Joshua whom He had appointed to succeed Moses as the leader of Israel.

“Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause these people to inherit the land I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you.” (ESV)

Ignorance and fear are two weapons dictators and oppressors have used from time immemorial to control and subdue the masses; the cure for these two vices is knowledge about the objective realities of wananchi’s circumstances and the truth about the strength and weaknesses of the oppressor. Knowledge is power.

The axiom, “power belongs to the people” is not an empty slogan as dictators think. The masses who are the vast majority in all countries have enormous power in their hands; when this latent power is unlocked, it can move mountains as happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Thailand and Philippines. Ordinary people can collectively act like a tsunami once their eyes are opened and they get to know the root cause of their suffering which is often a small band of greedy and selfish impostors.

The hidden power of the wananchi can be harnessed and used to achieve sustainable development, but this can effectively be done where there is freedom. As the founder of Transition magazine, Rajat Neogy, argued in a classic essay in 1966, “all growth is a result of freedom.” The hallmark of freedom everywhere is an old, but clear test; it is whether public criticism is permitted in a society in a conceivably effective manner. In other words, the litmus test of freedom is whether Opposition is tolerated; most African countries, including Uganda, would fail that test.

Politics is one way of ruling divided societies without undue violence and most societies fall in this category. Freedom to participate effectively in the affairs of society is thus necessary for politics to exist.

There is a saying that oppression makes a wise man mad, but oppression and suffering can also bring out the best in human beings as happened to Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades who were imprisoned by the apartheid regime of South Africa on Robben Island for almost three decades! Mandela’s unique qualities of courage, dignity, empathetic understanding of other people instead of seeking revenge; the ability to remain calm in a politically hostile environment and many other positive attributes of the great man, were nurtured under oppression and suffering. These qualities served Mandela well after he was released from jail and during his one-term tenure as the first black president of South Africa.

When it is finally over, as it will, Ugandans will be stunned by the magnitude of the damage which three decades of NRM misrule has done to the body politic, the moral fibre and the spiritual health of Uganda. Our religious leaders will, in particular, be ashamed of some people they kept close company with who are spiritual enemies of the communion of saints and believers. The ongoing circus featuring MPs traversing Uganda with sacks of money to buy votes for the sole candidature of the only man with vision in NRM/O is a telling sign of the times!

The denial of fundamental freedoms to Ugandans for almost 30 years has severely retarded the economic, social and political development of the wananchi. Freedom is not a favour which the NRM regime can give to or take away from the people of Uganda. Freedom is a gift from God and a constitutional right; nobody can deprive us of the same.

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.