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Smartphones Galvanized Nigeria’s Younger Voters

FILE - After voting in at a local Islamic school, a Nigerian women consults her smartphone, March 28, 2015.

Of the more than 175 million people who live in Nigeria, 70 percent of them are young. And among those millions are more than 125 million mobile phone subscribers, the largest such market in Africa.

So, as Nigeria turned to a crucial national election last month, a group of political activists selected a smartphone application might galvanize a few million of those citizens and guarantee a free and fair election in a nation not known for its transparency.

Yemi Adamolekun is one of those who tapped that demographic with technology. Dressed in T-shirt and a trousers of Ankara fabric, Adamolekun walked briskly into Terra Kulture, a bookstore located in the high-brow area in Lagos State. Her simple clothing style and a natural hairdo underscore her no-nonsense approach to national affairs.

Adamolekun is the executive director of Enough-Is-Enough Nigeria, a non-governmental organization promoting good governance and accountability in the country. The organization is known for the role it played in mobilizing Nigeria protests for a change in government in 2009 when President Umaru Yar’adua was ill.

The mass protest attracted global attention and intervention. When Yar’adua died, the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, was appointed to replace him.

From those beginnings six years ago, Enough-Is-Enough in 2011 launched Revoda, a smartphone application that allows citizens to send first-hand reports about election activities in their neighborhood. Revoda is focused on empowering Nigeria citizens.

Adamolekun thinks good politicians need to encourage the use of the organization’s app. “A candidate that wants to win free and fair should encourage citizens to use Revoda,” she said.

How an elections app was born

Revoda is open app, a neutral platform that Adamolekun thinks can empower citizens to become election observers. Every voter’s card has a series of numbers that identifies the holder’s state, local government, ward and specific polling unit. Voters who download the app on their smartphones are able to report their election-day experience from their polling units.

“You don’t need to tell us where you are. So it is really a simple app. It allows you to tell us what particular location your are reporting from, if materials arrived on time, if the police were helpful or not, if there was any violence at your polling unit, if the counting was done the way it should be done and a text box that you could put in results,” Adamolekun said.

With young people making up over 70 percent of Nigeria’s 177 million population, Ademolekun was optimistic of high usage of the app in this year’s voting.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest mobile market with more than 125 million subscribers, according to statistics released by the Nigerian Communications Commission. Nigeria also ranks the eighth in the world with high Internet users. As citizens become more technology savvy, they are discovering how to foster citizen participation in electoral matters.

When Revoda was first created, users could only report election incidence from one polling unit.

“The big thing that has happened since 2011 is that INEC doesn’t report results at the polling unit level. They start at the local government and then aggregate upward. By the time you realize that the local government result don’t add up, you don’t know where it happened,” said Adamolekun.

But Revoda makes it easier to track those local results.

In addition to text reporting, users were encouraged to send photographs of activities in their polling units.

“We wanted to do photographs and videos but due to bandwidth issues, we decided not to worry too much. But photographs would allow users take a snapshot of results at polling units level,” she said.

The electoral act in Nigeria makes it impossible for ordinary citizens to declare a winner or announce result until The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had done so. However, Revoda being a citizen-generated platform allows users send statistics of the voter’s turnout at the different polling units.

Revoda was created over a weekend in March, three weeks before the April, 2011 election and launched without much publicity or funding. They also had very little cooperation from telecommunications companies and none were willing to give free SMS.

INEC maximized technology

Nigeria’s INEC is also active in the use of social media and technology to conduct successful elections and foster citizen participation.

INEC Lagos says a lot has been achieved through use of technology, according to Seye Sorinyan, the head of information technology in the voter’s registry department.

“We are using what is called Direct Data Capture Machine, which was what we used in that last general election in 2011. We recorded quite a huge success. This time around, we are working to doing something that is better,” she said.

Late last year INEC’s residential electoral commissioner, Dr. Adekunle Ogunmola, said, “We knew during the 2011 elections there were some irregularities. This led to the innovation of Permanent Voters’ Card to make it difficult for people to impersonate or make use of other people’s card to vote.”

Ogunmola said, “We are using technology to a certain extent, getting people engaged, getting people involved in our various activities. For example, with regards to the registration of voters, we developed a system where people can access database is on our website and confirm their registration status.”

During 2011 elections, INEC only customized ballot papers on state-by-state basis. This year, they customized them for each voting ward to make it difficult for people to move ballot papers from one spot to the other.

INEC has improved on training their officers to ensure some of the mistakes that were made in 2011 elections, which resulted in a mass loss of data of electorates, are not repeated.

“This time we make sure every machine deployed are properly backed up. Officials have been trained to backup information on external drive in case anything goes wrong with the DDC during use,” Sorinyan said.

“We also made sure the temporary voters card was printed out on time and handed over to the owner to reduce backlog of data,” she said.

She added, “The ICT has a support team, which is a team of system analysts and system engineers that work with officials on the field to provide timely support during elections.”

App developer Seun Akinfolarin says he has developed about five election-related apps between 2011 and 2014.

“Some of them are mash-up of websites that have apps to support some functionalities,” he said.

Like Revoda, Akinfolarin says the number of users of these apps cannot be measured by the number of downloads it receives.

“Downloads might not be indicator of how well people use the platform because users are also active on social media channels for maximum engagement,” he said.

Tech may disrupt the political status quo

In spite of his active participation in fostering citizen participation in elections through the use of technology, Akinfolarin says there is still high rate of apathy among the populace, including government leaders.

“I think things are a bit worse now,” he said. “It seems the leadership is not interested. You can’t move them by protests and online activism. It is not very good for the elections because we need the voice of the people and overwhelming support to show the direction Nigerians want to go.”

Beyond technology and social media activism, Akinfolarin says he hopes to see more of on-ground activism.

Ceaser Keluro, another technology enthusiast, said hopes to see “more issue-based election debates than focusing on personalities of politicians.”

“I will like to encourage candidates to take advantage of apps. It is a huge opportunity for them to access the young population,” he added.

The 2015 elections might have just paved the way for more disruptive development of apps that will re-define governance and foster citizens participation in Nigeria.

Addressing the apathy that sometimes discourages full citizen participation, Akinfolarin said, “You can’t be tired for a country as beautiful as Nigeria because opportunities are there. But the problem is we need to change the attitude to the government through the elections.

“Once the government understands the power is still with the people, they will change. The time is now to save Nigeria, through the elections,” Akinfolarin said.