10 July 2011

East Africa: Open Data - Kibaki Clips the Wings of His Successor


Nairobi — Last Friday in Nairobi, President Mwai Kibaki launched www.opendata.go.ke, a website that makes available government information that is not classified. Some of it, like the Kenya Gazette, dates back to 1906.

Now the public, businesses, researchers, web and software developers will have a huge amount of data presented in an-easy to use format.

The team that put the put the project together reckons the open data portal is one of the first, and is set to be the largest government data portal in sub-Saharan Africa. Most people understand that economies, politics, and nearly everything else everywhere in the world are being changed by the new communication technologies. This was evident in a vast hall packed to the brim with an eager and anxious crowd. This was remarkable because not a single announcement of the event was made in the media. Word went out via Twitter and Facebook instead.

Like a couple of other speakers, President Kibaki said open data expands accountability and governance. The point is, what does that mean? To be sure, a government needs to be reasonably democratic to open the data it holds (North Korea and Eritrea cannot have open data). Dictatorships, by their very logic, are closed and wouldn't do open data.

But there were other political factors at play. Kibaki will step down at the end of his second term next year. His last term, which started tragically with violence that killed nearly 1,500 in the December 2007 election that his rivals accused of him fiddling, has gone on to become the most reform-packed of any presidency anywhere in Africa in recent years. A conservative old-school politician, Kibaki even accepted the appointment of Dr Willy Mutunga, a gay-rights supporting, ear-stud wearing lawyer and activist as Chief Justice.

These are the fruits of term limits. When a president is retiring, he has no strong motive to keep in place opportunities that allow the Big Man to amass power, because it will not benefit him. There is also a bit of enlightened malice, which leads many retiring presidents to put in place measures that make it harder for their predecessors to govern with as free a hand as they did.

Secondly, open data takes away a lot of power from state bureaucrats. Officialdom gets its power from controlling access to information, licensing how such information can be used (especially to make money), and from its ability to withdraw your licence.

A large part of government corruption is the unofficial fee you pay to get through, or to stay in, any of these gates. Open data could do to some government departments, what mobile phone companies did to the state-owned fixed phone operators. The mobile phone companies simply buried the old phone companies alive.

Any bureaucrat who does anything to reduce the number of people going to his office to seek favours not only gives up power, but also curtails how much he will receive through the rich pickings of bribery. To use the words of the Guinea-Bissau revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, they are committing class suicide. In this case, benign political suicide.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's executive editor for Africa & Digital Media

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