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Basic freedoms are not negotiable

Nairobi was in chaos again last week. Activists marched to parliament. The police clobbered them. Tear gas and water cannon were used indiscriminately. Thugs and idlers took the opportunity to break into shops and help themselves to goodies. The capital city came to a standstill. Businesspeople counted their losses. Investors looked away.

Some things never change. What is wrong with us? Do we never tire of this seemingly endless cycle of protest, repression, and rioting? No, our appetite is bottomless. The activists will always have a cause to die for; the politicians will always want them suppressed; the police will always use a heavy hand; the vast armies of the unemployed will always use the opportunity to loot and plunder. Blood will always spill, and development will always be retarded. Only the faces will change.

We are only ever going to break out of this cycle of absurdity if we begin to understand something about the fundamental freedoms of human beings. Allowing people to say what they wish, object to what they find alarming, move about with impunity, and organise meetings to discuss any damn thing they want are not just expressions of freedom: they are absolutely necessary for development. Professor Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner and a man who taught me several unforgettable lessons many years ago, goes further: he regards the advancement of freedoms not just as the principal means of development, but as its primary end. Freedom is what we need to get there; and it is also what we will find waiting when we arrive.

Development, in the good professor’s way of looking at it, is therefore the removal of various invidious “unfreedoms”: tyranny; poor economic opportunities; social deprivation; neglect of public facilities; and political repression. To flourish, a society must be free to transact, free to move around, free to associate, free to enjoy basic social facilities, and free from the threat of recurrent insecurity. Unfortunately, the contemporary world denies these elementary freedoms to the majority of its people.

Let’s start with political freedoms. We have those in Kenya, right? Anyone can start a political party with any ideology and any agenda and get it registered without delay, right? Anyone can scrutinise and criticise any politician without being put under intense monitoring and intimidation, right? We can all march to express our concerns without being battered and scattered like wayward goats, right? We all have a say in the services that are provided to us, right? We all value the importance of critique and dissent, right? We have a long way to go. Right.

Economic freedom: plenty of that, no doubt? We can all utilise economic resources for production, sale, or consumption, no doubt? We all have access to credit and start-up capital, no doubt? We can all set up shop in any part of the country, no doubt, even if it’s away from “our” people ? Our markets are structured to provide free entry to all, not just a privileged few, no doubt? There is every doubt.

Other freedoms: our people are free from social deprivation, are they not? There is universal access to basic health and education, is there not, so that everyone has the chance to get a basic shot at a meaningful life? And there is transparency and trust in the economy, is there not – we do things in the open and in the spirit of mutual reliability? And finally, we are free from insecurities: we do not have to fear for our lives every single day, and are protected against natural disasters, are we not? No prizes there: we are not.

And so we fail all the tests of the freedom-loving economist. And for as long as we continue to do so, we will bring up the ragged rear of the world economy. It is easy to dismiss this view. Those of us blessed with the right education, a health plan and stable employment might well look out there and conclude things are pretty nice in this country. There are many political parties, the media make a great deal of noise, we put our faith in free markets – isn’t that enough? No it isn’t, and many more of us need to understand why.

When a hard-headed activist gets the idea that the Bomas draft is more sacrosanct than a holy book and wishes to march up and down Parliament Road saying so – that person must be allowed to do exactly that. We don’t have to agree with this position; we just have to allow its free and full expression. As long as this person does not impede on the rights of other people, the state has absolutely no business blocking him or her. But let our conflict-happy activists also realise something: every time you spark a conflagration, you are affecting the livelihoods, there and then, of the very people whose rights you wish to protect. You are denying ordinary people a basic economic freedom.

Freedom of expression is not just a good thing in itself – it helps us all to develop.
So if we can’t allow it in the spirit of tolerance, let us do it in the spirit of personal gain. The bottom line is this: suppressing political debate is no different from suppressing economic innovation, fresh ideas and new modes of thinking. A country that stifles political dissent will be unable to create an environment in which ideas thrive and innovators flourish. The most talented people end up in the society that allows the freest expression – why else do you think America has been sucking in the world’s best talent for decades?

Tolerance, pluralism, diversity. These are the watchwords of the new economy worldwide, and Kenya should be no different. We must shed our tribal paranoias, our ethnic stereotyping, our distrust of the winds of change. These winds are blowing to help us clean up our house. If we want to become a modern knowledge economy, let us not forget one crucial detail: knowledge is not accumulated in sealed libraries – it is generated, moderated and elevated in the messy and unpredictable free-for-all of open debate, discussion and dialogue. This is not a process we can control (and perhaps that is why we seem to fear it so), but let us rest assured that it is good for us, and will lead to good things in the end.

No country that has provided these freedoms has failed to flourish, and nor will we. We must move away from our trigger-happy riot police and our need to monitor and contain every movement and every “disgruntled element”. If we are repeatedly denied the freedom to engage in economic opportunity, to participate in the crucial decisions that affect public life, to contribute to the debates that shape our nation’s destiny, then we will either stagnate or migrate. This country will be moved forward by the maelstrom of ideas, initiatives and energy that emerges from the great mass of its people – not by the heavy hand of its leadership, nor by the impotent debates of its dwindling intellectuals. If we can have the political courage to set the people free to develop themselves, we will never regret it.

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