columnBy Y.Z. Ya'u
On Wednesday, 24th March, 2010 MacArthur Foundation and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with the Joint Basket of Donors (JBD) held a one-day interactive meeting at Abuja on the use of ICTs in civic engagements with the aim of strategizing on how civil society and the JBD could deploy ICTs to enhance the conduct of the 2011 general elections. It was attended by a broad spectrum of representatives of civil society organizations and the donor community.
The discussion was backgrounded by four short presentations. The first presentation following the briefing on the meeting by Dr. Kole Ahmed Shettima, the Director of MacArthur Foundation and convener for the meeting, was by Dr. Mike Best of Georgia Tech, USA. He spoke on the global trends of use of ICTs for social activism and the role of his organization in promoting such engagements. He provided extensive review of the trends in the use of new media tools such as twitter, social networking sites, STM messaging and blogging. This was followed by Tunji Lardner of West African NGO Network (WANGONET) who dealt with the work WANGONET has been doing to leverage ICTs in conflict reporting and election monitoring in the country. WANGONET effort is to domesticate what Ushashidi and others have done in conflicts and election situations in countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Uganda
I made the third presentation, which dwelt on the challenges of the use of ICTs for civic engagement in the Nigerian context. This presentation sought to ground the central issues of civic engagement in the run up to the 2011 election in Nigeria and the ICT situation in Nigeria. The focus was that of ensuring the logical conclusion of the electoral reform process, engendering more informed citizens' participation in the election process by voter and better election monitoring that would allow for alternative count. While ICTs could facilitate these tasks, it was important to understand the peculiarity of the ICT situation in the country so as to creatively deploy them in a manner that would be most useful.
The possibility of the use of ICTs in civic engagement is shaped and constrained by the very form in which ICTs have diffused in the country. This diffusion is characterized by whole coverage of the country by GSM networks, extensive use of broadcast technology for civic engagement and poor penetration of internet that is largely limited to urban centres. Both internet and GSM services are relatively costly thus reducing affordability by the majority of Nigerians. There is additionally the fact that skills for the use of these tools, especially the new media tools, are not widely spread across the population.
The final presentation was by Colin Maclay of the Barker Center, USA, who spoke on the potentials of ICTs to deepen deliberative and participatory democracy beyond just getting the vote right. Maclay argued that without citizens holding elected representatives accountable on election promises and general governance performance, democracy would remain hollow. He sees ICT as providing the tools with which to facilitate such demand for accountability.
The consensus arising from the meeting was that without bringing the ongoing election reform process to fruition, use of ICTs to monitor elections would neither improve conduct of the election nor facilitate better governance. At best, it would provide the evidence that elections are rigged. But this is not new because we all know that elections have always been rigged and the evidence is obvious that we have framework laws in such a way that is so difficult to be admissible in the courts. What is interesting and should be new is to how to prevent rigging.
Again of course, it is not that ICTs have not been used in the past in these activities. On the contrary, Nigerian civil society organizations have shown creativity in the use of ICTs for various civic causes. For the example, the campaign for the freedom of information bill has made extensive use of both GSM texting and electronic discussion groups, both as tools for advocacy and coordination of campaigns and strategies. In the 2007 general elections, the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) and other civil society organizations that monitored the election had made use of the internet to not only coordinate activities but also to collate results of election monitoring by observers. There have also been various uses of ICTs for civic education and voter sensitization programmes. More recently, a group working with the Alliance for Credible Election (ACE) set up the website, www.anambraelectionwatch.org, dedicated to the last governorship election in Anambra State with the purpose of information sharing and improved transparency in the election. That site has all the tools that were used in the Kenyan, Ghanaian elections.
Yet, of course, it is clear that ICTs have not been used in the systematic way in the country as they are being used in other countries. Part of this is the context as well as the content of our election rule. The election management body in Nigeria handles elections with too much opaqueness where transparency and openness are called. It is this groping in the dark that facilitates rigging and the too many election malpractice records that we have achieved as a nation.
INEC which has been in the forefront for electronic voter register and electronic voting has been too unwilling to migrate the voters' register to its website. The availability of the voter register on the internet is one quality that points to the openness of the election system. Such an online voter register would allow for a more robust scrutiny that would make it more authentic, credible and up to date. This is why one of the calls by civil society organizations at the meeting was to demand that INEC should immediately post the voters' register on its website.
The meeting was very useful but it was only a beginning. For civil society in Nigeria to make effective use of ICTs within our context, that is characterized by among other things resource constraints, we must strategize on how we carry out civic engagement with ICT. Key among these decisions they have to make would include how fast they would re-skill, re-equip and deploy the necessary ICTs within a constrained cyberspace.