Towards authoritarianism

Slowly but surely, democracy has lost its lustre

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BY Shadrack Muyesu

The world is sprinting towards authoritarianism and it is the people who are going to demand it. Going back a few years when liberalism enjoyed a status as the pinnacle of government, it seemed improbable that people would give up the gains they had made in the arena of human rights to lead the clamour for strong government. Rights were sacred – a truth best exemplified by Louis Henkin’s observation that (human rights) enjoyed a prima facie presumptive inviolability which elevates them over public goods. Social stability and economics couldn’t be used as excuse for dictatorships.

Slowly but surely, democracy has lost its lustre. Its strongest citadels are not only falling, those that remain upstanding are shaken to the core in web of confusion wondering how they’ll stop the rot. My preliminary analysis is that they have lost.

All we need to do is to look at the triumph of strongmen around the world and the rising wave of centralist rhetoric. Barely a decade ago, Turkey was a healthy democracy aspiring to join the European Union. She is now sliding towards dictatorship with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan using a failed coup attempt – which some say he stage-managed – to justify a brutal crackdown on dissidents and tighten his grip on power. Surprisingly, the citizens are celebrating. 

In Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous country, a new president with well documented far-right leanings has taken over. Barely into the hot seat, Jair Bolsonaro has commandeered a brutal crackdown in the unstable north while promising to expand citizens’ gun rights and increase the power of the security forces.

The United States isn’t far off. Long hailed as the land of the free, she now boasts an openly racist president who adores Vladimir Putin, flirts with Kim Jong Un and quotes Adolf Hitler. The establishment has been unable to impeach him seeing that economy responds to him and that conservative Americans adore him. To many, he is a voice of the masses.

Across the Atlantic is one Boris Johnson, a clown, significantly more intelligent compared to his doppelganger in Trump yet equally divisive. While the latter has been rather obvious in his endeavour, Johnson hidden his centralist, racist ideology within the will of the people. A couple of weeks into premiership and there are already signs that he will do anything to realise his autocratic nationalist agenda, including desecrating the law. The situation is quite curious when we remember that the United Kingdom is the owner of modern liberalism.

Victor Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, notorious Russia and even the shining examples of the benefits of authoritarianism across the fence in Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, there are too many examples of this shift. In its Democracy Index of January 2018, The Economist Intelligence Unit reported declining scores for more than half of the countries in 2017.  At the same time, a research by Freedom House, Democracy in Crisis showed that freedom had declined for the 12th year running with 71 countries suffering net declines in civil and political liberties. The disease is universal.

It’s the economy damn it

For the longest time, the most economically advanced countries have been those that mirror the peculiarities of liberalism. But the narrative is changing. Autocracies such as China have come up thanks to a system of state-fuelled coerced development. Observers are in concurrence that while liberalism is good for sustaining development, it doesn’t promise the quick upturn in fortunes typical of autocracy. Too many people making decisions makes democracy slow.

The liberal West now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to choose between remaining faithful to its liberal identity and falling behind the autocratic East or doing away with liberal government altogether so as to compete. It’s a situation akin to Blackberry’s desperate hold of its iconic QWERTY keypad when world sentiment had shifted towards the large touch screen. The company lost its market leader status as a result and has never recovered since. The West, and the US specifically, is staring at a similar prospect. 

The idea behind restricted government is very simple. As long as people have money to spend, they’ll worry less about rights and whatever else government is doing

The idea behind restricted government is very simple. As long as people have money to spend, they’ll worry less about rights and whatever else government is doing. On their behalf, the markets will be more receptive where there is a small unit of financial elites making quick decisions as opposed to the rumbling of lay parliamentarians. The decisions may be unpopular and destructive in the immediate term, but since the small man is cushioned by the easily available cash and social welfare, government can rest easy aware that a revolt is far off. For the small man, a benevolent dictatorship is attractive because of its popularity and decisiveness. For the business owners meanwhile, restricted government is heaven because government doesn’t have to accommodate the interests of the small man. Take note that it is the Chinese model we are talking about – freedom for profit.

Yesteryear was all about bridging the gap between the people and the state and accommodating as many interests as possible – hence the attractiveness of expanded government. Today the economy takes centre stage. With the world staring at a global technological revolution, whoever controls the markets will decide destiny. The conflict is no longer about controlling arms but rather about controlling the factors of production. China holds a distinct advantage in this area; not only does it have a large population with great purchasing power but also a population that is willing and enabled. Everyone wants to be like them. 

The cyclic theory of government

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. The shift is merely another endorsement of Polybius’ cyclic theory of government. Governments are always oscillating between democracy, aristocracy, monarchy ochlocracy, oligarchy and tyranny. It starts out as a government by mob rule (ochlocracy) but quickly morphs into a monarchy when the strongest figures emerge and establish the monarch. Drunk with power, the monarch’s descendants become tyrants eventually being overthrown in a palace coup by leading citizens who set up an aristocracy. Because power corrupts, they too quickly forget about virtue and the state becomes an oligarchy. These oligarchs are overthrown by the people who set up a democracy. The democracy soon becomes corrupt and degenerates into an ochlocracy beginning the cycle anew. Tired of the politics of the establishment, the world is now moving back towards where it all started. It may not be the insane mob that Polybius and Machiavelli spoke about but it is mob rule nonetheless with a puppeteer at the top.

The freedom space is increasingly shrinking and there is no opposition to stop it. It should serve as the clearest indicator yet that democracy locale is on its deathbed

Neither is Kenya immune to this malady. The only surprising thing would be how fast we have shifted through the gears. We started off as a restricted democracy at independence, a couple of years in, the ruling elites had already consolidated power to form an oligarchy of sorts – we all remember the powerful cabal around Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and the Kabarnet syndicate of President Moi which came after. Tired of the excesses of government, the people revolted with the clamour for political reform culminating in a new era of multiparty democracy and subsequently the liberal democratic constitution of 2010. 

Barely nine years into the new constitutional dispensation, Kenyans are already tired of the slow processes of the rule of law. They do not understand why judicial inquiries take so long or why the obviously corrupt are released on bail. In line with the global trend, Wanjiku now clamours a strong man like Magufuli who will catapult development and not waste time when dealing with the corruption gangrene that has eaten into the economy. In the meantime, aware of these popular desires and attracted by the prospect of limitless power sanctioned by the people, the powerful oligarchs of the old are positioning themselves strategically to regain government. 

The handshake was the first move. It is an open secret that the main idea behind the peace and the constitutional amendment drive spearheaded by the Building Bridges initiative is to not only buttress their hold to power but also, to do so while achieving a sense of legitimacy. “If the people want it, it’s okay” – from Erdoğan to Kagame, it’s a move straight out of the autocrat’s playbook. 

But what is not so obvious is the vigour with which the Uhuru Kenyatta government is going about limiting freedoms. 

It’s barely a month since the High Court issued orders limiting the right to demonstrate and picket. Inter alia, Justice Makau in petition No 269 of 2016 ordered the ministry of Interior and the Attorney General to amend the law and issue regulations ensuring that demonstrations are peaceful and are held as “per the Constitution.” Among others, the changes were to provide prescriptions for demarcation of demonstration zones, responsibilities for clean-up costs, the maximum number of demonstrators, consents of persons/entities adjacent to demonstration zones with appropriate penalties when they go outside the expectations of the law.

The Court also ordered the Ministry to formulate a code of conduct for conveners of demonstrations that includes detailed explanations of how they intend to ensure that non-demonstrators are not adversely affected by such demonstrations and that provide a clear line of responsibility of who is liable in case of loss to life or property, or for injury when a member of the public is aggrieved due to such demonstration.

Even before the Court had pronounced itself, a plan was already underway to amend the Public Order Act and discourage protests. The Public Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 conceptualized by Ruiru MP Simon King’ara sought to among others, place liability on the shoulders of any person who, while at a public meeting or procession, causes grievous harm, damages people or property or causes a loss of earnings with the proposal that, upon conviction, such a person would be ordered to compensate the victims, pay fine of no less than Sh100,000 or serve a custodial sentence.

If it becomes law, it will be illegal to hold procession without giving information to the authorities detailing, the full names and physical address of the organiser; the place and time of the meeting. Having done so, the regulating officer still retains powers to cancel a proposed meeting. The Bill has been finalised and is now awaiting presidential assent. 

What Makau’s ruling and these amendments do is, by law, make civic action a high risk affair.  They shift the responsibility of safety and security from police to the organisers. Viewed in context, they pose a great danger that must be warded off at all costs. The freedom space is increasingly shrinking and there is no opposition to stop it. It should serve as the clearest indicator yet that democracy is on its deathbed. (

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