By Joel Popoola
West African elections used to be so easy – for some politicians at least.
With enough money and the right patrons, certain candidates could cease campaigning and just pick whatever margin of victory they thought sounded credible – all they then had to do was act shamelessly in the face of internal critics and international observers.
In Nigeria, some politicians became so popular that the dead returned to earth to vote for them, often in alphabetical order!
But recent events in Mali suggest that those days might be over, and Nigerian leaders must learn lessons from our near neighbours.
Democracy in Mali suffered a major setback on August 18 when the military seized power.
In 2020, all Africans know that the only appropriate way of removing even the worst of governments from power is through free and fair elections.
So how have we ended up with Malians on the streets protesting against their own democratically-elected government?
The truth is that democracy had lost all credibility in the eyes of Mali’s voters. Years of ballot-box stuffing, vote-buying, voter intimidation and poll-rigging left many voters concluding that at least the military were honest and up-front about their total disregard for the elected will of the people.
In the case of Mali, the military were even able to claim to have been “finishing the work” of those protesting against recent election results. The tipping point for Mali appears to have been recent local election results, which have been described as “far from credible”.
In previous West African elections, accusations and allegations of electoral fraud could easily be covered up. In the information age, this is impossible.
Digital communication means all lies will eventually be exposed. A digital army stands ready to challenge and contest every questionable election. When those lies are exposed, the news can be shared in seconds. And not by international observers who can be denounced as “foreign agents” but by friends, family and neighbours.
The experience of Mali shows us what politicians risk when they do not take these facts seriously and act accordingly. If people believe their vote has been stolen, they will eventually take to the streets. And if they do, politicians will be faced with much more significant challenges than having to campaign harder in elections and act with more accountability when in office.
If democracy in our nation is to survive and thrive people must believe that their vote will count and be counted.
There is evidence that this is a lesson Nigerian leaders are hearing – with efforts being made to introduce electronic voting machines which make it harder to stuff ballots and keep a clearer and more transparent record of what votes have been cast and for which candidates.
But we can go further. Transparency and accountability needs to be inbuilt in every inch of our politics if we want our democracy to be credible. And at the digital democracy campaign I head, we are using commonplace household technology to make that happen.
Our free smartphone app Rate Your Leader directly connects electors and elected with a touch of a button. To a politician it’s a great tool for reaching out directly to voters and accurately assessing the things that matter most to them when it comes to deciding who to vote for.
To voters, Rate Your Leader gives voters the chance to ask tough questions directly to decision makers. And if they don’t feel the answers they receive are reliable or convincing then can highlight their concerns to their neighbours.
All of this can be done with a touch of a button, from the comfort of the sofa, using technology at least 122 million Nigerians have in their pocket at this very moment.
This is a pivotal moment for West African politicians. Do they embrace the possibilities of the digital age to connect in a meaningful way with their voters and to build trust and confidence in both themselves as leaders and in our democratic systems as a whole – or they risk being physically deposed from power by voters who no longer believe their lies?
All politicians dream of leaving a lasting legacy. President Buhari’s could be a democracy that Nigerians can truly believe in.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner, and creator of the free Rate Your Leader smartphone app. You can follow Joel on Twitter @JOPopoola