Nigeria is not a country known for its responsive leaders. High-level politicians rarely engage with the electorate, and it's commonly complained that the voice of the people goes unheard. But newly-confirmed President Goodluck Jonathan may be changing that: a few weeks ago he opened a Facebook account, and two days later reversed a controversial decision after hundreds of fans posted disappointed reactions on his wall.
The decision in question followed on the heels of the Nigerian national football team's dismal performance at the World Cup. After their elimination from the tournament, Jonathan announced the team would be suspended for two years while plans were carried out to eliminate corruption. “The problem of Nigerian football is structural,” the President's communication adviser told the press. “There is need to withdraw from all international football competition so that we can put our house in order.” But many fans were displeased with the news, complaining that the suspension was unfair. On July 5th, Jonathan reversed his decision, posting the following message on his Facebook wall:
I read your comments and took them into account in the government's decision to rescind the suspension of Nigeria from International Football. I had a meeting with the NFF [Nigeria's national football federation] today and conveyed my disappointment and those of Nigerians on this page and received assurances that there will be positive changes …
But was Jonathan's change of heart really a response to citizens voicing their frustration on Facebook? FIFA, the international body governing football, also disagreed with the suspension, and gave the President a week to reverse it. Jonathan's decision to reinstate the team fell exactly on the deadline set by FIFA, leading many to wonder if it was the powerful football organization – rather than the Nigerian people – that made him change his mind. SolomonSydelle writes:
This now gives the impression that Jonathan bowed under pressure to an international sporting organization. That perception can be harmful for Jonathan who only has a few months in office before presidential elections… Furthermore, the snafu between Jonathan and FIFA raises questions about the behavior of the football agency, which challenged the decision of a sovereign leader in an avoidable way.
Jonathan is not the first head of state to join the world of social networking. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez famously joined Twitter in April; Chile's Sebastián Piñera tweets, along with his entire cabinet. But the question remains whether leaders will use platforms like Twitter and Facebook interact with their constituents – or merely as one more way to disseminate an already-fixed agenda. Nigeria is approaching an election year and it is anticipated that Jonathan will want to stand candidate; popular moves like joining Facebook and reinstating the Super Eagles may merely be a ploy to win over support in advance of the election. “Is this not another play of words? is this not another design to flatter Nigerians?” wrote My pen and my paper.
For Mr. President to go back on his decision looks to me like an attempt to throw his words around for the sake of speaking.
Perhaps. Time will tell if Jonathan is merely maneuvering for political advantage — or truly listening to the requests of his people.