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Government in Social Space - By Julius Ogunro

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It is likely that until about three months ago you had not heard the name Wael Ghonim. Ghonim was Head of the marketing division of Google in the Middle East and North Africa based in Dubai. But it was not as a Google executive that the Egyptian made

 name for himself and became world-famous. After Khaled Said, a 28 year- old Egyptian was tortured to death by the police in Egypt, Ghonim set up a Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Said , which proved to be invaluable to the revolution which occurred in Egypt. Ghonim used his Facebook page to stir up anger, to organize and to inspire the motley of young people who toppled the Mubarak regime.

A similar experience occurred in Tunisia, where the young people used Facebook and Twitter to organize demonstrations, which culminated in the forced exile of President-for-Life Ben Ali. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences have been tagged Facebook revolutions by the international media, which hailed the inherent power of the social media. Indeed, in a world a where young people live in cyber space and would rather tweet and ping than engage in real life conversations, the social media is an influential force that could be used for good - to topple dictatorships; or for bad - by sexual deviants to lure minors for their sexual gratification.

This new world provides unique opportunities and challenges for government on how to effectively engage the Facebook generation. Especially in a country where the government is not very adept at using the conventional and mainstream media as a tool for engagement, it is more difficult making the transition to the digital world and connecting with young people in social space. The implication is indeed serious - this influential demography is usually unaware or indifferent to the policies and programmes of government, just like government sometimes appears at loss about the concerns and issues of the jet set. So there is usually no meaningful dialogue between the government and the youth.

But one public official is trying to change all that. He is Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, the Minister of Youth Development and Acting Minister of Sports. When Mallam Abdullahi resumed as Minister of Youth Development in July this year, one of his mandates  was to give voice to the youth and ensure their active participation in the decision making process. It was a task the Minister took very seriously. Being a firm believer in the youth, Mallam Abdullahi has said several times, that given the opportunity young Nigerians would come up with solutions to their own problems and that they, not oil, are the greatest resource the country has.

But he understands this new world, that to effectively engage his target audience, to give them voice and get meaningful feedback, he has to live where they live and speak their language. So besides the regular interface the minister has had with youth groups across the country, he came up with the idea of a virtual meeting or tweet-meet. This meeting via twitter holds once in a month, with the first meeting in October. The idea is to break down the bureaucratic walls and grant any young Nigerian who has a computer, Internet and a Twitter handle access to the Minister. It is an ingenious idea and the first time in the world such a virtual town hall meeting would take place.

The first-tweet meet was exploratory and no specific issue or subject was suggested. The minister asked the young people to raise up any issues that they consider serious and did his best to address them. He also explained government policies, programmes and the reasons behind some of the decisions taken by government. He articulated government position on a wide range of subjects, sometimes asking his guests to provide alternative solutions or thinking on these issues. A rich conversation therefore ensued!

That first tweet-meet was an eye opener and strengthened the belief that young Nigerians are not problems to be solved but assets to be harnessed. Very creative and innovative, they provided new thinking on youth unemployment, delinquency, security, the identity crisis and a whole number of issues. The initial fear that they would take advantage of the anonymity provided by Twitter to insult the government proved unfounded and quickly fizzled out. Even those who had contrary views were civil in articulating them and generally everyone was appreciative of the opportunity to engage a top government official in a no-holds-barred dialogue, without any fear of repercussion!

That meeting signaled the dawn of a new era, a readiness by the government to use new technologies as vehicles to address current challenges. After that first virtual town-hall, the minister has had two other tweet-meets, on NYSC reforms and the proposed deregulation of the petroleum downstream sector. Again, the youth proved adept on both occasions at providing useful solutions to complex problems. On the proposed deregulation of the petroleum downstream sector, there were innovative suggestions and, er, some impractical ones.  Like the suggestion that the country would have enough funds for subsidy if we half the salaries of legislators! Expectedly, most of the youth were against the removal of subsidy, and surprisingly their main grouse was that whatever savings the country might make would be frittered away because of corruption. This was in spite of the best effort by the minister to convince them otherwise. Anyway it was an engaging dialogue, which indicated that the main concern of young Nigerians on the planned removal of subsidy was trust, trusting the government to be true to its word of being judicious with the funds that would be freed as a result of the policy.

It was a new and surprising dimension to the subsidy debate, which no one could have imagined at the beginning of the conversation. It is reason why the minister takes the report of the tweet-meets seriously, compiling and sending them to the appropriate government agencies. Especially on NYSC reforms, there were several innovative ideas that have been included in the plan for the wholesome review of the scheme.

The success of this initiative has led two other ministers to begin tweet-meets. The Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah and the Minister of Power, Professor Bert Nnaji, have both engaged the Nigerian community on Twitter, explaining their mandates, plans and policies while also taking note of suggestions. This is welcomed, and has expanded the national conversation.

Probably if Mubarak had engaged in such frank discussions with the youth of Egypt through the social media, and taken their suggestions seriously, you would not have heard the name Wael Ghonim as there would have been no Facebook revolution!

Ogunro is Special Assistant to the Minister of Youth Development and Acting Minister of Sports.