'4 People Tweeting' Changed the Face of Nigerian Politics

'4 People Tweeting' Changed the Face of Nigerian Politics
Mar 2023

[photo1]Olatunji OlaigbeOn election day, Maryam Adetona arrived at her polling unit in Ilorin in North-Central Nigeria at around 10 am, while officials were still setting up. Across town, Akinwale Philip arrived at his polling booth at 9 am. In Owerri, in the southeast of the country, Chisom Nnachi got to his polling unit at around 8 am, and had to wait four hours before officials turned up. In Abeokuta, southwest, Adebayo Ayomide got held up, and made it to his unit only at around 11 am. All four are in their twenties, and were voting for the first time in the country's presidential and senatorial elections, held on February 25, 2023.Nigeria's young population is incredibly politically active--at least online. But the country's political establishment has often dismissed them as "four people tweeting from a room," in the belief that online activism wouldn't translate to real-world action. Historically, they might have been right. Even though two-thirds of Nigeria's population are under the age of 30, youth participation in Nigerian elections has typically been low. In the country's last election in 2019, only 34 percent of registered and eligible voters voted. In February's election, the two main parties--the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC), which have dominated Nigerian politics for decades--hardly bothered to target young voters in the online spaces where they congregate.But this year, a wave of online organization and youth participation brought an outsider candidate, Peter Obi, to within touching distance of the establishment parties, upending the country's politics."The internet allowed youths of the same mind to connect and organize organically. It was the first time we were seeing spontaneous organic rallies being held nationwide, with little to no party force organizing it," says Joachim MacEbong, a senior analyst at Stears Inc, an intelligence and analytics company based in Lagos. "Opposition [parties] missed these early signs and dismissed them as 'four people tweeting in a room.' And now, months later, we can see it was much more than that."The roots of the online wave were planted in 2020, when an online protest movement against police brutality--known as EndSARS--l

ed to street demonstrations that were, at times, violently put down. Even though the immediate political impact of those demonstrations was limited, it led to the creation of informal advocacy networks that survived into the election period. As one first-time voter, Abdussalam Abdulqoyum says, the movement "apathy-shamed" young Nigerians into turning out to vote.Ayomide, the first-time voter in Abeokuta, witnessed the EndSARS protests firsthand, and says that was the moment when he started to feel engaged in politics. "It became a life and death situation for me," said Ayomide.As the election approached, activist groups worked on voter education and encouraged young people to get out and vote. Of the nearly 10 million newly registered voters in the country, 84 percent were between 18 and 34."As a first-time voter, I learned a lot about voting online," Ayomide says. "There were virtual drives, donations, live updates, hashtag conversations, and a platform that allowed you to directly interrogate the candidates. It was also a constant reminder of all the reasons why you needed to vote."Virginia HeffernanReece RogersJoel KhaliliLeo KimA lot of the young online support gravitated toward Obi, 61, a businessman and former member of the PDP who campaigned on a platform of reforming Nigeria's state institutions, which have often been tainted by corruption. He also said that he would officially apologize to victims of police brutality, a promise that spoke directly to the EndSARS movement.While the legacy parties focused their attention on traditional media, the Labour Party was supported by popular activists and influencers. Youth organizers used Twitter spaces and hashtags such as #ObiDatti2023, #Obidients, and #1MillionMarch4PeterObi to rally support. They took their online efforts offline, volunteering to go door-to-door to spread the party's message. Supporters created online challenges such as "talk to someone about Peter Obi" and launched an app to distribute content and campaign messages. The party crowdsourced donations, helping it to overcome a massive gulf in funding between it and the two legacy parties.The odds were stacked against Obi's Labour Party, which attracted just over 5,000 votes in the last presidential election in 2019. But this year, the party's vote surged to 6.1 million--more than 25 percent of the electorate--putting it in third place, not far behind the PDP's 6.9 million. The party won six Senate seats and three seats in the House of Representatives. In Lagos, the country's economic center, its candidate beat the ruling party. It even got the largest share of the vote at the polling unit inside the presidential villa."The statement 'four people tweeting in a room' was demeaning," Ayomide says. "I'm glad at how things played out. I think we made a statement."Since the presidential and senatorial elections, the online activist networks have kept working, calling out perceived electoral irregularities and voter suppression, and challenging the role of money in politics. Some are trying to crowdsource a database of results from specific polling units in hopes of providing records that could prove irregularities in court. Both of the leading opposition candidates have alleged vote-rigging and violence during the election."Many young people have used social media to advocate for their preferred candidates, and this has led to some youth-friendly candidates winning elections and disrupting the political environment," says Rinu Oduala, a youth activist and founder of Connect Hub, which provides advocacy and support for democracy and against state violence. "And when politicians don't deliver on their promises or engage in corrupt practices, we call them out on social media, putting them under greater scrutiny, creating a culture of accountability."Nigeria's political establishment seems to have woken up to the power of the online caucuses. The country held gubernatorial elections on the weekend of March 18. In the run-up, the PDP and ruling APC both ramped up their social media campaigns. Lagos' APC governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, started tweeting more frequently and announced a series of policies apparently designed to win the youth vote, including a pledge to rethink the country's ban on cryptocurrencies. Full election results are still coming in. While the APC won the gubernatorial elections in Lagos with more than 762,000 votes, the Labour Party edged ahead of the PDP to come in second, with 312,000 votes. Preliminary results show the party has also become a major contender in several states in the southeast of Nigeria.The results have reinforced the idea that the "four people tweeting in a room" are now part of the political mainstream, and that Nigeria's politicians can't, as they often have, dismiss young voices with slogans like "there are no polling units online.""The digital gathering of young Nigerians is a direct challenge to the incompetent leadership, corrupt officiating, and brutal policing that has long been the status quo," says Adebowale Adedayo, a content creator and activist known as Mr. Macaroni, who has used his platform as an influencer to advocate for youth participation. "If the EndSARS protests failed to prove that online advocacy translates to real-world action, then the record numbers of youth participation in the 2023 election cycle will settle any debate."