This column is a slightly edited version of a speech I gave at a conference of liberals in South Africa on May 24, 2017
By Andrew Mwenda
I want to argue that liberty is taking root in Africa. Not as fast as we would like. But this should not discourage us. Liberalism grows slowly, at an evolutionary pace. It is tyranny that grows faster, at a revolutionary pace. It is quick and easy to build a dictatorship because this requires the single-minded actions of an individual or small group commanding an all-powerful state. But it is hard and slow to build a liberal democracy because this requires the development of a set of traditions of fairness and justice within society over time.
Hence liberal traditions, although they need a state to defend and protect them, evolve out of society. Tyranny grows from the state, from the actions of a single powerful man (an Adolf Hitler or a Josef Stalin or an Idi Amin) backed by a powerful organisation (party or army). However it is not only evil men who threaten liberty. Neither is it (as Frederick Von Hayek suggested) only the actions of well-intentioned leaders whose actions are justified by immediate necessity. The danger to the cause of liberalsim in recent years has been utopian dreams of exporting it by force – witness Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.
Why we need to recognise the breadth of emerging liberties even as we doubt their depth
Strong men build personal dictatorships and this can lead to the establishment of order. However, attempts to export democracy by force have stimulated violence and terrorism. What we get is neither liberty nor order but anarchy. Liberal values take time to germinate and grow. So attempts to export liberty by force tend to force long-term trends to a premature conclusion. This has ignited illiberal forces of ethnic or religious intolerance within society leading to mass violence. This is because liberalism is not an ideal that can be exported and imposed on a society. Rather it is an ideal that grows under specific historic circumstances.
As Karl Popper argued, liberal principles are principles of assessing and if necessary modifying and/or changing existing institutions rather than of replacing existing institutions. Edmund Burke would have entirely agreed. Therefore, we need to see liberalism as an evolutionary, not revolutionary creed. Those of us who believe in liberal politics need to oppose attempts to impose democracy/freedom on other societies by force and other quick fixes through aid conditionality and threats of ICC.
Liberty has two aspects, one economic, the other political. The two are closely intertwined. Often the economic drives the political but this is not always the case. In rare circumstances the reverse has happened. The biggest influence on me was Hayek, especially his book, `The Road to Serfdom’. Western thought had grown to believe that economic and political freedoms were separable. It was thought and argued that one could, and indeed should, curtail economic freedom for the sake of economic security. Hayek set out to hit this argument on its head. He argued that there was a tight nexus between economic and political freedom and unfreedom. The road to serfdom in the economic sense was the road to totalitarianism in the political sense.
Coming to Africa, I am hopeful because over the last two and a half decades, we have witnessed the rapid expansion of the market system on the continent. Old ideologies of state control of the economy have given way to liberal economic policies – for the most part. These economic reforms are essential to the growth of liberty. Across our vast continent, state enterprises have been privatised, public monopolies have been disbanded and most sectors of the economy have been liberalised. Liberal economic reform has been more successful than political reform but this too has seen tremendous growth across most nations of Africa.