(I wrote this post between 11:30am and 1:00pm on Saturday, 16 April 2011. My internet went out shortly before I planned to post illustrating the difficulties in celebrating too unreservedly the ability of ‘new technologies’ to bring about revolutionary change–fortunately it came back in about an hour….)
As, not being a Nigerian ‘citizen’, I am not allowed to vote today, I am hunkered down in my house, doing housework and planning to do some reading and writing later in the day. But for now, NN24, Nigeria’s challenge to CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera hosted on DSTV and one of my new favourite channels, is constantly on in the background, with analysis of the accreditation process so far and i-reports from people from around the country who are texting and sending photos and videos from their polling stations. I love NN24. I love their energy and their youth focus, and their attention to the role new technology can play in encouraging the political process to be more transparent. For example, as with CNN, they have an application on their homepage, where ‘ordinary’ citizens (albeit those who can afford an internet-navigable phone or a laptop with a modem) can upload an i-report. They were the ones who organized the first debate between the presidential candidates, which I discussed in an earlier post. The only problem with NN24, as blogger Saratu Abiola noted in a powerfully written article posted to Nigerians Talk ‘On Debating Nigeria’, regarding the NN24 hosted presidential debates, is that it provides excellent content that is nevertheless limited to the viewership of those who can afford at least N2800 a month for the DSTV family subscription. Despite its idealistic goals, it limits itself, through its subscription status, to a wealthy elite. Yesterday, for example, there were three short ‘development’ films, ‘Vote Wisely’, an uplifting film where villagers drive away a corrupt politician trying to bribe them with rice for their votes, another ‘Too Young’ warning of the dangers of ‘unsafe pregnancies’ by showing a young girl attempting an abortion on herself, and another with a ‘northern couple’ (speaking English), where the husband refuses to let his wife, who has been in labour for two days be seen by a male doctor. The Ford-foundation sponsored Communicating for Change films shown as part of NN24’s ‘commitment to social responsibility’ were all targeted to ‘the masses’ (other than perhaps the one about the girl with the unwanted pregnancy), yet who among the masses are going to be watching NN24? How effective will English be in the North? Will someone who can pay at least N2800 a month to access NN24 and DSTV really be tempted to sell their vote for a mudu of rice or refuse to bring their wife into the hospital until she has already been in labour for two days? These ‘public service announcements’ are interspersed with ads for exclusive hotels in Lagos and Abuja and tourist ads for ‘Incredible India’ (featuring white tourists), revealing the wealthy, upper class audience who will actually be seeing these development films. (Convicting myself as I write this, I switch over to the publicly accessible NTA for a few minutes, where they are interviewing women about the lack of female politicians and cases of double voting. The tone here is much less exuberant and encouraging than NN24. I become so irritated by the stereotypical way the men on a discussion panel are discussing women politicians that I switch back to NN24 after about 5 minutes). Much more potentially powerful, I argue, are Nollywood/Kannywood films, especially those done in local languages, which incorporate political content into popular storylines. And perhaps even more powerful than those, radio content and music…
The conflict I have about NN24 is similar to the conflict I feel about celebrating how new technologies are making politics more transparent. It is commonly repeated in the media that tweeting and facebook played a large role in the Egyptian revolution and the social media also seem to be a large part of a ‘youth consciousness’ here in Nigeria. Yet, facebook and twitter and blogs are still very much limited to an upwardly mobile urban population who have the means to buy internet-accessible phones or at least browse at an internet cafe. And, passion and commitment to transparency, still cannot completely stop those who are determined to cause havoc, as we see in the increasingly worrisome trend of political terrorism throughout the country. (Two bombs have gone off in Maiduguri, one at an INEC office, and another at a police station, the latest in a series of bombs to go off around the country, including one in Suleja and Kaduna last week.)
That said, I’m an optimistic person, and I do love to see how passionate those I know are about the elections. I love how last week as I visited the set of the Aisha Halilu movie Armala, Kannywood actors engaged in good natured political debates, and how actor Jameel Ibrahim showed me the photos he had taken with his phone of his vote. ‘This is my record,’ he told me. ‘This is my vote. I want everyone to know how I voted.’ I love how friends on twitter re-tweet instructions from INEC about the rules for accreditation and voting, and how others campaign for their chosen candidates on facebook. I love to see the i-reports sent to NN24 by young people from their phones and the democratizing role these new technologies seem to be playing in these elections–the tweet, for example, sent in by a voter just reported by NN24 on how voters pounced on thugs sent by a politician and sent them running (a seeming replay of the ‘Vote Wisely’ skit aired on NN24) .
And beyond the technology available to those of means, I love how the young man I saw interviewed on Al Jazeera last week, said he was staying around for the rest of the day to make sure his vote was counted. I love that the elections (so far) seem to be one of the ‘free-est and fairest’ Nigeria has ever had, the determination of those I know to get out and vote, the civic-mindedness of those standing outside in the sun all day to make sure their voices are heard. Last week a young Kano-based musician Osama bin Music told me how in the last vote, he and his friends went to be accredited and then helped organize the crowds, trying to push through the small door of the school where the elections were taking place, into lines for men and women.
There may be young thugs hired by politicians, a trope that has become a stereotypical part of the Nigerian political landscape, but there are far more youth who want the voting process to work. They are there queuing in the sun. They want to make a difference. They want their votes to count. And it is in these youth that the hope for Nigeria lies.
The question, of course, is will the politicians who will be voted into power respect the faith the youth are placing in their votes? Or will they, despite the ‘free and fair’ vote, continue on with business as usual? And if that case, will new technologies make any difference in encouraging the youth to challenge the political culture in Nigeria in a more radical way or will it just comfort an elite that ‘their voices are being heard’?