One thing Nigerians can agree on is that we enjoy the art of conversation. We like to talk, and talking is an important part of our political life. This is most apparent in the development of Nigeria's pluralised media landscape sporting over 100, mostly privately controlled, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio operators. But as the 'watch-dog' role of mainstream media around the world faces greater uncertainty, the rise of digital media is sparking curiosity because of what it affords societies and democracies.
In a society with memories of repression from military rule, Nigerians seem to have found an unprecedented political voice in a new digital space. Digital tools have given Nigerian citizens greater scope to wriggle out of previous power traps, and this is changing the rules of the game.
Nigeria Has Gone Digital, So What?
Like the rest of the world, Nigeria is experiencing an unprecedented digital acceleration. New ways and modes of communicating and sharing information are shrinking time, distance, and access; cue social media.
Since the early 2000s, affordable smartphones and 3G technology have flooded the Nigerian market. This has allowed a large segment of the Nigerian population (according to Gallup, mostly urban males under age 35) the opportunity to access the Internet and occupy platforms like Facebook and Twitter as extensions of themselves.
With close to 100 million people accessing the Internet by the end of 2015, Nigeria is reported to have the highest concentration of African internet users on the continent as well the 9th highest in the world. The appetite for social media was easily captured when Reuters further reported that a total of 15 million active Facebook users were Nigerian.
Media experts agree that recognising this trend helped secure President Buhari's victory. Infiltrating this new digital space paid off even though President Buhari is far from being ‘the social media president’. Nevertheless, the strategy is important because it recognises a pivot in Nigeria; digital spaces are more important now than ever before.
Doing Things Differently
Public spaces are important because they allow the free gathering of conflicting voices, interests and ideas. Digital spaces are no different. Nigeria’s Twittersphere admittedly assembles the good, the bad and the ugly. But one thing is certain; through social media, Nigerians amplify their power to elevate the issues they want in the public domain.
As a sign of the times, look no further than the powerful online reaction to Kebbi State Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah’s controversial “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith” (aka the ‘Social Media Bill’). The outcry triggered a near-immediate withdrawal and led national media to label the development a “triumph of public opinion”.
More recently, we witnessed the long-awaited publication of the 8th Senate’s budget in the 2017 Appropriation Bill, a direct result of a civil-society-led digital campaign calling for greater transparency in the National Assembly. While this campaign had strong offline elements reinforced by print media, press conferences, and other newsworthy events, online momentum reinforced offline tactics and ultimately was instrumental in its success. These examples illustrate that Nigerians are growing bolder, becoming more strategic, and increasingly resourceful in their attempts to translate public demands into actions.
Challenges for the Digital Activist
At the same time, direct communication between policy-makers and citizens is also growing via social media. Officials, or their media teams, including Dr Yemi Kale of the National Bureau of Statistics and Dr Joe Abah of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms engage with citizens by sharing data and feedback online. While some Nigerians consider it mere optics, it is clear that these platforms have created a new opportunity to interact with representatives, ask questions and receive responses.
That being said, a major challenge remains for the digital activist: how can online engagement work with traditional activism to effect change? To strengthen digital campaigns, digital methods should be creatively synergised with traditional forms of activism in order to break through the noise and be heard by decision-makers.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has since shown that when digital activism is combined with potent offline tactics, there is real action. The #BringBackOurGirls rallies were widespread, galvanised momentum for the movement both nationally and internationally, and led to its elevation as a key issue for the Executive. The mounting pressure on the Federal Government intensified negotiations, resulting in the release of 82 girls in May.
This kind of synergy is essential because it may not be enough to be ‘heard’ on social media, one must also be ‘seen’. The power of ‘optics’ is key to getting media and political attention, thus, making organised protests necessary to capture the Nigerian public – the majority of which remain offline.
Two Can Play That Game
The rise of digital activism does not mark the end of the traditional activist but instead can be better seen as a new resource in the arsenal of “We, The People”. Digital activists must continue brainstorming new ways to motivate individuals to get out of their safe spaces into public spaces where traditional forms of activism manifest.
As we see the digital materialise into the physical, we see signs of greater societal change for Nigerians. What remains unseen is how far Nigerians will go with this newfound voice in our nascent democracy. We are bound to talk, but to drive progress, we need actionable campaigns, not mere noisemaking.