Nigeria’s First Facebook Election
From Flickr User urbancn
Nigerians head to the polls today to complete a month long series of legislative, presidential, and gubernatorial elections. Already, international and domestic election observers have, for the first time since the end of military rule in 1998, signed off on Nigeria’s presidential elections, declaring them free, fair, and credible, albeit with irregularities. The elections have also marked the first time that new forms of connectivity—social media, mobile phones, and digital cameras—have given Nigerians opportunities to act as citizen observers, documenting and reporting on the electoral process. Led by civil society organizations like Enough is Enough (EIE) and ReclaimNaija, citizen observers reported a huge body of electoral observations via SMS, smart phone applications, and digital cameras, previously unavailable, and distributed widely on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter.
Their impact has been threefold—contributing documentation to Nigeria’s electoral record, empowering Nigeria’s connected youth to participate in the democratic process, and building capacity around technologies that are increasing becoming indispensable tools for securing democracy globally.
Beyond outreach and voter education, Nigeria’s civil society groups created the necessary technological platforms to channel these new streams of information. ReclaimNaija.net set up an election incident reporting system built on the Ushahidi platform that allows Nigerians to text in incidents, which are then plotted on an interactive map. Between the April 9 national assembly elections and the April 16 presidential elections (as well as the aborted April 2 election), citizen observers submitted six thousand incident reports.
Enough is Enough built a mobile phone application, Revoda, that interfaces with a similar electoral mapping platform. Revoda standardizes reports, makes it easier to code and quantify data, and improves accountability by requiring users to register the application. EIE reports that users have downloaded Revoda over seven thousand times and submitted over five hundred reports. Informed by its citizen observers’ findings, Enough is Enough released its own statement on the election, commending both voters and INEC but warning that improvements need to be made to address the myriad of irregularities.
Both groups received reports that largely reflected the logistical failures and incidents of electoral rigging that accredited international and domestic observers also documented. These included reports of ballot box stuffing, intimidation, bribery, and violence, as well as missing materials and absent INEC staff. In one instance, a video featuring an individual in a polling booth thumb printing a stack of ballots was posted to the web-based Sahara Reporters (which also relies heavily on citizen journalism for its content).
However, the impact of citizen observers should not be overstated and suffers from the same challenges that formal election observing faces. Reporting remained limited mostly to the large cities, particularly Abuja and Lagos. In the countryside, where both formal and informal observers were scarcer and access to technology is more limited, significant irregularities occurred with little scrutiny. Further, the complicated vote collation process, where results are physically carried (as opposed to transmitted electronically) from village to ward to local government to state, remained vulnerable to manipulation and extremely difficult to monitor, despite the added capacity of citizen observers.
Observations gleaned from citizen reporters may also suffer issues of credibility and accountability. Unlike formal domestic and international observers, citizen reporters are not registered with INEC nor are they bound by an official code of conduct. Submitting via SMS also allows a level of anonymity that makes it difficult to verify reports.
Nevertheless, Nigeria’s first Facebook election, which began when Goodluck Jonathan declared his presidency on the social networking site, will likely continue to feel the impact of new communication and information management technologies. While social media and mobile phones may not be the panacea for Nigeria’s past election woes, they are powerful tools to encourage civic engagement, improve transparency, and document and disseminate irregularities.