Tweeting the President of Rwanda

TWO months after the Rwandan government encouraged decision makers at all levels to join social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, we saw our first heated exchange. London-based journalist Ian Birrell used his personal Twitter account to quote sections from an interesting Financial Times interview with President Paul Kagame. Kagame responded, as did the Rwandan Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo and several others. Birrell’s questions to Kagame focused on media and politics. 


The entire exchange, (available at the View from a Cave blog), is well worth reading. This is not the first time the Rwandan President has used Twitter to engage with people. In March, 2011, the tennis playing President arranged via Twitter a visit to Ibirunga Tennis Court in Musanze to meet the children there. There have also been discussions about arranging a conference in Kigali, all on Twitter and in the public domain.


I have some doubts about the appropriateness of the use of these tools in Rwanda. Barely 3% of Rwandans in Rwanda are online. Who are they intending to communicate with? The diaspora? Investors? The donor community? Or are we in for more of the endless tit for tat battles that play out in comments on blog posts and newspaper articles about Rwanda?


It remains to be seen when and how members of parliament and other decision makers begin to establish a presence online. As someone who’s spent the best part of the last eight years training journalists and others in what these tools are and how to use them, I fully expect to see mistakes being made – and that’s normal.


Each tool attracts a different community and different ways of communicating. Each tool has a distinct culture which needs to be learned if you’re to get the most out of it. Forcing anyone to use Facebook or Twitter is a recipe for failure.


I can’t recall ever seeing a similar Q&A exchange between a head of state and a journalist on Twitter. I’m not sure Twitter is the ideal place for tit-for-tat arguments on substantial questions – 140 character messages leave little space for nuance or depth. In addition, while I see engagement in general as a largely positive step for Rwanda, I do worry that it spends an unusually large amount of time responding to critics across social networks, blogs, newspapers and other media.


Criticism aside, the geek in me likes the fact that both the President and the Foreign Minister tweet from Blackberry phones. It’s also worth noting that since April, 2011, you can tweet in Rwanda via SMS text message. It’s been surprisingly useful in traffic jams, during power outages and Internet downtime in the capital.


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Graham Holliday is editor & publisher of Kigaliwire, and an associate editor at Current Intelligence. Earlier versions of this comment appeared in Kigaliwire on 15 May 2011 and 17 March 2011.