Thursday, February 26, 2015

Social Media as a Tool for Change in 21st Century Africa: The story of the 2011 Nigerian Elections

Social Media as a Tool for Change in 21st Century Africa: The of the 2011 Nigerian Elections

Presentation made by Ololade Adewuyi, Online Editor, TELL Magazine to the Youth in Leadership and Enterprise Initiative, YELI, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife on July 9, 2011

What is social media?
The world has truly become a village unlike we have ever dreamed. When I was in my final year in this university seven years ago, the word social media had only just begun to evolve. It is on record that social media came into use just in 2004 and it is a phenomenon that has changed the way we perceive our world today. You have friends that you know many things about but have never met. You have family members whom you have not spoken to in ages but you know when to wish them a happy birthday. You have seen places where your legs might never tread on, all through the internet. One big issue for all, the internet has come and disrupted our lives in many positive ways that we wonder what we ever did without it. We ask; how did we ever survive without our Facebook and our Twitter? How did we get by, day by day, without communicating with our online friends?

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, social media are “forms of electronic communications (such as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos).” It’s the culmination of Web 2.0, the age of user generated content on the internet.

When I was at Ife in the early days of the millennium, the idea of googling up your assignment was only just catching on. I remember our first attempt to use the net during a course on Stylistics in my third year. We had no books in the library for the particular topic that our tutorial teacher asked us to work on and someone suggested going to the White House (Physics department) internet lab and see if we could contact the author of the book to help us out. The author, Geoffrey Leech, was based at a UK university and when one of us who was adept at the working of the net googled his name we found an email address. It was a triumph. The same student was the only one out of about ten of us who had an email address so he sent a mail to the professor through it. We never got a response but it was a big lesson for us all.

Pretty soon, I set up my own email address through a friend’s help. There was a group on campus called Yahooligans that was set up by fellow students to help in creating email handles for everyone at a cost. I assure you they made a huge profit. This was in 2002 when there were only about two or three cybercaf├ęs on this huge campus and people had to queue for days to be able to secure browsing time at the White House. I know it may sound incredulous to many of you here today. I’m from that generation that paid through its nose and struggled to use the internet. I wear my scars proudly.
The way we perceive our world has changed. I have more than a thousand friends on Facebook, almost two hundred followers on Twitter and more than a hundred thousand people have visited my three blogs since I started the first one in 2007. My internet footprint is more than the average Nigerian’s but still lags behind many of my contemporaries in the West. However, in the near future, Africans will become an integral part of the web culture as it is. Through increasingly affordable mobile phones and internet services, young Africans will make their impact on the net but we have to use that impact positively because there is no tool as democratic as the internet and social media in our time.

In an article in Intelligent Life, JM Ledgard writes: “Connectivity is a given: it is coming and happening and spreading in Africa whether or not factories get built or young people find jobs. Culture is being formed online as well as on the street: for the foreseeable future, the African voice is going to get louder, while the voice of ageing Europe quietens.” (‘Digital Life’, IL, Spring 2011)

The Arab Spring
The power of social media was powerfully demonstrated in Africa for the first time during the recent upheavals that took place in Tunisia and Egypt. Now famously known as the Arab Spring, the riots against the tyrannical rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali started when a trader Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze to protest his shameful treatment by police officers in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. “It is a national tragedy when the youth - literally the future - commit suicide to make a point,” wrote Larbi Sadiki in an opinion published by the Al Jazeera website. 

The deaths of other martyrs prompted demonstrations against the government, which it tried to suppress by the use of force and banning state media from reporting. However, the power of social media came in and Tunisians on ground began to put pictures on Facebook and send in real time events via Twitter. Videos emerged on YouTube of how protesters defied police batons and whips as they stormed government offices demanding for better rules of engagement with the society. In a few weeks, the 23 year-old government of Ben Ali was brought to its knees as he capitulated and took off for exile in Saudi Arabia. Many of us followed the proceedings of that revolution via the #sidibouzid hash tag. 

In Egypt, it was an eye opening event. If people power could triumph in our neighbour’s enclave, why not with us the biggest Arab country in the world? A Facebook group set up by Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and blogger Abdel Rahman Mansour to mourn the killing of Khaled Said, a 28 year-old Alexandrian by police officers took root. They called for the end of police brutality. Soon after, Ghonim was incarcerated leading to riots all over Cairo. When he was released, he called for the almost 30 year-old authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak to resign and that true democracy should be instituted in the country. 

The events of those 18 days mean that Egypt will never remain like before. The Cairo that I visited in 2009 where huge billboards carrying the intimidating face of Mubarak has gone and what we now have from the social change that occurred is a country of better sure-footed people who will never be intimidated by booming guns and emergency laws. The Egyptians in their turn inspired others in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen to seek for change in the way they are being governed. 

Nigeria Elections 2011
Young, tech savvy Nigerians watched closely as the events in the Middle East unfolded as the Nigerian general elections drew close. In an article published in TELL in January, I drew attention to the work of Amara Nwankpa, an Abuja-based tech activist who set up a group called Light Up Nigeria calling for the government to restore electricity to the country. Using the Delta rerun in January as a test, Nwankpa on Election Day tweeted all the actions on ground to his followers who were hungry for news from the frontline. He beat many mainstream media to the announcement of results and at the end of the day said that the main test was to come in the general elections in April.
Even President Goodluck Jonathan joined the social media frenzy by first announcing his intention to contest on Facebook thereby taking the shine away from an opponent that held a big announcement party on the same day. Everything was seemingly set for social media to make a big impact in Nigeria during the countdown to the elections.

The group Enough Is Enough Nigeria also campaigned broadly using Twitter and Facebook to rally young people to go out and register to vote using the acronym RSVP i.e Register, Vote, Select, Protect or what we generally refer to as rice and stew very plenty. It caught on as many young people went to registration centres armed with their mobile phones where they took photos of themselves and posted on Twitter. The growing Nigerian Twitter community became abuzz with terms like RV or Registered Voter as a status symbol. It was interesting to note that many of these people were only voting for the first time ever even though many were well past 18 years, the threshold for voter registration. In a country where many people had great mistrust for the political class, the sudden vibe on social networks made it cool for many to go out to exercise their civil rights.

The story of the Nigerian elections in 2011 will not be complete without the impact social networks played in galvanising young people to think that they could really begin to make a positive change in the way their leaders are chosen. This in effect also brought a change in the way politicians now perceive the electorate. So on Election Day, they turned up at polling booths holding their BlackBerry and other internet-enabled mobile phones where they tweeted happenings on the scene using the #Nigeriadecides hash tag. Photos of people voting and later results were sent onto the EiE and aggregation platform. 

It was not only young people that caught on to the Twitter train, the mainstream media also tried to match up in its own way through the use of the networks to share news. At TELL, we had our reporters nationwide send in verified news reports via text messages that were posted on our website and then tweeted to followers and shared on our Facebook page. It was a real test of the traditional media’s readiness to move with the changing times. It was not a battle between old and new, I think it was an effort to complement each other. Where young people could be quick to declare results, traditional media employed years of news wisdom to filter credible information to readers. What we had was the most widely reported election in Nigeria’s history. Having covered general elections in Ghana and Togo in the last two years, I am able to say Nigeria has set a pace for other African countries in the use of social media for electoral purposes even though only an estimated 70,000 voters used social media in a recent report by the Social Media Tracking Centre. 

The elections were not without failings as new media pinpointed issues arising. The famous video about massive thumb printing of ballot papers in Rivers state, underage voters in Bauchi and others that emerged on YouTube showed the savvy of Nigerians. They have all become evidence in court cases. And they show that Nigeria has moved a little away from the era of massive rigging with impunity to an era where mobile phones with cameras can make a big difference in how electoral crime can succeed or fail. The gains of the last elections in Nigeria must be worked at to ensure a freer and fairer electoral process for one and all. It is in doing this that we can hope to ensure positive change in our society for our children and their own children.

 Using social media to draw attention to social ills
The mobile phone that you hold in your hand has changed the way we live. No longer is the endless wait for NITEL to install a line in your home so that you can call your family members in Europe or America. All you need is dial on your mobile. And now you have to call your uncle before going to his house to ask for money for school. The days are gone when you showed up at his doorstep unannounced. We used to joke as kids that Africa was so simple that we did not have to call before a visit. We used to frown at our ‘been-to’ folks who insisted one called before coming even though they were the only ones who had landlines in the extended family. So you had to use the public phone ahead of a visit. Good news is that everything has become simpler. And so have the means to create change. 

A website, a Twitter handle and a Facebook page are modern tools of drawing attention to social ills in our time., a US-based site that prides itself as the biggest online petition site in the world has about 3 million members worldwide. It has pushed for the release of activists incarcerated in jails in China, it has helped stall the deportation of immigrants in America and it has helped fight for an end to rape as a cure to lesbianism in South Africa through the signing of petitions online that have been pushed to high ranking government officials.

These can be replicated in Nigeria as well. However, sites like Sahara Reporters have also helped to bring focus on Nigerian government and corporate corruption in a way that main stream media has not been able to. They call themselves citizen journalists and that is the way to go for the future. Citizens can highlight major concerns in their neighbourhood, in their local governments and states by creating blogs that will show the world the happenings in their locality. It means that an uncompleted road in Gbongan can be known to a resident of Accra. A lecturer demanding bribe or sex for good grades in Ado Ekiti can be exposed to readers in Kuala Lumpur. A government official who is intimidating his constituent can be exposed to readers in New Foundland. A successful community project in Ilesa can be monitored and replicated by a reader in Sally, Senegal.

The Twitter handle @boycottdbanj gained massive following in just a few days of its appearance as it criticised entertainer Dbanj for supporting the electoral bid of President Jonathan. The persons behind it felt wronged by the fact that the entertainer would use his popularity to campaign for a politician that they did not support and they made their views known on the social media platform. The group later changed to the handle @boycottpdp and you know what that means. 

Today you do not need to wait for a newspaper man to report your progress, even though newspapers are always good for their spread and authenticity, you can always blog about it and have people read you regularly. The internet is a democratic space and you will be surprised at what people are searching for. TIME’s managing editor Richard Stengel puts it succinctly: “What social media have done is to make us all more aware of what’s going on – and offer a new avenue to organize opposition. We like to think revolutions arise from below, but through most of human history, it’s the elites who have caused and led revolutions. Now because of social media, anyone can communicate with everyone. We’re seeing that in the Middle East, Africa and China. The democratization of information may actually lead to real democracy.” 

One thing that has to be understood is that social media in itself does not make change. It is the person behind the computer, the lady holding the Blackberry, the young man hooking up to YouTube that makes change happen. It is from your mind that change happens from where it is transferred to your network. It is your mind first where the yearning for change begins. It is what you feed your mind with that will feed your social network. Let change begin from your mind and let us transform our community and our nation with it. It is the only way we can hold everyone to account for the enormous trust we put in them. 

Thank you all.

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