The campaign leading to the historic 2015 presidential played out on social media more than in previous elections. More Nigerians had access to the internet than previously. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), there were over 83 million internet users in the country in 2015.
The ubiquity of inexpensive smartphones meant more Nigerians were on social media, like Facebook and Twitter. According to Internet World Stats, the number of Nigerians active on social media grows by 21 percent in 2015. At least, 13.6 million Nigerians had active social media accounts.
Like ants on the trail of honey, politicians headed to social media to canvass for votes. Political campaigns are often mudslinging contests, but what played out in Nigeria in 2015 left a bitter taste in the mouth of many people and in fact, laid the bed for the disturbing trend of intolerance and harassment that is now shaping the campaign for the next year’s election.
Enraptured by passion and a desire to be rid of the lackluster Goodluck Jonathan administration, the online supporters of then-candidate Muhammed Buhari were intolerant of people with differing views. They were brash and condescendingly rude to anyone who was not as enthusiastic as they were about the capability of the former military ruler to govern the country better.
Buhari’s supporters were unkind to nonpartisans. They either accused them of being unpatriotic or cowardly. They coined the word “fascists” and made it a slur to describe those who were neutral. Several people were harassed and bullied. Some stopped sharing their political opinions online. Others either restricted those with access to their posts or quit social media altogether.
As we enter another election season, a new life has been breathed into the Frankenstein monsters of political intolerance and online bullying. While none of the major political parties is blameless, supporters of the Labour Party have clearly taken it several notches than we previously know. The teeming, mainly young supporters of the party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, will camp on the mention of anyone who voices the slightest criticism of Mr. Obi and pillories the person for hours, even days. You are paid, unpatriotic, or an enabler of the status quo.
Nobody is beyond their misguided reproach. They have harassed journalists for writing stories critical of Mr. Obi. They do not spare private individuals expressing personal opinions about the election their vitriol. They know no boundaries.
Last week billionaire Femi Otedola tweeted a photo he took with the presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Bola Tinubu, with a prayer that God should grant him his desire to become the president of the country. Labour Party supporters pounced on him and trolled him for hours. They didn’t stop there. They fired “strays” musician daughter, Cuppy.
Of course, their manner of campaigning seeks to burn bridges rather than build new ones should worry anyone. Of course, Mr. Obi, a two-termed governor, understands the importance of building bridges.
“I sincerely thank my supporters for believing in me and my commitment to building a united, secure, and well-functioning Nigeria. However, I appeal once more that we should be tolerant of other people’s views, dissent, and divergent opinions & possibly learn from them.
“Even as our message continues to gain broad acceptance, there are some we still need to work to convince. In expressing ourselves, we should do so with grace so as not to precipitately shut doors to future collaborations on sustainable nation-building,” he tweeted days ago.
As the election approaches, we hope Mr. Obi’s supporters, and in fact, the supporters of other political parties will listen to his wise counsel.
Ethnic distrust and religious hate in Nigeria are the worst since the civil war. Nigeria is at the borderline of complete disintegration. Throwing the petrol of incivility on these embers isn’t what we need now or ever. Genteel debates with those who disagree with us will help douse the fire that threatens our democracy and unity.
No matter how valid we think our political choices are, it will neither be right nor justifiable to cancel others whose legitimate political choices do not align with ours.