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Highlights of our workshop on ICT and Elections in Nigeria

The past two days, I’ve been participating in the first day of a two-day event on information technology and government transparency in Nigeria. It’s a conversation that’s both timely, and also a bit late – decisions recently made in Nigeria mean that the upcoming presidential election will take place in January 2011. My colleages at the Berkman Center are working with colleagues at Georgia Tech, election monitoring organization NDI, Nigerian IT training academy Digital Bridges Institute and sponsors from the MacArthur Foundation have organized two days of events – the first day is a large public session hosted at the Yar’Adua Center (not named after the late president, but his uncle) in Abuja, where we’re hosting a set of panels for an audience of about 300. Tomorrow, we’ve got scheduled a day-long “unconference”, hoping to build alliances and tools that will help make the 2011 elections more free, fair and transparent.

Part of the excitement about the event for me is that it’s been a chance to meet some Nigerian superheroes who’ve come to be part of the event. I was able to invite Dele Olojede – founder of Timbuktu Media, the publisher of the 234Next news service – to join us. He had to back out of the panel I’m moderating, but he and I were able to sit down and talk about his innovative new project, which aims to use news delivered on paper, online and via mobile phone to challenge existing power structures in Nigeria. Meeting folks like Dele, as well as young innovators like Gbenga Sesan (behind the Light Up Nigeria and Enough is Enough campaigns) makes trips like this worthwhile.

Our little gathering has managed to attract some big names, including Donald Duke, former two-term governor of Cross Rivers State (who, everyone in the room assumes, is now a candidate for president.) Duke speaks briefly to the audience and notes that Nigeria is looking abroad, and especially to Ghana, to see how elections can run smoothly. (We crypto-Ghanaians in the crowd appreciated the shoutout.) While it would be great to learn from Ghana, “Nigeria is unique. We could learn how to do it elsewhere, but there’s a gene in us that means we…” He stops and makes a vague, uncertain hand gesture that sends the crowd into laughter. “I can’t find a word for it, I need to use my hands. And I hope we can use technology to undo some of this.”

As large conferences often are, our presentation are a mix of formal thanks to the various powerful people in the room, short idea pieces from the presenters, and strong provocations from the audience. Rather than trying to get full summaries, I’ll try to pull out the tidbits that stuck with me.

Ian Schuler of NDI, our cosponsor for the event, suggests that one of the most powerful uses for ICT in elections are for forensic analyses – registration analysis (elimination of duplicate voters), quick counts, and parallel tabulations. He also offers a shoutout to Ghana, where these techniques were used to great effect. These, he tells us, are examples of ways we can let the problems lead, rather than the technology – this interventions don’t require much tech, usually little more than a mobile phone and a system of reporting codes, but can be powerful because they’re so tightly matched to the problems we face.

Kwami Ahiabenu of PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian nonprofit that’s focused on making journalists more technically skilled and competent, has been leading vote reporting (as distinguished from vote reporting) projects throughout the continent – Malawi, Botswana, Guinea, Ghana and other countries as well. In Guinea – which Ahiabenu notes is lucky to have a military leader who’s committed to stepping down – his team was able to obtain a shortcode – 8008 – which allowed anyone to report problems at particular polling places. Rather than dismissing the power of new technological platforms for political engagement, he asks “Why do all these old men have Facebook accounts?” Here he’s referring to the new trend of African leaders build their Facebook presence. “It’s the only way to reach out to the youth population.”

Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections gains applause from the room with quips like, “the government has become criminalized”, and that “government has become an albatross in this country – a mental block to change.” He suggests we assess technologies for transparency seriously because it’s a mistake to outsource this process to professional election workers: “We have be turned into watchers of election workers.” Asked later about the possibility for technology for monitoring polling places, Ezeazu tells us that the thugs who intimidate and break up elections “are very cowardly people – when they see everyone has a mobile phone, they back off.” In other words, the ability to report on people being denied the ability to exercise their franchise can be enough to scare the thugs off… sometimes.

A tough question for the panelists from a woman from River State: Who do you report to if you lose your franchise? If you report to the electoral commission, are there actual consequences of reporting? It’s one thing to urge people to participate, but if that articipation doesn’t lead to change. Why urge people to participate?

Professor Jibrin Ibrahim offered one of the four co-keynotes of the day, which started with the brilliant line: “We’ve organized very good elections, we’ve organized very bad elections. We are especially skilled in organizing very bad elections.” Looking for the common thread between the good elections, Ibrahim suggests that the good elections are ones where the incumbent was not a player… and the bad ones tend to be ones incumbents have planned.

Ibrahim tells us that Nigerians have needed to coin a new term to explain how elections are stolen: digital rigging. He points to an election in Ondo in 1983 where the results reported had literally nothing to do with the election at all. In more recent times, ICT has acted as a ruse, showing that preparations were excellent, but hiding the reality of a stolen election. Sometimes we can see a stolen election coming because the promises are so absurd. For the 2007 election, the elections authority proposed a system that involved ana electronic voter register, biomechanical cards, and voting machines that transmitted results to the elections comission headquarters. While the officials promised the most technically sophisticated election in the world, what resulted was wholesale theft of votes.

Carlo Binda of NDI tries to disabuse us of the notion that elections monitors just care about elections – “elections are not an event, they’re a process”. He points out that Yemen recently held an election that went off without a hitch… but “that’s not where the shenanigans took place”, and the election led to no change at all. He reminds us that the Obama campaign did something very basic – simple, straightforward organizing – more than they did deployment of new ICT technologies. “ICT alone is not the silver bullet.”

While I didn’t get to grill him on my panel, Dele Olojele of 234NEXT gave a short keynote to talk about his new model, which began as a Twitter feed, then became a website, and only later became a printed newspaper. While this model of disseminating news – fast, online, investigative – is having success in breaking stories, it hasn’t caused the change Olojele hoped for: “A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. Sometimes providing information is not enough.” He tells us about breaking a story that conclusively demonstrated graft by the oil minister. “The story sank like a stone – no resignation, no reprimand.” Olojele tells us he’s still trying to crack the code, because the goal is “setting free 150 million people.” Here ICT is not a magical bullet, but “when you are fifty years old, I am no longer looking for magical bullets” – instead ICT is provides a new space wehre there is hope that things can change.

Asma’u Joda from the Center for Women and Adolescent Empowerment reminds us that women are the majority of voters, and often don’t know why they vote. “Usually, we vote because our men tell us, or because someone promises something we can feed our families. And if we don’t know why we’re voting, we make the worst choices.” She wonders whether ICT is the most appropriate tool for the women she works with – they can’t afford phones, credits and when they can, half the time, the network doesn’t work. More important may be leaders like a nationally respected Imam, who could ensure women the vote by making a public statement okaying their participation in elections. And in her community, where one family’s children are everyone’s children, it’s possible that wired, connected children may alter the opinions of their parents and other parents in the community.

The founder of the Enough is Enough Coalition, Chude Jideonwo, tells us a funny story – he came up behind one of the young Nigerians tweeting at this gathering and said in a scolding tone, “Young man, you should be paying attention.” His friend jumped and immediately put down his Blackberry, embarrased to be called out. Chude tells us that the guy in question has thousands of Twitter followers and is reaching a much wider audience that we are, speaking in this hall. Yes, it’s possible to exaggerate the influence of our tools – he mentions he has no good answer to the question, “How are you going to upload the picture when the area boy is holding a gun to your head?” ICT is simply another tool. But we’ve seen evidence that it can mobilize people who often aren’t politically active, bringing a large group of youth to rally both in Abuja and Lagos, brough to the streets via digital media. “We tend to think if you go onto Facebook, you’re going to meet a young person in Europe. That’s not usually the case – you are going to meet the youth of Abuja.

Bolaji Aluko of Howard University gives an excellent analogy, talking about the infrastructures that made the World Cup possible – the early stages, the referees, the rules, the fouls and the penalty kicks. While there were problems – a number of terrible calls, an unpredictable ball, no goal line review – most everyone agrees that Spain won and deserves to be “president of football” for the next four years. The problem with elections in Nigeria, Aluko tells us, is not that Nigerians are poor losers – it’s that the rules don’t work. We don’t have real separation between the legislature, executive and judiciary, and corruption in one wing infect and reinforce the other. The press becomes a target of indimidation and influence. When this fails, we see military coups. Glad one of those didn’t break out against FIFA.

The event we’re helping organize here is two days – the first is the public discussion, the second, a daylong unconference and brainstorm for people interested in building tools and organizations to make the 2011 elections more transparent and fair. In that spirit, we saw a series of short “spotlight sessions”, focusing on technology projects already underway which might assist in better 2011 elections.

Thomas Smyth, a PhD student under Mike Best at Georgia Tech, shows off Yarn for Yarn, an electronic platform for citizen dialog. The platform tries to recognize that “the internet isn’t quite what we want it to be in Nigeria” and uses SMS and battery powered kiosks to participate in an online, question-driven discussion. If you’re in Nigeria, you can participate by choosing a six-letter username and sending a text that says “register (that username)” to 0816 746 4700. When you get a confirmation code, send “join #enigeria” to the same number to subscribe to a moderated discussion coming out of our conference today.

The founder of Transform Naija (whose name I missed, unfortunately) tells us that, about a year ago, he knew basically nothing about ICT. He came to an event we held in Abuja last year, and he’s now spearheading an initiative focused on mobilizing citizens. He tells us, “if I can do this, everyone can.” His project adds a layer to citizen election monitoring, using the Ushahidi mapping platform, but adds a key component – allowing participation via voice telephony. For now, it supports five platforms – the three “regular suspects” (Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba) plus English and Pidgin. The goal is to collect reports on free and fair elections, corruption and human rights abuses and to see whether authorities respond correctly to these reports. He closes by telling us that he wants to see transparent elections taking place starting at the student elections level. We need people to get used to the idea that elected officials – student or otherwise – are accountable and work through fair elections.

Gideon Tetteh of CDD Ghana tells us of the experiences he had conducting a parallel vote tally during Ghana’s recent presidential elections. As most readers of this blog should know, the vote was extremely close, and the elections commission ended up consulting with the parallel tabulation to ensure their results were correct. (There’s skepticism that a model that worked in Ghana will work in Nigeria.) Tetteh wonders whether we can start using mobile phones to hold politicans accountable for their promises between election cycles. When we transfer money using mobile phones (a common practice in Ghana now using MTN’s mobile money), we call the recipient to confirm she received the funds. Why don’t we call our relatives in the villages to see whether the promises politicians made them during election cycles get carried out?

Fasoro Oladipo (@dfasoro) of the nigeriaelections.org portal shows us a funny webpage – it’s the electoral comission’s information page on the late president Yar’Adua. It has his name, a broken image an no other information, not even his gender. He asks “What did you know about the 2007 elections? How did you know it?” and tells us that he’s building a system to combine what the electoral commission (INEC) knows, what CSOs and NGOs know, and what you know, because “not knowing leads to not acting.”

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