Change They Can Almost Believe In

How Nigerian voters, especially the young, are using technology to prove a point.

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria

LAGOS, Nigeria—In a series of national elections this month, Nigerians will exercise democratic rights that recent events around Africa—from Egypt and Libya to the Ivory Coast—have revealed as precious. But for many citizens of the continent’s most populous country, democracy is often beside the point. State-neglected roads breed traffic and hurt commerce, but in cities, young men plug the gap, selling everything from wine glasses to fresh apples in traffic. Frequent power outages darken homes, factories, and stores—but those who can afford it simply buy a generator. For Nigerians living in poverty, extended clan and religious networks are more reliable safety nets than a national legislature that has passed only 10 substantive bills since 2007.

That is to say life in Nigeria has a certain “do it yourself” charm. To put this in perspective: The United States recently engaged in a pearl-clutching debate over a government shutdown that didn’t even happen. Nigeria’s most recently elected president went missing from November 2009 to February 2010—and then died.

Not that there wasn’t an uproar. But the Nigeria I know prefers steely self-reliance to, say, Tunisian-style protests—and could be forgiven for shrugging off this year’s vote. Incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, who took office last year after the aforementioned death of President Umaru Yar Adua, is widely expected to win a full term as president on Saturday. (The PDP has, in fact, never lost an election since the end of military rule in 1999.) Plus, it’s hot outside.

At the same time, most Nigerians I talk to are out to prove that Nigeria can, in fact, do democracy—especially after the 2007 “election” (plagued by ballot-box snatching and more) that was roundly criticized by international monitors. And so there are 67 million citizens registered to vote this weekend, a whopping 88 percent of the eligible population. The major increase has been attributed to the youngest quintile of the electorate: the 18-30 year olds who are perhaps most frustrated with the fatalism and dysfunction of the past.

“People felt like the government was just taking advantage of their silence,” says Nosarieme Garrick, who runs a Nigerian youth organization called Vote or Quench. “Now people are taking charge of their civic responsibility.”

“We’re tired of what the country is,” says Tony Bassey, a 25-year-old member of Nigeria’s National Youth Corps helping to monitor a Lagos polling unit. “Four years ago I wasn’t involved at all … but if you keep saying [politics are] dirty, you can never make it clean.”

The contrast between potential and performance is fascinating in Nigeria—the fourth-fastest growing economy in the world. Nigeria is a major oil exporter whose sagging infrastructure still requires it to import petroleum for local use. The country expertly polices most of the African continent, in military operations from Sierra Leone to Sudan—yet can’t squash poisonous regional tensions over oil and religion. Visiting Lagos in March, Bill Clinton remarked that “there is no reason why a country with so much resources and potential should be poor.”

Since 2007, Nigeria’s private sector has continued to anchor the West African economy. National GDP has grown at rates that outstrip recession-worn western economies, and the government has issued $500 million in international bonds to help fund infrastructure investment. But the most radical change may be how technology has transformed Nigerian civic culture. As telecoms compete for a market of 150 million Nigerians, Web literacy, email usage, and mobile-phone penetration has become among the highest on the continent.

During Saturday’s comparatively smooth first round of voting, for seats in the Nigerian National Assembly (postponed once by the beleaguered electoral commission), the new connections came in handy. I saw dozens of voters transformed into informal election monitors—snapping photos on their mobile phones and alerting friends when the lines were shortest. A local newspaper took note: “The tweets, Facebook updates, Skype messages, text messages and pictures that voters exchanged via email and mobile phones gave the addresses of the polling booths, the locations, the number of people accredited, those who voted and the votes that each party got.” Within 12 hours of the polls closing, a charming YouTube video documented the group count at one polling unit. If thugs tried to snatch that ballot box, they might have seen their face on the evening news.

This type of engagement is hardly heroic—and you won’t see Nigerians setting themselves aflame anytime soon. But it is a major shift in local civics, says Garrick, whose organization (which is completely virtual) staged a March debate in the capital, Abuja, that incorporated questions submitted via social media. These voters still worry about employment, education, and power generation, But “in the age of BlackBerrys and iPhones and all that, it’s easy for you to just plug in and connect with people at the grassroots level,” she says. “While it’s not all demographics that have access to these media, people understand that we can spread it and we have to start from somewhere.”

The real proof of progress: Several 2011 candidates have borrowed a page from the youth-and-technology-driven campaign of the first American president of African descent. The official website of General Muhammadu Buhari, for example, the candidate of the opposition CPC party, will seem eerily similar to followers of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. The site answers user questions, follows the candidate on the trail, and is generally more transparent than any Nigerian political watcher could have expected. “We were given a free hand,” says Tope Omotunde, one of the site’s designers. “We borrow brilliance when we see it.”

Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, a former anti-corruption commissioner and candidate of the ACN party, is firmly of the TED generation (and has in fact been a TED fellow). A recent email from his campaign borrowed the breathless enthusiasm—and slogan—of Obama for America. “The Time is Now,” the email read. “IT IS TIME TO STAND UP FOR NIGERIA!” Even the staffing of the Ribadu campaign recalls the kids couch surfing for Obama in 2008: “Young people have realized that sitting back at home is not going to work,” says communications director Deshola Komolafe, who quit her job to work on the campaign. “I had a nine to five job, but I’m here because I believe in this process and understand that it’s our time.”

Whether any of these candidates stand for change (Buhari, for example, was president for almost two years during Nigeria’s 20 years of military rule, and also ran for president in 2003 and 2007) is practically beside the point. What’s interesting is the extent to which candidates and citizens are embracing the informal networks that drive Nigerian society.

Reclaim Naija is another civil-society organization tracking the entire electoral process using open-source mapping software called Ushahidi—known for its birth in Kenya and applications in crises everywhere from Gaza to Haiti. The group has enlisted the texting and tweeting public, as well as some unorthodox stakeholders, from hair salon owners to the men who drive informal motorcycle taxis, or okadas. Their populist rallying cry, in pidgin English: “If you see any mago mago or wuru wuru as you dey register or vote, report to ReclaimNaija!”

“It’s the most brilliant marketing strategy I’ve ever seen,” says Linda Kamau, a Ushahidi developer who traveled from Kenya to help the Nigerian group with their deployment. The okada man carries dozens of passengers daily—a fine perch from which to tell them which number to SMS in case their ballot box sprouts wings. Kamau says irregularities reported via Reclaim Naija helped election officials decide to delay the vote scheduled for April 2. “If the platform continues like that, it may turn out to be a service delivery tool well after the election is over.”

When talking about technology and democracy, the appropriate caveat is necessary: You can’t just sprinkle the Internet on an electorate and hope for the best. But the civil-society groups—ReVoDa, Sleeves Up, Enough is Enough—are multiplying, and mounting open challenges to Nigeria’s notorious system of political patronage. They are the product of both simmering frustration and new tools to express it.

And there are signs it may be having some small effect, on the style of discourse if not its content. When President Jonathan announced his candidacy—on Facebook—within 24 hours some 4,000 Nigerians had “liked” the idea. In Internet cafes and offices and from their mobile phones, ordinary citizens wrote Jonathan to express their hopes for and frustrations with leadership in Nigeria. Nwamaka Loveline, one of the 1.2 million Nigerians registered on the site, simply wished Jonathan well: “good luck to u my president, ur name speaks for u. we all stands for u. go ahead and become our president for 2011.”