Joel Popoola, a digital democracy campaigner, is the founder of Rate Your Leader app. In this interview, he speaks on the need for elected representatives to be responsive to the electorate. WALE ELEGBEDE reports
What gave you the idea for Rate Your Leader?
On some level, the idea has been with me for a very long time, when I was working for the United Bank of Africa Plc. UBA introduced a new appraisal system to improve the bank’s governance and transparency and it was that which got me thinking for the first time that if businesses, organisations and even nations are to succeed, decision makers must be genuinely accountable for their decisions. On top of that, was a great privilege to do my Masters in Managerial Psychology at the University of Ibadan, the programme shaped my understanding of leadership, governance, and performance evaluation these are critical fundamentals for the development of this app. Things moved on when I was working in England. I suddenly realised that I had no idea who my local representatives were. I could find out online, but it took time and effort – and I thought, how simple would it be to just enter my postcode into an app and be able to contact my local representatives straight away? Back in Nigeria, I remembered that it can be almost impossible to find any contact details for local leaders – how can politicians be accountable when they aren’t contactable?” How can elected leaders build trust when they are not contactable?
How has the app been received by politicians?
I sat down with politicians to ask them how digital technology could help them serve their populations better. They told me how much they would benefit from being able to consult local people without having to travel to see them, or vice versa, and how much they wanted to know if something someone was contacting them about was a real local problem or one person’s odd obsession. The most shocking thing I learned was that they asked if the app could be abuse-proof. They can of course contact people using the big social networks but they abuse they get is absolutely horrific. We’re the only social media firm to make it impossible to send abusive messages. Nigeria is a country where we have to legislate to stop teachers sexually harassing students. Hopefully if people use technology like ours where it’s impossible to be abusive, they’ll get into the habit of being more courteous and civil in all of their communications.
You’ve spent a lot of time in England; how is politics different there?
I think it’s more a case of how they are the same – they have the same problem we do in Nigeria that too many people believe the people on the other side of a debate are acting purely in bad faith and only have the worst of intentions. In fact, almost all of us want the same thing – we just have different ideas for how we achieve it. Communication is key to overcoming this, and technology like Rate Your Leader makes that communication easier.
How can apps like Rate Your Leader improve voter turnout?
In a word, trust. Only 35 per cent of Nigerians voted in the last presidential election, compared to 69 per cent in Ghana. For me, the reason is a lack of trust and accountability. People just don’t think politicians care about them – they are just remote, irrelevant figures who people believe are only in it for themselves. I think one survey said that over 70 per cent of Nigerians think all politicians are corrupt! If people actually met their local politicians, they would probably see that that isn’t the case and that they care deeply about the local areas and people they serve. Building personal relationships between electors and elected is the first step to challenging that misconception – and the technology exists to do that at a touch of a button.
Can it change the way young Nigerians think about politics?
After God, It’s the government, we have access to God, but Nigerians do not have access to their elected leaders. We elected them to represent us, but we cannot reach them, not by email, phone call or even on social media. Or can you, for example, email any of the governors as an ‘ordinary’ citizen and get a reply? Their official emails are not even publicly available. Even, then when you have their contact and send them a message, they don’t deem it fit to reply. That’s the kind of non-interactive relationship Nigerians are having with the politicians in power. More than two third of our elected governors are still using personal Yahoo, Google, Hotmail email addresses for official matters. Anywhere in the world, democracy is all about three things, the people, the people, and the people! We cannot alienate people’s engagement from representative democracy. It’s time for Nigerians and especially our youths to add their voices and have a say on the direction of their future. Nigerians having access to elected public office holders is very fundamental to our development as a nation. Young Nigerians live online. It’s where they work, shop, socialise, get their news and even date – but our political culture hasn’t changed to keep up. Politics has always been something other people do somewhere else and the people are expected to be deferential towards their leaders and to just them get on with it. But young Nigerians are smart and confident and expect to have their say and the technology they have in their pockets can facilitate that. It’s time for Nigerian youth to get involved and add their voices to their votes.
Can digital technology help in the fight against corruption?
I think it can. We’re already seeing the government using better online digital auditing and cashless payments to ensure that every penny of public spending goes to the right place, and taking steps to make that information and procurement contracts available online – sunshine really is the best disinfectant. We’ve seen in trials of electronic voting which have had a huge impact when it comes to reassuring people that their vote was counted and counted for the right candidate! There’s a long way to go, but digital technology is certainly putting us on the right path. I’m also of a considered opinion that to solve Nigeria’s numerous problems, Nigerians must have patent access to their leaders and our elected leaders must be receptive to feedback.
What other projects are you involved in?
I once had a chat with the MD of Accenture Nigeria, Niyi Yusuf sometimes in 2018 in Lagos, and I was sharing my thoughts on how corporate organisation can position themselves to acquire and keep the new generation of customers at the formative stage. The good news is that I just finished testing the platform, theStarwriters. com, ready to be launched now for brands and high net worth individuals to build loyalty and fan base. I’m currently working with my team to develop an online youth training programme, which is central to developing the digital skills we need to make Nigeria Africa’s first digital democracy. I’ve also recently become a member of the prestigious Chatham House foreign affairs think tank, which is overly exciting.
Do you plan to take Rate Your Leader across West Africa?
Absolutely, that’s something we’re going to look at in over the next two years and we are seriously working at it.
What is your take on fake news in Nigeria?
Nigeria has a fake news problem like no other nation with even people sharing news that the President has been replaced with a clone and about imaginary invasions. But actually giving the government the power to shut down the internet and imprison people who use social media to say things they don’t like is like curing an itchy foot by cutting off your leg.