“That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to this social media business.”
Two weeks ago, a young Nigerian, Yusuf Onimisi, vanished from Twitter, days after posting photos he took, with his phone, of soldiers mobilised in the wake of the attempted jailbreak at the DSS headquarters in Abuja.
Expectedly, the news filtered online in no time. A group of social-media-savvy persons started a loud campaign alleging that the DSS was responsible for his disappearance. There were rumours he had been beaten and possibly even killed. The DSS, thinking this was still 1994, at first refused to comment on the matter. Eventually, in the face of immense local and international pressure – mostly driven online – they released him.
While it is difficult to justify the wisdom of live-tweeting a military operation like that (especially when your access is made possible only by the fact that you work very close to the highly-sensitive Presidential Villa grounds), it is even more difficult to justify the decision of the DSS to clandestinely abduct and detain him for more than two weeks. I shudder to imagine what might have happened had public outcry not followed, courtesy of social media. Would he have ‘disappeared’ the way several Nigerians disappeared during the Abacha days? Are we running a Gestapo state here, in 2014?
If there’s something Nigeria’s governments and law enforcement agents need to know, it is that things have changed a lot since the days when Nigeria was enveloped in a dense darkness. Now the web is lighting up Nigeria, in its own way. Concealing information used to be the default position of the authorities. Now it’s not such a smart idea. With the way the Internet and social media are showing up spin for what it is, press statements from the government or the military might as well start bearing ‘Official Propaganda’ stamps.
Nigerians also appear to be getting used to expecting greater accountability. The power embedded in mobile phones and all engenders a welcome giddiness; after decades of repression, Nigerians may just be finding their voices, and casting off the spirit of fear that military dictatorships embedded into the collective unconscious.
Just last week, the Nigerian military found itself in a most embarrassing place with the premature announcement that most of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls had been rescued. If that had happened in the 1990s, it might have ended there. But in 2014 the cries of hapless parents can be amplified by social media, so that CNN is easily able to pick it up and expose the government’s deceitful ways.
Recall early 2013, when President Jonathan was on Christiane Amapour’s show to declare that Nigeria’s problems with electricity were almost over. What the President failed to consider was that at that same time multitudes of Nigerians were inundating CNN with complaints about electricity. It left Ms. Amanpour puzzled. Who to believe – the President praising himself or his people insisting nothing had changed?
The world has changed; period. It’s pointless complaining. I’m sure President Jonathan must be envying Mr. Obasanjo, who ruled in a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter age. But we also shouldn’t forget that the President once rode the Facebook wave to his own advantage, before the fuel subsidy misstep in January 2012.
If he took the praise of social media, he should also take the pain.
That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to this social media business. There’s an unbelievable cruelty that Internet anonymity cultivates; allowing anyone to hide behind a false identity to say anything without having to prove it. We saw that happen recently when Reno Omokri, Special Assistant to the President on New Media, was implicated in a plot to link Lamido Sanusi to Boko Haram, using fake online identities. That matter instantly raised the question; if the government genuinely believes that Mr. Sanusi has questions to answer regarding Boko Haram; why not formally investigate? What are you the government for if you have to act like terrorists on the Internet?
Pursuing romantic liaisons on the Internet is also fraught with danger. Over the weekend a Nigerian newspaper reported the case of two married Nigerian men lured to their deaths by a man who posed as a woman on the social networking site, Badoo. It’s a tragic story. For Nigerian men who can’t believe how much easier the Internet has made finding sex; now is probably the best time to exercise some life-saving caution. It applies to women as well; the case of Cynthia Osokogu, who in 2012 met death at the hands of two young men she met on Facebook, is a lesson in restraint.
No doubt, in the age of social media, the demands on common-sense are going to intensify.
But it does seem to me that those who will have to face the most painful adjustment to the new game that is social media (indeed it’s not merely new rules; it’s a new game altogether) are the authorities: governments, public officials, law enforcement agents.
There are two options: you can choose to continue in the current mode of engagement, keeping the spin wheels spinning, resorting to mindless denials, insisting on ignoring the fact that things have changed; or you can choose to reconstruct a new mode of engagement, based on responsible behaviour, transparency and accountability.
If you decide on the latter, the first thing will be to quit lying, realising that the Internet imposes considerably higher tariff on dishonesty. When the Nigerian military says they’ve captured 700 vehicles from Boko Haram, or killed 2,000 insurgents in a recent operation, the world suddenly fills up with Nigerians asking, ‘Where are the photos?’ ‘Are they invisible cars?’
When a government official says the government created 1.6 million jobs in 2013; there are hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who now have the means to directly kickstart a storm, and query the Minister – ‘show us the jobs.’ And when the President goes on CNN to say Nigerians are enjoying unprecedented levels of electricity supply, remember that the same CNN is being inundated with on-the-ground reports from the supposed beneficiaries of the phantom electricity.
In my opinion, the easiest way to adapt to the Internet age would be to strive for higher-quality levels of governance.
In the case of the military, it’s time to stop the pathetic propaganda; everyone can now see through it. Devote the energy to facing the real task of running a competent counter-terrorism operation. Ensure that the soldiers fighting in Borno are well-fed and well-paid (If a photo that made the rounds recently is to be believed; Nigerian soldiers on assignment in the North East are being fed like refugees). If there are any genuine successes – militant camps overrun, weapons seized, etc – share them as fact, without the backslapping edge to your tone.
Police and military convoys should behave responsibly on the roads, knowing that video records are only a matter of seconds away from going viral. A President who goes on a partisan partying binge barely 24 hours after a major bomb blast should get ready to see his photos splashed and mocked everywhere within hours.
For government officials, here’s a useful rule of thumb: If you don’t want it getting out, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. With the ease with which government documents can now be leaked, with or without FOI, governments should accept that the long walk to transparency may have finally kicked off.
That’s the reality of the world we now live in. It’s my hope that the fear of heightened public scrutiny, courtesy of the Internet, will inspire our governments to act more, and not less, sensibly.
Follow me on Twitter @toluogunlesi