THE news blackout that surrounded the disappearance from public view of the late Tanzanian President, John Magufuli, before his death was officially announced in March was a classic case of how African governments withhold information, which could lead to discontent and uncertainty in their countries. The irony of the behaviour of the shameless Tanzanian government news gatekeepers who kept such an important information from the public – and not just in Tanzania but also globally – was that Magufuli himself was a populist leader who reached out regularly to citizens.
He was known to stop and speak to ordinary Tanzanians during his drive in the countryside – much to the concern of his security detail. But he was doing what any leader is expected to do: communicating regularly with the people so that they are aware of what the government is doing on their behalf.
Having been out of the public view for 11 days, and after opposition leader Tundu Lissu told the media that Magufuli was in a hospital in Nairobi, a government spokesman warned against publishing unverified information about the president. That was rather rich coming from a government spokesman who should have provided credible information on the whereabouts of Magufuli in the first place.
To add insult to injury, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Mwigilu Nchemba came up with a flippant statement, which summed up the inanity of government communications in Africa. He said Magufuli was neither a TV presenter nor a leader of a jogging club, so he did not need to publish selfies of himself every day. Really?
It is important that when government officials and elected representatives communicate with citizens, this should be done in a manner that does not lead to ambiguity or tension. For instance, mood plays an important part in how messages are received and interpreted.
Thus, the failure of African governments to take this into consideration is one of the reasons why social and political tensions abound in Africa. If the government does not deliver timely and relevant information – in an environment that already has restrictions on official communications – citizens would not be in a position to decide how they and the government should tackle the social, economic and political problems staring them in the face.
In most African countries, journalists find it difficult to corroborate news. Not surprisingly, inaccurate stories spread widely, fuelling destructive rumours before official sources can counter them.
Nigeria is another country that government information to the public is rationed. Facing an insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists and conflict between herdsmen and farmers, the government would do well to let Nigerians know what is being done to deal with these troubling issues. But public information in the country is in short supply.
Take, for example, President Muhammadu Buhari’s disappearance from Nigeria in 2017. He was out of the country for 103 days, apparently receiving medical treatment in London for an undisclosed malady at the expense of taxpayers.
When those whose tax funded his trip began asking questions, and the media started “speculating” about the president, government spokesmen were quick to resort to the Trumpian oxymoron: “fake news”. For us in the media, news is verifiable information published in the public interest. If it is fake, then it cannot be verified.
Paul Biya is another elusive leader that Cameroonians have grown tired of trying to find out what he is up to. There is no proper information coming from the government about Biya’s activities or whether he is actually in the country. Cameroonians do not know whether they are coming or going when it comes to Biya.
The civil war in Sierra Leone would not have been as bad as it turned out to be had the government been frank about the scale of the insurgency. Instead, for many years there was disinformation about the conflict that allowed the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to turn an initial matter of local political score-settling into a full-blown war. For many years the government even denied the existence of rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Sierra Leoneans bought into this canard at a serious cost to life, property and the economy.
It would appear that African politicians take pleasure in running weak information systems that do not help citizens. Is it because they want to cover up their lack of legitimacy, accountability and transparency? It looks like it.
Indeed, the capacity of governments to communicate effectively with citizens has been accepted by communication experts as a function of modern governance. The World Bank notes: “The willingness and ability to speak with citizens must be coupled with a willingness and ability to listen to them, incorporate their needs and preferences into the policy process, and engage local patterns of influence and trusted source of information.”
What African leaders do not realise is that a problem shared is a problem halved. If they think that keeping silent about issues affecting citizens would solve their countries’ problems, they must be greatly mistaken.
In the final analysis, political stability is dependent on governments communicating timely and reliable information to citizens.
Desmond Davies is Editor of Africa Briefing. This Column is published in the current issue of the magazine: https://africabriefing.org/magazine/
By Desmond Davies, London