Can technology help to win Nigerian elections?
I finally saw Niyi Akinmolayan’s movie, The Arbitration, on Netflix recently. Even though it was fictional, it was the first Nollywood movie that I had seen with a realistic plot that involved the current Nigerian tech scene. It made me quite happy as, for once, the technology theme was not about fraud or a fraudster. The examples were quite realistic and relatable. One particular area that I feel technology can make the most significant impact is on elections and political campaigns. As demographic shifts occur and new generations come of age, I believe that technology will significantly influence the future Nigerian election outcomes.
My friend, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, recently contested the Ikeja Local Government chairmanship elections and even though he lost, I learned a lot from watching and participating in the process from a distance. I looked at all the areas where we could have used technology to our advantage but didn’t do an effective job of it.
One thing we did wrong was starting the fundraising process too late and also not involving enough of the electorate in fundraising. How could technology have helped with this? During the 2015 elections, President Buhari’s campaign organisation decided to raise money for his campaign by issuing scratch-cards for purchase by the electorate. These scratch-cards sold out very quickly in some states and gave his voters more ownership in the process. It was a brilliant move as the cards also doubled as a useful voter reminder and communication mechanism. Once the voters loaded the scratch cards, the campaign also had their mobile phone numbers and could communicate directly with them. This innovation had never been done previously in any Nigerian election. It was very effective. It also made coordination and ground game easier.
In the case of Gbadebo, a lot more could now be achieved with current advancements in Nigerian digital payments. We could have done better than scratch cards. When Barack Obama ran for his two elections, I got emails regularly from the Democratic party in the United States soliciting for donations and making those contributions right from my email took seconds. Once payment had been set up, it just asked me the next time if I wanted to donate to a particular cause or candidate and not just for the Presidential elections. The LCC already uses similar technology from SimplePay to let us renew our Lekki Toll Gate passes.
The US Democratic party also cleverly had many well-loved people depicted as the email senders. Sometimes an email would pop up in my inbox from Michelle Obama or Joe Biden. They had found a way to know which particular members of the ticket could sway me from the emails I opened more quickly. They studied my online habits from tracking and could target me more effectively. These are things we usually do to sell electronic products. They borrowed a lot from tech product growth hacking to use in election campaigns.
This mechanism was so efficient that it allowed the Democratic candidate to raise record amounts of money. The voters were also regularly directly informed of how much collected and future requirements. Barack Obama’s famous “ground game” was primarily driven by electronic data. They recruited volunteers online who went to actually campaign door to door on behalf of the candidate.
In the last American elections, I also got electronic mails from the Republican candidate’s campaign as well, and theirs came with a particularly impressive twist. They took every opportunity to sell the “Make America Great Again” (the slogan of the other side) hats. Both parties created a direct link with the voters electronically and physically through ownership. They did that using methods borrowed from electronic commerce.
Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and internet ubiquity driven by WhatsApp, we could have also done the same for Gbadebo and created not only an unparalleled war chest but changed the conversation with “Extreme Ownership” by the electorate. We could have deployed all we had learned from Nigerian e-commerce. Digital advertisements are not enough. We could have also gathered as much data as possible about the actual voters and their preferences through mobile channels to have a productive ground game.
A friend argued with me that it would not be popular in Nigeria as the Nigerian electorate loved to receive rather than give. I responded that it was possible for us to use technology to change that narrative. The last Nigerian election was very different from previous ones because of the level of engagement by the electorate online and via mobile channels. The future trends are more in favour of “ownership” created through technology than from bribery with “stomach infrastructure”.
We can change status quo and enhance integrity if a candidate is fully transparent with all the money collected and remains accountable through that mechanism even after successful elections. It was the promise of honesty and transparency that got the current Nigerian President elected. We can take it forward by actually showing what it means by using technology to make it possible for the governed to be much more involved in the process of governance than ever before. Budgit.ng is already evidence of that.
I believe technology startups cannot afford to wait until the last minute at every election cycle before they attempt to make money from politicians by creating ineffective websites or digital campaigns. The electorate is the same as the market for all technology products. Data-driven experiments in political campaigns also have the direct benefit in understanding market demographics and preferences. We should take sides and learn.