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Buhari and the gang


President Muhammadu Buhari.

President Muhammadu Buhari.

The 2015 General Elections was a remarkable one in Nigeria’s political history as we witnessed the first political transition not just between political parties, but one in which an incumbent president was defeated and he conceded. The whole world together with us held their breath waiting for violence but the transition was so peaceful it was surreal.

But it was also a defining election because it was the first held in the age of social media and its impact in contributing to all parts of the election was evident: performance appraisal of the candidates, the major campaign issues, the marketing of campaign and ideas, election monitoring, etc.

The impact of social media was felt way past the 20-million odd Nigerians active on Facebook and Twitter; it made its way to traditional media as the agenda-setters in those platforms were also heavily influenced by it. There were many times when I will tune in to a radio station like Wazobia FM which is loved by people who likely are not on social media and the discussion that has been stirred up by an OAP or his/her perspective of an issue is almost as exact as the trending opinion on social media at that time.

In many ways, former President Goodluck Jonathan had the misfortune to be running the affairs of the country at the time social media came of age. His predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo only had the mainstream media to deal with, while save for Sahara Reporters, platforms like Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy in Nigeria in the presidency of Umaru Yar’adua. This was evident in how young people used social media to organize massive nationwide protests against the removal fuel subsidy in 2012 to the surprise of many.

The democratization of free speech that social media empowered Nigerians with and the pent-up frustration of decades of bad governance all combined in causing a huge shift in opinion against him even in areas that had voted for him in 2011, of course, aided by quite shambolic performance of his government.

But the role of social media goes way beyond its influence at elections – it has made Nigerians more politically aware and in many ways, active as well. There are conversations round the clock on what governments ought to do and not do, and their actions are analyzed, amplified and dissected.

It has also empowered NGOs and activists with easy access to publicity for their work.There exists numerous opportunities for using social media in advancing governance in Nigeria. In all candidness, we are yet to take full advantage of opportunities social media presents us with respect to governance.

For example, the use of social media for political organizing has been overly focused on national issues and hardly ever concerning issues at state and local government level. It is much easier to find activists willing to put together a march to the National Assembly on corruption or a protest against fuel price hike, but hardly any of such happens at the local levels.

This is not because social media users are concentrated only in Abuja and Lagos; on the contrary, there are heavy social media users all across the country (predominantly Facebook). It is evident in the abundance of Facebook groups that are area-focused which are very active on debates that are local in nature; however, what is lacking is how to effectively translate all that online engagement into offline action. If this happens effectively, it will be a huge boost to advancing governance in Nigeria.

Social media also affords activist groups and NGOs the opportunity to able to more easily galvanize support from and raise awareness among the general public for their work. An excellent example of this in action is the civic startup BudgIT which tracks and analyzes public finance. They have made excellent use of Twitter in disseminating their work, which has raised awareness about their work, raised support for their campaigns and opened up more opportunities for them.

Although there have always been activist groups and NGOs predating the advent of social media, there was only so much access to the media they could have and the knowledge of their work was not as widespread as it can be now if they take full advantage of social media channels.

Another opportunity social media has afforded us in our democracy is direct communication between citizens and public officials/governments. The democratization of expression via social media has allowed citizens to directly and indirectly communicate with government officials and elected representatives.

However, governments and public officials have been rather to slow to catch up or in some cases, are not even interested in communicating via social media because of the negative comments and attacks that are, sadly, the bad that come with social media.

The elected public official or government agency with an active social media presence, talk less of well managed is more the rarity than the norm. It means that these officials and governments miss out on a huge opportunity to engage directly with people – whether it is informing them of their programs and policies, or correcting wrong impressions and misinformation or gleaning ideas off the networks.

If public officials and governments were to take social media seriously, it will further open up the space for direct engagement between them and Nigerians, who are eager to know that those governing them listen to them. There can be no strong social compact between government and the governed if the former carried on as though the latter exist and do not seek to involve them in the process of governance.

As our democracy continues to grow and deepen with the passing of time, social media is sure to play a big role in it happening. But it can also play an even bigger role if the opportunities that it presents are taken full advantage of.
• Leaders of No-Morrow: The Hopes, Possibilities and Realities of Nigeria is a special series brought to you by The Naked Convos in partnership with The Guardian.

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