Interview: ‘Gbenga Sesan speaks on the role of Social Media in Nigeria’s 2011 General Elections & more

The following interview was conducted on behalf of Global Voices Online, an international community of bloggers who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world.

Nigeria’s Golden Opportunity for a Social Revolution through the Ballot Box

Oluniyi: Thanks for agreeing to speak with Global Voices Online. Could you introduce yourself to our international audience?

My name is ‘Gbenga Sesan. My area of interest is in the appropriate use of ICTs for development and I run a social enterprise called Paradigm Initiative Nigeria. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) is a social enterprise that connects Nigerian youth with ICT-enabled opportunities.

We have observed your involvements in several non-partisan initiatives around the forth-coming 2011 General Elections in Nigeria. Why are you involved? What motivates you to be so involved?

I’m involved because I’m an angry young Nigerian who is tired of listening to the story of Nigeria’s “potential”, and one that believes that the best time to stop the nonsense, that Nigeria has been thrown into, is now! I have had the chance to see the world and I consider it a shame that with our human and resource wealth, Nigeria is not taken seriously. Rich, yet poor. With some of the best minds globally, yet unable to think. That’s why I’m involved with EiE Nigeria (EnoughisEnough Nigeria). EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) is a coalition of individuals and youth organizations committed to instituting a culture of good governance and public accountability in Nigeria through advocacy, activism and the mobilization of the youth population as responsible citizens.

An EiE Nigeria billboard in Lagos Nigeria

An EiE Nigeria billboard in Lagos Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Gbenga Sesan.

I am also motivated by the fear of tomorrow. If things can descend this low, then our children may know Nigeria only as a country that once was. From power to corruption to healthcare to poverty, Nigeria needs change.

I am also aware of the fact that Nigeria is a very young country, with a median age of 19.1 and with over 70% of its population under the age of 35. If change will come to Nigeria, it’ll probably need to benefit more from youth input, as the majority. Unfortunately, young people were the silent majority ¬†– and were totally disconnected from the future of Nigeria. That is no longer the case, thanks to technology, series of global events and some recent experiences in the Nigerian nation.

Fortunately, we are in an election year, so I think there’s no better time to begin the process of change. I know that the best time to plant a tree was actually 20 years ago but thankfully, the next best time is now. 2011 presents a unique opportunity to restart Nigeria’s national clock in terms of how governance works – moving from selected rulers who lord it over a disconnected populace that has basically lost hope and now has a responsibility of building islands of sanity (from private water supply system to power supply and more) to one where the people decide who governs based on the promise of performance and a sense of social contract.

Nigeria has an estimated population of over 150 million people. That puts the youth population (if 75%) at over 112.5 million. How does EiE Nigeria connect or intend to connect to this section of the Nigerian society?

EiE Nigeria does not live with the grand delusion that we can reach ALL young Nigerians but we are keen to (and hope we did) kick-start a national revolution by reaching out to the connected demographic – who can then pass on the urgent national assignment to others within their sphere of influence. Because of the central role played by technology in providing information and access to useful resources, we set out with the plan to reach connected young Nigerians. This includes the over 80% of Nigeria’s 44 million internet users, a major percentage of the almost 80 million with mobile phones and almost all of the 3 million Facebook users.

Of course, we didn’t stop there. We have since expanded the scope of our work to include those young people that we would normally not be able to reach through our core tools – social media channels. We have hosted Town Hall Meetings, been on radio and TV, encouraged informal discussions and we’re glad to see even the unconnected participate.

Given than EiE is relatively a new initiative, and the Nigerian youth have had a culture of indifference towards politics all this while, how much positive impact do you expect to have in the next elections?

We expect a LOT. Not because we think we’re miracle workers, but because we noticed that recent events have changed the attitude in Nigeria: from the 2007 sham elections in Nigeria, 2008 Obama election, 2009 court cases that allowed true election winners take over from erring emperors (or state governors as they preferred to be seen), 2010 national uproar surrounding the ex-president’s [Umaru Musa Yar'Adua] illness and eventual death, the promising change of guard at the Independent National Electoral Commission and the opportunity to restart the national clock through the ballot box.

Basically, we’re at a point in Nigeria’s history where collective anger is at its peak, and some of this anger has been translated into social change opportunities. We’ve seen young people join us at rallies in Abuja and Lagos, and we are excited to build on this momentum.

Again, we’re not self-conceited to assume that we’re the only youth-led group working for change. We know there are many other youth-led groups, and even those not led by youths. This, in itself shows what may be called the de-freezing of social mobility in Nigeria – borrowing from the words of an outspoken pastor in Nigeria.

We’re new, yes, but we’re made up of groups that have been at the seat of change for many years. EiE coalition members include Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, The Future Project (organizers of The Future Awards), LightUp Nigeria and many more organizations who know what it means to work for focused change. We’re basically combining forces to make 2011 a different experience and an opportunity for change in Nigeria.

How do all the initiatives you are involved with use social media/citizen media. How has the response been?

Our effort for 2011 revolves around what has now become the RSVP campaign. It’s the acronym for Register, Select, Vote and Protect. We asked young people in particular to REGISTER as voters (especially as the new INEC launched an effort to create a new Voters’ Register), and we saw some really great response. We used social media to achieve our objectives in this area. From Facebook to Twitter, we engaged youth by providing the required information, motivating them (including asking celebrities to lead registration walks), providing technical solutions to problems (we set up hotlines to address the problems encountered during the exercise) and asking youth to show off their Voters’ Cards by posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter. Other aspects – Select, Vote and Protect – continue to enjoy our social media expertise as we make information available to the electorate on the candidates standing for elective offices.

For example, we’ve used social media to work with other youth groups to plan the first youth-focused presidential debate in Nigeria. It will take place at 7pm on Friday, March 25, 2011 in Abuja; it’ll be live on Channels Television and broadcast live online on our project website – www.whataboutusnigeria.org.

For the major Vote and Protect components, we have worked with a team of volunteers to develop a mobile application called ReVoDa, that will allow each citizen to report incidents, police behaviour, INEC performance and results from their respective polling units. ReVoDa provides untrained citizens with a medium through which they can share their election experiences and it potentially turns the 87,297,789 Nigerians with mobile phones, 43,982,200 with internet access and 2,985,680 on Facebook into informal election observers. Call it crowd-sourced election monitoring, and you won’t be wrong.

So, social/citizen media is at the core of our RSVP campaign, and the response has been hugely encouraging. For example, RSVP has become so popular that it is even used in daily conversations by Nigerians (not just the young). For a popular acronym known as Rice and Stew Very Plenty to be rebranded for the elections, all starting out with our social media push, we are smiling¬† We’re also glad to note that the electoral commission now enjoys our service in the management of their social media accounts through interns that we recruited for them. basically, we have seen great feedback from young people and election stakeholders.

This does not mean that we are all excited and think we’ve reached Eldorado, but the little success inspires us to do more – because Nigeria’s need for change is critical.

The logistics of all the activities you have listed above would be a bit costly, considering Nigeria’s geography and population. How are the initiatives funded, considering “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”.

We started out by putting our money where our mouth is by using personal resources to fund our efforts but we have now received support from two international foundations (McArthur and Omidiyar) to fund our work. We can safely say that every support does NOT come with strings that can influence the objectives of the campaign, it’s actually rather been that each supporter has encouraged us to do what we planned to do – change Nigeria beginning with the 2011 opportunity.

Dapo Oyebanjo (a popular musician in Nigeria known as D’Banj) recently conducted an interview with President Goodluck Jonathan, supposedly on behalf of Nigerian youths. What is your assessment of this interview and isn’t it a way forward for the fact that Nigeria’s government is ready/open to engage the youths?

It wasn’t an interview, it was an advert by a presidential candidate who thought a music icon’s brand could help him win the youth votes.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t represent the best way to engage young people because one key factor in ‘engagement’ is that both (or more) parties get the chance to speak with each other. The President’s action actually attracted a lot of anger – at least as seen via social media platforms. It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the comments were based on the context of Mr President’s outright refusal to participate in an unscripted debate. We reached out to him and offered a platform to speak to, and respond to questions from, Nigeria’s youth but he has yet to respond or indicate willingness to honour our March 25 invitation. So far, he has declined other independent debates and has only stated he’ll join the debate to be hosted by the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria.

Do you really think social media would impact the outcome of the general elections?

It is already impacting the results. For example, it had an obvious impact on the registration exercise, and it’s clear it has had a huge impact on how people relate with candidates – especially with almost all of the presidential candidates using social media channels to reach out to young people.

The results of the 2011 elections will be tweeted, the pictures of incidents will be uploaded to Facebook and videos that can be used as evidence (just in case) will be available on Youtube.

Fair enough. Are you satisfied with the quality of the candidates offering themselves for the Office of the President?

NO. Some of them are good candidates, but a lot more are opportunists who should have worked with other candidates.

We have few who have been able to articulate the issues, offer solutions, demonstrate capacity and who I can be proud to call Mr President – and be sure he’s one who can PRESIDe over the Nigerian ENTerprise. There are, however, many more who only have their names on the list as also-rans.

Any final thoughts?

Well, this is 2011, almost 51 years after Nigeria gained independence. I believe that three forces are aligning for Nigeria’s much-needed change: Youth, Technology and Opportunity. With about 65% of registered voters reported to be below the age of 35; technology tools (like ReVoDa) and social media channels becoming more popular for social change; and a unique opportunity through the 2011 elections, change is here. This is 2011, our votes will count! This is 2011, we are restarting the national clock and working towards the emergence of a new Nigeria!

Thanks to platforms like Global Voices, we hope that more young people will join forces with us to build a Nigeria we can be proud to call home – not one we’ll be derided for being associated with.

Thanks for your time ‘Gbenga and all the very best with the endeavours.

Comments

  1. says

    Nice thoughts, Gbenga. Very well said. I think the time for indifference to what happens at the seat fo government is past. Reaching the youth “the so-called Facebook generation” through social media is a wise route.

    Thanks for conducting the interview, Niyi…

  2. says

    Well done Gbenga, Very well said. I think the time for indifference to what happens at the seat of government is past.

    Reaching the youth (the so-called Facebook generation) through social media is wise.

    Thanks for conducting the interview, Niyi…

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