[Interview] Social Media Has Become A Powerful Political Tool In Nigeria

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Fatu Ogwuche is one of Nigeria’s brightest under 30. At such a young age she has made a name for herself as one of Africa’s leading experts in elections and election technology.

She has worked on election projects in Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Liberia and the US. During the tumultuous 2016 US Election, Fatu worked with YIAGA and Ushahidi to document the elections. She is currently crisscrossing Kenya working on the Presidential elections.

She is the creator of The Election Network, a digital journalism platform providing creative, intelligent, and data driven insight around global elections.

A Mandela Washington Fellow, Fatu was educated at Howard University, Nigerian Law School, and University of Jos.

I “sat down” with her for an interview recently where we discussed elections, how far Nigeria is ready to move to the next level of technology deployment for elections, and about her work in election technology consulting.

So tell me, as a lawyer, how did you become involved in technology, and its utilization in elections management?

I knew early on that I wasn’t going to practice law. I loved law enough to study it but not enough to practice. In 2011, Amara Nwankpa asked if I was interested in volunteering for an exciting social media project for our general elections. I said Yes! That was where my journey with elections and technology started. Elections were intriguing enough for me to want to explore as a career. I love solving complex issues and what is more complex than African elections right?

You used to be with INEC and was instrumental in setting up the INEC Citizens Contact Centre (ICCC).What role does the centre play for INEC?

The centre was conceptualized following the 2011 elections and the success of our social media project. INEC wanted to institutionalize civic engagement to enable two-way communication with Nigerians and the commission.

During the elections, we formed partnerships with Twitter and Facebook to spur participation with some innovative tools. The centre does great work in keeping Nigerians updated about INEC’s activities which is the key to managing its processes. INEC has been serious about institutionalizing communication with Nigerians since Professor Attahiru Jega took over. So the centre helped amplify the cause. My time there taught me a lot in dealing w existential issues which I’ve been able to work on with the most brilliant folks on the continent.

Going by your experience, how would you compare the election process in Nigeria with that of Ghana, Kenya, and maybe the US?

In a lot of ways, Nigeria is still playing catch up when it comes to technology and electoral reforms. Ghana and Kenya are light years ahead of us in regards to technology and inclusive elections.

I see a lot of inspiration drawn from Ghana’s electoral process in Jega and Yakubu’s work on Nigeria’s election administration. In the US, their Federal Electoral Commission gave states autonomy in administering their elections according to their cultural and political contexts. They also opened up the space for voter registration, which is a fundamental part of the electoral process. They work with credible organizations and institutions to help deal with the effort it requires to register a country with a large population. In a lot of ways, INEC tries to do it all but it simply does not have the capacity. This creates disenfranchisement and a barrage of issues that become clearer on Election Day.

Fixing some of these issues will require electoral amendments, building the confidence of the public in INEC’s abilities and timing. Timing is crucial.

Uhm…with all these problems you have stated for INEC, how ready, infrastructure and capacity wise, is Nigeria for e-Voting?

I think Nigeria could get ready. We’ve always been open to new technology, the angst manifests when it’s meant to be applied to elections. Then we develop trust issues, understandably, for good reason. We witnessed the hassle that preceded the adoption of the card readers for elections, and I believe there are processes that have to be put in place before introducing e-voting in Nigeria. I’ve seen countries that have less capacity and infrastructure than we do adopt e-voting. What INEC can begin with is getting voters to understand this new technology way before elections. Building trust and testing it out in smaller elections, by-elections, state elections, etc before attempting to pivot at scale. Off the top of my head, I will allude to electricity and internet connectivity being one of the factors that will need improvement. But those are secondary. We could make e-Voting work if we’re truly interested in seeing our electoral process get better.

We have been talking e-Voting and challenges of deploying it, but what are the benefits to us if we embrace e-Voting?

The benefits are plenty – It is convenient, It speeds up the voting process, it is cost effective, it enables easy authentication of voters, votes cast are automatically tallied without the need of human interference, it is secure, results can be released in real-time. It’s the future of elections. It also partly addresses the issue of ballot snatching/stuffing. Tallying results is done electronically and bypasses illegalities. Verification and encryption protects transmitted data from polling centers. This could also address trust issues that tend to lead to violence, especially if the technology is understood by voters.

What lessons, in your opinion, can INEC borrow from the US in terms of elections management both before and on Election Day?

Mostly how they use data to drive their decisions. In Nigeria, we practice “implementation first, ask questions later.” Their voter registration processes, and adoption of technology to create inclusive processes is essential.

Accessibility is at the core of their election administration. If you’re sick, a person-with-disability (PWD), or you just can’t get to the polls, you’re sure that your vote will be cast. In Nigeria, PWDs have to fight for the right to be included in the electoral process which is ridiculous.

In America, Their results collation process is outstanding, it’s just about impossible to rig elections. And guess how they’ve been able to achieve that? Wait for it…technology!

How effective is social media as a tool of political messaging & civic engagement in Nigeria? Is it a force in Nigerian politics?

Yes it is a force! We’ve increasingly seen tech giants like Facebook invest considerably in developing civic tools to ensure their consumers stay engaged. Data and polling firms rely on the chatter on social media to drive decisions on where candidates should focus their strengths. Cambridge Analytica and BTG Advisers are good examples of companies that spend a lot of time analyzing conversations in driving strategy.

We haven’t totally explored the power of the data churned by social media though. There are so many things that could be done with the way Nigerians use social media which transcends the way we currently interact with it. Facebook has figured out how to make it easy for people to tailor their content to consumers in achieving objectives for political messaging. This has helped with campaign engagement, thanks to their analytics tool. There are a ton of opportunities to explore with social media.

Social media is a force and will continue to be a force because of how active Nigerians are on it. However, for it to drive more impact people need to unlock how the data and chatter can be flipped to create this juggernaut that could birth a whole new way of how campaigns and politics are conducted.

As a recovering lawyer, to what extent has data gathered by situation rooms operating during elections influenced post election legal issues?

Not so much. Mostly because of the court’s disinclination in admitting electronic evidence. In cases like the recent Edo elections that was one of the shoddiest elections ever conducted, all the data (and there was a lot of it) gathered at situation rooms couldn’t do much to avert what was really a disaster. I think what could happen going forward in reforming our elections is also creating a holistic approach in determining the kinds of evidence that could be admitted at election tribunals. There is an election reform committee currently working on different aspects of elections so I can assume that things will get better.

What does it mean to be a Mandela Washington fellow and what is the vision behind your platform The Election Network (@ElectionNetwork)?

Being a Mandela Washington Fellow is prestige, its infinite possibilities, its fearlessness; it’s the courage to dream bigger than your mind can comprehend. Its Barack Obama’s fellowship so there’s a huge amount of pure excellence that comes with it. It was one of the most spiritual experiences for me; I started the fellowship not really knowing what my next steps were. But those long walks at Howard University and talking to my sisters Nangamso Koza, Naomi Ferguson, Tuduetso Madi and my brother Kenne Mwikya gave me a lot of clarity and ideas about my future, and courage to pursue my dreams. It really is the foundation for everything I’ve been able to accomplish so far; I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Creating The Election Network came out of a need for me; I was researching Turkey’s elections in 2015 and was pissed that I couldn’t find what I needed. I wondered why there wasn’t this space where you could find all things elections. So a voice in my head said “well why don’t you create one?”

I have only just scratched the surface but my vision is to expand its potential in a way that transcends just a site for election and technology. I am exploring doing more with it, I want it to become as big as I envision on the continent and ultimately across the world. The teaser will be our 2019 elections. Just you watch.

How did it feel meeting Barack Obama in person?

Asanté sana brother. It was an emotional moment for me; I was teary-eyed at some point. It was a fantastic feeling, he’s an amazing man!

In closing, the 2019 elections are close, what is your take? How do you see it playing out politically?

Honestly, I’m open to seeing what happens politically. Nigeria has no sense of direction right now so it’s difficult to predict how our elections could play out. But technology wise, I see a lot of innovative projects that will create great elections, and these projects will be replicated across Africa. I’m excited for it!

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