A hot debate has been raging on social media regarding the decision by the City of Kigali to declare a major downtown street a Car Free Zone. I have stayed out of it and intend to continue doing so.
I want, however, to talk about the significance of the tweet that the President sent out after reading the article that was written on the subject by a fellow columnist in this paper, Sunny Ntayombya.
First, the President’s decision to recognise Sunny was both generous and admirable. He did not have to use social media to point out to the mayor the argument Ntayombya had raised.
He could have simply communicated directly with him or even sent any of his aides. It is possible he wanted to air his views publicly in order to inspire the young man.
It is not every day that one’s writings elicit public reactions from heads of state. That adds real meaning to the concept of generosity.
But Ntayombya’s arguments and the President’s tweet also say something about our governance system. They help bring to light an element that is often misunderstood in the international media and at times even in academia. I have in mind the role of civil society or the media in an emerging democracy.
The liberal Western template envisages an antagonistic or adversarial relationship between the state on the one hand and civil society and the media on the other.
The media and civil society are portrayed as embodying the consciousness of a democratic society because of their role as “pressure” groups whose role is to ensure that the state does what is right to the benefit of the general public.
It is also true that in reality, in mature democracies pressure groups use a ‘civilised’ approach to the demands they make against on state. For instance, they may petition a Member of Parliament or Senator to take up their cause, in the hope of influencing policy.
In that way, they are a force for good, especially when they speak on behalf of disempowered groups or protest when the public good is being trampled upon.
But then, by and large, this potential for good has diminished over the past couple of decades. Increasingly, powerful corporate interest groups have undercut civil society actors as we knew them.
These days, cutthroat lobbyists are the new fourth estate. Unlike civil society groups, they push to influence public policy for corporate gain. Compared to traditional civil society groups, their methods are of the cowboy type.
Where they are concerned, money does indeed speak. Rather than try to persuade politicians to support any cause; they simply buy them to vote in particular ways on any given policy.
In the United States, for instance, almost all of them operate from Washington DC, the capital, on the famous K-Street. That they will do anything under the sun, with little regard for the general welfare, to gain favour in the corridors of power once earned them the moniker “Washington’s 12 Tribes.”
Interestingly, every politician who has run for president over the past two decades has said they want to change all that when it comes to policy making in that country.
They want to “clean up Washington.” However, once in power, they always fail. They soon realise just how powerful these groups are. They are forced to conclude, it seems, that if you can’t beat them you’d better join them. The result has been public disillusionment and loss of confidence in the political system. The biggest casualty is democracy.
But then we, in what Oxford economist Paul Collier calls the “bottom billion countries,” are always being told by the experts that what we need in our efforts to democratise is apply the Western template. That critical media, ‘active’ civil society, and other interest groups are necessary to the functioning of a democracy.
But everywhere we see public disillusionment even in those countries that offer the templates; democracy has been hijacked by the powerful corporate oligarchy. The ordinary person is left defenceless with little voice in public discourse in the face of this corporate tsunami.
The obvious question, therefore, is whether the template and its assumptions about the role of the media, civil society, and interest groups can apply anywhere and everywhere.
There is evidence, as indeed Paul Collier and others have indicated, that mimicking liberal Western democracy in emerging democracies, without regard for the local social and political context, can produce adverse effects.
But there is also something else. Even if we were to concede their inherent necessity to pressure the government to do right, what happens when a government in a particular country, such as Rwanda, is doing right or is always making an effort to do so, without being pushed?
What if a government is delivering to popular expectation and, within its own context, is not trampling upon the public good?
The President’s tweet speaks to this responsiveness and good faith. It reveals a political context in which agitation would serve no purpose. It follows, therefore, that a member of the media, or civil society for that matter, who is able to propose a sensible policy alternative which is then taken up for consideration would have little reason to develop a confrontational posture towards the government simply because they want to appear to be fulfilling their democratic duty.
Where does this leave those who won’t stop arguing that confrontational media and civil society are needed for ‘genuine democracy’ to emerge, or those who claim that media and civil society in Rwanda are muzzled and weak?