Voting with your Tweet

Young Nigerians are using Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools to keep their elections fair and their politicians honest. Perhaps there are lessons for other countries in Africa.
1 July 2011
photo: Suzanne GellLyal White, GIBS, believes the increasing influence of young people in Africa will fuel the use of social media as a political tool.

Advocacy groups in Nigeria are using social media in an effort to counter the corruption and abuse of political power long rife in that country.

In the build-up to the recent Nigerian elections, several advocacy groups, operating under the banner ‘Enough is Enough Nigeria’, employed social media, backed by radio and television support, to mobilise young people to participate in the electoral process. Not only were Nigeria’s young people encouraged to register and vote during the April elections, they were also urged to use their mobile phones to help keep the elections fair by reporting and recording any incidents of intimidation, fraud or inefficiency. Furthermore, mobile phone users were called on to forward the results announced after counting at each polling station so they could be consolidated independently to ensure official figures were not manipulated.

“It was a huge success,” says Lagos journalist Funke Osae-Brown.

“The trending of results on Facebook and Twitter made it impossible for electoral officers to rig the outcomes in most places, and even before the final results were announced, Nigerians already knew who the winners were. Social media really helped during the last elections and it marked a new beginning on the Nigerian political landscape.”

Crucial to this success is Nigeria’s large number of mobile phone and internet users. Around 87 million Nigerians regularly use a mobile phone and more than 44 million have access to the internet. The majority of these people are technology-savvy youngsters. More than 70 percent of Nigeria’s estimated population of 150 million are under 35. Because of this, most political parties contesting the country’s presidential, state and National Assembly elections employed social media to broaden the appeal of their campaigns. Re-elected president Goodluck Jonathan, for example, clocked up more than 500 000 friends on Facebook.

Mobilise young people

‘Gbenga Sesan, one of the leaders of the ‘Enough is Enough Nigeria’ coalition, says young people in Nigeria have for too long been disconnected from the politics and governance of their country. The coalition, he says, is committed to instilling a culture of good governance and public accountability in Nigeria through “advocacy, activism and the mobilisation of the youth population as responsible citizens.”

Sesan has spent 11 years championing the use of ICT to address Nigeria’s social development needs, particularly among young people, and currently heads upliftment agency Paradigm Initiative Nigeria.

“Our campaign to get young people involved in the election was unprecedented and a great success,” says Sesan. The coalition has now turned its attention to the performance and conduct of the politicians elected in the recent elections. It is urging young people to use social media to report incidents of corruption and inefficiency.

Deter competition

“We will publicise such practices online and in newspapers. We hope such exposure will deter corruption and result in improved performance,” says Sesan.

As part of its drive to encourage young people to police the performance of politicians, the ‘Enough is Enough Nigeria’ consortium is adapting the ReVoDa mobile phone application it used to help people monitor the elections. The application is similar to the popular Ushahidi system developed in Kenya. It enables mobile phone users to report various types of incidents, such as corruption and the failure of basic social services, which can then be collated, mapped and presented on a central website. Nearly 8 000 copies of the ReVoDa application were downloaded during the Nigerian elections.

This use of social media by citizen groups to ensure fair elections and to make sure their leaders deliver on their promises is likely to take root in other developing nations.

Lyal White, director of the Centre for Dynamic Markets at Pretoria University’s Gordon Institute for Business Science, sees the Nigerian experience as very encouraging.

“In much of Africa, there is a major problem with governance and the effectiveness of institutions such as the judiciary and electoral bodies. Social media is very important as it can help fill these ‘institutional voids’ that exist on the continent,” says White.

He adds that social media is able to provide ‘soft infrastructure’ that improves governance and political accountability. The increasing influence of young people in Africa, eager to upgrade themselves and their societies, will fuel the use of social media as a political tool, argues White. He identifies Mozambique, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya as nations where such developments are likely to occur.

Social media, however, is no panacea for the travails of Africa. Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, points out that for social media to be an effective political tool, other economic and social factors need to be in place. Significant economic development is necessary in order to ensure that large numbers of people have access to social media channels. Furthermore, citizens need to be organised into effective advocacy groups.

Friedman points out that the use of social media and membership of organisations such as professional associations and NGOs is largely the preserve of the urban middle class. He argues that economic growth and development remains the biggest force for the advance of democracy in Africa. Radio and television will be the most effective media for reaching Africa’s poor for a long time.

South Africa and Nigeria, the economic locomotives of Africa, have set the pace in the deployment of ICT. South Africa’s electoral system is more sophisticated and robust than that of Nigeria and incorporates many checks and balances to ensure accuracy and impartiality. Kate Bapela, chief communications officer at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), says the use of social media to monitor elections in South Africa is unnecessary.

“We are in a league of our own in South Africa,” she says.

However, the IEC has begun to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and interactive websites to improve voter registration and education as well as the delivery of election results.

It is in the monitoring of the performance and conduct of their elected politicians that South Africa’s citizens may well follow the lead of their Nigerian counterparts. As discontent rises over inadequate municipal services, poor performance from government departments and the luxurious lifestyle of many political leaders, social media may increasingly empower citizens to voice their dissatisfaction and demand change. Social media may soon become a social force.