I was quite surprised when I got a friend request from a certain ‘Minister Zita Okaikoi’ on facebook. Initially, I thought it was a prank and so I just decided to ignore it. I wondered: “Even if she’s really the one, would she be so vain to add ‘Minister’ to her name?” So I decided to neither reject nor accept the request. Then to my surprise, I heard on radio a few hours later that the friend request was from the real Zita: our very own information minister.
A few months ago, I predicted that she wouldn’t stay in that position for long. She’s proved me wrong. She’s kept her job much longer than I thought. She should invite me over to come and eat humble pie. But she can’t and she won’t.
For the past six months or so, Zita has been information minister in all but name. She has been the ‘quietest’ information minister we’ve seen in this country in at least 10 years. Through a very cunning use of the management principles of delegation, Zita’s deputies have been the ones often on hand to answer all the difficult questions, explaining government policy, parrying criticism and sometimes defending the indefensible – which is what information ministers are supposed to do, right?
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On the few occasions I’ve heard Zita granting interviews it’s been mostly on issues that exert the least pressure on her cerebral membranes. These included the routes Barack Obama was to use on his recent visit and the programme of activities for that visit. When Obama left she was on radio explaining why she broke all protocol to use her phone to take pictures of the visiting superstar president.
If Zita hadn’t indulged in excessive delegation, I have no doubt in my mind that she would have been one of the first ministers to be ditched by President Mills. But she’s done what she needs to do to survive and that’s why she hasn’t baked any humble cake for me to yet. Even if she did, I won’t eat it.
In six months, she’s never granted an interview on any of the pressing issues that have come up under the Mills administration. Until she does that and comes out unscathed, I will continue to hold the view that she’s not cut out for the job of information minister and that her appointment was a big mistake.
But then I would be happy if she proves me wrong. That’s why I welcome her decision sign up on facebook, where her current profile picture is Ghana’s Coat of Arms.
“As times move on we would also move with the times to meet the needs of people,” she says. “There is a very young constituency out there who have needs to be addressed.”
She says she would be online for two hours every Friday morning, chatting with her facebook friends and responding to their questions. It’s a very good idea. But it serves Zita more than the national interest.
If she can’t grant radio interviews, at least she can answer questions on the internet – or get someone to do it for her. She will also cite these ‘interactions’ on facebook as her own innovative approach to engaging with Ghanaians. This might make it even into the books of the World Bank and the IMF, who will speak of Ghana as a country where ministers are actively using the internet to engage with the citizenry.
With the move to facebook, she will also be able to parry criticisms that she’s been avoiding the tough issues. “I am on facebook, answering all sorts of questions,” she would say.
But the fact remains that this is not exactly new. Trade Minister, Hannah Tetteh, has been my friend on facebook for a long time. I have an occasional argument with her over all sorts of issues. Samuel Okudzeto-Ablakwa, Zita’s deputy is also on my facebook friends list. I know he engages his friends in discussions on government policy and pertinent national issues.
But facebook is not the place for a minister to well and truly engage with the citizenry. No politician on earth utilises social networking like Barack Obama does. Yet, he grants interviews and addresses news conferences and town hall meetings. He knows that facebook is not enough – even in America where almost everyone has internet access in their pockets.
In Ghana, where most people don’t have access to decent toilet facilities, the internet is a luxury for a privileged few. But radio is not. Radio is available everywhere. The two hours she intends to spend on facebook, interacting with a few thousand people, could be better spent on radio interacting with millions from Axim to Zabzugu. If Zita wants to regularly interact with people she should start granting radio interviews, at the very least, on the networks of the state broadcaster – which she is supposed to be managing, by the way. During such interviews people will be encouraged to call in to put all their questions and issues before her.
If Zita, however, insists on using facebook, we should understand. Facebook is safe. And for Zita, the rule has always been to play it safe. Facebook provides anonymity. We will never know who we are actually interacting with. You might think it’s Zita but it could be Okudzeto-Ablakwa or Agyenim-Boateng. Also, on facebook, you can decide to ignore some questions and no one (except the one asking) will notice. And on facebook, you don’t need to think on your feet, which is obviously a very risky thing for Zita to do.