It was always going to be a make-or-break election for Nigeria. Months before the presidential poll finally took place on 28 March, commentators expressed fears of vote rigging, widespread violence, intimidation and terror attacks from Boko Haram. However, the elections and the victory of All Progressives Congress leader, Muhammadu Buhari – who beat the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan by just over 15.4 million votes against 12.8 million – went smoother than many had predicted.
Online monitoring tools and the massive-scale use of social media made this one of the most exciting elections in the country’s history. Despite hiccups, technology did not let Nigerians down in the process of electronic voting and tallying the scores.
Every step of the process was captured by media and sent around the world. It is even possible to listen to the outgoing president congratulating his rival over the phone. The BBC dubbed it 'the phone call that changed Nigeria'– and it is online for all to hear.
Long before the voting, civil society groups mobilised to ensure debate and to improve the quality of the electoral process. The Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, for example, brought together 60 civic organisations that monitored the campaign and the voting process, and posted warnings of transgressions on its website.
The elections also showed that online activity could increasingly ensure transparent polls
On the Monday and Tuesday following the Saturday poll, Twitter updates showed the results in real time with impressive maps and pie charts. Many observers were glued to the website of the Nigeria Elections Coalition – a virtual network comprising numerous civil society organisations. As the votes were counted in what became the closest presidential race in Nigeria’s history, journalists like the New African’s James Schneider became famous overnight for diligently tweeting the results from Nigeria’s 36 states to tens of thousands of followers around the world.
The Nigerian elections clearly showed how online activity could increasingly ensure transparent voting. But to what extent can this kind of online communication change the face of elections elsewhere on the continent? Clearly, African countries have come a long way since the dark days when soldiers transported stuffed ballot boxes from upcountry to the capital city, where votes were counted behind closed doors with opposition ballot papers often ending up in a river or the rubbish bin. While there are still countries where the incumbent dubiously wins over 90% of the electorate’s votes, those days are numbered. And technology has a lot to do with it.
Associate Professor Alex Thurston from Georgetown University’s African Studies Programme has compared Buhari’s win, after three unsuccessful presidential attempts, to the historic victory of Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal in 2000. ‘The message to other African opposition leaders seems clear: you have to build support over multiple elections and outlast the ruling party until popular discontent leaves the incumbents no choice but to bow to the will of the voters,’ writes Thurston on his blog.
This is not the first time Nigerians experienced the power of hashtags on issues of national importance
Those elections of 2000 saw Wade ousting Socialist Party incumbent, Abdou Diouf, after 40 years of rule in Senegal, and on Wade’s fifth attempt. The elections were also memorable, however, for being one of the first occasions in Africa where vote-rigging was limited thanks to the use of mobile phones and independent radio stations. Where votes would previously disappear on route to the final counting station, individuals with mobile phones could now call radio stations from whichever remote areas they were in and relay the scores. The nation was able to follow these scores as they came in, which made rigging more difficult and ensured Wade’s historic victory.
Twitter has now taken over this role, in a sense, especially with the live analysis of results. Weeks before the vote, Twitter pundits had already coined the hashtag #NigeriaDecides, which then became #NigeriaHasDecided. But there was also #NigeriaDecidesVeryVeryslowly, #LagosDecides and #LagosNotNigeria.
Following the election, a flood of Twitter users are now dishing out advice for Buhari using the hashtags #BabaNowThatYouAreThere and #BabaWhileYouWereGone. Appeals to the president-elect range from enforcing traffic laws to ensuring that everyone in the country gets fuel and is able to go to school. For Jonathan (dubbed GEJ for short) there is now the hashtag #BackToOtuoke – referring to his home village.
This is not the first time Nigerians have experienced the power of hashtags on issues of national importance. Following the kidnapping of over 200 girls in Chibok by Boko Haram in April last year, civil society activists started the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, urging the government to do more to find the girls. The campaign was a success on Twitter and rallied support from around the world. Many believe this was a turning point for the government and the world to wake up to the reality of the threat posed by Boko Haram.
Pragmatism prevailed, and in many cases the verification happened manually
Lively activity on social media also has a downside, however, with rumours of violence, cheating and slandering of opponents being rife on Twitter. This is almost impossible to control, but data-gathering software like Ushahidi, developed in Kenya, can serve to provide early warning of potential election violence.
Civil society campaigner Adeola Oyinlade, the Commonwealth Youth Council’s ambassador for its youth campaign against election violence, says Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also used to do vital pre-election training and to pick up fraud. This was done, for example, by posting pictures of obviously under-aged voters on social media. ‘The effectiveness [of social media] comes from the relative ease of access, the anonymity it can confer on participants, relative speed of dissemination and the general prevalence of feature phones,’ he writes in a blog.
The 2015 election was also the first time that Nigeria used electronic voting. Initially, there was great concern that these devices would not work and exclude thousands of people whose fingerprints didn’t show up to match their voter cards. The scepticism grew when even Jonathan could not initially vote due to this problem. However, pragmatism prevailed and in many cases the verification happened manually. The overall opinion is now that the electronic voting prevented fraud to a large extent.
Voting for Nigerians is not over yet. This past weekend, elections were held for state governors and officials. More online activity is guaranteed.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant