Human rights has become a major point of departure between governments in the developing world on one side and their citizens and development partners on the other.
While leaders see threats from citizens who are free to speak and enjoy other rights, the latter see their leaders as oppressors, only interested in perpetuating their rule.
Development partners who speak up for the oppressed are often seen as Trojan horses for hostile agenda both from within and without. The resultant contestation is therefore wasteful, and diverts a lot of productive energy and stunts the creative potential of countries.
East African governments, while making progressive laws that guarantee rights and freedoms of their citizens, have also been clawing back at the gains made.
Holding and imparting political opinion appears to attract particular attention from the authorities.
For instance, Kenya, which has one of the most progressive constitutions in the region, has been in a storm over the arrest and deportation of politician Miguna Miguna, a harsh critic of the government, in blatant disregard of court orders.
In Tanzania, at least a dozen people were been arrested last week in connection with a planned but aborted demonstration called to protest diminishing freedoms and increasing human-rights abuse by government agencies.
A recent human-rights report by the Legal and Human Rights Centre concludes that Tanzania’s record worsened in 2017, and cites the state for failing to protect citizens in the face of increasing extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture and unjustified restrictions on civil and political rights.
The basic freedoms of expression and association were violated when the state interfered with the freedom of civil society organisations to assemble.
Freedom of opinion was curtailed, with journalists facing threats and harassment using restrictive laws with a vague and wide scope for interpretation.
Governments in the region have initiated legislations that will enable the states regulate online content.
In Tanzania, owners of online publications, blogs and broadcasts will register and pay for licences, while in Uganda the government is proposing a tax of Ush200 ($0.05) on social media use starting July, to be paid daily by mobile phone subscribers using Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter and Skype platforms.
The legitimacy of the state is undermined when its institutions and servants are seen to turn against citizens. This has a created a frontline for rights, that is manifested through increased levels of activism.
The rulers probably have a point when they say that political activism saps useful energy and diverts the masses from urgent issues of economic transformation.
But without offering or allowing platforms for peaceful engagement to exist, they leave citizens with no choice but protest. A look at recent history provides a way forward.
Two decades ago, many African governments approached economic liberalisation with disdain. To date, economic liberalism, even with its haphazard implementation, is far much better than without it. It is the time to apply the same logic to our politics.