Governance challenges in Nigeria are broad, diverse and at times sudden. When a list assigning portfolios to President Buhari's ministers-designate was posted on the social media on 1 November, 2015, it seemed authentic. Few questioned its veracity or suspected any ensuing problem or confusion. The list was hardly considered bogus, until it was disavowed by the Presidency. That incident wasn't the first time the social media would be deployed positively or deceptively as a tool for influencing policies in Buhari's six-month old administration. Social media was used effectively to critique Buhari's tardy political appointments and their being “sectional” and “lopsided”. The portfolio saga merely highlighted possible snags within the Presidency in handling policy issues in the media. Perceptible communication challenges confronting the Buhari government prompted Babagana Kingibe to publicly advise President Buhari that “to sustain change and overcome resistance, government must communicate very clearly – to Nigerians and the world at large – their core principles, strategies, policies, plans and programmes for change”. Offering that advice publicly was remarkable.
Nigerian policymakers' underestimation of the impact of social media platforms was first highlighted by the launch of GSM services in 2001, when policy failure by the Obasanjo government, led to the issuance of Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM) cards without their securitization. Realizing the folly of not monitoring the use of GSM-based platforms, Nigerian security agencies and the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, in 2008 initiated the registration of all phone subscribers in Nigeria. The registration exercise affirmed the impact of social media platforms on governance. It also enhanced national security.
Nigeria's governance modalities and structures at all levels are evolving. But the ever expanding scope and influence of the social media on governance is progressively perplexing. Indubitably, social media's influence on policymaking is side lining the mainstream media, while pushing the remit of mass communication beyond what some communication experts consider acceptable boundaries. The strength of the social media, which parallels its weaknesses, remains the anonymity it offers and its unfettered capacity to disseminate information expeditiously to many designated and involuntary receivers, via different platforms, the veracity of such information notwithstanding. Unlike mainstream media, social media is largely unregulated.
We thus encounter an emerging reality: social media-assisted governance. This not-always-salutary outcome, which sometimes borders on rumour peddling, derives in part, from the desire of social media activists to push special interest agendas, but also from government's tardiness or inability in handling vital policy issues in the public domain effectively. State sponsored social media activists have also contributed hugely to the devious and dubious use of the platform. Despite these pitfalls, the social media retains its redeeming values, meaning that Government must devise ways of positively tapping such values, while curtailing distractive aspects of social media.
Beyond conjecturing policy intent and outcomes, the social media have occasionally ascribed incorrect policies to the Buhari government, thus compelling the Presidency to refute such claims. Two such instances mentioned afore, pertained to ministerial nominees and the assignment of their portfolios. There were others; some very sensitive. One posting falsely averred to the dual nationality of the Nigerian senate president and another deceitfully alluded to the demise of the spouse of an incumbent governor. This means that Government must acknowledge for good or bad, the agenda-setting mode of the social media, especially now when the mainstream media is all but compromised due to ownership proclivities or excessive pandering to political leaders. Whereas “social scientists examining this agenda-setting influence of the mass media on the public usually have focus on public issues,” the scope and impact of the social media on Nigeria's electioneering, politics and governance modalities in 2015 was entirely unanticipated. Social media platform, Buharimeter, was set up to “address the challenges of governance” and “bridge the existing gap between the government and the governed.” Similarly, hashtags #Babagoslow and #Buharioptics were effectively used to critique the President's policies. The fervour to compel public policy direction and influence good governance in Nigeria via social media has become political, economic, philosophical and near-religious.
Whilst the role of the media on governance has long been recognized, the impact of social media has been less so. Still, Internet and social media have their 'nuisance value'. The social media has emerged as an inexorable and accepted tool for monitoring and critiquing governance. This development is propitious for Nigeria; now that its governance foundry is feeble and pushing for desired governance changes and requiring unconventional methods. Prior to the arrival of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Uche Nworah, a communication expert had posited that the Internet had “to some extent greatly reduced the 'worth' and 'value' of Nigerian journalists…because of the wide availability of internet bloggers and pundits.”
Still, the global influence and capacity of social media is not peculiar to Nigeria. Long anticipated, McGeorge Bundy, an adviser to two U.S Presidents had in 1968, predicted that “within this generation we shall certainly see changes in our capacity to communicate information greater than all that has happened since the intervention of the telegraph…we shall be able to put all sorts of information in all sorts of places in ways that we quite literally have not dreamed of until now.” This reality having materialized, the question becomes; how can a democratic government like ours optimize the use of social media, despite its excesses, without trampling on ordered liberties? Moreover, the Nigerian Government risks becoming conflicted, if it seeks to muzzle social media activists at a time when every nation is trying to expand the remit of the social media as tools for scientific research, teaching, security, revenue generation, banking, holding credible elections, monitoring demographics, emergency response and management, all under the platform of e-Governance.
Impact of information technology on governance is massive. Social media is gigantic and diverse and holds out infinite possibilities. Its reach is still growing and analogous to creative art. Paradoxically, “the digital economy, with its profusion of free content, was supposed to make it impossible to make money by making art. Instead, creative careers are thriving – but in complicated and unexpected ways.” Hence, in startling ways, social media activism goes well beyond being an introspective act of self-expression. Nigeria's leadership must recognize these facts. It bears acknowledging also, that the policies that Nigerian social media activists canvass are not altogether incompatible or irreconcilable with those of the Nigerian government. Changes in governance modalities must therefore rest on transparency, clear policy indicators and pronouncements, with a view to carrying the nation along, more so “when government is fractured and sub-divided – out of fear or special interest, or simple inattention.”
As Kingibe asserted, “We live today in a world of the 24-hour news cycle: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and all the other real communication tools of the Internet age. No leader or government can afford to lag behind their detractors in the competition for public support.”
Critical gaps and questions persist. Why has social media in Nigeria gained so much ascendancy in playing shadow policymakers or in overreaching and upstaging the government? Can the government engage social media activists who challenge its policies constructively, without adverse consequences? What policy options are germane under the circumstances?
The upshot: social media is a new normal reality that warrants clear guidelines, considering existing policy vacuum. A range of possibilities exist, but government can't afford a kneejerk reaction. Government should recognize and pursue several policy options. First, Government and social media activists must co-exist, pari-passu. Second, the Government must remain purposeful, true to its democratic bona fides and show its strength, albeit not coercively or physically. Third, the Government needs to augment existing information communication policies; “a more subtle task for the government is to find the right way of supporting public-service research in communication.” Fourth, Government should accept that “a residual mistrust of government is a necessary and desirable” part of any democracy. Fifth, Government shouldn't attempt to rein in social media excesses at the risk of breaching of the Constitution. Sixth, Presidential aides handling media issues must be proactive, not reactive, in expeditiously keeping the nation informed. Seventh, Presidential aides must benchmark clearly and make public, the President's engagement, travel schedule, policy announcements and their implementation timelines, all without prejudice to state security. Finally, habitual resort to rebuttals or disavowing of presumed government policies vended in the social media will always be defeatist.
Obaze, MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult, is a strategic public policy adviser and immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.