By Temitayo Odeyemi and Boluwatife Ajibola
Digital technologies are recolouring mobilisation patterns and the activities of election stakeholders as Nigeria prepares for the nationwide elections in 2023. Beyond the deployment of new digital alternatives by the electoral management body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), it is important to account for fresh digital uses by political parties, candidates, and civil society actors.
In a manner that is unprecedented in Nigeria’s electoral history, there is an unbridled quest by politicians and political parties to harness multiple digital routes to framing and communicating their messaging towards garnering support in the 2023 elections. Beyond the lukewarmness that greeted party digital engagement in the period after the 2019 elections, and in contrast to traditional patterns of campaigning and mediation of party activities, the leading parties have deployed technologies as major competition tools in the build-up to the elections.
For example, findings from an NOI Polls in the countdown to the 2015 general elections revealed that television, radio, and newspapers – as traditional media – were among the top sources of information that influenced voting decisions. However, the 2023 electoral cycle presents new evidence of a deeper embrace of digital platforms, such as social media, e-campaign documents, and mobile Apps for their mobilisation enterprises.
This practice somewhat contradicts the pre-existing stance of the government in power and some politicians who have, at different junctures, made efforts to discredit digitally-mediated mobilisations, particularly in the realms of social media messaging and online crowdfunding for protest purposes. This emerged in Nigeria’s 2020 #EndSARS protests when Nigerians took to digital activism or clicktivism as they protested police brutality. This manifested in the use of digital infrastructure and products (internet, mobile phones, and social media among others) to galvanise collective action in canvassing for change.
It can be argued that the emergence of digital creatives (online content creators, graphic artists, and tech developers) and prominent digital tools (discussed below) at the forefront of campaigns in this election cycle cannot be divorced from a schema of the digital revolution that the #EndSARS movement kindled; the #EndSARS movement had also been built on the increasing use of digital technologies by actors in the polity.
The digital appeal that Nigeria experiences in the lead-up to the election has manifested in interesting ways. For one, many political parties have created websites for their frontline candidates and use social media to direct traffic to those websites. Some of the websites feature the profiles of the presidential flagbearers, latest news and announcements, list of needed campaign materials, calls for donations, contact details, Twitter feeds, some INEC publications, campaign articles, live chat functions, and copies of manifesto, among others.
Aside from websites, mobile Apps have also been developed for dedicated purposes. For example, a group of Labour Party (LP) loyalists developed the Structure Media App to aid digital networking for support groups, interest groups, and organisations interested in supporting the party. The All Progressives Congress (APC) party launched a Chart App to drive their nationwide campaign, particularly at grassroot levels. An organisation named Exalt Nigeria was also reported to have launched an App called The OBIDATTIWINS App to mobilise support for the LP candidate.
In addition, some civil society organisations (CSOs) have embraced new digital options to contribute to a free and fair election. Rise Networks, a data science and AI company, launched the Run-Am App to help combat fake news and the spread of misinformation during the election period. Open Cities Lab also developed a tool called My Candidate Nigeria to help voters identify candidates vying for elective positions based on their GPS location.
In an unprecedented manner, well-designed and visually appealing manifestos have been published by parties and widely circulated on social media. The published manifestoes provide discussion points to netizens as they leverage social media to compare the agenda of the parties and assign political points to each. Social media has uniquely provided publicity to the manifestos of candidates of the leading political parties – African Action Congress, APC, LP, New Nigeria People’s Party, People’s Democratic Party – consequently granting more visibility to their governance agenda, as opposed to previous election cycles. It has also enabled key civic actors to review the manifestoes for public use. It is worth mentioning that the diffusion of technologies for this election has had grave economic implications for some markets. For example, the hard print industry has been reported to lose out on campaign spending of political parties as ad campaigns pivot online.
A second element of the new digital environment is the ability for new crowdfunding sources as political parties deploy new e-fundraising approaches. Social media platforms have been used to promote crowdfunding channels and to circulate party bank account details. Nigerians in the diaspora also mobilised to donate funds for their preferred candidates. For example, it was reported that Nigerians in the diaspora moved to crowdfund US$150m (₦ 100bn) for LP candidate, Peter Obi’s campaign. This however generated controversy as Section 225 of the Constitution and Section 85 of the Electoral Act forbids funds mobilisation from outside the country by political parties, a provision that INEC has reiterated.
A third aspect is aerial views provided by drones, which have proven to not only supply Nigerians with captivating visuals of political rallies and the crowds that each political party are able to mobilise, but it has also provided parties with images, as tools, with which they discredit one another’s political agendas. While certain angled pictures can give an impression of a massively crowded scene, drone images can tell a totally different story about what is claimed to be a crowd. The melodramas between political parties aided by these images have been an interesting feature. This goes to show the kinds of soft power that is mobilised during contemporary elections, particularly through visuals and music.
In a country with growing evidence of a digital divide, or what some researchers refer to as digital inequality, it is interesting to see how political parties navigate between the online and offline worlds, and creatively appropriate traditional and digital tools, to engage publics as they compete and seek electoral conquests. More broadly, in a year during which about 17 African countries are scheduled to hold elections, it is expected that at varying degrees, the rhythms of electoral engagement will draw some imperatives from Nigeria’s experience, particularly regarding the use and misuse of technologies.
Crucially, the government and CSOs should devote more efforts to sensitising people about false information and its associated potential harm. Unscrupulous elements who spread false information, incite violent tendencies online, or contravene human rights laws through digital uses should all be held to account. Now more than ever, also, is a need for more responsible platform governance by technology companies, who should be more deliberate about how their products are used than their number of users.
Temitayo Odeyemi teaches Political Science at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. He is also a doctoral researcher in Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. His research has covered different aspects of political mobilisation and democratic engagement, including the use of digital technologies by governance actors such as national and subnational legislatures, political parties, police authorities, and electoral stakeholders.
Boluwatife Ajibola works as a Research Manager at the University of Leeds, UK. His research interest lies at the intersection of social movements, ICTs and democratic studies. He previously studied for a degree in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies at the London School of Economics – which informs his research and writings on social movements-induced social emergencies.
This blog is the first of two parts and was originally published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs here. This blog was republished under a Creative Commons Licence.