What Gatete and the Elders Don’t Seem to Understand About Liberalism
My dear friend and compatriot Gatete, a blogger and business lawyer based in Kigali, used a rather substantive discussion we had offline, in early July, to explain his point of view on why The Chronicles, a Rwandan news website, had suspended publication. I did find his take quite amusing, especially for the simple fact that most of the time I have no idea what's going on here — at least from a storyline perspective. Throughout his prose, Gatete always leaves room for chuckles. And we all love it. I promised Gatete I would comment, and here I am. This is my long overdue comment.
I do always respect Gatete's effort to explain what's going on. Unlike many professionals in Kigali, he seems to do it with courage and passion. One can only hope his exposés resonate with his audiences and other people who are keen to make sense of events in this city. In the article, Gatete expressed his disapproval of the idea of liberalism. But his view of liberalism, I am afraid, is misguided. He also put forward the Rwandan political mantra engraved in our constitution's preamble — that is to "seek solutions through dialogue and consensus" — in addition to what he calls the Rwandan and African spirit. Needless to say, Gatete's intention to push the boundaries of thought is plausible.
Gatete is right about one thing: I am a classical liberal (and a rational conservative). But his article is wrong about many things, especially how liberalism (at least in the classical sense) has contributed to the truest of the African dreams — that of lifting more people out of poverty. For purposes of clarity, and in the spirit of dialogue, I will briefly discuss it here.
Classical liberalism borrows its essence from the Enlightenment philosophy: that we can use knowledge to advance human flourishing. It counters ideologies that are built on tradition and dogma. So, rather than disempower the government, like Gatete sees it, it empowers the government to use logical thinking and latest available knowledge of how best to address issues. To achieve this, classical liberalism upholds the best of liberalism: pluralism (not anarchy), scepticism (not pessimism), and individualism (not egotism).
Even Rwandans understand the first very well through the proverb, “Umutwe umwe wifasha gusara, ntiwifasha gutekereza” — in English, "Many hands make light work." The second nurtures critical thinking. The third is essential in fostering individual growth, as opposed to simply empowering institutions and groups. These are simple concepts. But why is it that many people don’t seem to get it?
Many neo-Pan-Africanists miss the substance of such concepts simply because they choose to limit the judgment of ideas to their geographical origins. To define classical liberalism as a bunch of old whites sitting across a roundtable, plotting to consolidate power and control society, is to commit a grave intellectual crime. There is also another trap: the picture that mainstream liberalism (that is, say, the popular American leftists) portrays. Ideas should be defined and judged by their substance, not their mainstream portrayal of the most vocal or their radical sides. Going by the same logic, I am afraid, one would miss the whole point of (for example) the Rwandan Patriotic Army that liberated this country in the early nineties — and what has come as a result of their cause — and see it as a bunch of young rebels whose aim was to overthrow the government. It would be very nonsensical.
Definitions matter. And part of getting it is to learn to avoid misrepresenting ideas by simply defining concepts by their flaws or misuse. Just because some liberals happen to take it to the extreme and misuse its values doesn’t make the whole concept of liberalism a mistake.
It is true, every idea has to originate from somewhere. But because progress depends on reason, we ought to embrace ideas not because we like where they originate from but because they work best. This is simple logic to anyone who believes in progress. We know for a fact that when leaders are looking for solutions to most pressing issues, they are provided with evidence and look to what they know works. This is why countries build institutions and modern systems to achieve their development goals, using universal truths and field experts who study the issues at hand and provide guidance.
It is only wrong to see anything that is not labelled "African" as anti-Africa or ideas that do not print "Rwandan" on their face as less Rwandan or African. But what does it even mean to be Rwandan or African? I'm not sure this level of idealism, exceptionalism or tribalism will help African countries achieve real progress.
As for where he writes, "Inequality is at its paroxysm, wars of resources that fuel capitalism are never ending and the planet is polluted, at the brink of destruction in the pursuit of ever greater financial gains," I do not know where to start. I am not sure Gatete himself — or anyone who is well-read — truly believes that the world, or Africa, today is more unequal than it was twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. The planet is polluted and at the brink of destruction? I can't decide which word, between word-mongering and alarmism, best describes that paragraph. I’ll tell you what’s more depressing: thirty-six percent of adults in the Sub-saharan Africa region are illiterate and many of them, who are parents, will most likely not educate their children properly.
That aside, Gatete committed another sin: not only has he put my name — and the ones of my friends — in the same article he put the name of Victoire Ingabire, a criticaster (read incompetent critic), he prefers a neo-liberal theory of a market-driven solution to address The Chronicles's alleged wrongdoings. Going by the same principle, should more people keep reading the news website, its editorial would be all the way right. Or, should more people agree with Ms. Ingabire's ideology, it would be reasonable. That is not right.
Instead of simply seeing the entire Chronicles as an enemy that needs to be defeated at all cost, a classical liberal like me would reason them out of their viewpoints and tactics, using persuasion and consistent, rational argument. Science tells us this method works better because it is more empathetic and best provides room for peaceful solutions.
I'd like to invite Gatete, and the elders (or our guiding light), to see true dialogue as one that embraces diversity of opinion and ideas, and seek consensus not through uniformity or blind belief but reason. When people are limited to one worldview — often outdated and very contemptuous of criticism — and one way of looking at problems and solutions, what they have is something similar to a monologue rather than a dialogue.
Back in April, Gatete expressed his plans to start a conversation on the place of opinionated people in our country. I wish him good luck.
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