The writings of an intense journalist

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

By Adetokunbo Abiola
In 1999, when Donald Duke contested for the governorship position of Cross Rivers State, he didn’t make use of the internet as a tool to campaign. According to a source, he used the traditional media of the typical Nigerian politician: taking advert slots on television, radio, and newspapers; pontificating on the soap box; and taking part in rallies organized in most of the towns and villages in the state.

In 2007, when the same man wanted to contest as president of the federation, things had changed. As in 1999, this reporter learnt, he took adverts in the traditional media of television, radio, and newspapers. He also mounted the soap box and took part in political rallies. But he added another medium to spread his ideas. He went to the internet to develop a website and a blog to enhance his campaign rhetoric and to hold intellectual debate with selected voters.
Welcome to the world of the internet and the 2007 elections. As stories about that election continue to unfold, this reporter’s findings show that the resources of the internet played a role in the conduct of the campaigns, public discussions, and debates by candidates, voters, public commentators, and other stakeholders.

The conduct of elections in the country has changed as thousands of Nigerians search for good governance, transparency, and accountability in order to ensure the political development of the nation.
In the last poll, according to researchers, many who were internet-use inclined expressed their ideas through blogs. Those who did not use blogs used websites to campaign and to debate on national affairs as pertinent to the polls. Those who did not use websites or blogs contributed through list serves. Ndansanjo Macha, writing on Global Voices Online, said: "Nigerians used the internet to state what was taking place during the campaigns and on the election day."

Nigerians, this reporter gathered, did not previously make use of the internet and other information communication technology (ICT) resources to participate in an election. Experts say it became an option when the nation experienced a dramatic increase in the number of those who accessed the internet as a tool between 1996 and 2007. According to researchers at Open Net Initiative (ONI): "The number of internet users grew from under 10,000 to 1.7 million."
In the last elections, say researchers and bloggers, Nigerians from different strata of the society used the internet as a tool for advocacy and campaign. One form through which it was used, this reporter gathered, was through the platform of blogs. Macha stated: "Blogs that were covering the Nigerian election are African Spritis, Grandiose Parlor, Black Looks, Yomi Says, One Notes, True Days, Chxta, Naija Blog, The World According to Adaure, Olumiyi David Ajao…"

Findings by this reporter show that another set of internet users during the election campaigns were politicians seeking public office. Investigation reveal that candidates such as Donald Duke, Olusegun Mimiko, Pat Utomi, and others belong to this category. Further findings by this reporter also show that civil society groups such as the Freedom of Information (FOI) Coalition, Zero Corruption Coalition, Krazitivity , Naija IT Professionals, and others fall into the latter group.

The result of this change in political behavior, this reporter learnt, was that international attention was focused on Nigerian bloggers and researchers. Bill, author of a blog called ‘Jewel in the Jungle’, said: "I cannot think of any group of people from an African country that have been more influential and active in the blogosphere in the past three to four years than the Nigerian blog authors and their readers worldwide. There’re many good online authors who hail from Nigerian and write extensively about Nigeria." While investigating this story, a number of blogs authored by Nigerians were seen on different web pages, as well as comments made by Nigerians on them. Along with these were blogs authored by candidates seeking office; some of them had websites as well, while those without both used list serves. Many of the blogs, such as Nigerian Election Hotline, were specifically developed to publish stories on the 2007 poll that might not reach Nigerians. According to its home page, "Nigerian Election Hotline is an effort to publish stories on the 2007 poll that might not otherwise reach the reading public." Nigerian internet users who did not use the above media , this reporter noted, used wikis, podcasts, and other social networking tools.

The manner Nigerians used the internet, researchers say, were many and diverse. "Apart from providing socio-political content and writing critical commentaries and analysis, local bloggers shared their experiences and stories as bloggers," said Macha. Along with sharing experiences about the campaign, he said, Nigerians also published videos, audios, and text to illustrate their debates and discussions. "Greenlight Nigeria publishes audio, video, and text from contributors on the ground," said Macha. "It also used Eroca to allow readers to leave text contents." Macha said that apart from vocal Nigerians, candidates were also involved in the phenomenon. "As a communication strategy, Olusegun Mimiko, a governorship candidate in Ondo State, started a blog," he said. "The blog contained campaign photos, and election reports." Apart from him, Macha said, Donald Duke started a website as well as authored a blog. "Before he pulled out of the PDP Presidential primaries," said Macha, "Donald Duke started a website as well as a blog."

Investigation reveal that list serves were used as well to conduct discussions, debates, and campaigns. A source said that before Pat Utomi, the presidential candidate of African Democratic Congress, came to the public to announce his presidential ambition, he sounded out the minds of the members of the FOI list serve. "We have to get out of our comfort zone," he was reported to have said.

Findings also show that while the campaign was on, ordinary Nigerians were busy holding discussions, debates, and analysis on the campaign and the candidates jostling for public office. Along with the list serves, researchers say, groups such as the Stakeholders Democratic Network, sprang up and used the internet to comment on the campaign. According to its author, the group was formed to "to use several network tools and the power of the web to get the people talking about the elections and democracy in Nigeria." The Nigerian Election Hotline, this reporter gathered, also strove to make sure that Nigerians had access to information to enable informed choices to be made during the campaigns. It stated in its home page that the initiative is "an effort to make sure that Nigerian voters have access to the information they need to make informed choices at the polls."

Though it may be an overstatement to say that the use of the internet by Nigerians during the 2007 election campaign significantly influenced the course of events, there is no doubt that the trend made an impact. Researchers say that the blogs added new voices and perspective to the elections. Macha said: "Considering the election related posts and comments in the Nigerian blogosphere, it is safe to say that Nigerian blogs added new voices and perspectives in election coverage in Africa."

Internet use, this reporter was informed, also created greater awareness about issues that defined the campaign. Researchers say the awareness creation through the use of audio, and video testimony on the blogs and websites were inspiring. Said Tobias Engen, a blogger: "Greenlight has been inspiring by monitoring with audio and video testimony posted just about daily."

The campaign coverage on the internet also enabled opinion to be formed about the issue of transparency in the exercise. According to researchers, this was brought about through first-hand account of the elections. Experts at Open Net Initiative (ONI) stated: "Nigerian bloggers are overwhelmingly affluent and urban, and are hardly a representative population. Nevertheless, they offer important first-hand account of the election."
The use of the web also brought to the fore fundamental questions about accountability, transparency, and good governance. This reporter observed that Nigerians on the list serves posted comments pertaining to these concerns. Political experts say this is a continuation of a trend which may lead to the political development of the country in the long run.

Generally, experts, researchers, bloggers, and readers alike posit that the use of the web resources to cover the election is worthwhile. This reporter gathered that the trend is being encouraged. Said Ugo Daniel after reading Funmi Iyanda’s blog about her election experiences: "An eyewitness account like this is worthwhile. I hope the contributor would be writing more on this blog."

Despite the impact of internet use on campaigns and elections, this reporter learnt that there were limitations. Bloggers expressed concern that the whole exercise did not stop political violence. Eigen stated: "I did an internet search, and while there were some bloggers discussing the election, I did not see any clear effort to use blogging specifically to prevent violence during the elections."

The limitations of internet use during the campaign, researchers say, can also be seen
in the use of it by candidates. This reporter gathered that the main presidential candidates ignored web resources during the period. Macha said: "None of the main presidential candidates, Atiku Abubakar, Umar Yar’Adua, and Muhhammed Buhari, had blogs."

The fact that there were problems with candidates that used the internet was also an issue. This reporter learnt that Donald Duke had to invite voters to his blog to debate with him. Macha said Donald Duke had a blog, but one had to be invited to get into it.

Can the internet be embraced by Nigerian politicians on the same level as done in the United States? Will the internet become as influential as pre-internet campaign media among Nigerian politicians? Omodudu, a blogger, gave this injunction: "Snap a picture, make a video, write a comment." If candidates obey this injunction directed to the entire Nigerian population, there would be more Donald Dukes in election campaigns in Nigeria in the foreseeable future.

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