LAGOS, NIGERIA – Esther Eshiet, 24, a social worker in southern Nigeria, says she used social media programs such as Facebook and Twitter to report on what transpired at her polling units and learn about what happened at polling units across the country during the presidential and parliamentary elections this month.
“The platforms were great!” Eshiet says. “Especially Twitter, it provided me the opportunity to be followed by different persons and different news agencies. My tweets were quoted by international media firms.”
Eshiet says she also used ReVoDa, a program that encouraged the 87,297,789 Nigerians with mobile phones and 43,982,200 Nigerians with Internet access to be “informal election observers.” Created by Enough is Enough Nigeria, a coalition of young people and youth organizations seeking good governance and public accountability, ReVoDa made it possible for registered voters to report from their respective polling units across Nigeria and receive election information via its mobile application or text message.
“The amazing thing about social media that I like is the ability it [provides to] use a small device as a GSM phone to break communication gaps that had existed in the past,” says Eshiet, who says she also uploaded photos of the citizens who turned out en masse to vote.
She says that the new information and communication technologies, ICTs, not only encouraged young people to participate but also helped to preserve the integrity of the elections.
“Using ICTs to monitor elections in Nigeria has proved to me that elections can be free and fair in my country and in extension Africa,” Eshiet says. She says that she hopes that technology will continue to help elections evolve.“There should be an [application] developed and utilized if already in existence, which would ensure results are transmitted directly from polling units to the electoral commission,” she says.
Most Nigerians follow elections through traditional media, which young people say aren’t interactive and tend to portray them negatively. But thanks to an explosion of social media and election websites here, young Nigerians say that new media encouraged them to actively and positively participate in this month’s elections. They say that it also helped them to monitor corruption and violence. Although challenges still exist, such as limited Internet access and government cooperation, they say they are optimistic that technology will continue to foster fair and free elections.
Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan won re-election in Nigeria earlier this month. Young voters trooped to the polls in large numbers, according to various media reports. About 70 percent of the population is under 35, according to Enough is Enough Nigeria, which also helped mobilize young people to vote through its RSVP campaign – Register to vote, Select a candidate to vote for, Vote during the election and Protect your vote.
The number of registered voters in Nigeria has risen throughout the years, from almost 58 million in 1999 to 67 million this year, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. Many called the 2011 election Nigeria’s most peaceful one yet and said they hoped it was a sign of progress in a country with, according to Enough is Enough Nigeria, a history of election manipulation.
Young people here say that one sign of this progress was the shift in the use of media during the election that enabled them to become more involved in the process. Most Nigerians typically access election news and information through traditional media, such as newspapers, magazines, television and radio. “Radio may still be the No. 1 source of news and information, closely followed by rumors and television,” says Gbenga Sesan, a young social entrepreneur.
But Tayo Elegbede, a young radio broadcaster in Lagos, a port city in southern Nigeria, says that traditional media tends to portray young people in a negative light. “Over the years, the traditional media has enjoyed portraying the youths as instruments of violence, as such creating some sensational stories while failing to showcase some good deeds of the youths as agents of community growth and development,” he says.
Acknowledging that traditional media doesn’t provide adequate platforms to involve youth, he says that he tried to use his role as a broadcaster – complemented by social media – to fairly represent the youth during the election.
“In its generality, youth representation within Nigeria’s traditional media has not been fair and quite positive,” he says. “However, the youths themselves are seeing the need to get involved in the activities of the traditional media so as to be represented in positively good light.”
He says that an increasing shift from traditional to new media has corresponded with a shift in the portrayal of youth from violent to active members of society. He says that the multiple functions of most mobile phones have enabled many Nigerian youths to become ardent consumers and producers of news.
“This they achieve with the mobile radio function, easy Internet connectivity and interaction with the rest of world,” he says.
Thanks to the advent of the Internet in urban areas, a plethora of online election monitoring platforms, such as the Nigeria Elections Coalition (NigeriaElections.org), encouraged Nigerians to track and discuss election trends this year. While some logged on using their computers, others relied on their mobile phones, which is the most accessible and cost-efficient way to connect to the Internet here.
Grace Ihejiamaizu, 20, a bubbly and chirpy sociologist and social entrepreneur from the oil-rich Niger Delta area of southern Nigeria, is among the vibrant youth who not only voted during the elections, but also served as an informal observer, using social media as a tool for information dissemination.
“I’m just a young person poised with great passion for positive change in Nigeria,” Ihejiamaizu says. “You may like to know that I [am] passionately committed to creating value and helping young people develop their leadership and entrepreneurship skills towards nation building.”
She says social media helped her and other young people to do this during election season, as more and more young people have become familiar with online and social media, thanks to a rise in easy-to-use mobile devices, computers and other gadgets. She says Twitter, a microblogging service, enabled her to mobilize young people in her community to actively participate in the election – all from her mobile phone.
“With Twitter, it was ‘on-the-go’ and easy for me, as I tweeted and re-tweeted constantly,” she says.
She says it also helped her to be involved in a March presidential debate organized by youth groups to address youth issues in Abuja, the capital, even though she doesn’t live there.
“I am not based in Abuja, but with Twitter, I participated and followed live the #WhatAboutUs Presidential Debate,” she says. “Twitter helped me connect better and learn instantly reports, news and stories from various corners of the country and polling units.”
She says she also read election updates on online media networks, such as Enough is Enough Nigeria (www.eienigeria.com) and Celebrating Progress Africa (www.cp-africa.com), as well as published her own updates via Facebook.
“With the help of Facebook, I shared stories, facts and gists about the politicians, their campaigns, the policies of their various parties, electoral processes, situation reports and a lot more,” she says.She says these new opportunities to become involved in the election in a meaningful way encouraged her to finally do so.
“Most importantly, Facebook helped to broaden my horizon and knowledge on politics,” she says. “It inspired me to get more involved in political issues. I voted for the first time, encouraged my mother to vote too for the first time [and] educated others on the need to vote.”
Chude Jideonwo, a young publisher and television host, says that the country should capitalize on young people’s participation, which new media has made easier. “Take advantage of the energy of youth and the freshness that comes from a lack of cynicism to engage the issues that concern them and their environment,” Jideonwo says. “Digital media has made this so much easier with its capacity to share and to mobilize far beyond traditional boundaries. There is a continuing convergence around the mobile phone as an effective means of communications.”
“Fortunately, we have seen an increased sense of responsibility among young Nigerians, and I think Internet access has increased awareness and even helped shaped public debate,” he says.
Elegbede says that monitoring and reporting the elections using new media tools was not only interesting and fun, but also allowed young people to act as watchdogs on the government.
“Instant and accurate reports from credible sources were received/collected from all around the country,” Elegbede says. “Instances of rigging and other electoral malpractices were monitored and perhaps minimized with the consciousness on the part of the perpetrators that mobile devices are watching.”
INEC reported few irregularities in this year’s election.
Sesan, who directs the ReVoDa program, says that ReVoDa aimed to monitor the election process. “The mobile application allows each [person] to [protect] their votes by capturing details such as INEC officials’ conduct, police behavior, incidents, results, etc., that can be used to gauge how free and fair the elections are in each area,” he says.
He says that young people also used Twitter to report post-election violence in the north. Youth in the north attacked and killed National Youth Corps Service members, who assisted INEC with the election, accusing them of rigging it in favor of Jonathan, who is from the south.
But Ihejiamaizu acknowledges that there are still challenges that prevent the widespread use of new media and, therefore, involvement in the political process.
“We may face such challenges as low and cost-intensive network/Internet services and lack of access to Internet/Internet gadgets, especially for rural dwellers and disadvantaged youths,” she says. Sesan says that only 30 percent of Nigerians had Internet access as of December 2010.
“In a country of millions, close to 10,000 downloads isn’t a large number,” Sesan said of the ReVoDa application. “Even though we got quality reports from the few thousands that sent in reports, quantity would have helped the context of our analysis.”
But he says connectivity is improving.
“With 44 million Internet users and about 3 million on Facebook, access is improving and it will get better because over 80 million mobile phones users will increasingly benefit from the move towards ubiquitous access,” he says. “At least two major indigenous submarine fiber-optic cables are now active in Nigeria, so access will improve and so will the digital revolution.”
Oladipo Fasoro, lead developer of Nigeria Elections Coalition, says that government cooperation also limits independent organizations.
“There could have been more engagement if they [INEC officials] provided more information,” Fasoro says.
Nevertheless, Ihejiamaizu says that this year’s increased participation, thanks to new media, is already progress to be proud of.
“My perspective on politics and political participation changed,” Ihejiamaizu says. “I understood my role in politics and how I can be involved. I can proudly say that the success of the 2011 Nigerian elections was a collaborative effort of both the government and the citizens, and I’m glad I was a part.”