Can Nigeria’s social media generation change the course of the elections?

The genesis of Nigeria’s youth driven movement for change began in 2009 with ‘Light Up Nigeria’. This started primarily as an online movement to draw attention to the issue of poor power supply in the country, and as a means to pressure the government to take concrete steps to address it. Since then, the movement has expanded. During the leadership vacuum caused by the illness and eventual passing of Umaru Yar’Adua, the cry became ‘Enough is Enough’ when it was clear the country was being held hostage by fewer than a dozen people. Two rallies, one in Abuja and another in Lagos were held to demand, among other things, that then VP Goodluck Jonathan carry the mantle of leadership in Yar’Adua’s absence as contained in the constitution. The conversation now turned to the fact without electing good leaders, ‘Light Up Nigeria’ would never see the light of day (pun intended). Hence the ‘Enough is Enough’ coalition of youth bodies was formed. That coalition set about creating awareness on the need to register to vote, careful selection of candidates, voting on election day, and staying back to protect the votes and make sure they aren’t tampered with. It was tagged ‘RSVP’. The voter registration was a success, with over 73 million people registered. Of this number, 65 per cent are young voters. The Enough Is Enough coalition seeks to leverage this by organising a youth driven debate tagged ‘What About Us?’, Where candidates will take unscripted questions from young voters in a bid to win the youth vote. With 65 per cent of the electorate, it is very fair to say that any candidate who wins youth voters will win the election.

The above serves as an introduction for the real point: the efforts of the EIE coalition are very commendable and necessary, but do they speak for the majority of young people in Nigeria? This question has to be asked because the impact of this movement seems to felt more online, through social media tools like facebook, twitter and blogs. How many people do these speak to? As of now, there are just over 3m facebook accounts in nigeria and only about 300,000 or so twitter accounts. In a country where 70 per cent live on less than a dollar a day, the proportion of those ‘connected’ is low compared to the rest of the population. The majority of youth are the danfo drivers, the okada riders, traders, the security men, domestic helps, vulcanizers, mechanics and so on. These are the people who are not online, and who don’t have the benefit of knowing what should matter in this crucial election season. These are the same people who are likely to cause violence, sell their votes, or choose a candidate for the wrong reasons. This undoubtedly plays into the hands of those candidates at all levels who would rather not debate the issues, choosing instead to reduce the discussion to vague slogans. President Jonathan declined the NN24 debate, and looks likely to also decline the ‘What About Us?’ Debate this friday in favour of the one organised by the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) on March 29 which is likely to be scripted. Interestingly, in 1999, 2003 and 2007, the PDP candidate has not attended the BON debate. This paints the picture of a ruling party that doesn’t feel they will be punished at the ballot box if they don’t turn up to face the electorate and debate the issues. So far, they have not been wrong. The President could yet attend a debate, but if this country’s social media savvy youth don’t like what they see, what are they going to do about it? I have an idea: how about if everyone with a blackberry, twitter/facebook account mobilises 10 or more other people to vote for an opposition candidate? Would that make a difference? If even 1 million nigerian youths on facebook get 10 others to vote one way, will 10 million votes make a difference? Yes? I thought so. What needs to be understood is that using social media for change is never an end in itself. It is a great way to get started but the bulk of the work is always in face-to-face contact, to convince people in the streets to vote for your candidate. A point has to be reached where youths outside the boundaries of the internet identify with a cause. That way the effect of every tweet, every status update is multiplied and it cannot be ignored.

President Jonathan connected with the streets by talking to D’Banj about his plan for the youths. His wife, Patience Jonathan does that by talking to market women, artisans and the like in the language they understand. Other candidates and their supporters on social networks can do it too. There is still time.

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