Early on Monday, 18 February, two days after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced the postponement of voting in Nigeria’s presidential elections to 23 February, a handle, which turned out to be a Bot, launched an incendiary graphic with four #HashTags #INECCompromised; #PDPBiafraNexusEstablished; #PDPElectionSabotage; #INECIbeanuMustGo. It tagged some handles, including the official handle of the ruling APC party.
The graphic launched in this hashtag alleged a grand conspiracy to unseat the ruling APC government hatched between the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), the leadership of the Parliament/National Assembly, election observers, the US government, INEC, and named leading civil society actors, among whom were Innocent Chukwuma (of Ford Foundation in West Africa); Chidi Odinkalu (of the Open Society Foundations); Clement Nwankwo (Civil Society Situation Room); and Olisa Agbakoba (Founder of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organisation of Nigeria and a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA). They linked this alleged network to Prof Okey Ibeanu, INEC’s Commissioner for Election Operations. All of this was supposed to be a network of influence deployed for the objective of realizing “Biafra”, the failed secessionist attempt that led to the Nigerian Civil War from July 1967 to January 1970.
On the back of this, also, the government launched an effort to intimidate INEC. The State Security Service (SSS) was instructed to arrest Commissioner Ibeanu. They invited him for interrogation and only last-minute advocacy and intervention involving senior international election observers prevented them from going ahead with arresting and detaining him.
There was only one link between the major civic actors named in this graphic – they are all of Igbo ethnic origin in Nigeria. They are also independent voices in Nigeria’s civic space. The effort to link them in this way to election and national sabotage in a time of serious electoral crisis was worse than a dog-whistle.
In the context of Nigerian history and present sentiments, this was akin to a declaration of war. It amounted to an invitation to a sundry army of sectional “patriots” and the security services to “defend” the “territorial integrity” of the country. In this way, therefore, a feedback loop may have been created that ultimately links the sectional violence and heavy handed security deployment that characterized the elections on the one hand, and digital manipulation on the other. How this was procured may ultimately be one of the revelations from the post-mortems on #NigeriaDecides2019.
What followed was the massive diversion and deployment of military and security assets in operations to violently interfere with voting in those parts perceived to be not well disposed to the ruling party and to procure inflated results from those parts perceived to be well disposed to the party. The INEC was itself forced to acknowledge this was the case in Rivers State, for instance. Conservatively, the body count of people killed in the elections is now over 730. The unique contribution of this election cycle to Nigeria’s pathology of violent elections is that many of these killings are attributable to the security services.
As it turns out, the deployments of security services in the elections was not just heavy handed, it was also counter-intuitive.In other words, rather than deploy military assets in those parts of the country that had chronic, structural violence, such as the North-East and the North-West, they were sent to parts that reported the fewest casualties in violence (South-East) or reinforced in parts with the longest presence of expeditionary military deployment (South-South/Niger-Delta). These geo-politics of deployments also coincided with the patterns of perceived support for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) or of antipathy towards it. The North-West and North-East which reported the greatest forms of deadly violence before the elections, are strongholds of the party, while the South-East and South-South were seen as strongholds of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). In the aftermath of the elections, the North-East, which has one of the worst crises of displacement in the world, inexplicably reported voter turnout rates more than double that of the very densely populated South-East and South-South. It is not surprising, therefore, that allegations of deliberate voter suppression by the government have been credibly made.
All of this was arguably triggered with the tweet which went viral within an hour of its launch on 18 February before migrating to the more WhatsApp platforms.The interaction between online behavior and off-line deployments was incredibly co-ordinated. There was clear interaction between the onset of official bigotry and violence on the one hand and the online virus and poison manufactured by government and the ruling party on the other.
It is important to recall that on the morning of 16 February, 2019, the INEC had convened a meeting of stakeholders to explain its decision to postpone the election. The ruling party, represented by its Chairman and former Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, had condemned the postponement of the election alleging foul play and demanding an apology. The opposition party on the other hand restated its confidence in the Commission.
In less than 48 hours after this meeting, online terror was unleashed on persons of Igbo ethnic origin starting with the hashtag #PDPBiafraNexusEstablished. This was closely followed with the hashtag #INECIbeanuMustGo. This hashtag was sponsored and trended using social media amplifiers and human-bots. Tweets went out at a rate of 25 tweets per minute and ended up with about 1530 divisive and hate-filled tweets in an hour. Some of these tweets tagged prominent verified handles such as that belonging to the Presidency’s digital strategist, Tolu Ogunlesi and the Vice-President himself. These tweets called Commissioner Ibeanu ‘a Biafra apologist and agitator’ and alleged he diverted materials meant for some northern states such as Kano and Katsina States.
It may be important to map out how strategic these sponsored hate-filled messages were. Kano had the capacity to deliver 4.9 million votes. Going by voting history, the bulk of votes had gone to the ruling party in 2015. Katsina also had the capacity to deliver 3.1 million votes and had often followed same voting pattern as Kano State. By alleging that Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu was in on an alleged conspiracy to suppress northern votes through a malign mismanagement of logistics, the sponsors of these messages were carrying out a systemic plan to unleash terror on INEC and persons of Igbo extraction.
The plan which took root on Twitter grew branches and became a regular WhatsApp broadcast. It is important to note that 41% of Nigeria’s internet users are on WhatsApp. This message spread quickly like wildfire ahead of the postponed date of 23 February, 2019. WhatsApp has been used as a tool for violent calls to action in the past in Nigeria. On the election day, reports filtered in concerning attacks in parts of Lagos State and Kano dominated by Igbo persons. There were videos of ballot boxes smashed and damaged, persons beaten, threatened and advised to ‘go back home’ and vote. There were video verified reports of heavy voter suppression at Isolo, Okota, Oshodi and Surulere, all parts of Lagos with substantial Igbo residents.
The voter suppression circle was complete, and people disenfranchised or, so we thought until the day after election when Igbo traders were rounded up and beaten for failing to vote for Buhari as alleged. This was without thought to the fact that APC had sizeable votes (compared to the turnout) in south-eastern states. The human bots took to twitter again to trend hate messages suggesting Igbos go back to their supposed ancestral homelands in South-East and South-South of Nigeria to vote in their own “states of origin” during Lagos governorship election, sharing information about an alleged ballot box snatcher ‘Demola’ (a Yoruba name from South-West Nigeria) who had allegedly been murdered by Igbos.In reality, persons of Igbo extraction had not only saved “Demola” from mob action (after he was accused of leading thugs to destroy ballot papers) but had taken him to hospital after saving him. Meanwhile, a call for retaliation was issued through various bot-like accounts. The retaliation message was further strengthened online by hate speech campaigner with a large online presence, Adeyinka Shoyemi (aka Adeyinka Grandson) through video and text messages put out on Facebook and Twitter. During the governorship elections, there was a heavier presence of security officials around Okota and Isolo areas of Lagos with a much lower turnout.
Social media platforms have not fared well in providing citizen regulatory framework as intended by their reporting mechanisms. The acknowledgment time of Twitter to reports made between 18 of February to 27 February, 2019 was an average of 56 hours. Feedback response time averaged 108 hours post-acknowledgment of report. Twitter’s mechanism provides a feedback which may state that an account has been found in violation without stating any corrective actions taken or sanctions imposed on the account. Facebook on the other hand has been more responsive to reports with a clear statement of actions taken. However, a lot is lost to a lack of cultural context of these hate-filled messages. It is usually dangerous speech intended to fan and incite offline violence but masked with cultural innuendos and may be given a pass as a regular post. The danger of this is that these merchants know their audience is vulnerable and absorb information with skewed emotions.
Studying this online electoral violence/ digital terrorism, a clear pattern can be seen with the actors. Actors can be grouped into the following classes;
i. Social amplifiers (Pay-per-click messengers for hire)
ii. Hate merchants (Ethnic bigots fanning flames of hate)
iii. State actors with motives (State actor capitalizing on amplifiers and hate merchants)
iv. Election merchants (Those who take this as a brief with no emotional attachment)
v. Social media influencers (those with large cult-like following)
Arising from the post-election violence of 2011, much focus has been placed on political actors to ensure accountability and prevent pre and post-election violence. Little or no attention has been given to keyboard terrorists during elections in Nigeria. It is interesting that the Cybercrime Act which has been used at times convenient for state actors to suppress free speech does not seem to come to play at this time. Section 26 of the Cybercrime Act, 2015 clearly calls out what happened from 18th of February through the gubernatorial elections as a hate crime. Despite these human-bots tagging government actors and being egged on by same, there may be no prosecution, or anyone being held accountable for what happened.
-Dr. Chidi Odinkalu is a senior team manager for the Africa Programme of the Open Society Justice Initiative, Abuja
-Nana Nwachukwu, a lawyer, is a knowledge management coordinator at Policy Development Facility Phase 11, Abuja