Copy of #TheSafeSpace Column published in the Times of Swaziland on the 29th of June 2016:
Freedom is such an abstract concept that one wonders if it can ever be deduced to a single concept that is understood across the world, in the thousands of languages that we engage in. To put it simply, freedom means different things to different people or more specifically, it means different things to different Heads of State. In Africa, the conversations around freedoms is arguably more intense than many parts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I am not stating that everything is rosy in other parts of the world because keywords like ‘Edward Snowden’ and ‘North Korea’ strike imagery that is far from what many would consider as ‘freedom’.
Back to Africa. As a whole, the status of freedom on our continent is hardly consistent. There are certain things that citizens are allowed to do in one country that others in a neighbouring land can only dream of. The status of freedoms in Africa is extremely ironic considering that we have piles of constitutions, policies, frameworks and Agenda 2063. This documents seek to legalise, promote and implement the very same rights that African citizens are constantly denied. Freedom of speech (not to be confused with hate speech) is a constant ‘hot potato’ in many of our countries and depending on the situation, defying the ‘rules’ ranges from harassment to death. We have read countless stories about journalists that have been arrested, tortured and even killed for their desire to publish stories that give us a true picture of what is really going on. The latest trend in the denial of this fundamental human right is the shutdown of social media during crucial events such as elections. Instead of seeing an opportunity in using social media to further their own political aspirations, the immediate response to a bunch of re-tweets is to shut down an entire service. Come on African Leaders, let’s be practical about things!
A true people’s government, as many political parties claim in their manifestos and electoral rhetoric, is one that is accountable to the people. A government that embraces criticism and rejects handing out food parcels to secure votes. A government that does not kidnap dissenting individuals in the middle of the night to keep information from going to print. There is no freedom when you attend a peaceful demonstration to protest the deterioration of public services and the response from elected officials is teargas and assault. While we are the issue of violations, please don’t get me started on elections! You know, I still wonder why certain governments even conduct elections because we know that the guy who no-one wants in power will win by ‘a 60% majority’.
Former African leader, Idi Amin is alleged to have uttered this now infamous quote, ‘You have freedom of speech but I cannot guarantee freedom after that speech’. 30 years on, I look around Africa and I realize that in many ways, Amin’s chilling quote reflects the stance of many African leaders. Young person, if you ever get the opportunity to lead a nation, please don’t get bitten by the same power hungry and paranoid bug.