Until recently, much of the Nigerian citizenry have had reasons to believe they do not have a say in how they are governed. Fearful of anti people laws, primarily introduced to keep them in check, citizens could only complain about governance from the safety of their houses, or within earshot of trusted family members, neighbours and friends.
Even when people find enough willpower to take to the streets, as they do now and then, they are not usually able to bring the desired change through force of wills, as the government responds with far greater violence than they can ever hope to counter. They return home, bloodied and defeated, with dignity smashed and hopes dashed once again.
However, the growth of internet and mobile use across Nigeria is ushering in a change that is taking root and encompassing the whole land, granting erstwhile silent observers platforms from which to express feelings in a voice that is almost impossible to drown out, via the New Media platforms.
The so-called Arab Spring revolts and several national elections across African have clearly exemplified how social media networks can be utilised to push for change. The youths of Nigeria, and many other developing nations, are finding ingenious ways to harness the freedom inherent in New Media to break the barriers placed by years of self-serving rule. While the rest of the world was still paying heed to the use of new media innovations as a tool for furthering interpersonal relationships in the office, classroom or community at large, youths in Africa have come to see them as an invariable tool in the furtherance of the quest for freedom, justice and a better, well administered society.
Triumphing over traditional media
For years, people across Nigeria, like their counterparts in other parts of the globe, have largely relied on traditional media like Television, Radio, Newspapers and magazines for information about their community. Due to extensive government censorship, the news fed to the public was at best a misrepresentation of the truth or a watered-down version, especially on issues that are deemed "unsavoury for public consumption".
However, as the use of new Information Technology grew in Nigeria -- from sending and receiving messages via email as internet services crawled-in in the mid 1990s, to doing same through text messaging via mobile telephony, and then with the coming of New Medias, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, etc -- people soon realised that the ease of communication that these platforms avails them could also be used for more than just sharing of interpersonal information, but could also be used to address issues that affect the larger society.
At about that same time, just like they did in the west, people with a knack for writing, but who had previously lacked the platform to air their opinions found ready outlets via blogs and other online medias. Soon some of these bloggers were commanding larger followership than the Traditional Medias, many of which found themselves playing catch-up.
At the moment, Traditional Media in Nigeria is somewhat dependent on New Media for news and, with most running New Media versions, is creating a merger of both forms that many experts had predicted will become the norm.
Anyone one who has paid attention to social media platform Twitter would notice one thing, the capacity of Nigerians to push "trends". For a topic to trend on twitter, it must have, within a set time, a large number of users twitting about it. Nigeria apparently has the number to push local trends on twitter and other social networks.
However, as is common in the third world, the use of social media in Nigeria appears to be escapist in nature. Although there are instances such as the ones mentioned above when youths take it upon themselves to motivate change in status quo, most of the time they just utilise new media for what they were truly made for â€“ socialising. When they decide, however, to take up issues of national interest, Nigerian youths do it with a passion that leaves little to doubt about the ability of Sub-Saharan African youths for collective action.
The growing power of new media as a tool for social change in Africa was again exemplified in September, when a story that was initially carried by at least one national newspaper a month before and largely ignored, was picked up by popular blogger Linda Ikeji and thrust into national and international prominence, forcing the government to alter its usual approach to issues that concern the citizenry. Attempts to sweep the issue, which involved the gang rape of a teenage girl by youths who videoed and circulated the event, were rebuffed by majority of Nigeria's growing army of internet savvy youths, who kept highlighting the issue, vowing to keep at it until the case is resolved and the perpetrators are in jail. Unlike what holds in Nigeria, where several high profile cases in the past have been left unsolved, the efforts of citizen investigators working through the internet, as of the time of writing, led to some arrests and alleged identification of the victim.
There was also the case of the Nigerian ambassador to Kenya, whose career was brought to a sudden closure some months earlier, largely due to the flurry of condemnation that followed the publication of a story of alleged wife battery by a Kenyan newspaper. Though the Kenyan Newspaper that ran the story lacked the capacity to give the story much coverage, a single posting of the story to a site favoured by young Nigerians was enough to grant it the massive exposure that caused the usually unreachable Nigerian diplomatic community to issue statements and for the Nigerian President to recall the ambassador.
The case highlighted above, aside from being controversial, shows the inherent power of New Media and its ever-increasing ability to transcend the reach of Traditional Media.
It is not only in controversial issues or in cases of abuse that the Nigerian cyber activists have shown a propensity to galvanise change. The success of the country's April elections, which were widely believed o be free and fair, is largely attributive to the efforts of cyber activists to get the youths involved in the electoral process.
Utilising a new tool
New Media appear to be the prime source of news, at least from the legion of tech savvy youths in Nigeria with access to it. Some believe that New Media will eventually eclipse Traditional Media -- which will have no option but to change with the times. Nevertheless, does this necessarily mean that there exists a conflict between both media forms?
Refusing to see any kind of conflict between Traditional and New media, Nigerian writer and social commentator Tolu Ogunlesi had this to say about social media and traditional media in a comment source from the internet:
"I'm more interested in seeing the ways in which old and new converge and connect and reinforce one another. I'm interested in studying how tweets and Blackberry messages make it onto radio and become potential news sources."
Mr Ogunlesi might not see any potential conflict between both media platforms, he had this to say about the phenomenal growth of New Media in Nigeria and its impact as a change catalyst during the April general elections in Africa biggest oil producer.
"I think that since social networking has become a significant part of the lives of a steadily increasing number of Nigerians (an estimated two million Nigerians are on Facebook; admittedly a tiny number when compared to the total population), there was no way elections were going to take place without the process playing out on Facebook and Twitter. In addition, a move like President Jonathan's decision to join Facebook helped in the â€˜faddification' of social networking. In a country long ruled by inaccessible Big Men, it was a startling revelation to realise we could â€˜interact' with the President on Facebook."
A lot has changed in Nigeria since Tolu Ogunlesi's statement in April. The elections have been won and lost and more politicians have followed President Jonathan's example by opening social media accounts, making themselves, or their representatives, assessable to the growing number of youths with access to computers, mobile devices and internet connections and further breaking the traditional power, that government had over the governed, control of information.
However, aside for use as a political tool to galvanise support from the youths, Nigerian politicians, are yet to see the sense of utilising social media as a means to counter the negative image of the country in the wider world and as a vehicle to draw in needed foreign investment. Neither do they use it as a platform from which to draw innovative ideas from youths who are willing to dish out such information free, at the click of a button.
On the other hand, while the Cyber activists have had relative success with some of the issues they have highlighted in the past, the fact that they appear only to concentrate on issues that pertain to physical abuse leaves a whole lot to be desired.
Utilising the New Media for change is one thing, but not losing focus on the desired result appears to be a harder task for the youths. This inconsistent attention span may be blamed on youthful penchant for fads and the escapist mentality mentioned before, but it is very clear that Nigerian cyber activists are yet to really apply all the power that New Media have placed at their disposal.
Before the April presidential elections, as my Mr Ogunlesi above indicates, many Youth groups came into being, primarily to encourage youths to get involved. The groups, collectively, were able to achieve something akin to the success that was achieved in America during the 2008 presidential elections in that country, which ushered in Irish/Kenyan Barrack Obama.
However, after the elections, when one would have expected them to continue the agitations â€“ this time for good governance and transparency at the tribunals that were setup after the elections â€“ most of them lost steam and things expectedly went back to how they were.
Stressing this point, Temitayo Olofinlua, a young, up and coming Nigerian writer said; "social media is good at addressing social issues, but there are certain issues that come to mind. Such as, how effective is social media or any form of protest at achieving change in a country with Nigeria's demography?"
While it is true that social media has been a very good tool for advocating change in the Nigerian electoral process, Nigerian youths are found wanting for not using it to its full potential. They are not utilising the inherent fear of New Media â€“ the fact that a post on twitter reaches most internet users across the world at the click of a button â€“ something that causes unease across government circles the world over.
This is the major problem with using social media as a change agent in Nigeria and many other developing countries.
More work to be done
Nigerian cyber activists and internet community clearly have an upper hand where cyber activism is concerned and have proven repeatedly that sustained online campaigns can bring change. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Temitayo believes follow-up is an integral part of agitations for change of any kind.
"After we rant and rave, we then appear to forget, to ease off. We do not keep at it; we do not remind the politicians about their electoral promises. Until we begin taking them to task, point for point, word for word, only then can we really be reckoned with. Social media activists need to bring the aggressiveness with which they pursued issues in social media to everyday life," she said.
According to Temitayo, the major reason social media activism is as successful is because people seem to get away with cyber activism, "social media is the perfect avenue to say what you want to say. No one will catch (arrest) you," she said.
This call to move beyond rhetoric on online forums, blogs and social network sites has been heeded before and proved to be very successful. That success, however, was mostly because a large number of the activists that marched in Abuja and Lagos to call for proactive action on the controversy surrounding the then incapacitated President Yaradua were of a social class that could hardly be ignored by the political class.
At the moment, more activists seem to have found their voice on the heels of the wide coverage of the rape video by both local and international media, and are flooding the internet with cases they think should be brought to prominence. Yes, much of these cases are centred on domestic violence and human rights abuses by government agencies and individuals, but it is hoped that the potential for New Media to really begin to bridge the gap between the governed and governments is achieved.
Getting government's attention
So far, cyber activists appear to be able to get government attention. However, they are only doing so on-and-off, without a steady pattern. Analysts with knowledge of the Nigerian environment believe they can do better, by making this a constant thing, with activists interacting with government agencies to bring the required changes to bear and making government more proactive.
In the face of it, there is not much in the way of effectively using New Media to bridge government and the governed but in the lack of willingness by many of the political class to accept any changes not in consonance with the established norms. New Media might be influencing government policy on some issues, but the fear expressed by many analysts is that the government may well be playing to the gallery, acting as if it is implementing changes to appease the army of young professionals acutely seeking it, while continuing with the old ways of doing things in the background. Though there are yet no proofs to back arguments that the Nigerian government has been more than sincere in its response to the issues highlighted by cyber activists, many still find it very hard to trust the government and its agents.
While there is without a doubt a lot of ground to cover, the facts on the ground show that sustained agitations on New Media succeeds very much in getting government attention. It was largely due to pressure of cyber activists that the Nigerian House of Assembly debated the Rape Video incidence on the floor of the house and mandated the Inspector General of police to intensify investigations into the case. Also, the aforementioned march by youth activists was largely responsible for the resolution of the impasse that held when President Yaradua was incapacitated by ill health.
From all indications, cyber activism in Nigeria still has a lot of ground to cover, but so far, it has done a commendable job of shaping government policy. With the right mindset in place, it may prove to be the catalyst needed to change Nigerian and other Sub-Saharan African countries for the better.
Article previously published in Business In Africa magazine www.bizinafrica.biz