New figures show that Nigeria has the highest number of internet users in all of Africa – and some of the best internet penetration in the continent, with 61.1% of our population now online.
This compares to an African average of 39.3% – and just 13.9% and 12.7% in our neighbours in Chad and Guinea, both of whom have much smaller populations to penetrate!
We’ve come so far so fast. At the turn of the millennium, only 200,000 Nigerians had access to the internet – just 0.09% of the present-day estimated population.
This progress has allowed Nigeria to weather the Covid-19 storm better than neighbouring countries, allowing many of us to work or study from home in a way we might not have been able to if we lived in any other West African country.
We are also the African nation with the second most Facebook members – behind only Egypt – thanks in part to Facebook Basic, which allows users to access the service without data charges. As I have repeatedly called for, we need educational sites to be data free in order to help the next generation of Nigerians catch up on the education the coronavirus has disrupted.
But technology alone is not enough to make Nigeria a digital leader or Africa’s first truly digital democracy.
Digital training facilitated by the UK government has shown that 57% of Nigerian small business owners were unable to identify a phishing email.
This is ironic, as our nation has an unfortunate international reputation for so-called “Nigerian Princes” being the global source of these scam emails.
But what is most alarming about that statistics is this: these were not remote farmers in my state who had never seen a computer before. These were business leaders.
This has worrying implications for our democracy. If some of our smartest and most sophisticated people are unable to tell when someone is trying to rob them, we have to assume that whole swathes of our population are vulnerable to online misinformation intended to subvert democracy.
This issue requires leadership.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead we have created a free mobile app – Rate Your Leader – to allow local leaders to provide that leadership.
Rate Your Leader puts politicians in direct contact with verified voters from the areas they serve – allowing them to better understand what matters most to the people who elect them, respond to local concerns and challenges, and to collaborate with local people to improve their communities.
It also allows them to intervene directly to correct online myths and falsehoods, and to signpost their residents towards the information they need to stay safe and to improve their lives and communities.
It can also help them better fulfil their democratic responsibilities.
Rate Your Leader also allows voters to rate the information they receive from politicians – showing their peers and neighbours that their local leader is a source of credible, valuable information. Other social media platforms will verify accounts to confirm that you are talking to the person you think you are – but only Rate Your Leader can prove that they are worth talking to!
Unlike other social media platforms, Rate Your Leader’s abuse-proof technology also makes it difficult to send impolite, aggressive, or offensive messages.
The coronavirus has acted as a catalyst for the acceleration of digital transformation across Africa, creating opportunities for innovation, increased productivity and job creation. Some analysts predict that within four years the digital economy will contribute $180 billion a year to Africa’s economy – 5.2% of the continent’s GDP.
But to achieve that we need a workforce equipped with the digital skills to harness the opportunities of the online age.
To achieve that we need leaders with the vision, drive and commitment to public service to take the decisions we need to get us to that point.
And to achieve that, we need a digitally aware electorate, with the ability to assess the vast volumes of information and misinformation being beamed directly into their homes via their phones, to elect the politicians who possess those qualities.
But, as is so often the case in the age of mobile apps, the answer is in our hands.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the free Rate Your Leader democratic engagement app for smartphones. Follow Joel on Twitter via his handle @JOPopoola