The right to rebellion in a democratic state: Malawi reflections

It is a bit confusing and queer enough in this modern era to talk of a ”right” to rebellion in a democratic society where it is assumed  that contestation for political power must be resolved within the institutions of the state mainly via elections. This is founded on the fact that the modern state anchored in the institution of elections where the right to govern arises out of the expressive will of the people through equal and universal suffrage. It is generally believed that elections offer the form of platform where the citizens are empowered to put in place a government of their choice for their welfare.

Secondly it is also the conceptualization of the democracy theorist that elections act like a kind of a contract between the governor and the governed. It is envisaged that a government so established would incorporate both limited government and a system of regular and competitive elections (Heywood, 1998). T

his liberal democracy establishes a form of government in which the people govern indirectly through elected representatives and therefore founded on societies based on the consent of the governed, concern for human rights and equality and justice among citizens. With this type of political system the people participate in the decision making process of government not directly but indirectly, through the election of public officials to represent their interests (Patterson, 2003).

In acquisance, Adejumobi (2000) argues that elections constitute perhaps the most important element in the conception and practice of liberal democracy. Locke (in Laski, 1966) reinforces this argument by contending that any political system’s legitimacy must derive from the consent of the governed. It is this consent that forms the intrinsic head-cornerstone of any liberal democracy worth its name. Locke forcefully asserts that any governmental power and authority ought to be based on the consent of its subjects. It is only then that a government is said to exercise legitimate power (Schumpeter, 1947). Otherwise anything less is an illegitimate creation.

This consent then implies that there is an act of free will, and there must be evidence to infer its presence before the rule of subjection can be applied. This is seen through elections .And a contract is set in motion. What happens then when the governor fails to live up to the terms of this agreement? Where it has been obtained that a democratic dictatorship has been instituted, as experience would have it, which would require extra-judicial means of restoring the lost institutions on which democracy is anchored, how justifiable would be this extra-judicial reaction in the woke of the social contract? This paper investigates the original terms of the contract, the social contract, and tries to answer these questions.


The origin of the state has attracted a great deal of attention by the classical political philosophers. They tried to analyze how the state was developed and how power has been revolving between the state and those being governed (Chand, et al, 2007). Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others tried to conceptualize as to why man decided to form a state. These philosophers created an imaginary scenario of the State of Nature in which man originally existed. In this state of nature individuals are said to have enjoyed inalienable rights to live to be free and to have property (Ramaswamy, 2008).

However the state of nature was not organized as each member lived a life of their own uncontrolled by any laws of human imposition. Men living in the state of nature were only subject to such regulations as nature was supposed to prescribe for them. This code of regulations is what is known as the law of nature or natural law (Chand, et al, 2007). Since there is no political body, everybody has the right to enforce the law of nature, and each individual had a right to defend her or his inalienable rights against transgressors (Arblaster, 1984). Furthermore each individual had the right to punish those who breached the law of nature in the way he envisaged.

Hobbes portrays the life in the state of nature as being “short, nasty and brutish”. For Locke, such a state of nature becomes full of fear and continual danger. In the absence of a law enforcement authority, some individuals thought that breaking the law of nature is more profitable than obeying it (Vincent, 1970). Most philosophers, despite their differences, agree that those who lived in the state of nature were not happy about their predicament and conditions of living. They needed something that would enforce the laws and regulate their lives for their common good. This was also meant to establish universal measures of punishing offenders.


The social contract theory is the idea that legitimate government is artificially and voluntary agreed by free moral agents and rejects the argument that there is natural political authority. Hence the issue of divinely-inspired state authority and the ideals of theocracy do not have logical room in this framework as envisaged in Romans 13 vs. 1. As man was not happy about the conditions of life in the state of nature he was compelled to abandon it and substitute it by a body politic where each man led a life of union with his fellow man.

This means that the law of nature which regulated the conduct of individuals was replaced by man-made laws. This resulted in the formation and emergence of a commonwealth in which man gave himself a duty of observing 6all laws that assured the safety and protection of all other members of the new organized body. This was a pure exchange of obligation in reciprocation with privileges of enhanced freedom and liberty safeguarded by the state. Thus the main reason for individuals in erecting the state is to secure their basic rights from the uncertainties of the state of nature. As a result the main function of the government is to protect the property of rights of its constituent members. And if the state has to exist, its sole purpose is to benefit the commonwealth that constituted it.

Locke (1960) argues that “the great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under the government, is the preservation of their property”. The state must thus be viewed as a protective body and its core function being to provide a framework of peace and social order within which citizens can conduct their lives in the way they think best (Hoover, et al, 1998). According to Hume (quoted in Pontoon and Gill, 1998) such a political society emerged as a response to the injustices in society so that social cooperation can continue. In this respect, the only aim of the state is to keep peace and order, thus authority derives its legitimacy from the utility it provides to the members of the society. It must also be pointed out at this juncture that all social contract theorists are unison that the idea of state formation was deliberate human creation as a result of consent (Heywood, 2007).


This paper strongly looks to Locke’s conceptualization of the social contract as the precursor to the modern day liberal-democratic state. Locke argued that legitimate government is a function of the consent of the governed, albeit for the welfare alone and alone. One unique assertion by Locke is that he defended the ultimate right of the people to dispose the monarch (in modern day any system that exercises power over the subjects that entered into a governing pact with it) from his authority if he ever deprived them of their liberties and properties.

In the context of democracy the social contract can be argued to be an agreement under which the individual owes responsibilities to the state in exchange for benefits that the state owes to the citizens. In other words, people merely abide by the government’s rules and regulations in the hope that the state through the government will do the same, subsequently leading to a more secure and comfortable life. Locke emphasized that the underlying reason for the existence of the state is to preserve the natural rights of the citizens, and property (Johari, 2007). At this juncture Locke challenged that if the government which is the machinery of the state fails in that task, citizens have the right and sometimes duty, to withdraw their support and to rebel against it. Herein then the basis for political obligation, the grounds upon which the individual is obliged to obey and respect the state, become nullified by default by the other party to the contract, namely, the governing authority. The government ceases to be a force of good but the source of evil.


Liberal democracy is a form of government that incorporates both limited government and a system of regular and competitive elections (Heywood, 1998). It establishes a form of government in which the people govern indirectly through elected representatives and therefore founded on societies based on the consent of the governed, concern for human rights, and equality among citizens.

The idea of the consent of the governed in practice primarily works through elections and establishes what is referred  to as a representative democracy. Such a state so established operates through institutions that force rulers to take account of the interests and wishes of the electorate. According to Dahl (1989) its central features are as follows: government is in the hands of elected officials, elections are free and fair, practically all adults are free to vote, the right to run for office is unrestricted, there is free expression and the right to criticize and protest, citizens have access to alternative sources of information and groups and associations enjoy at least relative independence from government. Such a dispensation is referred to as a polyarchy.

Further more such a state also demonstrates certain principles which are vital for the smooth running of a democratic state. These include separation of powers, rule of law, constitutionalism, checks and balances, accountability and transparency and above all a “culture of democracy becomes the only game in town”.


Over the centuries governments have not always lived up to the expectations of the social contract. History has witnessed democratic governments being agents of terror by engaging in state sponsored violence. There have also been times when the state has virtually smocked out all institutions of restraint that it is virtually impossible for the people to legitimately remove it from power. A few examples would suffice here.

Destruction of community

Government implies power and inequality between human beings. And power corrupts. While those who have power are corrupted, those without it are degraded and alienated. Governments can abuse the threat of force which it sovereignly possesses, and this creates power inequalities. This destroys the community of man as there are bound to be latent conflicts. And as the government tries to suppress this conflict, the stronger it becomes. This breeds more inequalities of power. This phenomenon has dangerous implications consequently.

Violation of Basic Rights

Power enables governments to infringe on the rights of citizens. Never before, has the last century witnessed gross violations of human rights on a larger scale. Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Argentina, Guatemala, Rwanda, Sudan, among others, have all witnessed the loss of millions of human life due to political persecution.

State engineered Economic Inefficiency

Often times politics has heavily affected the efficiency of the economic system to the extent that the well-being of the entire population is compromised. Due to sheer executive arrogance and the desire to project a nationalist image on the international scene, we have seen hitherto bustling bread baskets come crash-landing. The result has been that these economies have failed to regain their former selves.

Governing for Private Gain / The Predatory State

Self-interested politicians, always making decisions from which they would personally profit or if not their cronies, would disregard the welfare of the society in as far as they reap benefits. Rents are dished out, corruption is inherently bred and patronage systems are entrenched for the benefit of the ruling clique. This reduces the state to satisfying only the interests of a few individuals.

Seizure of the Legal-Rational State

Rule of men, rather than rule of law, takes over. The Weberian state is completely hijacked and the ruling elite become the “law” in what they say and think. The formal rules are substituted by informal predatory de facto mechanisms. For example, in such scenarios elections would only serve as a political ritual to massage the egos and interests of the incumbent. Extra-judicial structures become channels through which important national decisions are made. And then the society becomes heavily polarized and breeds resentment.

Vested Interests and Inertia

Governments create rents hence they are difficult to change or abolish once elected into office. Individuals, groups or firms that benefit from the specific government jobs, contracts or policies, have vested interests in the existing regime. Such groups may become such a powerful force, (a kind of a “Mulli Brothers” during the Bingu reign), against change and in favor of the status quo.


In order to sustain the above kleptocracy, the government resorts to a chain and a full cycle of violence. Then the daggers are drawn between the governor and the governed.

 Institutional/ Structural Violence

This type of violence is perpetuated by the state Galtung (in Held, 1991) conceptualizes violence as anything avoidable that impedes human self-realization. Human self-realization is in turn viewed to mean the satisfaction of human needs. This conception of violence goes beyond the physical violence and the approach is victim-oriented rather than actor-oriented. This takes the following shapes:

Classical violence (deliberately inflicted harm): takes the form of war, torture, inhuman or degrading punishment, subjection to mortal dangers, and crime.

Misery: deprivation of basic material needs.

Repression: loss of freedoms of various kinds.

Alienation: deprivation of material needs for relations with society.

Reactive Violence

As the people react to the violence by the state, the state then resorts to more violence to suppress the liberating element. The state employs oppressive violence. Usually this manifests through closure of political spaces, state of emergency, marshal law among others.

Destructive violence

This is mounted by the people, it aims at a mass revolution that targets to replace the existing regime. It degenerates to an overt conflict that takes the form of nationalism to defend and reclaim the lost ideals of the state. Demonstrations have a national face and it becomes a people-driven rebellion. At this juncture the regime has no choice but to abdicate.


*Vincent Vinja Kondowe is Deputy Director: Research, Documentation & Civic Education

Office of the Ombudsman. He writes in his personal capacity.

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