#OccupyNigeria: iVotism App and the New Digital Activism

0

Richard Ali

A few years ago, I was in one of the centres of the #OccupyNigeria protests. The Goodluck Jonathan administration had increased the pump price of petrol, purportedly to remove a subsidy, and the country went up in arms. With Gimba Kakanda, I set up a Facebook group called ‘Nationwide Anti Fuel Subsidy Removal Protests’ as a sort of clearing house for the revolution. Young and committed activists of that heady period. I remember, in particular, Gloria Sevezun Agbaosi, Jeff Unegbu and well over 40,000 others. This was in 2010 and what we tried to do was to harness the internet and technology for activism. Organised labour and the Nigerian tendency to mediocrity betrayed #OccupyNigeria. I am writing now because I am glad to see that others, such as the team behind the iVotism Android app, have continued to refine that old experiment.

To my mind, the central issue of #OccupyNigeria was the need for participatory democracy—away from the trappings of democracy such as a suitable constitution, routine elections and the separation of powers. In the early hours after the announcement of the fuel price hike, there was a feeling that not only had I been robbed of half the value of my little savings as a result of an inevitable skyrocketing of prices, there was a feeling of not being listened to, paid any attention, heard. Hundreds of thousands of young people also shared this feeling. In deciding how to get heard, our options were limited to the only tools we knew—public demonstrations, disruptive behaviour, marches and sit-outs—learned from the students union and labour protests of the earlier generation. The strength of #OccuyNigeria lay in its attempt to articulate a broad-based rejection of the government’s indifference to young people and our economic issues. The weakness of #OccupyNigeria was its broadly dispersed members across geography and temperament united only by angst and internet connections. It proved difficult to marshal and make coherent. By the time the labour unions betrayed our concerns, #OccupyNigeria itself had lost steam and devolved into posing and the staged making of bonafides. The iVotism app has learned from this, made the most of our strengths and tried to address the weaknesses of that movement.

Developed as an Android app by Engineer Mande Kira and his team, iVotism aims to be a decision helper and perceptions aggregator. Its stated purpose is to help Nigeria’s electorate decide who is worthy of re-election and who is not by virtue of the collective ratings of millions of users. In doing this, the app situates itself in the very centre of social activism by being the digital pulse of very real people. A recent article in the technology blog TechPoint.ng puts NCC figures of connected mobile phones at 236 million lines. Adjusted by the matrix of each Nigerian having an average of three lines, all connected to the internet, the actual number of mobile phones users is just shy of 80 million lines. Further adjustments to factor in the prevalence of cheap Chinese and Asian made smartphones are needed to find a “real” connected population of perhaps 40 million. INEC figures provide the total registered number of voters for the 2015 elections to be 67 million people, the actual voters on Election Day was 29 million persons. The deciding margin, which saw the APC’s Muhammadu Buhari win the presidency was a mere 2.5 million votes.

The Ivotism Android app platform is designed as a compact model such that users can access the profiles of leaders that matter to them only and there rate and discuss the activities of these officials that affect or interest them, from the president down to the lowest elected local government official. The implication for young politicians and activists is obvious. With such scientific feedback, politicians and activists can streamline discussions and get feedback from their constituencies, the people that they are serving or intend to serve. It also helps the electorates to hear directly from their locality the developmental progress of their leaders. The app is thus able to scale the digital into the local at the level of issues and strategies.

Being a real-time data analysis and data collection point also allows the evaluation of policy implementation and can be a guide to strategy planning. Relying on this, envelope approaches to the important issues of policy and strategy in our public and civil service becomes untenable. What we tried to do on the street in 2010 was to put the pressure on the government. I think iVotism, speaking the digital language of its own time, does the same thing, and more comprehensively than Gimba and other chums of mine could have imagined. From comprehensive data to coherent interpretation is a simple step and there are enough opinion makers to animate this process.

While I give my full support to the iVotism app and urge everyone to go and download it from the Google Android Play Store, I cannot help thinking of the challenges it will face. It has tried to surmount the limitations of social activism past, such as those the #OcccupyNigeria laid bare, but how will it deal with the elitism and provincialism? In the years since #OccupyNIgeria, the country has grown two gulfs. On the one hand is the economic gulf in which elite persons feel no relationship at all with the people responsible for their own being elite. This elite is a shape shifting one, defined by various levels of economic ability, or education, or access, banded together by an indifference for anything society-wide and broad-based. I do not know whether it is a consequence of elitism or parallel to it but another gulf, of provincialism, has become more entrenched since 2010. I will explain. We have a social space today that ranges in the concentration of toxicity, where average people are quite perfectly willing to adopt closed mind-sets according to religious persuasion, ethnic affiliation, fictions of identity and more, exclusively. Obliterated from individual consciousness is the basic idea of audialterempartem, couched correctly by folk as “there are two sides to a story”. My coming of age was in a different world, not so long ago but unrecognizable now, in which one always considered alternative and competing viewpoints—as a way to appraise ones position and to clarify it in a beneficial way. This was the late 90’s and I do not know how the iVotism app will deal with these two gulfs.

Nonetheless, the process of speaking to one’s age is endless, and each must do what he can. I did my bit and will continue to do so. Mande Kira and his team are doing so now with their iVotism Android app and it is the right thing to do. Therefore, I tilt my candle flame into his, and others, in the hope that there may be enough light for the darkness yet.

.Ali is an Abuja-based lawyer, novelist and poet