BOYD PHIRI, Lusaka
WHEN President Hakainde Hichilema shared his plan to have interactions with ordinary citizens on radio when he just won the August 12 elections, it seemed impractical for a head of State to put himself on the spot through a phone-in programme.
Most people thought that it would be difficult for him to arrange such radio interactions considering the busy schedule he would have at State House. Yet others held a notion that some sensitive questions from callers would put him in an awkward position or that some lunatic might insult him on air. The fears were genuine, bearing in mind that no other sitting president has taken a risk before to answer questions from ordinary Zambians on radio. By design, a phone-in or call-in radio programme is meant to allow listeners air their live comments, questions and views by telephone on a selected topic of discussion by hosts or guests. Whether or not the audience might not be well-informed about certain issues involved in the discussion, it is assumed that this platform is the most accessible to the common man who can afford a mobile phone.
In Zambia most radio stations have phone-in segments on a daily basis and to a larger extent the platform has been exploited by opposition political leaders, including Mr Hichilema over the last few years. Of course, as an opposition leader before the elections, it didn’t matter to some people whether Mr Hichilema was insulted by a caller on radio or came out of the interview unscathed. Often there is a feeling among members of the public that a head of State needs to avoid being ridiculed on such platforms by those who politically don’t agree with him to preserve the dignity and respect of the presidency. But it is also true to say that President Hichilema had grown used to being attacked on radio when he was in opposition and he felt there was no difference if he received the same amount of resentment from some people or not.
A phone-in radio programme was a completely different approach to engaging with the people, unlike the press conference the President recently held where journalists had an exclusive opportunity to ask him questions on pertinent issues for the benefit of the masses. At that time people could only trust the wisdom of journalists to ask questions on issues which were bothering them, like the proposal by some UPND leaders to have political branches set up in markets and bus stations, as well as the President’s position on the burning issue of gay rights in Zambia. While during the press conference journalists were restricted to asking questions based on the issues raised by the President and told by his spokesperson to ask any other question through a press query, ordinary citizens had an opportunity to ask the President questions without any restriction.
I guess analysts would be drawing comparisons on which set of interviewers posed better questions to the President between journalists during the press conference and ordinary citizens during the phone-in radio programme on Radio Phoenix on Wednesday. After the press conference, some veteran journalists had weighed in on the manner some journalists asked the President questions, suggesting that newsrooms should have editorial meetings to decide on what kind of questions to ask when there is a press conference at State House. Of course, the same cannot be said of ordinary citizens when they have a chance to speak to the President on radio through telephone. But that aside, the President’s gesture revealed a sense of understanding that people are the ones who have the real power and that they have the right to ask him questions on matters that affect their livelihood. In essence, President Hichilema’s interaction with people on radio as a head of State broke the barrier that existed between the presidency and ordinary citizens. Speaking to the President directly on phone through radio was an honour to most callers and it also gave a calming effect among the electorate over the uncertainties regarding Government’s direction. Even though the President was drawn into repeating his earlier promises on certain issues like fighting corruption, the phone-in programme brought out important issues like the teething problem of accessing retirement benefits from National Pension Scheme Authority (NAPSA). Most listeners shared the plight of the caller over the matter, especially that retirees are only given a monthly stipend out of their long-term contributions to NAPSA. No-one else could have directly answered the question better and provided a solution to the problem for an ordinary person than the President himself, considering that he has throughout his time in opposition been against systems that seem to disadvantage the people. Most importantly, the programme gave the President a chance to assure people that he is committed to fulfilling his campaign promises. President Hichilema has exhibited knowledge about the power of communicating directly with people. It is important for a leader to take advantage of technological advancements in order to reach out to the people. The traditional way of communicating through the presidential spokesperson or recorded speeches or indeed press conferences tends to alienate citizens from the leadership. It was encouraging to hear the President asking for the number of a caller so that he could communicate back to him outside the programme over the question the citizen had asked. The move is important to Zambia’s democracy where citizens can discuss various issues with the President directly on platforms such as radio. The programme also helped the President to know citizens’ expectations, especially that they have been yearning to hear him come out on the issue of free education, which he said will apply to poor people only.
He did well also to come on air and talk to people directly, particularly that citizens now want timelines on his promises.
Above all, people don’t have to struggle to find a chance to be given an audience by the President at State House only, or indeed at the airport. We hope this is the beginning of the President’s many more such direct engagements with ordinary citizens. As it turned out, no-one called to just say bad things about him, but those who phoned in used their chances responsibly. The author is Sunday Mail editor.
BOYD PHIRI, Lusaka