Rwandan President Paul Kagame has variously been described as a [charismatic African] leader. But beneath this account is a state ranked by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) as the least corrupt in East Africa and in the whole world at position number 49.
CPI has been ranking countries by their perceived levels of corruption since 1995. As of 2010, the CPI, after ranking 178 countries on a scale from 10 (very clean) to 0 (highly corrupt), placed Rwanda at position 49. It placed Botswana at 32. The other African countries below the 100thposition were South Africa, Liberia and Lesotho. The higher the position, the more the country is corrupt.
So when I was invited this week to be part of the press dialogue with President Kagame at the Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo, I set out to discover what his asceticism has got to do with the impressive ranking of Rwanda. I also wanted to understand why, amidst all this, Rwanda is least ranked in terms of respect for human rights, press freedom and democracy. Below is what I discovered:
There’s something that Kagame is doing that very few African leaders are willing engage in- debating their people and anybody on the micro blogging social networking site, twitter.com. Twitter is an online social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as “tweets”. According to web based encyclopedia- Wikipedia, the service has rapidly gained worldwide popularity, with over 300 million users as of 2011, generating over 300 million tweets and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day. It has been described as “the SMS of the Internet.” By the time of filing this column, Kagame, who is an avid participant, had about 40,000 followers. Most of his followers are journalists, politicians and Rwandan citizens. The other African leaders on twitter are Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Jacob Zuma of South Africa. But they are not as active on twitter as Paul.
The twitterspace has become a sort of open parliament where any participant can say what they want and also contribute to debate and knowledge generation. It is easily a place to hold any leader accountable because it is a public forum. In the Rwandan case, nearly all the 40,000 followers engage with President Kagame on a daily basis and can ask any question. He also takes time to debate them and answer their queries. This is because, unlike other African leaders, Kagame has understood that you can run a closed system for sometime but with the onset of new media, you cannot block debate and criticism all the time.
Thus, on twitter, he has found an easy route to engage with people anywhere on earth and that way, he has easily managed to shed off the belief that he’s dictator who doesn’t brook criticism, and it is working. It is difficult to tell a lie on twitter because you will be exposed.
He has realized that through twitter, anybody, any leader, can reach anyone or be accessed without an appointment. I believe Kagame can get free information, intelligence and actual feedback on his ministers’ performance without fearing it will be cooked. And for this, twitter is slowly creating a president that is probably the most hands-on in Africa. Twitter helps him to keep in sync with the base. And being able to field queries and promptly answer back, twitter is turning Kagame into the most accountable leader in the region.
As a student of New Media, Governance and Democracy, I set out to test the president on this, within hours after the press conference. I think his plane had just touched down at Kanombe Airport before I sent him a tweet that sparked off another round of debate that would go on for the next 30 minutes. Anybody knows that 30 minutes with any president without an appointment is something unusual in Africa but the way social media is enabling us to break barriers and hold our leaders accountable is something that the rest of the African political leadership should embrace and test their popularity as the following short twitter interview with Kagame suggests:
@RugyendoQuotes: Your Excellency, that engagement with the Ugandan press was moving but we needed more time!
@PaulKagame: I agree-I am looking forward to another opportunity when we can have more time to cover more issues!
@RugyendoQuotes: I do agree with u on systems, a young regional media & processes but telling this story amidst ‘rights’ issues is the challenge.
@PaulKagame: Facts, opinions, ideas and values can come all together to create way forward. Not insurmountable though!
@RugyendoQuotes: Isn’t it a contradiction to limit press freedoms in your country on one hand & then allow limitless internet access to your people on the other?
@PaulKagame: While it is a fact that we provide limitless internet access…it is only a ‘fact’ of your own creation about limiting. Press freedom! It doesn’t exist. Only in your mind n because that’s how you have chosen to see it! The contradiction is. @RugyendoQuotes: You have made press freedom or other freedoms sound like a myth! That only the few of you have better u/standing than any1
@RugyendoQuotes: That’s what we’ve been made to believe! It isn’t my creation, Your Excel @PaulKagame:lKagame: Who makes you believe this…? Why don’t people value Rwandans’ voice…?? U should know what they say about all that! You r the one who chooses what to believe! Why don’t you believe all reports/surveys that have placed Rwanda among the world’s top reformers, well-governed, free, accountable people?
@PaulKagame: I actually believe those reports! Problem is negative reports spark debate; when we join the debate, we’re totally misunderstood.
The moral of this interview is that if leaders are reluctant to engage their citizens on social media, they are either hiding something or do not value accountability and honest leadership. Social Media are helping Kagame achieve this at nearly no cost. By not embracing social media, our leaders are dinosaurs. This is because if twitter were a country, it would be nearly half the size of Africa. And if facebook were a country also, it would be three quarters the size of the African population. So, who are our leaders engaging? It must be themselves!
By Arinatwe Rugyendo – Twitter: @RugyendoQuotes