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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Tanzania takes politics online
By Daniel Dickinson
in Dar es Salaam

In Dar es Salaam's many internet cafes, the young and old check e-mail and visit Japanese car import websites, as well as the home page of Manchester United and inevitably pornographic sites.

Launch of the website
The great and good attended the launch of the website
The parliament of Tanzania, the Bunge, is hoping that a new website dedicated to explaining what it does will soon be figuring amongst the most visited sites in the country.

It is hardly the sexiest of subjects but the aims of the website known as Polis (Parliamentary Online Information System) are laudable - to make politics more understandable and accessible to the public.

The importance the government attaches to the project was reflected in the launch event.

The great and good of Tanzanian political life from the prime minister downwards, were in attendance at a slick and professional presentation at a top Dar es Salaam hotel.

The speaker of the parliament, Pius Msekwa, said it was an important day for democracy.

"The management of parliamentary information is absolutely crucial to enable our parliament to fulfil its work," said Mr Msekwa.

"We need to provide people with access to this information to achieve our goal which is transparency."

Only a small number of Tanzanians have access to the net. According to 2002 figures, just 300,000 people were online, out of a population of 35 million.

As of January 2004, there were 23 internet service providers in the country, with 16,000 subscribers.

But most people access the web via net cafes, where access is cheaper than in many other African countries.

UN-funded

Transparency is the buzzword which echoes frequently around government ministries.

It allows people to question what MPs are doing. It will lead to a freer press as journalists investigate how parliament comes to decisions
Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP
It basically means that voters can and should find out exactly what the MPs they have elected are up to.

It also allows MPs and policy makers to keep track of all parliamentary developments.

The website has been funded by the United Nations Development Programme. Mark Malloch Brown, the organisation's boss, was understandably effusive about the project.

"This will create the type of accountability which is real democracy," he said.

"It allows people to question what MPs are doing. It will lead to a freer press as journalists investigate how parliament comes to decisions. These are the tentacles of democracy."

The democratic process is a key element of Tanzania's future development. If the government fails to show that it is being democratic, open and transparent, and all the other things donors say it should be, then aid money may dry up.

Access issues

The main opposition party in Tanzania, the Civic United Front, supports the website, but says many MPs will not benefit.

Wilfred Lwakatare, the leader of the opposition in parliament
Only a small number of Tanzanians are online
Wilfred Lwakatare, the leader of the opposition in parliament believes it is partly for show.

"Many MPs have no office in which to put a computer," said Mr Lwakatare.

"The government has not provided one, so how can that MP access the internet? This is an idea which has been pushed from above."

In the internet cafes, surfers have given Polis the thumbs up. Walter Rwabinyasi, who imports Japanese cars over the internet said: "It's definitely a good idea.

"We never really know what decisions MPs are taking in our names. We have given them the power but we rarely check how they are using it."

His views are echoed by many people who have visited the website for the first time.

It is not clear whether those surfers will actually regularly use the new website and if they do ask their MPs challenging questions whether they will, in fact, get any answers.

Of course, democracy and development do not happen overnight. It is a long and complicated haul.

It is hoped, though, that this push towards transparency will be an important building block.




SEE ALSO:
Tanzania marks 40th birthday
26 Apr 04  |  Africa
Strains within Tanzania's union
26 Apr 04  |  Africa
Zanzibar seeks separate flag
02 Apr 04  |  Africa
Tanzanian women get online bug
18 Nov 02  |  Technology
Country profile: Tanzania
01 Mar 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Tanzania
16 Apr 04  |  Country profiles


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