How Social Media and the Youth Helped Achieve Credible Elections in Nigeria

by Reno Omokri on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 7:51am

Being a paper delivered by Reno Omokri at the Atlantic Council, 1101 15th St NW, Washington D.C. 20005, on April 19th, 2011.

How Social Media and the Youth Helped Achieve Credible Elections in Nigeria

As many of you may know, the General elections in Nigeria were postponed by a week. And while this was a source of disappointment for many, I had a more optimistic view of the postponement. I thought more than anything seen during these elections it proved that INEC is really independent. How so? Well, the President for one did not know that the elections would be postponed and had traveled to Otuoke, his homestead, in Bayelsa state to vote. Vice President Namadi Sambo had also travelled to Kaduna state. This was the case with the major opposition figures. So no one had foreknowledge of the postponement. The entire operations were independently conducted by Professor Jega's INEC. And from the revelations that trailed the stormy National Security Council meeting called the day the postponement was announced, we see that the top military and security chiefs were displeased at Jega for not taking advantage of all resources at his disposal. Everybody was taken unawares. That is proof that INEC is Independent.

Now the question is did this independence produce free and fair elections?

I make bold to declare that the 2011 parliamentary and presidential elections have been free and fair despite pockets of violence, religious tensions, and underage voting.

I do not just say this because of what I read, was told or saw, I am saying this because together with a group of pro-democrats, we creatively employed social networking and surveillance equipment to monitor the Nigerian elections on a scale never before done by Non Governmental Organizations in Nigeria.

1. Widespread Use of Social Media

In the first place, social media played a huge role in the ongoing 2011 elections. Various agencies and NGOs set up platforms that enabled Nigerians from all walks of life to set up citizen reporting portals to report conduct of elections with their mobile phones. For example, together with my partners, including Malam Nasir El-Rufai and Philip Adekunle of the Nigerian Village Square, we set up and promoted http://iwitness-nigeria.com/ and we were able to monitor in real time the elections at every stage. The overwhelming number of videos, photos, tweets and comments we got from all over the country evidenced free and fair elections. There were some few isolated cases, but what we observed is that the people at the polling booth banded together and challenged what they perceived as malpractices. In the past two elections, we have received over 10,000 texts, tweets, emails, many backed with pictures. In one case which is now a viral hit on YouTube, the people gathered at a polling booth in Lagos insisted that the Youth Corpers used as adhoc staff by INEC destroy unused ballots. The corpers had no such directives and so demurred, but the people insisted. The police was called in and still the people insisted. When the corpers explained that that was contrary to INEC policy, one of those present produced a phone and asked that they call their supervisor. The long and short of it is that they refused to leave until the ballots were destroyed. And they were eventually destroyed.

This is just one of many similar videos and photos we got on i-witness. So, the widespread use of these real-time media severely limited electoral malpractices because we found that people were aware that they were on camera and this made them operate at their best behavior.

Also, literally hundreds of thousands of youths posted results to their facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and their Blackberry devices as well as on i-witness-nigeria.com and these results were immediately made available to various news media, diplomats and the International Community by my partners and I. And we were not the only ones doing this. This put the INEC on the spot as well as the contesting political parties and ensured an almost unbearable pressure to the point that they knew that releasing any results contrary to those announced by people who actually voted at the Polling Units and which had been corroborated (at times several times over by more than one youth in the same Polling Unit) would have caused a great dent in their reputation.

In fact, we did not need the INEC to release results before we knew what was happening and Build Up Nigeria was the first to project the Presidential elections as going to President Jonathan at http://www.facebook.com/buildupnigeria.

2. Election Monitors

Secondly, the overwhelming opinion of Foreign and Local election monitors is that the elections were credible. For instance Clement Nwankwo, head of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) in Abuja and who is working with more than 20 civil society groups to monitor the vote said of the elections "We have not seen large-scale reports of malpractice, nor of collusion between electoral officials and politicians."

Former Botswana President, Festus Mogae, Chair of the Commonwealth Observers, had addressed the Press and said he was "pleasantly surprised" at the "transparency" of the whole process and specifically indicated that he was of the opinion that the Presidential elections were even better managed than the Parliamentary elections the week before which itself had been hailed as one of Nigeria's best elections.

Former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, had almost identical observations as Mr. Mogae and so we see that from multiple independent accounts the truth is that Nigeria has recovered from her failures of 2003 and 2007 just like President Jonathan promised on the 6th of May, 2010 when he was sworn in as President following the death of the late President, Umaru Musa Yar'adua.

3. Heavy Media Presence:

Heavy Focus of the International Media has been on Nigeria and at the nd of the exercise, the overall verdict was that the election went very well.

4. Accurate Pre-Election Opinion Polls

Another validation that the election were free and fair is that the results mirrored scientific polling from IPSOS, Gallup and Local pollsters who by and large projected the same scenarios which have actually turned out to be fairly accurate in the light of results now released.IPSOS projected that the President would win the election by polling about 60% of the vote. Gallup projected 53%. The President eventually won by 57%.

5. Top Level Guarantee

Finally, in my view, the major reason why these elections were largely free and fair is because the man at the head, President Goodluck Jonathan, did not have that 'do or die' attitude that has pervaded every election in Nigeria from 1999. So we can safely say that in Nigeria if the President wants it, there can be free and fair elections. The thing to be determined for the future is how to guarantee free and fair elections even if the President does not want it. Thank God this was not the case this time around, but it is better to be safe than sorry!

Given the above, I would not hesitate to say that the elections were largely free and fair and a remarkable improvement from 2007.

However, there were issues of violence, religious tensions, and underage voting, which I will briefly touch on below

Issues

1. Religious Divide and Voter Intimidation

A key issue in this election was the intimidation of voters not with violence per se, but with some form of foreboding. How can I explain this? Reports from the field and videos showed that religion, especially in the North and the Niger Delta played a great role in the election and we saw a lot of Polling Units were the massed crowds generally acted like they were in a religious congregation. In the North, a lot of youths shouted religious slogans, the crowds caught onto it. the atmosphere became somewhat charged and there was a palpable feeling of foreboding and it would no doubt have had an impact on the voting pattern as people who would have wanted to vote against the candidate of their choice and not necessarily the candidate of the crowd would have thought twice about it. Now this did not happen only in the North, we also saw video evidence that it happened in the Niger Delta but on a much more subdued level.

And it actually began before the elections. For instance in Kaduna, a day to the Parliamentary elections, the Vice President had gone to the mosque to pray and when he came out, the crowd coming out with him were chanting 'Sai Buhari' (It is Buhari) 'Buhari Munkeso' (Buhari we want). Believe it or not, but the Vice President of Nigeria, and running mate to President Goodluck Jonathan felt compelled to ensure his safety by joining the crowd to chant 'Sai Buhari'!

In fact, let me quote from a statement released by the Vice President three days after the Parliamentary elections. The VP speaking through his spokesman said;

"Some people have been going around the North warning that any Muslim that votes for PDP or any other party outside CPC (Congress for Progressive Change) is not a genuine Muslim and will be punished for that."

As I had mentioned at the U.S. Institute of Peace before the elections, this religious intimidation had been a trend especially in the North months before the elections. There were mass SMSs (texts) being circulated up North with messages that attempted to stir up Muslims against President Jonathan and Northern Muslim governors perceived to be supporting the President such as Sule Lamido. And as news of this campaign spread in the South, it actually led to a hardening of the stance of many Southerners against the CPC and its candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. This tactic backfired and largely explains why Buhari's CPC failed to make an impact in the South of Nigerian during the Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

To some degree, some in the PDP used this tactics. To be fair, I also received reports that in some cases churches especially in the Southeast nudged Christians on how to vote. But this was nowhere as organized and as apparent as what the CPC in the North did.

Nigeria has been lucky so far. Religious tensions did spill into politics and we saw that in a few hot spots in the North most especially in Maiduguri Borno state where there had been bombings, but by and large it did not spark the tensions that were feared chiefly because of popular grass roots politicians like Jigawa State Governor, Sule Lamido and the Spiritual head of all Muslims in Nigeria, His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa'ad Abubabakr who both spoke out strongly against the trend and called meetings to ensure that it was nipped in the bud.This was BEFORE the elections. What happened AFTER is another issue and I touch on that below.

I followed the declaration of results by citizens on BBC Hausa's facebook page http://www.facebook.com/bbchausa and on the newspaper 234next's election portal http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/Home/5690533-146/election_results_live_updates__.csp it was almost as if I was watching the results of a religious crusade. One was heavily pro-Muslim the other was pro-Christian.

In assessing the elections however, I must say that though INEC conducted itself well in arranging the elections by most accounts including mine, I was rather disappointed that they did little to nothing to sanction those who used religion to intimidate the electorate. For the future, it will be beneficial for Nigeria if the INEC is in the fore front of efforts to stem the trend of using religion as a political tool.

2. Under-Age Voting

Other than religious intimidation, the other major incidence by way of malpractice recorded in these elections was the incidence of underage voting. This was rather rampant especially in the Core North and there were reports of violence breaking out in places like Gombe and Kaduna states when the authorities tried to prevent under aged voters from participating in the exercise. I have photographic evidence of this which I have circulated. Now how does INEC prevent this in future elections given that there is often violence when attempts are made to prevent these groups of people from voting? My suggestion is that their votes should be marked by the officials manning the Polling Units and voided at the collation centers after verification by their supervisors. If this is not done and some parties are allowed to get away with it, then all parties will soon engage in the practice thus making a mockery of the process.

These issues are symptomatic of a growing democratic culture and Nigeria will overcome these as time goes on.I firmly believe this.

Post Election Violence

So while the elections were largely devoid of violence, we now see a wide scale violence in the North. The question is why if the elections were free and fair do we now have violence and what triggered the violence?

Inflammatory Rhetoric from Politicians

The answer to the first question is that the polarizing influence of religious and ethnic campaigning created an atmosphere of an intense, unhealthy and unsportsmanlike rivalry between North and South as well as a fear of domination. This is why before the elections I had called the attention of the INEC to this particularly at the predecessor workshop to today's event (at the U.S. Institue of Peace on February, 22nd, 2011) and suggested that the INEC select a Suitable Target For Maximum Impact amongst the politicians involved in this dangerous form of campaigning for prosecution using the new powers given to them by the new Electoral Act. But of course neither INEC nor the government really took steps to prosecute those stoking ethnic and religious sentiments although I sympathize with the government as it may have been accused of persecution. But certainly the INEC had no excuse since they are independent.

Even the conservative media are now reporting that the violence may have been incited by comments made not by Buhari but by his spokesman, Yinka Odumakin, who while rejecting the results alleged that votes in the North were deflated while votes in the South were inflated. These claims were amplified by the opposition party linked site saharareporters.com. Anyone who knows Nigeria could almost predict that those claims would lead to violence.

The day after the elections we observed on facebook and Twitter multitudes of young opposition supporters venting that they had been cheated. They pointed not to any observed lapses, not to reports from Election Monitors ( who ALL, including the respected former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, opined that the elections were free, fair and credible) but to reports from saharareporters.com. So we now see that opposition supporters (mostly youths) were largely incited by the uncorroborated allegations from an opposition leaning website.

Now I personally am not sure Mr. Buhari has anything to do with these inciting reports. It is more likely the work of those who wanted to ride on Mr. Buhari's back to power and are now seeing their chances evaporating.

In any case, the election at least for President is over. President Jonathan now has a mandate of his own and can no longer be said to be operating under former President Yar'adua's mandate. He now has to heal and unite a fractured nation and in doing this, he has to walk a tight rope of coming down hard on any attempts by anti democratic forces to make the country ungovernable while at the same time reassuring the people of those parts of Nigeria who largely voted for his rival over him that they have nothing to fear from his rule and the fastest way to do that in my view is to quickly begin to fulfill his campaign promises and make sure that the dividends of democracy trickle down to the Nigerian masses whether they be in the North or South such that they can look at their former conditions and their conditions under the democratic administration of President Jonathan and notice an improvement even if it is a slight improvement.

B. Reno Omokri,

VP Africa, Trippi & Associates,

Founder, The Build Up Nigeria Project


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