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What Nigerian leaders can learn from the US presidential debate and William Troost-Ekong

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Nigeria’s defender William Ekong celebrates his goal during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) quarter-final football match between Nigeria and South Africa at Cairo international stadium on July 9, 2019. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s first debate in the US presidential election set a bad example for my children – let alone Nigerian democracy.

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If nothing else, the debate – described as “a national humiliation” and “an hour and a half of insults” – proved that we in Naija do not have the monopoly on politicians squabbling like children when they should be engaging with the issues that matter most to the people they serve.

But the American presidential race this past week provided Nigeria with a very important lesson – transparency builds trust.
The New York Times last week obtained Donald Trump’s tax returns, revealing that a president whose reputation is built on his image as a billionaire businessman has debts totalling $421m.

Many of these debts are due within four years, making me chuckle at the incredible idea of bailiffs knocking on the door of the White House!

The paper also revealed that Trump has avoided paying tax in 10 of the last 15 years, faces a tax bill of at least $72.9m, and even spent $70,000 on his hair!

This causes nothing but damage to his carefully crafted image; damage which could have been avoided if he had willingly released this information in a carefully controlled way.

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In contrast, his opponent Joe Biden last week voluntarily released 22 years of his tax returns, stating “the American people deserve transparency from their leaders”.

It is far too early to say what impact this will have on the overall election, but a snap poll from CNN showed that 60% of those asked said Biden won the debate, compared to just 28% who said Trump.

Why? Because trust matters. And it is here that Nigerian politicians can learn from America. Nigerians expect – and deserve – a similar level of transparency.

As Governor Nasir El-Rufai last week acknowledged, most Nigerians think that politicians are “thieves”. 72% of us believe “most politicians are corrupt”.

Nigerians think that politicians all have something to hide, which is why I am urging them to prove that they don’t by following Biden’s lead and publishing their tax returns.

At the digital democracy campaign we have made it easy for them. We have created a free app called Rate Your Leader which allows them to make information like this available to their electors at the touch of the button.

This way the people who elect them can see for themselves that their bank accounts are not full of kickbacks, backhanders, bribes and slush funds; that they are not part of some elite, untouchable political class; that they are their neighbours, driven only by public services and a passion for their community. Believe me, sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

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Rate Your Leader also puts electors in direct contact with the elected, allowing both politicians and voters to contact each other person-to-person, helping both parties understand each other better and build real relationships based on trust.

Biden is not the only role model for Nigerian politicians I’ve been thinking about this week. Closer to home there’s also Super Eagles vice-captain William Troost-Ekong.

Troost-Ekong last week moved to the English side Watford. As he did, he used his social media to talk about his connections to the club, having not only gone to school nearby but watched the team play as a fan alongside his father-in-law, a lifelong Hornets fan – including a game against Liverpool where Odion Ighalo, another Nigerian hero, scored.

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His posts were also positively commented on by other Watford players who have played alongside him at other clubs.
After less than a day at the club Troost-Ekong, a Nigerian with a Dutch mother who moved to Watford from Italy having previously played in Turkey and Norway, made the fans feel like he was one of them. Some even composed him a chant – “Troost-Ekong – he’s one of our own”, which in Britain means “part of the family”.

That is the power of social media when used correctly, a power our politicians need to make maximum use of to combat their negative image and show us not only that they are worthy of our affection and trust, but people whose opinion we value feel the same way too.

Transparency doesn’t just mean showing you have nothing to hide. It means showing what you have to offer.

Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the free Rate Your Leader app. He can be reached on Twitter via @JOPopoola

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