Effective communication as a critical tool of governance
“…the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth….” – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
Any government that is conceived in the above democratic ideal and seeks to be sustainable and not “perish from the earth” has to communicate effectively. Communication is a fundamental function of modern governance. Effective two-way communication between the government and the public strengthens legitimate public authority.
Any effective government has to adhere to three principle elements. First, any government has to build broad support and legitimacy for its programs. Second any government has to be responsive – understand the needs of her citizens and be able to respond to them timely. And third any government has to be accountable, by explaining government stewardship and decisions transparently. All the above principles are an outcome of effective communication. Government communication is as much about attitude as it is about aptitude. There has to be an understanding and acceptance by those who are in authority that this power of governing is a trust, whose ultimate authority is the people. Therefore engagement with the public is fundamental in the discharge of the duty of governing.
That said, most developing countries, Tanzania included are extremely poor at communicating. We are poor at internal, departmental communication as well as external communication with the public.
Radio Tanzania is older than independent Tanzania and it played a critical role in building our nation. Our founding President understood well the power of mass mobilization in effecting change. The biggest tool he used was the Radio due to its reach. The old wooden National radios were ubiquitous throughout the country, large batteries that lasted for months were readily available and affordable to the populace which resulted in a mobilised, well informed, politically aware populace. However the nature of radio is to broadcast to the population, it was one way communication, from the central authority to the masses.
The second pillar of the communication, which is from the masses to the leadership had to be built up administratively. One the first government’s biggest achievement was to build an extensive administrative network of personnel from the villages to the national level. From ten-cell leader on a street in a village to the Chairman of TANU. This kept the people at the very top well informed of the sentiments of the population. There were regular well attended meetings that efficiently brought feedback to the center. This was encouraged by the leadership. Mwalimu was fond of espousing, “Uhai wa Chama ni vikao” – the effectiveness of the party came through meetings that gave feedback to the very top from the grassroots. African democracy in action.
As a gifted orator, Mwalimu would regularly speak to the people explaining logically, persuasively policy initiatives and important government decisions. Many of his momentous changes were extensively explained and advocated. The Arusha Declaration was even made part of the primary education curriculum to ensure buy in. The one major decision that to me defined Mwalimu’s leadership was his justification for war against Amin’s Uganda. On November 2, 1978, at Diamond Jubilee Hall and live on Radio Tanzania, in a memorable address Mwalimu achieved two objectives. Explaining to the country the situation, justifying to the country the reasons to go to war and reassuring the population our capacity to go to war as he was constitutionally mandated to do. Second, Mwalimu effectively rallied the entire country behind the war effort (Uwezo tunao, sababu tunayo na nia tunayo). We succeeded in removing Amin at great economic cost to our country. Throughout Mwalimu’s 24 years in power, the economic situation in the aftermath of the war was at its worst. Despite this, Mwalimu’s approval rating at the next election in 1980 was at its highest. I posit that this was due to the effectiveness of his communication strategy. Tanzanians understood him, supported him and were willing to bare the brunt of the economy solidly behind him.
Covid-19 and governance
We can gauge the mettle of leadership in crisis. There is no bigger crisis in living memory than the Covid-19 pandemic. In crisis our ability to communicate is tested to the limit. In many ways modern technology has simplified two-way communication than could ever have been imagined during Mwalimu’s time. The proliferation of social media even in rural settings has presented the authorities with a unique opportunity to engage, mobilize a country towards a desired outcome. Our government must embrace social media, must encourage feedback, especially constructive negative feedback that we receive in real time.
Only through this engagement can a responsible government understand the needs of her citizen and make correct decisions. A responsible government must encourage and facilitate the fourth estate to report truthfully without fear or favour. Armed with this information we may stand a chance against COVID 19.
As explained in previous articles, COVID 19 is a challenge not only to our health system, but socially and economically. There is nothing in society, globally that has not been affected. Tanzanians expect leadership that is engaged and accountable, not miracles. If the public feel engaged they will be one hundred percent behind the government in spite of the hardships that will surely come. After all we stood unanimously behind Mwalimu at the absolutely worst moment, economically, in the history of our country.
Abdullah Mwinyi is an experienced corporate lawyer. He was also a member of the East African Legislative Assembly for ten years.