Over the weekend, UK journalist Ian Birrell found himself in a heated exchange via Twitter with Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
According to reports, this marks one of the first instances of a head of state directly engaging with a critic on a social media platform. Rwanda's minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, also joined the fray.
The tweet that started the exchange was this one by Birrell which referred to an interview Kagame had with the Financial Times: “No-one in media, UN or human rights groups has the moral right to criticise me, says despotic & deluded @PaulKagame http://on.ft.com/kfJyia ”
Kagame replied, tweeting: “@ianbirrell. Not you either...no moral right! You give yourslf the right to abuse pple and judge them like you r the one to decide ... [sic]
“@ianbirrell....and determine universally what s right or wrong and what shd be believed or not!!! Wrong u r ...u have no such right ..” [sic]Birrell then responded: “@PaulKagame Fail to see why you think I have no moral right to offer criticism and opinions. Pls explain further” [sic]
The exchange continued to go back and forth, and the entire thread can be seen here.
According to reports, two months ago, the Rwandan government encouraged all of its decision-makers to join Facebook and Twitter.
Statistics show, however, that of Rwanda's population of 11 055 976, only 450 000 or 4.1% have Internet access.
In a 2010 study by Digital Daya titled “Real Leaders Tweet”, it was noted that 15% of the world's countries are represented by their political leaders or governments on Twitter. Kagame's verified Twitter account currently has 13 676 followers.
“The countries of the world have become more democratic, which translates into increased transparency and openness between the governors and the governed,” says the report.
“More and more world leaders are using social media to engage with their populations. For the most part, leaders use Twitter to provide information and to explain, defend and debate government policies.
“Leaders of democracies, which now make up 63% of the 163 countries recognised by the UN, are slowly recognising the political value of social media as a tool of engagement with their populations.
“The trend toward increased use of social media will continue,” says the report.
On the home front, Jacob Zuma recently joined Twitter with the handle @SAPresident. Since creating the account last week, he has attracted over 16 400 followers.
The South African president remains somewhat more aloof than his Rwandan counterpart, with only four tweets so far.
The president is also yet to follow anyone apart from his own office, @PresidencyZA. Some followers have even been urging him to engage with them and respond to tweets:
“@SAPresident Id like to get more tweets from your Sir...tell us what is going on in your mind and what you plan to do next.”
“@SAPresident I will NOT stop tweeting you until you fix the EC, I social network like no other #TryMe”
The Office of the Presidency has said it will use the president's account to communicate excerpts of speeches and highlight particular issues, so not every update will be from Zuma himself.