Online facet of 2015 elections

The constitution and Electoral Act in Nigeria do not allow for voting in the Diaspora, a feature of elections in Algeria and Tunisia, which has also been proposed in Angola. Nonetheless, Nigerians in the Diaspora who are interested in the 2015 elections have had to take to the internet to follow the exercise. This is in addition to the online platform of many of the nation’s media channels. In recent times, online media has been a useful channel for engaging people worldwide, whether as electorate or otherwise, presenting an opportunity to be somehow involved in public processes, particularly in elections on the scale of Nigeria’s 2015 general elections.

However, the internet was not the exclusive preserve of those in the Diaspora during the elections. In fact, if it was, then it would not have been as rewarding. Millions of Nigerians who were physically on ground for the elections went to the polling units armed with their personal cameras and smart phones, uploading pictures and videos of the exercise on platforms such as the popular Facebook and Twitter. The large number of Nigerians in the Diaspora who could not be in the country and who were interested in the exercise, hung on to these uploads and reacted to the posts by those on the ground. Soon, the section of cyberspace, which is referred to as ‘Nigerian Facebook’ and ‘Nigerian Twitter’ became an unofficial polling unit, collation center and situation room, all at the same time.

As results from the different polling units poured in, reactions followed and of course, arguments and accusations took over. The internet was buzzing, reflecting the reality of the Nigerian landscape at the time.  Early in the polling, a video showing a group of northerners frantically pressing their thumbs against the PDP ‘umbrella’ on what appeared to be ballot papers went viral on Nigerian twitter with lamentations of rigging and cries of foul play. This was quickly discredited by the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC), official twitter account which stated that it was a video from the previous elections in 2011 as the ballot papers that could be seen in the video were those used in that election, which are different from the ones currently being used. A subsequent post showing the two different ballot papers was circulated thereafter.

INEC, through its online accounts called on Nigerians to alert the commission of any case of irregularities in any ward or polling unit around the country. Pronto, the opportunity was seized with both hands by many Nigerians who swiftly took to the internet, turning it into a beehive of activities. They reported late arrivals of polling materials, non-arrivals and insufficient materials. Two particular reports that caught INEC’s attention after the discredited video was a picture of a young boy who looked no more than 13 or 14, being attended to by electoral officials. The location was unclear as some posts stated it was in Taraba State, others said it was Gombe or Katsina and many other Northern states. People screaming underage voting in the north subsequently used the same picture in posts.

There was also a post concerning the repeated failure of card readers used during the voting. In one particular ward, a voter discovered that the officials had not peeled off the protective film covering the lens of the card reader being used at the polling unit before attempting to scan voter’s cards, with no success. This fault was pointed out to the officials by a technology professional who live in the neighbourhood. After some heated exchange, according to the post on twitter, the film was peeled off eventually and the device worked efficiently after. The post was circulated throughout twitter, advising voters to call attention to this in wards where card readers were malfunctioning. INEC later confirmed this as one of the problems that caused faulty devices at polling units. One video showed a voter screaming “Massive Rigging” and filming events around him while he challenged officials, even though it was not clear from the video what his actual claim was.

INEC, the political parties and the electorate made ample use of the online platforms in the build up to the elections and during the elections. The downside to this platform is the ease with which anybody can make any claim and post them online with little evidence. Even where there is video or picture evidence, it is still subject to verification in most cases, as was the case with the outdated video from the north.  For this reason, trying to get a feeler for the direction the election was going was nearly impossible, as conflicting claims emerged from the same polling units, with results posted for wards where elections were still ongoing. Several accounts of popular and notable figures in the society were however more reliable, but where unverified information came from those quarters, it was indicated in the post.  The cyberspace also featured the ethnic and religious controversy that pervades elections in Nigeria, complete with the sentiments that accompany them.

One thing that was certain in the middle of the unverified information and misguided comments was that Nigerians were taking a real part in the elections this time. Providing generators to ensure voting was concluded into the night, refreshments for electoral officials and accompanying the result sheet to the various collation centres – all captured in pictures and videos. The message on twitter and facebook and on the streets was clear: “Nigerians want their votes to count in this election.” The voters in the Military camps in Maiduguri, Borno State were shown in some pictures that were circulated. Evidence from the election violence in Rivers State went viral online within minutes.

Perhaps, the criminals who earlier on Saturday hacked into the website of INEC had the intension to use it to post fake messages and results on the elections. They knew quite well that the internet was going to play a major role in this election. Thank God that INEC officials got the hint on time and moved decisively to dislodge the intruders or interlopers before they created havoc on the platform.

By and large, though there were some hiccups here and there, the election appears to have been peaceful as attested to by observers from ECOWAS, the African Union and others. James Entwistle, the United States ambassador to Nigeria personally applauded the decision of INEC to use the Permanent Voter Card in the general elections. Speaking with journalists at the International Conference Centre, Abuja, the venue of the National Collation Centre of the election results on Sunday, Entwistle said: “The Permanent Voter Cards are very high tech. They are more high tech than my voter card from the state of Virginia in the US. My voter card does not have biometric. It does not have my fingerprint. The high tech gives the process more integrity.”

As I write this Column on Monday, ahead of the release of the final results of the Presidential and National Assembly elections, my intuition tell me that the real challenge could come when the results are finally announced. I believe causing mayhem if the results are not favourable to any party, should not be an option. In a contest like this, there are bound to be winners and losers. The only option available is to approach the court or the election tribunal rather than resort to an archaic tactic fit only for animal farm.

What is at stake in this election is the future of this great country, which is why the old and young, the elderly and the sick, braved all odds to cast their votes. The turnout of voters was overwhelming and unprecedented. Even though false reports from Enugu and other places emanated from the ‘internet electorates’ too, the Nigerian cyberspace now contains hard evidence, available to the electorate, counting done on camera down to the last ballot paper in different wards. For the online medium which was fully engaged, it is a statement of intent, by those on ground and those in the Diaspora helping to circulate the posts, videos and pictures, to amplify that: “the will of the people must prevail.”

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