Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

Alex Iwobi and tackling cyberbullying in Nigeria 12 Mar 2024

The recent incident where Super Eagles midfielder, Alex Iwobi, had to disable his Instagram account because of relentless online bullying over what some saw as his poor performance in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2023 Final, which Nigeria lost to the host country, Cote D’Ivoire, starkly illuminates the shadow lurking behind Nigeria's vibrant online presence.

This was not an isolated event.

From celebrities and politicians to everyday individuals, the scourge of online bullying and trolling has become a pervasive and deeply concerning issue in Nigerian society. Not long ago, online vitriol was directed at actress Adesua Etomi for her red-carpet attire. Also, there was a relentless attack on singer Tiwa Savage following the release of a private video. These are just a few examples of the cruel and often unfounded negativity that many Nigerians face online, and it cuts across the social strata. Some of the vicious attacks appeared to be baseless, suggesting the trolls were venting pent-up anger.

Victims are often left with emotional scars and a sense of vulnerability in a space that should lean more towards connection and expression. Many of them reportedly suffer anxiety, depression, and even suicidal pressures, with at least one person known to have committed suicide after being falsely accused of heinous offences by a person who later confessed to making untrue allegations. The chilling effect of celebrities like Iwobi silencing their voices underscores the real-world impact of this online toxicity.

A complex mix of factors enables the prevalence of online bullying from sections of the Nigerian online community. Anonymity emboldens some people to unleash their darkest impulses, while cultural norms around direct communication can sometimes translate into harsh online interactions. In addition, the pressure to conform and the lack of cyberbullying awareness contribute to a climate where hurtful attacks become normalised.

Nigeria's online community is quite influential and not unexpectedly dominant among Sub-Saharan Africa’s netizens. Apart from the country’s large and youthful population, social media trends tend to be led by the English-speaking communities. Nigeria has one of the largest English-speaking communities in the world, with over 60% of its population under 30.

Nigerians are known for their witty and colourful use of language, making their tweets engaging and shareable, and they have alternated frequently between using social media platforms for playful and serious purposes like community building, social movements, and holding authorities accountable.

Nigerians have used the platform effectively for advocacy and mobilisation. A particularly striking example of this was the #EndSARS movement. Twitter and Instagram were quite instrumental in sharing the experiences of the protesters, encouraging others to join the protest, and garnering international attention for the demand for police brutality to end in the country.

The success of #EndSARS showed how Nigerians could leverage their online engagement for positive social change. It has also been used to raise awareness about social issues like gender-based violence and environmental degradation, thereby mobilising support for advocacy groups and initiatives. The tech-savvy Nigerian population has utilised online tools for business creation, education, and skills development, fostering economic empowerment and innovation.

Nigerian youth use the power of online access and social media to bridge gaps and unlock new opportunities in their professional, educational, and commercial endeavours. They leverage online platforms to connect with professionals and mentors, access job opportunities beyond their immediate networks, and upskill themselves through online courses and webinars. Social media serves as a launchpad for young entrepreneurs, enabling them to showcase their talents, find clients, and build their customer base across time and space.

Educationally, online resources offer a wealth of knowledge beyond physical limitations. At the same time, collaboration tools like Google Docs and video conferencing foster seamless communication and project work among students and educators, regardless of location. Furthermore, MOOCs and other online learning platforms provide access to quality education from prestigious institutions at an affordable cost. They also establish themselves in the digital marketplace by selling directly to consumers through e-commerce platforms, bypassing traditional middlemen.

So, there are undoubtedly significant benefits from the access. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of time spent unproductively by some on social media may be responsible for the spate of bullying and the lack of a hobby culture in Nigeria – which deserves some attention.

Hobbies or leisure activities typically require initial investment, resources, and infrastructure. The lack of this can exclude young people from lower-income backgrounds or those living in areas with limited infrastructure. Social media, on the other hand, is often readily available and requires minimal resources, making it a more accessible pastime in a country with a youth unemployment rate of over 50%.

Social media can offer a form of escape, connection, and entertainment, even if virtual, and a way to pass time and explore interests. It creates avenues for emotional release, and if the predominant emotions being felt by a demographic include frustration, anger, unrest, and confusion, social media could be a veritable platform for their ventilation.

Hobby culture is a multifaceted aspect of societal engagement that revolves around individuals pursuing personal interests and activities outside their professional or daily responsibilities. It encompasses various hobbies, from creative pursuits like painting or writing to physical activities such as sports or gardening.

Nigeria only sometimes helps provide its youth with the avenues to discover and pursue hobbies even though several elements contribute to fostering hobby culture in a society. Access to resources, whether it be materials for a craft or a suitable environment for a physical hobby, is another key factor. Societal encouragement, through policies or cultural attitudes, can also influence the prevalence of hobby culture.

Engaging in hobbies often leads to the acquisition of new skills and the refinement of existing ones. Hobbies provide relaxation and stress relief, contributing to overall well-being. They can foster a sense of purpose and identity, enhancing self-esteem and mental health.

In terms of innovation, hobbies can act as catalysts for creativity. When individuals are free to explore their interests, they may stumble upon novel ideas or unique approaches to problem-solving. Many innovations throughout history have originated from passionately pursuing hobbies, demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between personal interests and broader societal progress.

Incidental education, while not a formal term, refers to the unintentional acquisition of knowledge or skills through the pursuit of hobbies. For instance, someone who takes up photography as a hobby may develop a keen eye for composition or learn about different cultures through documenting various subjects. This incidental learning adds depth and breadth to an individual's knowledge base. The relationship between hobby culture and social media consumption in Nigeria is intriguing. The lack of a robust hobby culture most likely contributes to excessive social media use.

When a society lacks a robust hobby culture, several consequences may emerge. Individuals may find fewer outlets for personal fulfilment and creative expression, potentially leading to a sense of emptiness or unfulfillment.

The absence of a shared hobby culture can result in diminished community bonds, so people in their thirst for community could look to quench that thirst by joining online mobs fighting for causes or reasons they don't even believe in.

There could also be diminished capacities for details, nuances, and innovations from diverse perspectives and unconventional thinking often fostered by individuals subtly separated from the herd by being deeply engaged in their passions.

It is crucial to emphasise that this is not solely a critique of Nigerian youth but rather a call to action for those responsible for shaping their educational and professional pathways and goals. With the overemphasis on online pathways without a strong foundation in offline technical skills, the current landscape presents a challenge that demands critical reevaluation and reform. An overemphasis on purely digital pathways to professional success presents risks. Building a robust economy requires digital fluency and a solid foundation in offline technical skills and engineering competencies. This ensures adaptability, problem-solving, and the ability to create and maintain the physical infrastructure that underpins even the most advanced online realities.

The onus lies on policymakers, educators, and industry leaders to collaboratively design pathways that equip young Nigerians with a balanced skillset. This would mean reinvigorating trade schools and technical training programmes. Investing in educational infrastructure, curriculum reform, and accessibility is imperative for moulding the habits of young people. Equally important is promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education at all levels, fostering a culture of innovation and problem-solving. Other interventions include encouraging public-private partnerships and fostering collaboration between educational institutions and industries to ensure skills training aligns with current and future workforce needs.

By critically reexamining and reforming the educational and professional landscape, we can empower young Nigerians to thrive in the digital age while remaining grounded in the essential technical skills to drive the country's progress. This holistic approach ensures a future where online prowess is not just a tool for consumption or emotional fulfilment via bullying and trolling but a springboard for creation, innovation, and a self-reliant Nigerian economy.

Online bullying and trolling are not likely to stop simply because people embraced a moral argument on their negative effects on others and themselves. They are more likely to stop because people simply entered a situation where they believed they could do much better with their time and effort and acted accordingly. Where time and labour are cheap, negative and unprofitable use of online platforms are alternative uses of these important resources. Ultimately, the country would have to increase the market value of those resources.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.