From the Magazine: Working for Change

by Nmachi Jidenma

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” wrote Professor Chinua Achebe in his 1984 treatise, the Trouble with Nigeria. As a young Nigerian, I have always pondered the implications of Achebe’s intellectual diagnosis of Nigeria. If we know that the trouble with Nigeria is a failure of leadership, then why don’t Nigerians change their leaders? Do Nigeria’s troubles stem not only from her failed leadership but also from her failed followership? Is there a fundamental character flaw of the Nigerian followership that prevents it from demanding better leadership?

In the Abacha era, such questions would have attracted quizzical looks; “Do you want to get killed?” would have been a reoccuring answer; and for the many who would not bother to respond, “All these naïve youths.” would most likely have been the resounding thought.

But it is 2011 – the year the Internet successfully aided in uprooting two African dictators from office. We can wager that the former presidents of Tunisia and Egypt did not consider the Internet as a potent weapon that the opposition in their respective countries would use to rouse, incite, and mobilize citizens against them. With about 3 million Nigerians on Facebook, a fast growing blogging community, and passionate Twitter adoptersNigeria begs the question – What about us? Can this tool be used to drive social and political change here?

Hello, Netroots!

When the LightUpNigeria movement started its solely social media-based activism in 2009, began on Twitter and Facebooklast year, the timing was apt. The movement was sharply critiqued as a bunch of Tweets, Hashtags and Status Updates without the capacity to deal with the real issues of corruption and cronyism which plague the Nigerian power sector.

What the critics, and perhaps  the young people, who began the #lightupnigeria movement did not know? The movement was a precursor, an incredibly important forerunner for what would become a mass mobilization of Nigerian youth online to participate in electoral discourse in ways never before seen in Nigeria’s history.

Amara Nwakpa began #lightupnigeria with the support of young activists and celebrities, the movement spread like a contagion across the web. Its message was fresh and poignant and resonated with young Nigerians. The movement quickly became a rallying point for views on the power situation. From the whimsical to the sarcastic, Nigerian youth expressed their anger and frustrations. A funny #lightupnigeria tweet from a celebrity member like Banky W would quickly elicit tens or hundreds of retweets, thus spreading the conversation across the Nigerian twittersphere. The youth were effectively engaged.

Then came the EnoughisEnough movement.  Nigeria was facing a leadership crisis. Our then President Umara Musa Yar’Adua was said to be away from the country for medical treatment. Nobody had heard from him for almost 100 days. The constitution required that he hand over properly to the Vice President. He didn’t. The National Assembly was “paralysed”, the county effectively in the hands of the clique of elites, politicians and bureaucrats who became known famously as “the cabal”. Nigerians had suffered a fuel shortage for upwards of three months. Af it to underline the sense of falling off a dangerous edge, an indoctrinated Nigerian youth had just attempted and failed to detonate a bomb on a U.S. bound aircraft thus, putting the nation in the international limelight for the wrong reason. It felt, forgive the cliché, like things had fallen apart.

#WhereisYaradua began as a conversation on social media platforms by Nigerian youths. It spun a website where thousands signed a petition demanding that the notorious cabal produce the ailing President from whom the nation had not heard from for at least two months. On 10 February 2010, NEXT Newspapers reported exclusively that the President was brain dead, on life support, and with zero chance of recovery. The silence from Aso Rock was deafening.

Where’s my president?

In March 2010, after a fortuituous mail by Chude Jideonwo,  Gbenga Sesan, Amara Nwankpa, Tolu Ogunlesi, Cheta Nwanze and a coalition of concerned youth leaders, celebrities and well-meaning Nigerians decided Enough is Enough! Nigerian youth had had enough of the lies and the lack of leadership.Again on Facebook and Twitter, a movement was launched –  #Enoughisenough, #whereisyaradua and #lightupnigeria soon filled Twitter timelines.

“I’m tired of a Nigeria where there’s no fuel, where there’s no light, where there’s no water and where’s there’s crappy education,” brand consultant, Subomi Plumptre said in an online video message from the #EnoughisEnough movement.

Soon, what began as a social media movement with tweets, hashtags, and status updates galvanized a nationwide youth movement which stormed the gates of the National Assembly demanding action in protecting the nation’s constitution.

The only movement took their anger to the seat of power in Abuja on March 16, 2010 and thousands of youths gathered holding placards and signs in protest.

Though a few thousands showed up at the protest, the news of the rally reverberated across the internet. CNN did a story and so did Reuters. The major Nigerian media houses covered the epoch-making event and youths who could not attend discussed and followed the protests, the first Nigerian demonstration to be streamed via the internet, via social media.

The rally was symbolic in the sense that it threw the voices of Nigerian youths into the mainstream media’s consciousness. And in a clime like ourswhere immense value is placed on mention in foreign news media, the Enough is Enough movement attracted the attention of politicians and government officials. The collective thought from the nation’s older generation could almost be heard: “Could it be that Nigerian youths were actually serious about all this noise they have been making on these social networking websites?”

Issues of primary concern

The rising spirit of activism appeared to inspire a range of advocacy organizations as youth-led electoral-focused civil society  groups began to spring up – from Cool2Vote to VoteorQuench.

But the naysayers persisted. One of them was former Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, who said in an 18 April, 2010 interview with the BBC that young people were not fit to rule Nigeria. Ironically, in the attempt to marginalize the nation’s youth movement expressing the non-faith that his generation has in the Nigerian youth, he inadvertently energized that  movement, giving further impetus to a youth mobilization trend that was already brewing.

The PDP Presidential Primaries, in many ways,  revealed what real impact earlier social media driven movements had made in merging politics with Nigerian youth culture. The degree of fervor and interest with which the youth watched the debates was unprecedented. On the day of the primaries, over three Nigerian elections related hash tags trended globally on Twitter (sometimes simultaneously) including #PDPPrimaries #SarahJubril and #Adamawa.

Nigerian youths were watching, speaking and tweeting. And the world was listening. After the primaries, the youth continued to come up with social media driven initiatives like #IfNaijaVotes to drum up awareness for the election process. All their efforts appeared to pay off: when voter registration began in January, the youth came out in their droves to register.By the end of the exercise, , over 70 million Nigerians had registered to vote. 65 percent of them, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission, were under 35. The youth organising recently took on a new form when a coalition of youth-led electoral advocacy organizations came together to form What About Us?. This move symbolised an important chapter in the Nigerian youth movement because it was able to galvanise various youth groups to present a single front – a front that produced the first ever televised youth-led Presidential debate. The debate, attended by the candidates of the Action Congress of Nigeria, All Nigeria People’s Party and the National Conscience Party, centered on demanding from the aspiring presidents their agenda on youth and youth issues.

Something has changed

A common thread through all of these activities is technology and the new opportunities it has presented. The impact of technology in the 2010/2011 Nigerian youth movement has been tremendous. Social media has helped amplify the voices of young Nigerians and has helped launch the youth agenda into the national discourse. Mobile and web platforms like Revoda and ReclaimNaija.Net, which aggregate electoral reports of electoral rigging and violence via mobile phones and the web have been instrumental in symbolizing the resolve of the youth to take active ownership of the electoral process.

Websites and blogging platforms like  Bellanaija.com, SaharaReporters.com, CP-Africa.com (which this writer edits), YNaija.com and  NigerianCuriosity.com have served as an invaluable source of information and in a sense, mobilization.. Even better, the organisations appear set to reach across the digital divide to prominently include Nigerian youths who are not yet active digital citizens. This will help expand the movement and give it the street credibility it deserves.

Indeed, the early and continued efforts of a small group of passionate youths has helped lead to the growing movement of proud youthful voices in 2011.

Regardless of the outcome of the 2011 elections, Nigerian youths have finally spoken up loudly, and this in itself is worth celebrating. Y!

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