Nigeria looks to youth, internet and Barack Obama for poll inspiration
Africa’s most populous nation is facing its most important, and most unpredictable, polls in more than a decade
David Smith in Abuja
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 13 January 2011 15.50 GMT
A poster encouraging Nigerians to register for the primaries. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
Outside Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign headquarters in Abuja is a poster, showing the Nigerian president beside a grinning Barack Obama. Above Jonathan’s trademark black fedora is a thought bubble. “Yes we can, sir!” it says.
Jonathan went into a crucial primary election today making no secret of his attempt to emulate Obama’s revelatory 2008 election campaign. He announced his candidacy on Facebook, is the subject of an official biography, Wind of Hope, and has hired strategists who helped Obama to the White House.
Above all, the 53-year-old, who has lived a charmed political life, is seeking to capitalise on two related trends: the phenomenal growth of the internet in Nigeria and political consciousness among its ever more impatient youth.
“I have not experienced any election where the youth feel personally involved until this one,” said Dalhatu Sarki Tafida , director-general of the Jonathan campaign. “These ideas of Facebook and internet access were alien to us, but young people are embracing them. On the day of the declaration, we were in contact with 20 million of them. I never thought we would be like the Americans.”
Africa’s most populous nation is facing its most important, and most unpredictable, polls in more than a decade. They could chart a path to reform or expose religious and ethnic fault lines in its volatile regions.
But for once, in a country with a history of military juntas and rigged elections, the incumbent cannot be certain of victory. Jonathan’s candidacy disrupts a pact in the ruling People’s Democratic party (PDP) – in power since 1999 when military rule ended – that the presidency should alternate between north and south every two terms.
Jonathan, a southerner, inherited the presidency when his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, died last year during his first term. Many northern politicians say the north must be allowed to complete what would have been his second term.
Jonathan’s main challenger in today’s PDP primaries is northerner Atiku Abubakar , a former vice-president. If Jonathan wins, Abubakar could shift to an opposition party, turning the April general election into a contest between the predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south, with fears of a violent backlash from the losing side.
With the race unusually tight, Jonathan, a former zoology lecturer and keen squash player, is targeting the 35 million Nigerians aged between 18 and 35, a group previously neglected by politicians and which often has a low rate of voter registration. He is making extensive use of Twitter and Facebook, where he has more than 375,000 followers, and has recruited two Obama veterans.
Adoga Ibrahim, 42, a Nigerian business and political consultant who was living in Illinois when Obama ran for office, worked as an organiser in US primaries including Iowa and at the Democratic convention in Denver. He has now answered Jonathan’s call to return home and build a “new Nigeria”.
“I see parallels between Obama and Jonathan,” he said. “Both are children of destiny, share humility and think deeply about decisions before taking them. While everybody around them is losing their heads, they keep theirs.”
Ibraham, who studied marketing at Luton University, is planning to repeat Obama’s highly successful tactics. “Our campaign is rooted in the grassroots and reaching out to the people.
“The team has been to 32 states already. We are mobilising a bottom-up campaign which was the strategy used by Obama. We are trying to forge a new coalition.”
Jonathan is hoping to tap into a demand for change by young people who, half a century after Nigeria’s independence from Britain, feel frustration at unemployment, power cuts, dysfunctional transport system and extravagant corruption that has wasted the nation’s potential and left 70% of citizens in poverty.
Pius Adesanmi, author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!, said: “It’s 50 years of atrophy, unrealised promises, potentials thrown away, corruption, military dictatorships.
“What went wrong, what are we not doing, why are we, even by African standards, lagging behind with all that potential and all the money?” But he added: “I see a lot of hope. We are seeing a generation of Nigerians who have travelled, in Britain and the US, and say no, we want what we see outside, we want it right here.
“I sense that even in the rural areas this thing is growing and spreading, it’s reaching a critical segment of society. They’re starting all kinds of groups for political advocacy and activism. The Obama model of house parties is spreading all over.”
Among the groups that have sprung up in the past year is EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE), which is driving a youth voter registration campaign and aims to mobilise 10 million by 2015.
Its co-founder, Chude Jideonwo, explained: “We will wake up one morning and it will be Somalia and the pirates and we’ll have no government that we can speak of.
“These things are already part of our country where the government has lost control. There are already kidnappings, the Niger delta situation, ethnic wars.
“If our country continues to drift away, and we all just content ourselves with platitudes about a ‘great nation’, at a point it will no longer be the case.
“EnoughisEnough was formed on the premise: look, we don’t want to get to a point where we reach our threshold and there’s nothing we can do. Let’s do something now, while we still can.”
Jideonwo, 25, praised Jonathan for prioritising young people and forcing other candidates to follow suit. “Young people are more aware of the issues, more concerned about the country and angry about the state of the nation,” he said.
“There has been a sense that our leaders can act without consequence, but we’ve seen a renewed interest in politics and society and in young people believing they can make change happen.”
Jideonwo is also editor of Y! , which claims to be Nigeria’s first youth culture magazine. Its glossy colour pages range from interviews with celebrities, police and children who clean cars in traffic to features such as “50 young people who will change Nigeria,” and “Meet the mosque-teers: What does it mean to be young, Nigerian and Muslim?”
The magazine has political content including a sceptical look at Jonathan’s election campaign headlined: “Can we trust this man?”
But not everyone is convinced that young people will really make a difference. Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress and a senatorial candidate, said Nigeria was far from ready for the kind of online mass movement that swept Obama into power.
“Women and local people don’t know what Facebook is all about, while most of the guys on it don’t register to vote,” he said. “The people who do register are mainly common people: artisans, traders, peasants and farmers.
“Facebook and Twitter are most likely young, educated people chatting and expressing their opinion. Many lament Nigeria’s problems but are not prepared to queue and register. Print, television and radio are still more important.”