Turning point.

I remember that morning well. A week or so earlier I’d been informed via a random phone call that a group of Nigerians would be monitoring their forthcoming Presidential elections using FrontlineSMS. There had been frantic activity ever since, culminating in press releases and text messages with Bill Thompson, emails with Jon Fildes, and a Skype call with Gareth Mitchell – all journalists connected with the BBC. With the election only a couple of days away, the story had to break now else we’d miss the chance and it would no longer be news.

I woke up early, around 5:30am, and headed straight to my office. I was on a Fellowship at Stanford University at the time, and was living in what I jokingly called my ‘Global HQ’. It was, in fact, a 1973 VW camper van which I parked up on the edge of campus. As a result, it was a very short walk to my desk.

Once I got there I went straight to the BBC website and immediately saw the headline. I remember reading the article over and over, excited, nervous and proud and not yet aware of the implications this breaking story was to have on my future, and that of my work.



As far as turning points go, this was a big one. Almost everything that has happened to me and my work since can be traced back to that 5:30am start. I hate to think where I’d be now without it.

You can grab a PDF of the citizen monitoring report that came out of the process here.

Nigerian youth ask: What about us?

I owe a lot to Nigeria. Throughout 2002 I lived in Calabar where I helped run a primate sanctuary. I made many friends and gained a real understanding of many of the problems facing the country. Five years later, in 2007, a loose coalition of Nigerian NGOs took our FrontlineSMS platform and monitored their elections with it, a breakthrough moment for us and for them.

This guest post, by Nosarieme Garrick, speaks volumes for the strength and character of the many Nigerians I’ve met over the years. It’s an honour to be able to help spread her message. I hope it resonates with you, too.

“The journey back to Nigeria was unexpected, but the planning came like a hurricane. One day I was chasing a story in New York, the next I was planning my trip back to the capital city of Abuja. So here I am pushing for the youth to truly exercise their civic duties in every sense of the word.

It started almost a year ago with a post on CNN Amanpour’s blog offering constructive criticism to Nigeria’s leaders, which received a deafening response, and persuaded me that sitting from the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment, ranting about that which ails Nigeria wasn’t good enough.

At the time a number kept haunting me – 70% of Nigeria’s population was under the age of 30, that’s 105 million people, yet the educational system is deplorable, food prices are so high that the average student can’t afford it, and millions of kids work the streets everyday hawking goods to help their families out. The majority of the country is disenfranchised. I looked at the political arena of Nigeria, and started to understand why, the lack of representation for the youth, with most of our political leaders way over the age of 50.

I realized the Nigerian youth had no voice. People had been making decisions for us, and we’d let them because we didn’t believe our votes would be counted. Countless times international observers had reported cases of electoral fraud but it never mattered, we’d watched complacently.

Growing up in Nigeria, every kid was aware of one thing if nothing else – children were to be seen and not heard. We didn’t stay in the room when our elders were talking, we didn’t question anything our elders said, and we definitely didn’t hold an opinion on their actions, wrong or not. In a sense there was a culture of fear created, what were we afraid of? Maybe lashes, being reprimanded, I’m not too sure anymore, we just knew that’s how things were. The home was a reflection of our leaders, we knew they were up to no good, but we said nothing for fear of jail, or even worse – death.

In April of 2010, I got together with some friends and came up with Vote or Quench, a youth driven, social media-focused organization seeking to engage our young people in Nigeria’s opaque political arena, and build a bridge between the diaspora and Nigerians at home. Inspired by the monitoring of election violence in Kenya, and the Iranian Green Revolution, we decided that 2011 would be the year young Nigerians would hold Nigeria’s leaders accountable, and create an atmosphere that encourages free and fair elections.

Since my return home, I have understood that we were not the only youths that felt that way. We paired up with a number of youth empowerment organizations (Enough is Enough, Sleeves Up) along with several blogs (CP-Africa, Last Plane To Lagos ) and young Nigeria celebrities (Nneka) to push for a mass awareness campaign for the crucial two week voter’s registration period. On January 11th, 2011 we challenged the youth to dream up the positive change that could happen if Nigerians went out and voted, using the hashtag #IFNAIJAVOTES. The campaign was a success, trending in Nigeria, and garnering massive support around the world to get people out to register. The registration period saw a huge turn out, with a recorded 64.5 million registered voters out of the eligible 76.5 million, despite huge setbacks by the flawed process. This spoke tons on the willingness of young Nigerians to go out and vote.

The culture of intimidation is quickly losing its edge as we have seen through the courageous, death defying acts of the Arab world. The youth have risen up and are standing up for their civil rights, and this is being mimicked through the world, Nigeria being one such example.

We are teaming up with these organizations once again to call for the first ever youth-centered presidential debate. As youth make up the 70% block of registered voters, we understand the power of our vote, and request that our candidates take an evening to address the youth that has been failed by previous administrations. Since the handover to civilian rule in 1999, presidential candidates threw out vague rhetoric about their plans to fix our country, however power outages are still a norm, infrastructure has yet to be developed outside of major cities, and what’s even more alarming is that our unemployed youth are quickly falling to crime, used as political weapons to disrupt elections, used to divide communities as we’ve seen in Jos, or are joining militia groups in the Niger Delta.

We will be utilizing social media and SMS to crowd source questions from Nigeria’s youth. We want to give the youth a platform to have their frustrations heard, and hear directly from our aspirants, in order for them to be held accountable for the promises they make. The problems of a militant youth in the Niger Delta are not dissimilar to those of a child bride in North, nor are they dissimilar to an undereducated youth of the east, resorting to kidnapping to make a living.

We want to know what these candidates have in store for the youth to get them back on track and give them the future that is owed to them by the country. We want to know why they are deserving of the youth vote. We are standing up, and asking: “WHAT ABOUT US?

Here’s how you can help:

Many young Nigerians have no voice, and we are here to provide them with one that is so desperately needed. For one day, we’re asking you to support them and do your part for our collective future.

What: Campaign to Support “WHAT ABOUT US?”
How: Dedicate your profile pictures and social network statuses to “WHAT ABOUT US?” and attend a virtual event at http://tinyurl.com/WAUEVENT
When: Thursday March 3rd, 2011

Thank you.”

A product from around the world, but loudly repping Nigeria, Nosarieme Garrick is a journalist, entrepreneur and activist currently leading the VoteorQuench.org campaign in raising awareness for youth participation in Nigeria’s upcoming elections. You can follow her – @Nosalikes on Twitter – or email her – Nosarieme [at] voteorquench.org

FrontlineSMS: Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

In this, the second of a series of guest posts on how FrontlineSMS is being used around the world, Dr. Mohammad Akbar and Kenneth Adam – Director and Business Advisor respectively at Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA) – talk about their current and planned uses of the platform, and the impact it is having on their work

“A recent special edition of a radio programme for young people in Afghanistan was devoted to one topic – the shocking recent acid attack on girls attending school by violent extremists allied to the Taliban. The impact on the audience was recorded in some 300 phone calls from listeners – a record for the long running programme “Straight Talk”, produced by a team of young broadcasters from Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA).

This audience response provides an example of what is possible given the enormous growth in mobile phones in Afghanistan, well over 6 million and rising at over 100,000 a month. Young people in the troubled south often feel isolated and bored, trapped in a conflict which shows no sign of going away. Development activities have largely been suspended because of insecurity. They want to hear and view programmes on issues important to them, and to contribute to the debate, and with 84% of households possessing working radios and 38% TVs, there is great potential in this approach.

MSPA "Straight Talk"

MSPA will be using FrontlineSMS as one of the tools in a new project as part of a British Government-funded media initiative to engage with young people specifically in conflict affected regions though interactive radio programming, tied in with a national competition for young people to produce short video films on their mobile phones. FrontlineSMS will play a key role in the competitive process of selecting the individuals to be given the new mobile phones and trained in their use. This project is planned to start in April 2009. Initial trials using the software are underway, with a view to collecting information on listeners’ views on a variety of topics and feeding these back to them with the help of FrontlineSMS. This will allow active dialogue on issues as varied as the activities of NATO forces in the country and whether Afghans should bear arms, to commenting on education and health services.

Another important application this year will be in the run up to the Presidential Election  in September. The media is key to informing the population about the rights of voters, and about the policy of different candidates. FrontlineSMS could be used to elicit the views of listeners in different categories and feed back the results to listeners, prolonging the debate and in so doing capturing the interest of people who are actively engaged in the debate”.

Dr. Akbar, MSPA Director
Kenneth Adam, MSPA Business Adviser
Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA)
www.mspa.org.af