History shows that muting people’s voices, through suppressive actions, can boomerang
COMMENT: By Bonnie Agea
The simmering unrest between the Uganda police and the opposition Forum for democratic change over the recent presidential elections results points to a much bigger problem in our egalitarian society. In a democratic society, public demonstrations define the underlying grievances under which that the public expresses her feelings in an explicit and plural manner.
But this cannot happen if the state is only after keeping power at all costs. Like in a multi-party state, a culture of tolerance and competitiveness must first be natured for any due constitutional dispensation to take root. As seen in the FDC case, that culture is still missing, and thus police actions.
In the USA, which has a very expansive democratic space, and because they have natured democratic tolerance for over the centenaries, demonstrators are even allowed within the precincts of the White House because they are not considered enemies of the state, but as free citizens expressing their views and will.
As many earlier revolutions worldwide (France, Vietnam and Cuba) keep on giving points of reference, the state’s response to demonstrators should and must not be expressed through suppressing those very grievances it ought to address. Citizens form the core basis upon which state power is exercised and without their direct participation in the country’s democratic politicoarena, demonstrations become inevitable. This is because not all citizens have access to State House, are able to write newspaper articles, or speak in public forums.
The easiest weapon that remains for them, therefore, is through public demonstrations, firmly granted under what is referred to as, ‘freedom of assembly’ in the country’s constitution. Through public demonstrations authorities are made aware of the issues at hand and grandiosely take appropriate actions to remedy them.
Not allowing citizens a right to demonstrate is a pathway to unnecessary anarchy and unrest in the country
There are, of course, instances where such freedoms can be abused, and go against the constitution. This can be so especially if the authorities in power suspect such demonstrations are intentioned on causing regime change through public unrests, and creating a rift between the public and the state.
Take the case of Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), operating inMombasa, claiming to be fighting for the total secession of the coastal areas of Mombasa, Kilifi, Lamu etc from the rest of Kenya. The government knows their existence, but do not debar them from demonstrating or exercising their right to assembly. They freely speak their views in mosques, give newspaper and television interviews, defend their actions in public rallies and do not get arrested for it.
Similarly Tanzania’s Uhamusho (Awakening) in Zanzibar do more or almost the same thing as MRC in Kenya. Their objective is quite clear and to the point – awakening of the Zanzibaris to gain their lost statehood, and sensitising them on the need to achieve their total independence from the rest of Tanzania. Their leaders are well known, their places of abode are not a secret and their objectives are in the public domain. Yet no one is persecuting them for their secessionist ideals.
The freedom with which MRC and Uhamusho operate, define the extent to which the exercise of these public freedoms or demonstrations can go wrong. Having said that, and to bright the gap between FDC’s intentions and the suspicious members of the public, efforts should only be made on the part of the state to make improvements on education, employment, infrastructure and other service delivery areas. This to a big extend reduces public anger towards the state, thereby minimizing their propensity to demonstrate. Several other strategies can also be looked at.
The first instance should be road improvement. When roads are improved, movement of food products and members of the public are enhanced. The other immediate problem that ought to be eradicated is traffic congestions in the major cities. This can be solved through road expansion and redesigning of the colonial era road designs that had catered for smaller middle class citizens.
Another traffic congestion mechanism is looking at ways to introduce or improve on the inter-city transport services by introducing cheaper ways of travelling such as city train services, water transport, and public bus services for low income earners which free conventional roads of passengers. In doing this, ministers should wield real power, and should be liberty to revoke shoddy work done by any contractor without State House intervention. Price regulation should be prioritised by the state to check the excesses of free market economy where commodity prices often increase arbitrarily.
Improve University education and make it accessible and affordable to all citizens without favouritism. It should focus on developing a highly educated society. Boards that administer loans to all students as implemented in Tanzania and Kenya should be invigorated to enable more beneficiaries who repay once they are employed. This means that students who have minimum set grades all qualify for the loans without regard to tribe, class or political connections.
And lastly, improve medical care, and make drugs available in hospitals. I could mention listless items, but the point will boil down to listening to the views of the citizens so that they are not tempted to demonstrate.
Not allowing citizens a right to demonstrate is a pathway to unnecessary anarchy and unrest in the country. History has taught us the muting people’s voices, through suppressive actions, is not a good weapon in a democratic society. Instead, by ameliorating its faults, the government can guarantee everlasting tranquility and peace, and provides the antidote to many other vices. Developed democracies view demonstrations as a healthy sign of disillusionments with how the affairs of the state are being run. Instead of feeling jittery about demonstrations, the governments strive to improve common services.
Bonnie Agea is a social critic based in Dar es Salaam