By Olusegun Abolaji Ogundeji
The dozens of deaths that marred the recent Nigerian elections would be considered shocking by the standards of most developed nations. Compared to past elections, however, the violence this time around was limited, and many observers say social media and technology such as biometric card readers played a big role in minimizing conflict.
Online services are credited with keeping people informed during the runup to the elections, promoting the feeling they could communicate and express their views without resorting to violence, and other technology helped to ensure cheating would be kept to a minimum. Nigeria’s experience suggests that tech can play a role in reducing election-related violence in other countries.
The presidential and parliamentary elections were the most peaceful in Nigeria since the nation embraced democracy in 1999. The winner of the presidential election, former military leader Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, will officially take over from incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, of the People’s Democratic Party, at the end of May. It’s the first time a sitting Nigerian president has lost a bid for re-election.
“I do believe that the capacity for social media to connect and inform helped Nigeria conduct a free and fair election and helped to keep violence to a minimum,” said Michael Best, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, via email. With Thomas Smyth from Sassafras Tech Collective, a worker-owned tech co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Best published a qualitative dual case study, “Tweet to Trust: Social Media and Elections in West Africa,” about social media use during the general elections in Nigeria and Liberia in 2011.
Nigeria, in West Africa, is the continent’s most populous nation and has 82 million users of GSM-based mobile phones. A recent Mobile Africa 2015 study conducted in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, and South Africa by GeoPoll and World Wide Worx indicates that Internet access via phones is on the rise in Africa, especially for Facebook use, which stands out as the most common phone activity among the countries surveyed.
While Facebook was the most visible platform for sharing views and information during the Nigerian electoral season, several election-related Twitter handles were created, including hashtags like #NigeriaDecides, which later became #NigeriaHasDecided.
Google, meanwhile, created a site as a one-stop resource, containing voting information and news relating to the elections, offering content including videos and other digital media for view on desktops, tablets and mobile phones.
Elections in Africa have always been tumultuous. Almost a thousand people died in the post-election period after Nigeria’s last general elections in 2011; about 3,000 people died in the Ivory Coast elections in 2010, for which its former president is still on trial; and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is answering to charges involving the 2007 post-election crisis during which hundreds died.
This year, while the election-related death toll in Nigeria was nowhere near that of four years ago, the country was far from tranquil during election season. Violence caused the government to postpone the presidential election from February to March 28. Elections for senators and representatives were held two weeks later.
The National Human Rights Commission reported that in February it had “received reports of and documented over 60 separate incidents of election-related violence from 22 states spread across the six geo-political zones of Nigeria, resulting in which 58 persons have so far been killed and many more injured.” In addition, various reports at the time put the death toll due to attacks by radical Islamic group Boko Haram at 39, though there was no direct link to the elections.
There have not been official reports on election-related death since March, though the All Progressives Congress (APC) claimed earlier this month that 55 of its members had been killed in election violence before the Rivers state governorship election.
There is a limit to what can be achieved through social media and other technology, observers acknowledge.
“Of course, these technologies are not silver bullets nor do they always contribute to positive elements within a democracy, noted Georgia Tech’s Best. But during the recent Nigerian elections, “our experience monitoring social media over our media aggregation platform, named ‘Aggie,’ demonstrated the power of these technologies can be used for good.”
Other experts agree. Through social media and mobile phone usage, a “new type of engagement and advocacy became possible in Nigeria,” said Adeola Oyinlade, a Nigerian lawyer and human rights expert.
Very practical information was shared via social media, Oyinlade noted. For example, card readers were provided by Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to read identity cards issued to ensure, among other things, that people could not vote under assumed names. Some people had trouble scanning their cards in the readers, and learned through social media that a seal on the cards had to be removed so they could be read properly, Oyinlade said.
Such use of technology augurs well for other countries as well, Oyinlade said.
“People from African countries going to polls this year can ride upon innovative mobile technological advancement and the efficacy of social media to launch a bottom-up popularization of political participation among people and expand the frontiers of democracy,” Oyinlade said.
African countries holding elections later this year include West African nations Benin, the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Burkina Faso. To be effective, however, technology needs to be coupled with government policies promoting the flow of information, observers point out.
In the Nigerian elections, “I do believe that the use of technology played a major role and will continue to do so,” said Nnenna Nwakanma, Africa regional coordinator of the World Wide Web Foundation, which promotes affordable and uncensored access to the Internet. “However, for information to openly flow, there are policy underpinnings. Nigeria as a country has a FOI (Freedom of Information Act) and INEC practiced open data. In the case of other West African countries, these policy framings are missing and we may be hoping too much in expecting a Nigerian scenario.”
Nigeria itself may continue to develop technology to promote peaceful elections. The Nigerian Society of Engineers, for example, has called for the deployment of electronic voting systems using software developed locally by NigComSat, the country’s satellite communications agency.
Electronic voting systems, however, are not a panacea, Georgia Tech’s Best noted.
“Electronic voting systems can be beneficial if correctly designed and deployed but too often they are actually detrimental due to lack of smart engineering and weak deployments,” Best said. “Across many parts of the United States, for instance, badly designed e-voting machines have actually reduced the transparency and accountability of that nation’s elections,” Best noted. Critics of voting machines in the U.S. blasted the lack voter-verified paper audit trail in various electronic systems.
Technology can not be expected to resolve all election-related problems, for any country. Nigeria’s experience over the last few months, though, shows that social media and other technology can help light the way toward a more peaceful, democratic future for developing nations.