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Bureaucratic authoritarianism returns

By Moses Khisa

Must order and stability override freedom and liberty?

There is a “new” refrain in town: when shove comes to push, society needs order and stability than individual freedom and liberty. Without order no one can enjoy any freedom or human right, goes the truism.

However, this conservative stance is not new, nor is it unexpected from certain sections of a poor country like Uganda. I return to Uganda in a moment, but first a brief detour is in order.

“The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.” This was the opening statement in Samuel Huntington’s 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies.


Huntington, one of the most influential American political scientists of the last century, was concerned about one thing: that in many developing countries there was a dangerous mismatch between political participation on one hand, and political institutionalisation on another, between socioeconomic development and political development – that is, the political organisational and institutional capacity to deal with the demands that attend rapid socioeconomic changes.

In other words, Huntington observed that societies of the so-called Third World, especially in Latin America, were undergoing rapid socioeconomic transformation, economic modernisation, but without the necessary political institutions, political modernisation, to absorb demands for political participation. The rates of social mobilisation, economic transformation, and the expansion of political participation were high; yet the rates of political organisation and institutionalisation were woefully low.

The result, invariably, was widespread violence and instability. “This violence and instability,” Huntington wrote, “was in large part the product of rapid social change and the rapid mobilisation of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions.” In other words, that political participation was not matched with the growth of political community and the art of associating together. There was dearth of political community and effective, authoritative, legitimate government.

Huntington’s book attracted enormous debate and was seen by his critics as a manual for nondemocratic regimes and autocratic rulers in the 1970s and 80s around the world. The key take home lesson for rulers, especially those faced with a huge legitimacy deficit, was that freedom and liberty had to be subordinated to order and stability.

In the absence of well-developed civic and political institutions for citizen engagement, which take long to evolve, the disruptive effects of rapid socioeconomic change had to be met with a strongly coercive institutional apparatus of the state and government in power.

Thus, there emerged, especially in Latin America of the 1970s and 80s, a repressive system of government called “bureaucratic authoritarianism” – highly technocratic military dictatorship that aimed at ensuring political stability and conservative macroeconomic growth at the expense of civil liberties and economic redistribution. Consequently, by the 1990s Latin America was arguably the most economically unequal continent. Individual freedoms and liberties were sacrificed at the altar of economic and political stability that served multinational corporations allied to local elite players.

In Kampala, Nairobi, and across the African continent, there is a palpable and worryingly growing reversion to this conservatism of the last century. A handful but influential coterie, that feels threatened by the revolutionary power behind progressive politics, has aggressively articulated this wisdom.

In the recently concluded Kenyan elections, the media were enjoined to exercise responsibility by placing peace and stability above anything else, including the inviolable right to free expression. In the aftermath of the Kenyan polls, recent debates on social media are pointing towards a possible cover-up and conspiracy on the part of the mainstream media. Time will tell.

Closer home, journalist Andrew Mwenda, who made his mark as the foremost outspoken critic of muzzling free speech in Uganda, has recently made an incredible turn-around: Uganda, Kenya, or any other African country, desires order and stability more than freedom and liberty. This was one of his key arguments at a recent public debate at the Makerere Institute for Social Research on the Kenyan Elections.

The erroneous presupposition being that civil liberties are incompatible with stability, and that exercise of fundamental freedoms undermines order! This assertion is as superfluous as it is preposterous, for nothing is further from the truth.

Historically, the sources of disorder and instability lie in the denial of what is most priceless to human beings: human dignity and the respect for fundamental freedoms. “Man is a yes,” wrote the venerable Frantz Fanon, “but he is also no, especially no to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom.” There is something about human beings that transcends material considerations; this something has been the cause of violence and disorder since time immemorial.

Francis Fukuyama, his conservative ideological positioning notwithstanding, understood this very well. He called it recognition, and noted that recognition is the central problem of politics because it is the origin of tyranny, imperialism, and the desire to dominate. Human beings are endowed with reason and desire, which lead them to seek material achievement. But unlike other animals, they also have something else: the thymos, the part of the soul, the spirit that seeks personal pride and quests for recognition of the inherent worth.

Those arguing for curtailment of freedom and liberty in the name of preserving order and stability conveniently forget that disorder and instability are not caused by exercise of individual liberties and freedoms, but rather, are consequences of their denial. We may as well recall the instructive words of Benjamin Franklin: “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor security.

The author is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, Chicago/Evanston-USA

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