ILORIN, NIGERIA: A month before the 2023 general elections, Muiz Oyekola, a student at the University of Ibadan, walks through the nooks and crannies of Gbagi Market, a local market in the capital city of Oyo state.
He is there as early as 10 a.m. to educate traders and buyers roaming around the market on the need to collect their Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVC). Oyekola also enlightens people on the need for them to utilise their mandate and vote for their desired candidate.
With a microphone in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, he spoke to the traders in the market in Yoruba and English in an attempt to change people’s minds, people who initially had no intentions of voting.
Voter Apathy; a Thief of Joy
Before Oyekola began sensitising Nigerians, he also suffered a case of voter apathy for years.
It began on October 20, 2020. Oyekola was laying in bed and scrolling through Twitter. He had logged in to the platform that night to pass time and get updates on the #EndSARS protests, –a protest to end police brutality and bad governance– before going to sleep but nothing had prepared him for the horrifying videos he was about to see.
In one of the videos, Oyekola saw soldiers of the Nigerian Army fitted out with guns shooting into a crowd of peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate located in Lagos, a state in the southwestern part of Nigeria.
The protesting crowd’s voices could be heard above the gunshot. Undaunted, they sang the national anthem and waved the country’s flag while they were being shot at.
By morning, the incident had made headlines in major dailies across the country. Most of the stories Oyekola read alleged that the Nigerian government deployed armed soldiers to the scene of the protests.
Although the incident happened two years before the 2023 general elections, Oyekola had made up his mind to exercise his franchise and vote in good leaders for the country but as the elections drew closer, Oyekola was torn between two worlds.
The fear of being intimidated, oppressed, and attacked on the day of the elections surpassed the fear of his vote not counting due to vote rigging. This sowed a seed of voter apathy in his mind.
“I wanted to vote so Nigeria can get better and at the same time, I had a wave of pessimism as I was scared my vote would not count,” he told The SolutionsPaper.
In 2019, only 28.6 million (35 per cent) out of 82 million registered voters participated in the general elections. A report published by Democracy Africa revealed that it was the lowest voter turnout recorded in Africa at the time.
According to Olasupo Abideen, the global director of Brain Builders Youth Development Initiative (BBYDI), a Non-Governmental Organisation focused on good governance and civic engagement, voter apathy has eaten deep into the fabric of the Nigerian political system.
“Violence is one of the factors that contributes to voter apathy in Nigeria,” Abideen says. “The lack of trust in the electoral umpire and the issue of rigging is still rife. A lot of Nigerians do not want to go to the polling units if their votes will not count.”
He added that the attitude of politicians towards elections also contributes to voter apathy as they are mostly seen during the electioneering process to campaign and when they eventually get voted into office, they often do not perform their responsibilities as expected of them by the electorates.
Driving the Change Nigeria Needs
To ensure the participation of youths in the 2023 general elections, youth-led organisations across Nigeria embarked on a series of sensitisation and awareness programs to fight against voter apathy.
One of such organisations is the Young African Leaders Initiative known as YALI. The organisation, which has networks across the 36 states of Nigeria, has been committed to raising the next generation of African leaders, and promoting good governance amongst others.
In a bid to increase voter turnout towards the 2023 elections, the organisation began sensitising the public ahead of the election. YALI’s hubs across the country utilised social media with captivating contents geared towards encouraging Nigerians to collect their Permanent Voters’ Card (PVC). It also educated the youths on the importance of exercising their franchise.
After the social media campaign, the organisation’s networks in Kwara, a state in north-central Nigeria, and Rivers state, in the south-south region, took to the streets to do physical campaigns tagged “9javote” to advise people to shun vote buying.
Their campaigns were fuelled by the organisation’s passion for building credible leaders and promoting youth inclusiveness, Mr. Shola Ojelade the state coordinator of YALI in Kwara told The SolutionsPaper
The 2023 elections were conducted at a period when the country was experiencing a cash crunch as a result of the Central Bank’s cashless policy and Naira redesign. The policy impacted people’s businesses as well as livelihoods which demoralised many from wanting to go to the polls to exercise their franchise.
When Oyekola began to see the social media contents of YALI and other Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who were aiming to drive political participation, especially among youths, he began to have a change of mind.
He realised he did not have to disregard his mandate to voter apathy. With a renewed perspective, he applied to be a volunteer for a sensitisation campaign organised by Connected Development (CODE), an NGO located in Oyo state, in the southwest.
Driving Political Participation by Combating Misinformation and Disinformation
On the morning of Saturday, 25th of February, 2023 when eligible Nigerian voters were preparing to cast their votes at various polling units across the country, a group of fact-checkers sat behind their laptop screens perusing the internet for claims that could plant seeds of fears in minds of Nigerians wishing to cast their vote and dissuade them from exercising their franchise.
They were young Nigerians working at the FactCheck Elections, an initiative of BBYDI. That morning, a video claiming gunmen were disrupting an election at a polling unit circulated on Twitter. Using fact-checking tools, the fact-checkers set to work and were able to prove the video was false and misleading.
Many other such videos and images went round on social media platforms that day, the FactCheck Elections team fact-checked and posted the results on social media platforms.
BBYDI is another organisation that helped drive political participation towards the elections. This organisation through its FactCheckElections initiative waged war against misinformation and disinformation before and during the elections.
Before the elections, there was a spike in the spread of fake news coordinated to heighten tension during the elections which could dissuade people from voting.
In curbing this, the organisation set up a team of fact-checkers to verify news items and claims related to the electoral process, and help to provide accurate information to the public in a bid to increase awareness amongst people.
According to Nurah Jimoh-Sanni, the Executive Director of BBYDI, they were committed to promoting accountability and transparency in the electoral process.
The initiative made use of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to encourage more people, especially youths, to participate in the electoral process by providing access to accurate and reliable information.
“Overall, BBYDI through FactCheckElections played a crucial role in providing accurate information and dispelling misinformation towards the just concluded elections. Our efforts also helped to ensure that members of the public were well informed thereby encouraging more people to participate in the elections,” she says.
Speaking with The SolutionsPaper, Habeeb Adisa, one of the fact-checkers present in the situation room said they had more than 100 checks during the election period.
“Some of the checks were pre-election, election day, and then post-election”, he added.
Many Nigerians benefited immensely from these fact-checks. One such Nigerian was Ajibade Abdullah. During the election periods, Abdullah had some of his contacts posting and reposting certain claims on WhatsApp.
In an attempt to verify the claim, Abdullah shared the claims with his friend, Kabeer Tijani, who was one of the fact-checkers present in the situation room who would fact-check the claims and send the results to Abdullah.
Abdullah would in turn send the results of the claims to whoever had posted them and the claims that were proven false would then be deleted.
“I realised that the level of fake news shared within my social media space reduced drastically” Abdullah said
A Little Hassle Here, a Little Hassle There
The road to creating a changed Nigeria with regards to combating voter apathy was not a smooth ride for these organisations.
For instance, YALI’s sensitisation campaign in Oja Oba, a market in Ilorin, the capital city of Kwara, came at a time when there was a cash shortage. This fuelled violent protests across Nigerian states including Kwara.
While the volunteers spoke to traders in the market, many of them complained about how the cash crunch was affecting their business and how it was making them less eager to vote at the polls. While some of the traders listened with keen interest, others intimidated the volunteers and threatened to beat them up.
“It took a lot of effort to convince people. They believed there was no gain in voting because the election would not be credible,” Shola told The SolutionsPaper.
For BBYDI, funding and the absence of adequate resources constituted a major challenge for the organization.
“FactCheckElection is a relatively new platform and as such, has limited resources at its disposal. This made it challenging for the platform to reach as many as possible,” Nurah explains.
Although NGOs made efforts in curbing voter apathy, Nigeria still experienced low voter turnout in this election. According to Abideen, a lot of people who went to the polls were not able to vote due to the failure of the Bimodal Voters Accreditation Scheme known as BVAS in some polling units.
He also added that the introduction of new technology was able to cross out multiple voting that was rampant in previous elections. However, the number of voters from previous elections might have been inaccurate at the time.
In addition, cases of electoral violence and intimidation of voters in states like Lagos also disenfranchised people as some voters who had been determined to vote fled for their lives when violence erupted in their polling unit.
This story received support from the Media and Communications Development Foundation, a non-profit NGO working in the intersection of technology and journalism to spur civic action
Lead editor: Zubaida Baba Ibrahim
Copy editor: Precious Ewuji
Olayide Oluwafunmilayo Soaga is a Freelance Journalist and a final year student of political science from the University of Ilorin. Her works have been published in Guardian UK, African Arguments, The Continent with Mail and Guardian and elsewhere. She tweets @OlayideO_Soaga.