Nigeria: Youth + technology = change

By Tayo Fagbule in Ibadan
Posted on Friday, 1 April 2011 18:19

A young and urban electorate is changing calculations across Nigeria. Political barons who hope to win national elections in April will have to contend with smartphones, a new generation of voters and new data-capturing strategies.

New technologies and an open field of candidates mean that the April presidential and parliamentary elections will be among Nigeria’s most competitive ever. If President Goodluck Jonathan is to remain as head of state, he has to face off militants in the north and the Niger Delta, and convince the young that he can create the jobs, security and basic services that the country needs. The candidates will be up against an increasingly technology-literate and urban population.

An information society is evolving in Nigeria, as the use of information communication technology rapidly increases. Ahead of the April polls, this factor, which concerns a new and important segment of Nigeria’s electorate, will prove decisive. Events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown what a potent combination youth and technology can be.

Nigeria is young: the average age is 19. In 2008, only 49% of Nigeria’s population was aged over 18, according to the UN Children’s Fund. UN-Habitat estimates that 49.8% of Nigerians were urban dwellers in 2010 and that, by 2020, the percentage will increase to 56.9. Young and male, most migrants head for cities like Lagos and Kano.

Large cities, because of their demographics, are the centres of both economic and political power. And winning the votes of Nigeria’s growing numbers of young city-dwellers will be a deciding factor.A good number are unemployed and could trade their votes for cash, thanks to long-established patronage networks and elections based on populism, not ideology. So a cash-rich People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is the likely winner in April.

In 2010, more than four-fifths of the urban population lived in the following nine cities: Abuja, Lagos, Ibadan, Ogbomoso, Kaduna, Kano, Aba, Benin City and Port Harcourt.?These will be the vote clinchers and will herald new challenges to the established PDP order. Benin, Kano and Lagos are in non-PDP states. Ibadan and Ogbomoso, the third and eighth largest cities respectively, are in Oyo State. The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), with four southwest state governors, is the more popular party in the region. Many see a future leader in the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, should he succeed in channelling the votes from these fast-growing cities.

Kano and Maiduguri, two of the five largest cities in the northwest and northeast respectively, are governed by the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). The Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the party of Muhammadu Buhari, is more widely accepted. Many in the north are likely to vote for the CPC to protest against the PDP’s choice of Jonathan, the first politician from the Niger Delta to occupy the presidency. President Jonathan’s emergence as the party’s frontrunner scuttled a PDP gentleman’s agreement on “zoning”.

Thus the premium on credible, free and fair elections is higher, especially after sham polls held in 2007. Despite the fact that past elections have had the PDP winning most of the local, state and national posts, transparent ballots this year could head off trouble from opponents inside and outside the party.

In the absence of an established national opposition, civil society organisations are tapping into the swelling number of young tech-savvy Nigerians.As of December 2009, there were 24m internet users, representing 16.1% of the population, according to the International Telecommunications Union. By the end of 2010, the market penetration rates in Nigeria’s telecom sector, for mobile phones and the internet, were estimated to be 53% and 24% respectively.In 2004, when Facebook was first launched, Nigeria was in its fifth year of uninterrupted civilian rule. Over the years, a growing number of citizens have expressed unhappiness with Nigeria’s brand of democracy.

A 2006 Afrobarometer survey showed that support for democracy declined from 81% in 2000 to 65% in 2005. Similarly, the number of Nigerians satisfied with democracy had plummeted from 84% in 2000 to 25% in 2005.In a keynote speech at The Future Awards in 2010, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the executive director at the World Bank, challenged Nigeria’s youth to say “enough”.

Spurred on by Iweala, a non-partisan coalition formed EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) at the height of the prolonged absence of the ailing President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.Fuel shortages, secrecy surrounding the health of Yar’Adua, who died last May, rumours of a coup and mendacious government officials had fuelled an unnerving uncertainty about Nigeria’s future.EiE organised a self-funded rally in Abuja, using social media. The demonstration made headlines and encouraged the Register Select Vote Protect initiative. Though not a Tunisia-style revolution, the turnout was impressive and it helped convince parliament to agree to change.

Only three cities – Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt – have a high internet search volume, which tells its own story about penetration. Also, rural voters are still more likely to turn out on election day than their urban counterparts.EiE is aware of this, hence its “dial-a-vote” campaign. The aim is to urge Nigerians in the diaspora to get their friends and family to register.Even though this year’s social media-driven campaign is unlikely to penetrate the far north, the number of Nigerians connected to cable television, mobile phones and mobile broadband is rising.

The digital divide is slowly disappearing as the cost of transferring knowledge and information falls.Reclaim Naija, a broad-based national platform for promoting electoral transparency, has launched a website using Ushahidi, the software developed in Kenya to monitor electoral violence in 2007. One observer contends that social media platforms and smartphones are a “wild card” in this year’s election.

Technology also plays an official role in mobilising voters. Nyimbi Odero, head of Information Technology at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), says “Nigeria’s voters’ registration is Africa’s single largest technology project ever.” ?Within two to three months, INEC has deployed 240,000 people – more than all the armies of West Africa’s 16 countries put together – and 132,000 data-capture machines, which, if lined up edge-to-edge, would cover over 80km.

Nyimbi admits that INEC has made a “terrible hash of communication”. Yet, given the constraints, a lot of innovation is taking place. This includes farming out data-crunching to machines at the polling stations rather than to a huge, central server and “binarisation” of fingerprints to detect duplicate registrations, to be saved as evidence in the event of prosecution.The political elite may still attempt to stymie the INEC technological changes, but the electoral authorities have new arms. These, together with a better informed electorate, will make for a more level playing field.

This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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