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YALI Voices Podcast: Social media expert and dancer ‘choreographs’ her country’s elections
August 15, 2016

(Courtesy photo - Fatu Ogwuche)
Fatu Ogwuche stands on a pier in Washington, DC.

That is a modest self-description for the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow from Nigeria who is dedicating her career to support open, free and fair elections across Africa. Ogwuche uses social media tools she has developed to monitor election irregularities and instantly report them in real time to electoral commissions.

Ogwuche reveals that after gaining a reputation as a troublesome student and great dancer, “I reinvented myself” ahead of the 2011 elections in Nigeria when she saw the need to document the way Nigerians were talking about the upcoming vote through social media.

She went on to work with an app designer to create an easy way for voters to find out where they should get their registration cards.

With elections, “one thing we also realized was with more engagement comes more participation,” she says.

Ogwuche also talks about how she wrote her own job description and found herself on the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria.

Listen to the full podcast to find out how she is using her new media expertise to increase transparency in African elections.

Don’t have access to Sound Cloud? Read a transcript of the podcast below:

THEME SONG: Yes, we can. Sure we can change the world.

MACON PHILLIPS: Greetings, young African leaders. This is the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. I’m Macon Phillips, and I’m so glad you’ve joined us today. Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up-to-date on all things YALI. If you like what we’re doing here, please take a moment to recommend us to a friend.

Recently, I sat down with Fatu Ogwuche, a Nigerian woman who has dedicated her professional career to support open, free, and fair elections across Africa. During the 2011 elections in Nigeria, she and her friend developed new media tools that monitored election irregularities and reported them in real time to the electoral commission. In fact, her tools were so successful, that she was hired as a new media consultant to implement them at the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria.

She now oversees project management, capacity development, and develop strategies for citizen engagement. Having worked in both the private and public sectors, Fatu gives some great advice on how to implement new technologies within civil service. Now let’s jump right into this interview with Fatu Ogwuche.

Welcome. It’s good to have you here.

FATU OGWUCHE: Thank you. Yeah, I’m excited.

MACON PHILLIPS: So let’s just kick things off. When you’re out and about and people say, oh, nice to meet you, what do you do, how do you answer that question?

FATU OGWUCHE: I say I am Fatu, an elections and technology consultant in Nigeria.



MACON PHILLIPS: And when we first met, you were just coming out of the 2015 elections. Is that right?


MACON PHILLIPS: And I have to say, no one really knew how that was going to turn out.

FATU OGWUCHE: Yeah. No one knew. We had many international news stations come into Nigeria because they thought they were going to cover a civil war shortly after elections. So they were a bit disappointed when they had to leave on seeing Nigeria had peaceful elections.

So really nobody knew. Even I worked directly with the electoral commission over the time when results were actually announced. I didn’t know how it was going to go because most people who even watched when they were announcing the results, they could see that some guy from the political party that was leading at the time decided to cause a scuffle.

But our electoral chairman, I think he was pretty chill in that moment. Because if he had matched his anger with anger, then we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now.

MACON PHILLIPS: That’s right.

FATU OGWUCHE: But here he was wise enough to quell the situation, and we had peaceful elections at the end. So I think everybody was really grateful for that particular moment, because we saw that there was a lot riding on the elections, and tensions were high. So for that quiet and gentle moment from our electoral chairman really changed the course of the elections, yeah.

MACON PHILLIPS: They have the expression back in the States– no news is good news.


MACON PHILLIPS: Of course, you got a new president out of the whole deal, but in terms of the election, it was pretty boring, all told, in terms of violence and all of that. So we were really pleased to see that as well. But we’ll get to that in a second. I’d like to rewind a little bit. Where did all the elections focus come from? Was Fatu in high school running for student government, trying to figure out the elections and following politics, or were you were pretty active?

FATU OGWUCHE: No. In fact, I have lots of my friends from secondary school. They tell me, what the hell happened? They think that I just disappeared and then came back. I reinvented myself. Because I was really troublesome in school. I cut classes. I had a thing with authority. I was always getting into trouble.

But I think what changed was in 2011. I was just about to graduate from the university. And a friend of mine– we were just getting ready for our 2011 elections then and social media was becoming a big thing in Nigeria. So a friend of mine called me one day and said, they are doing this new project around social media. The social media is new now. Twitter and Facebook were really big in Nigeria then. And we’re still exploring it, seeing how we could use it. We’re talking about food, lunch, football. And of course, the way Nigerians are, we tend to talk about things as they happen.

So we said elections are coming up. We need to figure out a way to capture and document the way Nigerians are talking about elections. So he told me about it. And I said, OK, yeah. It sounded interesting, and I didn’t really have anything to do during the holidays anyway.

So I said, OK. And then what we decided to do is we thought, OK, instead of just doing this in isolation, how about we create escalation path. So if people are talking about administrative challenges on the field, then we have an escalation path to the electoral commission, then we tell them. So it was like 911 situation. We let them know, and then they do something about it. Or if it has to with security violence, whatever it is, then we let the security agencies know. So it was a collaborative effort.

MACON PHILLIPS: So were you, for the 2011 elections, were you part of the commission? Or you were on the outside–

FATU OGWUCHE: I was on the outside.

MACON PHILLIPS: –trying to get those folks to work with you. And then four years later, you had gone on the inside.


MACON PHILLIPS: So how did that work? Did you just get to know folks there and then decide that you wanted to try to pursue a job inside of it? When did you choose to try to go from the outside to being part of the inside?

FATU OGWUCHE: OK, so this was after graduation. So by the time we’re doing this project, I was just about to graduate. I had just come home for holidays, going to go back to school to finish my exams. So after graduation, I was at home one day, and then this was also after law school. I was at home one day, and Jacqueline Farris, who is the DG of the Yar’Adua Foundation. She called me, and she said, um, so, what are you doing right now? And I’m like, well, I’m just at home, not really doing anything.

MACON PHILLIPS: Just got my law degree, just hanging out.

FATU OGWUCHE: Yeah, just chilling. I mean it just after finals. I wasn’t even really thinking about doing anything. I’m just like I need my brain to rest. Then she asked me, OK, yeah, so you’ve graduated, so you can write. I said, yes, I can write. So she said that, OK, that we’re going to develop the concept notes for the electoral commission because there’s certain value in what we did. And they wanted to have something permanent like that within in the electoral commission.

So she asked me to write the concept notes, and I did. So when I did that, of course, I needed somebody to be there to establish it. So that was how I got in.

MACON PHILLIPS: So you wrote your own job description, basically.

FATU OGWUCHE: (LAUGHING) Exactly! Yes, I did. I wrote my own job description.

MACON PHILLIPS: That’s a good piece of advice for all of you listening out there, who are trying to find a dream job. Just go ahead and write down what that looks like and get someone to buy on it. So that was after that election. So that was in 2012 or so?

FATU OGWUCHE: Yeah, that was in 2012.

MACON PHILLIPS: And so you spent a few years inside the commission before the next big election.


MACON PHILLIPS: What did you find when you arrived? The reason I ask is one of the things that I hear a lot, and certainly my own experience in government has been, particularly in the digital new media space, sometimes you get inside the door, and you look around, and you say, oh, boy, we’ve got a lot of work to do. So did you have to do a lot of education on the inside of what tools were possible and what strategies needed to be implemented?

FATU OGWUCHE: Yes, I did. And, of course, the electoral commission is a civil service. So you can imagine going into a system that was once opaque and people didn’t really like to share information, even within the system, because people like to work in silos. So if you’re coming and asking them for your information, it’s like, OK why are you asking me this? Are you trying to take my job? Are you trying to do my job for me? And then bringing in something like social media into that space, where everything has to be transparent, everything has to be open, you need to give information to the public. That was even a lot tougher than I expected.

But we also had this thing where the departments that were really relevant to information, like voter education department, the ICT department, those particular departments, where we had to actually give information to the public and this information, we had to get it from them. So going to them and telling them, OK, this is what we were doing, telling them the process about trying to get all this information was quite difficult, because they didn’t see the value in that.

So it was pretty tough in the beginning. But by the time they started seeing the value that the information we were putting out there for people was bringing to the commission and also to their jobs, then they were more open to it.

MACON PHILLIPS: I know that there’s a lot of people that are part YALI that either currently work in some sort of civil service inside the government or want to, but sort of recognize that it’s so hard to change. And listen, I work in government, too, in this area. So for all of us, if you could just give one piece of advice based on that experience, which sounds like it was successful in terms of getting people to change how they work and embrace these new technologies, what would you whisper in someone’s ear when they’re walking in the door on the first day?

FATU OGWUCHE: Be patient, and this is coming from a very impatient person. I think I’m the most impatient person in the world. But I think that’s what working with government teaches you, that you have to be patient. Because you go in there, especially if you’ve done work in the private sector before, and you go in there and you expect things to happen, like that minute. I can’t understand why people have to drag their feet. And you also have to understand that there are people within the system that just want to frustrate you. They’re like, OK, who is this young person coming and telling me, who’s been on the job for 30 years, what I should do.

But, while some people are out there to make your job really hard, by the time you cultivate good relationships– like, for me, also about unfolding my own myth. So I had people tell me, oh, this person and that person and that person, oh, they are the most difficult people. Nobody can work with them. But by the time I got there, I said, OK, look, these people are going to be better as friends of mine than adversaries or anything. So I was able to cultivate those relationships with them. So by the time they knew, OK, she’s on our side. Here we have a good cordial working relationship. Then it was easy for things happen. So just be patient and just cultivate good relationships within the system.

MACON PHILLIPS: Yeah, what I’m hearing there too, based on what you were saying earlier too, is recognize that sometimes people are threatened by new technology and that they may not just be resisting because they don’t like you or they’re lazy or all the other things that we might want to think. It’s also that they’re just scared at some level. And the more you can build trust with them and explain to them what’s happening and how it’s ultimately going to make it easier for them, the more effective you’ll be.

It strikes me also that your work is a really good example of digital and social media as what everyone calls that two-way median.


MACON PHILLIPS: There’s a lot of people to look at social media and they say, it’s a better way for me to blast out my information. I can put all these pictures and all these videos. And then there’s other people that say, social media is about having a conversation and all the cliches that you hear. And they never really operationalize that.

But I think truly with the work you did around the elections, you were both getting information out but also using social media to bring information in. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship?

FATU OGWUCHE: So for the elections, which pretty much involved almost every person in Nigeria, whether you were eligible to vote or not, because people really had an interest in the electoral process. So for us, it was about creating two-way engagement. So it just wasn’t us putting out information. We’re also getting information from people as well. So the one thing that social media was able to do was review the needs of Nigerians and voters.

So for example, based on the kind of things that they were asking us, we were able to develop strategies around that and develop the kind of answers they wanted to give them. So we had different activities towards the elections, from voter registration to how do you replace your card if it’s lost or damaged. But most of these things, we didn’t even know most people wanted to know until they started asking us about them.

So we had this particular voter registration drive, where people had to go to particular places to you register or get their cards. But most of the systems had changed, so people now found out, OK, so if I go to where I registered in 2011, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s where I go to get my voter’s card.

So instead of asking us questions about it, we decided instead of getting this person’s information and then going into the database to look at exactly where you should go get your card, we decided to partner with an organization called CC Hub, Co-Creation Hub. And they developed this Go Vote for us. So what happens is that you put your voter identification details in a particular box on the app. And then it tells you where you should go get your card. And you also had an SMS system, where you just send it to a particular short code, and it sends a message back to you to tell you where to go get your card.

So things like that were easy. And if we didn’t know that these were the things that people were asking for, we could have just been saying, oh, yeah, go get your card. Go get your card. Your cards are ready. Go get your card. But the fact that people were telling us, OK, this is not what it once was. Like you need to guide us.

So we reviewed the needs of people. And we found that even up to the election day, we kept on having to change our strategies and the kind of information we were putting out. Because the information we put out today, for example, tomorrow is like nobody needs it anymore, because they need something new. They needed new information.

MACON PHILLIPS: You were learning things as it happened and changing, as opposed to finishing the election and then doing a review and saying, what should we do next time? And maybe we’ll get it right next time. You were able to adjust. Obviously, the story of the Nigeria election is just a bright spot for all of Africa. And we have a season of elections coming up– a season of elections coming up. And you’re an old pro now– a new media pro– when it comes to elections. And so let’s try to forecast the future here, or at least tell me whether it’s here in Ghana or other elections that you’re paying attention to, what are some of the sort of issues and topics, not necessarily one candidate over the other, but in terms of the elections and making sure that the process is as healthy as possible. What are you really paying attention to right now?

FATU OGWUCHE: So from what I’ve found, I’m just talking to fellows in Ghana, in Somalia, in the DRC, countries that have elections towards the end of the year. And most of them just are not really fixated on the candidates. They just really want information that will help them cast their votes the way they should. I make sure that those votes are valid as well, because you know there are ways that you can decide to cast your vote, and it’s an invalid vote. So they need information that will help them get better prepared for the electoral process. And they are just now getting it right now.

MACON PHILLIPS: So this is more like voting– how to vote, not necessarily information about who to vote for– voter education.


MACON PHILLIPS: And that’s certainly something we grapple with a lot in the United States too. There’s also voter education, but also turnout and making sure that people are motivated to go to the polls.

FATU OGWUCHE: Yeah, to go out, yeah.

MACON PHILLIPS: So can you talk a little bit about turnout and how you’re seeing the role of technology impact that? Do you find that because of social media and because of all this, that you’re actually seeing more people paying attention to the process?

FATU OGWUCHE: We had some really unique things that we did with tech giants Twitter and Facebook for our elections this year. We actually found that despite our efforts in trying to get people to come out to vote, because one thing we also realized was with more engagement comes more participation. So people could just be sitting in their houses and they’ve already made up their minds about voting. But the fact that you see that the electoral commission or people are talking about electoral process, they also want to be part of it somehow.

In 2012, I actually read this research. It was Facebook research. And the title was “How the Democrats got an Upper Hand.” And they were referencing the Obama-McCain election. So they were talking about this button which helped like 600,000 extra people, young people, come out to vote because they wanted to use this particular feature. It was called I Voted Button. And basically, if you were voting in the US as a young person and you logged onto Facebook that day, which chances are, you did, there was a button just right there saying, you are a voter in blah-blah-blah elections. And if you clicked on it, you could just share your experience from your polling unit.

So I read that, and I was like, OK, yeah. So we’re not trying to benefit a particular political party, but let me see how we can use this to get more people to come out to vote.

MACON PHILLIPS: Right. When everyone votes, everyone wins.

FATU OGWUCHE: Yeah, exactly. So I know the head of Public Policy Africa on Facebook, Ebele Okobi. I contacted her. And she said, yeah, they were able to something like that for us– the first time in Africa. So they deployed that for us. And we saw, I think, 15,000 extra people used that– came out to vote because they wanted to use that, so– and for Twitter as well. They get this fast feature. So you send a particular message, a particular short code, depending on your carrier. And then if we tweet anything– information, breaking news, whatever– it comes to your phone as a text message free of charge.

It was actually tailored for people at the grassroots, people that didn’t have access to internet. So they could be getting the information as we put them out. And then we got about, I think it was 24,000– I’m not sure about the number now. But it was really great. And this are things that were provided to us free of charge, part of the public policy. So I see more things like that happening as we go along in Africa, things like that. And just seeing how other ways that technology could be integrated into helping the electoral process.

MACON PHILLIPS: Tell me something about yourself that would surprise people. You’ve got someone who’s a student, lawyer, then worked in the government, fixed elections around Africa, is on top of getting Facebook to step it up and help out. What’s another side of you that might surprise people?

FATU OGWUCHE: Well, I’m a really good dancer. Yeah, I’m a really good dancer. I used to be the best dancer in secondary school. I was the person that will go and watch all the Aaliyah videos and the Beyonce videos. And then I’ll come to school and when we had like social nights and people had to dance a particular song, like I was the one that was choreographing for them. I was watching all the B2K videos and doing the choreography.

MACON PHILLIPS: That’s awesome.

FATU OGWUCHE: And doing the choreography for them and all of that. And I remember “Candy Shop,” 50 Cent. It was like really hot at some point in school, and everybody was trying to do the Olivia bellyroll. And I was the only one that could do it at school. So I was like this hot shot, and everybody had to come to me to learn how to do it. So, yeah.

MACON PHILLIPS: OK. That’s a good answer. That qualifies. That answers the question. that’s a good answer, yeah.


MACON PHILLIPS: Yeah, I’ll take that. Yeah. (LAUGHING) OK. So Fatu Ogwuche used to choreograph dancers in high school, and now you’re choreographing elections around Africa.

FATU OGWUCHE: Yes. Now you see why people ask me what happened when they see me.

MACON PHILLIPS: There’s a thread. I can see that. You are doing incredible work in a really important area. I really appreciate your time today and best of luck to you.

FATU OGWUCHE: Thank you.

MACON PHILLIPS: I had a great conversation with Fatu. She’s a lot of fun in and obviously has been doing great work with her election efforts. But what really stood out to me is how well she understands the role of social media. She gets that it’s a two-way street and that transparency is a cornerstone of any effective strategy.

Many thanks to Fatu for sitting down and sharing her story with us. If you’d like to get in contact with her, you can find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and SoundCloud all under Fatu Ogwuche. That’s F-A-T-U O-G-W-U-C-H-E. Thanks so much for listening and make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any of the upcoming interviews with other young African leaders.

You can join the YALI Network at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com and be part of something bigger. Our theme music is “E Go Happen” by Grace Jerry, produced by the Presidential Precinct. The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U. S. government. Thanks, everyone.