About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Thursday, September 6, 2018

How people power threatens our freedom

In the 20th century, strong states like the Soviet Union, fascist Italy and NAZI Germany were enemies of freedom. This led to the development of the idea of freedom as entirely a struggle against the state. This idea was then transplanted as common sense reality to the rest of the world. Yet the reality in most poor nations is that the main threat to freedom is not necessarily the strength of the state but its weakness.
But many elites in rich and poor nations alike continue to believe that the main challenge of politics is to limit the power of the state. However, in poor countries, the main challenge of politics is to build the capabilities of the government to govern. Weak states create room for non state actors to exercise violence over the public.

This is what we are seeing with People Power – the unbridled use of mob violence against opponents as evidenced in the hurling of chairs and bottles against Bebe Cool. How do we protect the right of people like Bebe Cool to perform at public functions when a violent section of the audience is ready to use violence to take that right away. How do we defend the right of all other people at a concert to enjoy his music when an intolerant group decides to employ violence to suppress Bebe Cool?

As Max Weber postulated, the most basic function of the state is the establishment of order by exercising a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. Without order there can be no freedom but anarchy. The establishment of order may demand limits on individual liberty. Hence, as Will Durant argued, the first condition of freedom is its limitation. This wisdom is missing in the debates on the future of Uganda, where opponents of President Yoweri Museveni, who are largely anti democratic, radical extremist and violent are presented to us by local and international media to be fighting for freedom!

The second weakness of liberals in the West and their cheerleaders in poor countries is the belief that freedom is a natural condition that grows automatically when tyranny is overthrown. Yet a lot of historic experience shows that the fall of tyranny does not automatically lead to the triumph of freedom. All too often it has led to yet another and even worse tyranny (France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979, etc.) or to anarchy (Somalia in 1990, Uganda in 1979, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 etc.).

Therefore the beginnings of freedom can only be see in the values and conduct of those fighting against state oppression. When those fighting against entrenched authoritarian government exhibit worse behavior than the evil the claim to be fighting, that ceases to be a struggle for freedom. It is a struggle for power. And as we all know, power corrupts.

We should remember that freedom is an extremely delicate and complicated construction that can be maintained only by making constant adjustments to it. Hence the legalistic approach lawyers use in constitutional debates in Uganda is both naive and unhelpful. Constitutions are functions of politics and their provisions are subject to political decisions.

Another lesson about freedom is that it can sometimes be contradictory: the enjoyment of one freedom can undermine the exercise of another. Politics is the art of choosing between rival freedoms.

The one point to take away from this discussion is that the foundation of freedom is order. Therefore if the desire for freedom contradicts the need for order, freedom has to be sacrificed. Those who ignore this fact live in a utopian world. When People Power threaten order, they invite state repression.

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