Ekimeeza, the Peoples Parliament on Radio One

ekimeeza1I arrived around 2.30 at club Obligato, where the massively popular radio talkshow ‘Ekimeeza’ was about to start. I was welcomed by a series of middle aged men, who directed me to the man sitting at the head of a table. The table was about 12 meters long and seated around 16 people; an audience of about 150 people was surrounding this central structure. ‘Ekimeeza’ is the Ugandan word for ‘big table’; it is the place where Ugandans can speak their mind about issues concerning social and political issues and where they will be heard by the thousands of people tuned in at radio one. 

The man sitting at the head of the table is dressed in a casual polo with a bright orange and green stripe. He is the only one eating and is clearly the man in charge. He is James Wasula, founder and chairman of Ekimeeza. After introducing myself to him I take a seat in the second row where people are discussing an article in the newspaper, others silently sit and wait. The man behind me hands me a printed paper where the topic of today’s discussion will be about. ‘The Constituency Development Fund: how effective can 10 million Shillings be in developing a constituency’? After half a page of information concerning the ‘CDF’ the letter notes: Remember Ekimeeza is a forum for intellectual discussion and not unqualified emotional outbursts, kindly observe this fact and debate accordingly.

After the microphone has been reconnected by Mr. Wasula, deafening all attendants with an extremely loud and high pitched beep, we hear the commercial break aired on radio one. This signals that the show is about to start and everybody gets quiet. Mr. Wasula starts by welcoming everyone and introducing the topic as written down on the paper, after this he asks the first speaker ‘Mrs Masala’ to come up to the microphone. A big woman, casually dressed in a Zain T-shirt, comes up to the microphone and starts a furious speech on the Constituency development fund and how MP’s are eating the money put in their bank account for constituency development. She seems to have carefully watched the way in which official members of parliament express themselves; constantly adding to her sentence, ‘So Mr. Speaker!’ referring to the chairman. It seems that the audience (90 % men) is not very happy with this woman and start murmuring and joking. After 3 minutes a man sitting next to Mr. Wasula holds up a note saying ‘TIME’. The woman rounds up her speech and goes back to her seat. Some speakers seem to have a reputation and get applause when they approach the microphone.

45 minutes into the Ekimeeza, a big man with a neat suit approaches the table; he is immediately offered a chair and a drink. He turns out to be an MP, and when he is given the stage he gets all the time he needs to make his argument. This seems to be fair given he has a different perspective and needs more time to counter some allegations and has more elaborate knowledge on the matter. The audience respects this and listens carefully to what he has to say. After his appearance he stays to listen to the other speakers and gets a second chance to give his opinion.

One thing that struck me was the absence of discussion and structuring of the topic as a whole. Mr. Wasula, who was equipped with the second microphone, refrained from summing up the argument, engaging in critical remarks or demanding clarification of what was said by the speakers. An occasional joke and a sporadic question was all he added to the forum. This resulted in repetition of arguments by some speakers. He did sum up some messages he received from listeners send to him by SMS or from the audience who could write their contributions on a piece of paper.

When I talked to Mr. Wasula after the show he explained me that the Ekimeeza structure is aiming at maximum openness. It originated from a group of intellectual people who discussed politics in their free time. Because everybody who wanted to join the conversation was allowed to speak their minds it grew bigger until they were discovered by a Radio One producer. People are accountable only for their individual argument; this is what keeps the show unbiased and thus acceptable for everyone, even for government officials who are often the subject of criticism. It is purely a platform for individuals who are interested in political topics, not an assembly of oppositionists. This is why Mr. Wasula will not direct the discussion and why there is no stratified organization behind the show. Within a society, at times associated with political disparity, the Ekimeeza seems to create a window of opportunity for free speech and political integration of the people’s perspective.

I will dig deeper into the structure, history and political value of the Ekimeeza and will interview speakers, listeners and key people involved. I hope to uncover elements within the Ekimeeza that could help create a way for people to get involved in politics and to hold their officials accountable in a decent and constructive way. My main focus will be how New Media technologies like the internet and mobile telephones can assist in this process.

I thank Mr. Wasula for his time and hope to interview him after next week’s Ekimeeza.

ICT 4 accountability in Uganda

ICT4Uganda
Personal research approach
ICT 4  Accountability in Uganda

This research will focus on the emergence of new media as an organizational and informative tool to empower people into more active and contributing political roles. Politically active groups or individuals, who use new media to express, organize or educate themselves in a political manner, will be the main target group.

During a period of 2.5 months, starting the 11th of april, I will be conducting research in Uganda on the potentials of new media and how it can be used as a tool for democratization.

‘Accountability is crucial for democracy’, these are the words of the writer of the globally discussed book ‘Dead aid’ (Dambisa Moyo: 2008). Development aid is keeping Africa as it is; a ‘limited access society’ (Douglass North). In these societies political and economic structures are build on personal relationships and ruled by a patronage system. These states exist by the virtue of ‘rents’, income generated by the government and distributed among the members who keep the system in tact. The recent article by Marcia Luyten (2009) describes the consequences of aid on schools where teachers will not show up at work, children will not be given breakfast by their parents and classes are filled with 200 children at the same time. According to Luyten, this happens partly because there is no one held accountable for the situation. Free education, made available by development aid money, does not stimulated parents to guide their children in their education. 

At the same time, government is not held responsible for the failing education system because it is offered free of charge. Furthermore, people living in the limited access society have no faith in the free market competition strategy because individual efforts are, more often than not, less effective than the patronage system. Why would you educate your child if all the good jobs go to the family of power holders (Luyten)? The patronage system is keeping African countries in a stranglehold which is strengthened by foreign aid money. Solutions seem to be vested in monitoring those who take part in this system by holding them accountable for their actions.

-This thesis will cover the concept of accountability and see what new media technologies can do to tackle problems concerned with the topic. By talking with politically engaged people I will try to understand what thresholds exist between political power brokers and civilians and why civilians fail to become politically concerned members of their society. Respondents will include student activists, social entrepreneurs, bloggers, local MP’s and expats.

-Secondly, I will try to find out why some people will rise up to the status quo and how new media technologies can help in this effort. Because of the networking ability of the web and mobile telephones people can organize in a more efficient way. Furthermore, censorship of information by authorities is difficult and the growth of the ICT sector in Africa offers a great potential. I will analyze running projects and politically active groups or individuals and see in what way they employ new media in their endeavors. I will try to isolate the biggest challenges and best practices; Furthermore, I will try to find explanations for these failures and accomplishments by looking at cultural and traditional factors within the sphere of accountability.

-The main topic of this thesis will deal with lateral and inverted panoptic surveillance and will build on theories by Foucault and Andrejevic. It will try to uncover the way in which Ugandan society is using these democratic tools to empower themselves. It aims to find out what the major challenges are for civilians to get their complaint or suggestion heard and acted upon and how new media can offer technical solutions. The terms ‘lateral and inverted panoptic surveillance’ roughly translate as ‘a Foucauldian approach towards accountability’. Because these terms are related to contemporary new media theorizing, they will hopefully prove themselves valuable in the analysis of African engagement with new ICT’s.

I will update this blog with post on my research in Uganda, feel free to react or send links. I will be in Uganda untill the 20th of June. After this I will travel around East Africa to report on projects and initiatives related to media and development.