A well-known and respected Nigeran social media expert and columnist Japheth Omojuwa pens an exclusive opinion piece for Legit.ng. In it, he analyzes the importance and impact of social media on Nigerian politics in the context of the upcoming elections.
It takes taking at least a second look at the political space in Nigeria to realize something has shifted. A space that was all about power brokers and media moguls has become so deregulated you could consider it the freest space in Nigeria right now.
Social media is that space, the many tools helping to amplify the voices of average Nigerians, taking ordinary voices and making them extraordinary by bringing them to homes, offices, and places most of them would have probably never reached under different circumstances. It started out as a playground for mostly young jobless people. Today, it has become the battleground of what would arguably be the most competitive election in Nigeria's history. How exactly are social media influencing the political space in Nigeria and how have the major stakeholders taken to it?
The main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) is probably the biggest beneficiary of the value social media bring to the table. Long before the party was formed in February of 2013, young Nigerians used to congregate on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to express their anger against the government. They used the platforms to organize protests like "Enough Is Enough" in April of 2010 to campaign for the then-Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to be made Acting President, a move that eventually led to the "doctrine of necessity" that got the National Assembly to name him Acting President. The force of Nigeria's young people rose to a crescendo with the #OccupyNigeria movement in January of 2012. That anger has since been sustained and indeed spread to other young people who would ordinarily not be interested in politics.
Today, the Nigerian awakening is fully on. All the APC did was harvest the anger of these young people. All along, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has been playing catch-up. The Goodluck Jonathan administration failed to sustain the momentum of President Jonathan’s unprecedented move of declaring his intention to run for the 2011 elections on his Facebook page first before anywhere else. Even though the administration started out well through President Jonathan’s Facebook account, it would be safe to say social media have been one of its greatest undoings ever since.
Take, for instance, President Jonathan’s Twitter page @presgoodluck with 32 tweets and 25,000 followers, abandoned since May 2011. Imagine what four years of tweeting would have done to the president's social media image. Its only use these days is to be listed on his World Economic Forum profile during the yearly Davos meetings and the WEF Africa sessions. Compare this to his main challenger Gen. Muhammadu Buhari who only joined Twitter last December. With just about 900 tweets, he has garnered over 117,000 followers and has since been verified by Twitter along with his running mate Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who, with some 430 tweets, has almost 80,000 followers. This doesn't tell the whole story. Their biggest strength has to be the fact that they have been able to plug their campaign into the organic anger against the government that has been cooking in Nigeria's social media space for at least 4 years.
While the APC’s social media presence has been mostly organic, the PDP’s has been most inorganic and at times bordering the comical. You’d see about 200 Twitter handles express their anger about Buhari's interview with the same words at exactly the same time. The robotic approach hasn't helped as much as they would have hoped because social media are not about robots but humans.
Elections may not be won on social media but perceptions are shaped here. More often than not, these perceptions even influence the so-called "legacy media". You must have heard President Jonathan refer to "the social media" and how much his imaginary enemies are using this space to hurt his image.
The truth is, the president is right on the damage social media has done to perception of him as the president and that of his government. But he also needs to pay attention to the fact that he abandoned the space to his own detriment. Leaving the space it in the hands of aides with little or no understanding of the essence of the president's office led to Dr. Doyin Okupe and Reno Omokri winnig him more enemies than friends. A playful "retweet if you won't be voting president Jonathan because of Omokri and Okupe" Twitter poll, with over 300 people retweeting, gives an understanding of how much damage this duo has done.
This has not just been about the battling titans. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has been up to the game, too. Working with partners, the organization has used social media to good effect. For Permanent Voter's Card (PVC) distribution, web and text messaging platforms were built for potential voters to locate centres where they could pick their cards. The INEC has done reasonably well in its use of social media.
Social media will play yet an important role in Nigeria’s democracy in the coming years. With Internet penetration rates rising, Nigeria's 67 million Internet population is likely to increase over the years. If the current administration considers social media to be some sort of pest, the next one might as well prepare for more of the same. The freedom the space offers will eventually be deployed by a lot more Nigerians, and governance and a listening government would be the better for it.
That is the future, though. This is about now — the 2015 elections. Trust social media to play an even bigger role in reporting non-official election results, mapping of troubled spots and sharing users' voting experience. Alea iacta est — "the die is cast" — and social media is Nigeria's new battleground.
About the author: Mr. Omojuwa is a Nigerian blogger, commentator on socio-economic and political matters, environmental consultant, social media expert and mentor. He writes for Nigeria's most respected newspapers. Mr. Omojuwa's articles are often translated into foreign languages including French, German, Portuguese and Greek. He can be reached via Twitter @omojuwa.