By Joel Popoola
Nigeria’s international reputation can’t be worse.
First there was #EndSARS. Then came the twin epidemics of kidnappings and civil disorder. Then the Twitter ban.
Some have claimed we are on the road back to dictatorship. Others have pointed out that any road in Nigeria is likely to be too gridlocked or impassable for that to happen.
But we need to think very hard about how we can change the way the rest of the world sees us, and how we see ourselves.
It is no wonder that the British High Commissioner, this week, stated that “there will be a spotlight on Nigeria in 2023 as the country holds its general election”
Catriona Laing highlighted how the 2023 general election is “not only crucial to Nigeria, but important for the advancement of democracy in Africa”.
She also pointed out that the election is crucial for “the rebuilding of trust with the Nigerian people”.
We need to listen to her advice.
The international spotlight will be on Nigeria in 2023, however, the general election does not just pose a further threat to our international reputation. It is an opportunity to fix it.
There is still time to make 2023 Nigeria’s most credible, trustworthy and transparent election ever. Here’s how:
Accelerate the rollout of e-voting.
Trials of electronic voting in areas like Kaduna State have seen impressive results. Electronic voting machines give Nigerian voters and international observers much greater confidence that the vote they cast was counted for the correct candidate. Ballot-stuffing could also become a thing of the past under a truly transparent system where every vote can be electronically accounted for.
This confidence could also encourage greater turnout. The turnout in the last Nigerian General Election was just 35% – all-but half the 69% it was in 2003 and half of the turnout in most neighbouring countries.
Why? Well, as one international commentator put it: “The average Nigerian voter does not believe his vote will count. He has been scarred by years of violence, rigging, and predictability. The numbers reflect this”.
Pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing internet access.
African nations such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all experienced sudden internet shutdowns which magically coincide with elections.
In fact, one campaign group recorded over 200 international incidents of intentional internet shutdowns in 2019, describing them as “blatant violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information”.
The recent Twitter ban has left many Nigerians and international observers worried that we could be next.
With a simple constitutional amendment guaranteeing that our citizens will never have their access to the internet unreasonably or unavoidably restricted, Nigeria could show continental leadership while improving trust in our democratic integrity.
We could also enable greater access to information by making credible and non-partisan democratic resources exempt from data charges – something I have previously called for educational resources in order to help our children recover from the disrupted learning of COVID-19.
Open greater channels of communication between electors and elected
Nigerian politics can often feel very remote from the people it affects. We need to take advantage of commonplace digital technology to build channels of communication between politicians and the people they serve to boost democratic engagement, enhance accountability and boost transparently.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead, we have attempted to do this by creating Rate Your Leader, a free mobile app which puts verified voters in direct contact with their elected leaders allowing them to build two-way relationships of trust and transparency and to work together to improve both our communities and our country.
Rate Your Leader lets politicians know what is happening in their areas and what matters most to the people who elect them. It also allows voters to get important information directly from local leaders.
The Rate Your Leader app also lets users vote on the accessibility and transparency of their local leaders, democratically vital in the age of fake news.
This sort of communication is critical to the integrity and effective functioning of our democracy in the twenty-first century.
As the British High Commissioner has previously stated: “Nigeria is facing a lot of problems everywhere… Nigeria is really struggling”.
The first step towards addressing these problems is to rebuild confidence and trust in our democratic systems and institutions – both at home and abroad.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and is creator of the free Rate Your Leader app. He can be reached via @JOPopoola