Drive for more accountability laudable
On Friday, Prime Minister Pierre-Damien Habumuremyi held what is called a “public accountability day.” At this occasion, he did not only invite the press to give them an overview of the government’s achievements in the past three months and the agenda for the next quarter, but the general public was also encouraged to use phones, SMS or even Twitter to ask questions and raise issues.
This level of openness and interaction with the population is not new. Each year during the National Dialogue in December the same approach is used to involve as many people as possible in the discussion concerning the country’s development, and over the past years several officials left the assembly red-faced due to the public grilling they had to endure.
Yet outside such formal settings too, public officials have found new ways of engaging with the people. President Kagame has both a Facebook page and a Twitter account (through the latter, he has notoriously engaged in some fierce debates that became media events in themselves), as does the First Lady Jeannette Kagame. Health Minister Agnes Binagwaho has been the first Minister to organize a weekly “Twitter-meeting” with the people on Monday. And on Friday the Prime Minister announced that he, too, will take to Twitter on Fridays, while on Thursdays a free telephone line at Primature will be open to the public the entire day. Several ministries, as well as public organizations such as the police, regularly use SMS to make announcements. Last but not least, it was recently announced that local authorities too would increase their use of social media and ICT to improve their service delivery.
With such an avalanche of SMS, Tweets and Facebook updates from our public officials, and the ability this gives us to ask questions directly to the highest authorities, there is a risk we might forget that this is a highly unique situation, especially in Africa, but even in the entire world. Therefore, such openness and accountability should be applauded, and as citizens we should exploit to the fullest the opportunities given to us to directly interact with officials and hold them responsible.
There is a caveat, however. In the context of the program to get local officials on the ICT and social media bandwagon, it was also announced that the government would promote the use of smartphones so as to fully exploit the potential of ICT, in ways a simple SMS cannot. While that is of course a great idea, we should beware of going too fast and risk leaving behind a big part of the population.
Indeed, while young urban professionals in Kigali effortlessly juggle with Twitter, Facebook and numerous smartphone apps, it might be a different matter altogether for an elderly farmer in the countryside who is completely baffled by that “strange thing” called SMS. For him, a phone is for talking, and that’s it. Twitter is for the birds.
So let’s by all means open all ICT registers to increase dialogue and accountability, but at the same time let us not forget the less tech-savvy citizens. Their voice too must be heard.