By Samuel Wolde-Yohannes
Secretiveness, and that is the tendency of withholding information that could be useful or otherwise, is a particularly dominant cultural trait in our country. Most Ethiopians’ propensity, is to never engage in self-revelation, or in talking about other people’s business. One of the most demeaning insult that one can hurl at another person is to call him or her a woreña, i.e. a gossiper. Whatever one heard about another person’s “business” is shared only among a very close circle of friends, with the implicit proviso that it should never leave that circle. This is a code of conduct one must learn quickly if one desires to live in harmony in the Ethiopian society. One may perceive this as the very essence of discretion and genteelness. However, regardless of the high value place on secretiveness, our society has never been less gossipy and indiscreet than any other. It is only its mode, timing and the circumstance that differ.
Secretiveness cannot and should not be held as a positive trait without qualification just as unlimited openness is not. In fact, both require careful qualifications to be of any good use to society. Just as there is a necessary withholding of information, there must be a necessary limit to openness. Today, we are completely inundated by the ubiquitous social media that set no bound to our self-expression. All done in the name of transparency. But is it? In my view, transparency is much too valuable a word and too charged with positive moral connotation to be used indiscriminately for all forms of “revelations”. For our purpose here, we need to distinguish between transparency as understood in the socio-political realm from what goes on in a free-for-all way in cyber space, and in the so-called free-societies. Before I elaborate on the former, let me address first the latter. What goes overwhelmingly in the social media today in the name of transparency is, in reality, far from being one. What goes on in the social media overwhelmingly is a form of exhibitionism; not seldom in the original sense of the word. Exhibitionism, as is known, is an unhealthy tendency to unnecessary and self-indulgent self-revelation intended to satisfy primarily one’s psychological need or narcissism. It lives and thrives thanks to the vast reservoir of prurience in all societies. It is indeed as useless and unproductive as any form of gossip.
Transparency, properly understood, is not an exercise in self-revelation. It concerns the regulated flow of information expected in well-governed democratic societies. It responds to what citizens require and expect to know, as a right, from their government, in their governance, in their economic transactions, in their education, social affairs, in matters of public health, etc…However, this does not mean that all information, including secrets of the state be shared among all citizens. To reiterate this point, it must be delimited to information that would benefit the citizen in all his or her endeavors, but not to simply fulfill the right of the citizen to know for the sake of fulfilling some “presumed democratic right”. It must be information that would measurably enhance the quality of life of the citizen and his or her well-being in the state.
The notion that all information must be available at a “push of a button” is not only impractical, but could very well unsettle the very architecture of present day states and world order. It may perhaps be realizable in a utopian future!
In closed states, where every information is released or transferred on as need basis, there cannot exist transparency. In fact, one of the crucial differences between open and closed societies is how information is used and shared with the citizens of the state. In an open and democratic state, ideally only information that can jeopardize or endanger the security and well-being of the citizenry and the state is withheld from the public. In closed totalitarian states, all information is withheld unless deemed harmless enough to be shared with citizens. It is for this reason that closed states place higher premium on information than open states!
The objective of withholding information from ordinary citizens in closed states is obvious. It is the primary tool of controlling every aspect of citizens’ lives. The less the people know the better they are controlled. Indeed, the opacity of the workings of the government and its tight hold on information sources keeps the citizenry in check and thus easily manipulable. The whole project of closed states is to deprive the individual citizen of his or her sense of autonomy by depriving him or her access to all other sources of information, except for those officially sanctioned.
Democratic states are usually called open primarily because there is a free flow of information. Sometimes, admittedly, too much as we have come to realize in this age of the Internet. However, there could be serious repercussions if genuinely democratic states were to try to enact laws to restrict the free exchange of information in society except those deemed “too sensitive” for the security and well-being of the state.
Not only transparency is one of the core defining characteristics of democratic states, but it is also at the source of many of its advantages and qualities. It is the source of trust not only between the government and the governed, but also between citizens in the state. The more a government is transparent, within reasonable boundaries, the more it will capture the trust of citizens, and garner, consequently, their cooperation. If citizens sense that their leaders are not being transparent and truthful, but suspect that they are driven by their own hidden agenda or ulterior motives, they will not only withhold their cooperation, but will eventually work actively for their removal. The primary tool through which a government can gain the trust of citizens is by being above all transparent with them.
Transparency has also an indispensable function horizontally, and that is between the governed, i.e. civil society. It not only is equally at the source of trust in society, but also brings with it the necessary conditions for it to be stable, prosperous and peaceful.
In most societies, conflicts arise often because of lack of transparency in the communal, economic and political relations. Since democratic states are grounded on transparency, they consistently create transparent civil societies and cultures. When citizens become cognizant of their rights in all their transactions, they are rarely fearful or reluctant to ask that their rights and prerogatives be respected. Conversely, those in positions of power, or those providing them with all kinds of public and private services, will be aware that they cannot abuse their powers or withhold services without incurring serious penalties. In a sense, transparency in government often translates in transparency in civil society with optimal results.
A system of government that consistently and invariably withholds information from citizens, not only deprives them of some of their rights, but ends up treating them like children unworthy or incapable in dealing with facts and truths. It is by sharing or giving access to information that governments show respect to their citizens. And it is by withholding information that they maintain citizens under constant tutelage. Thus, the act of sharing information in the state is not only a democratic gesture, but also an emancipating one: the citizen is rendered a full participant in his or her own governance.
When governments engage in withholding, obscuring and obfuscating relevant information, their civil societies will be deprived of conditions for genuine dialogue. Indeed, it is the existence of transparency in the state that allows engagement in serious and productive dialogues aimed at resolving many of society’s problems. Where there is no transparency, there can only be empty chatter, done more out of frustration than with a concerted effort to change the status quo.
When governments opt secrecy in all things over necessary transparency, the result is often a society that thrives on speculations and suppositions. Citizens will tend to be swayed by unfounded rumors, hearsay and talk of the town to satisfy their innate desire to “make sense” of things, since those who have knowledge of the facts and truths are unwilling, for reasons that are rarely justifiable, to communicate openly with the public. In this kind of environment, even an eager and persistent press finds itself incapable on its own to extract the truth. I am not speaking here, of course, about legitimate state secrets that must remain so to protect the nation, but of those that can be communicated without adverse consequences, avoiding thus unnecessary speculations in the public.
Finally, to allow genuine transparency within the state is to prepare the ground for a mature, engaged and productive political dialogue for the citizenry. A fact that is at the heart of a more permanent, stable, democratic and peaceful state.
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