By: Wouter Dijkstra
I 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. For my research approach visit: www.ict4accountability.wordpress.com