What Africa can Learn from the Umbrella Revolution – Alex Njeru

They have it all: economic freedom, one of the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita in the world (53,203 US$D), the infrastructure is perfect and systems work like clockwork. So why are the Hong Kong citizens agitating for electoral reform and political freedom? In relative terms most citizens of repressed countries in the world would give up everything to be where Hong Kong residents are at, take citizens of North Korea or Venezuela, for example, and the development and freedoms that residents of Hong Kong enjoy. The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong is teaching us pertinent lessons about human nature. The struggle gives life to popular phrase that ‘the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance.’ The nature of man is that he wants it all, give a man the earth and he will want the universe, give him the universe and he will seek the multi-verse and the unknown.

That it is what it is in Hong Kong, the residents have reaped dividends from economic freedom, now they want to reap dividends from political freedom. Are they sure that political freedom will deliver dividends sweet or bitter? No they are not; they want the freedom to explore the unknown. Creation theory has it that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden because of the quest to gain the knowledge that ensues from freedom. The Hong Kong Umbrella revolution is emblematic of the human development process and the natural state of man, ‘man naturally seeks freedom.’

This insatiable quest for freedom has been at the heart of all that has been development for mankind. Men have gone to space because they have felt the earth is too small for them, they have built the space craft and telescopes because they feel nudged to know what happens beyond yonder. It’s a natural condition, men feel the nudge to explore the unknown. This desire for men to unshackle themselves from the ignorance of the unknown that spins development, because in the unknown lies inherent prohibition. Didn’t Amartya Sen say development is freedom? That is why the Hong Kongers seemingly have everything but want more.

Enough of the philosophizing, what can Africa learn from Hong Kong? Comparatively Hong Kong is at the zenith of economic development and institutional development while most African countries are at the Nadir of economic development. Africa can learn a lot from the Hong Kong situation, one lesson being that freedom can be achieved incrementally and the whole lot of freedom is worth fighting for. Today, the Hong Kongers do not have political freedom, tomorrow they will have, they are using the foundations and institutions provided by economic freedom as a substratum to achieve political freedom. Economic freedom, for example, has cultured Hong Kong to accede to some certain desirable values, like respect for property and an abhorrence of violence. That is why the general chaos, destruction of property and human rights violations that characterizes such mass protests in many other parts of the world are conspicuously absent in Hong Kong.

Today many African countries have varying degrees of various forms of freedoms, some have political freedom as expressed in the practice of holding periodic elections, albeit mostly not free and fair, some to some extent liberalized economies from the clutches of state command, but they have not strengthened institutions to ward off cronyism, corruption and rent seeking, and finally, some enjoy none of these things.  There is no need for despondence; we can use the little we have to achieve the much that we do not have. For example, I am using and exercising my freedoms of, speech, opinion and intellect to give credence to the idea that economic freedom and institutional systems ensuing from it are worth pursuing. I have these tools at my disposal because people in generations before me fought for them, shed blood and at times paid the ultimate price. Please note a conscious refrain for the use of the phrase ‘democracy’ at this point.

Tomorrow, I and my other contemporaries in the struggle for perpetual liberation will be agitating for even more social, political, and economic liberalization, not just in broad theoretical terms like our constitutions espouse, but in real practice. Like open governance and more freedom of information, for example, and many other issues around freedom.

That means although Africa started from the nadir, we are not starting from naught, starting from the ground is not starting from six feet under, we have resources like people and optimism to build on, we use these to acquire even more freedoms that we are conspicuously deficient in today.