2012 is here. 2011 is gone and oh what an interesting year it was. One that gave birth to a spring of consciousness; birthed the Arab Spring in which Tunisia and Egypt successfully toppled their presidents although all evidence on the ground indicates that the struggle to topple the regimes that these individual leaders had established is far from over. In 2011 the African continent saw rising movements of citizens, disgruntled by their circumstances with massive protests seen in Swaziland, Uganda, DRC, and Sudan among others. Beyond the African borders, 2011 birthed the Occupy Wall Street movement against a capitalist world order in which the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer.
When I wrote the first part of this blog post, I was standing right in the middle of Tahrir square, like a sponge soaking in the air of revolution. I bore witness to a historic movement of grassroots masses who came together driven by their quest for a new political and economic dispensation.
Today I am standing 5297 kilometres away from Egypt, Cairo and Tahrir Square, in Harare, living the realities of a repressive regime devoid of respect for political freedoms and civil liberties. At the same time I am witnessing the erosion of the gains of the Egyptian Revolution.
In Harare, I see the continued harassment and arrest of human rights defenders. On 5 December 2011, Fadzai December, Molly Chimhanda and Gilbert Mabusa of the Media Monitoring Project in Zimbabwe, an organisation that promotes freedom of expression and responsible journalism in Zimbabwe were arrested and spent over 2 weeks in custody for doing their work . The arrest of journalists, civil society actors and trade unionists continues in clear violation of freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the rights to peaceful assembly and association. For what, I ask? For speaking on behalf of the silenced masses? For demanding social justice? For demanding a decent life?
The Zimbabwean Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, turns ordinary citizens who possess protected information, even unwittingly, into common criminals, but exempts intelligence agencies such as the CIO from public scrutiny. In a similar mode, South Africa, in its Protection of State Information Bill/ Secrecy Bill threatens to take South African access to information back to the era of apartheid characterised by a tendency to outweigh state interests over freedom of expression and transparency in access to information.
In Cairo I still hear the endless massacre of unarmed protestors at the hands of the military. I hear the almost unbelievable tales of women stripped naked and assaulted by the “moral” police [SCAF] which at one point made forcible virginity testing of female protestors in detention the norm. And I wonder when the SCAF chose to descend from its high moral ground to the extent of stripping the sacred bodies of women bare. The war against Egyptian citizens in Tahrir continues as the struggle for basic freedoms and democratic transformation continues. Reports of attacks on journalists reporting this violence perpetrated by the military against protestors also continues ).
In May 2011, Kenya deported an English human rights investigator, Clara Gutteridge, for her investigations into Kenya’s counterterrorism-related rights violations in both Kenya and Uganda. On 26 June 2011 , Kenedid Ibrahim, the president of the Djiboutian Journalists Association, was threatened and insulted by the minister of communication for questioning the suspension of his fellow journalists.
In Burundi lawyers Suzanne Bukuru and Isidore Rufyikiri, president of the Burundi Bar Association, were arrested for expressing dissenting voices against the existing political order in July 2011. Bob Rugurika, the chief editor for Radio Publique Africaine, a private radio station and Patrick Mitabaro, the editor in chief for Radio Isanganiro, faced criminal charges for doing their work and ‘insulting’ the judiciary. September 2011 saw 2 Ethiopian journalists charged with terrorism for their reporting. In October Alaa Abd El Fattah, an Egyptian blogger and human rights activist was arrested because he criticised the military and its violent conduct against protestors that resulted in avoidable deaths
On 19 December 2011 Daniel DezoumbÃ© Passalet a Chadian human rights defender was abducted for falsely accusing the government in an interview on Radio France International in which he exposed human rights abuses in Chad. The Sudanese government spent the months of May to December 2011, on journalists’ and human rights defenders’ tails to prevent its horrendous deeds in Abyei, Southern Kordofan and The Blue Nile states from being exposed.
So yes, from Cape to Cairo, all places in between and beyond, politics continues to carry with it one common denominator: an alarming and indeed embarrassing display of lack of intellect among the politicians.
Well here is the thing written clearly in these examples; fear of free speech, collective expression and social unrest remain incumbent governments’ worst fears. This is why they will do everything in their power to avoid or disrupt these freedoms from being freely exercised.
But, and this is a big but, they are ignoring a basic understanding that; the desire by citizens to be able to express themselves without censure and the trend of groups with similar concerns regarding standards of life, quality of leadership and character of governments to come together, is intrinsic in the organisation of society.
These freedoms encourage diversity and divergence of views and policies. This is why individuals and organisations that raise difficult policy issues for the state and challenge the status quo are often the target of state sanctions. Indeed freedoms of expression and association are as old as human existence. As a consequence, dissenting voices and social unrest are natural parts of societal organisation. It is impossible and improbable not to have some level of social protest at a given point in time. If only governments would realise this then they would not waste so much time, energy and resources suppressing dissenting voices.
If I were an African government, I would take the time to listen to these voices and devise strategies of anticipating and responding to most of them constructively since it is always up to the state to address the grievances of each grouping. This should be done within a reasonable timeframe and budget, taking precautions not to give other groups the impression that they are being discriminated against or that their requests are less important.
If I were an African government it would be prudent for me to realize that protests are part and parcel of pluralism, pluralism being that word that philosophers, or make-believe receptors or scholars of philosophical studies, in my view, would describe as a theoretical standpoint that identifies peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles as core components of a democratic society. One of the earliest positors [at least the documented ones] of the importance of pluralism, James Madison argued that suppressing pluralism breeds factionalism, which in turn grows into visible fights that can destroy a political entity, a state or a system.
The tendency by governments to want to assimilate all divergent views into mainstream views but mostly to display intolerance for all views contrary to those of the political elite trigger protests. As I always like to emphasise, I love my country, I love my continent, I am African from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair. I am a true daughter of the soil and I am patriotic in defending the interests of my nation but that does not translate into me being a ZANU-PF supporter. I am simply me.
I believe in the protection of fundamental freedoms, human rights and the opening up of the political space to allow divergent political standpoints to thrive. That does not make me an MDC supporter. I am still me, a Zimbabwean who loves her country.
So this year begins with my lessons learnt from Tahrir Square; that freedom, when demanded by the oppressed, will have to be given, even at the price of bloodshed and lives. Surely political leaders should know this by now. Why do they keep bloodying their hands?