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Joel Popoola: Nigerian born British genius behind digital democracy project

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Joel Popoola

BY HENRY OJELU

Joel Popoola, a British citizen of Nigerian descent, is the founder of a digital democracy project – Rate Your Leader. Joel grew up in Gbongan, Osun State where he had his primary and post-primary education at St Paul’s Anglican Primary School and Gbongan Community High School respectively.

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Aside his first degree in accounting, Joel holds a Masters degree in Managerial Psychology from the University of Ibadan. He is also a software testing consultancy. Presently, Joel is an Advance Member of the Institute of Directors, Great Britain; Associate Member of Rain Cloud, Westminster; Member, London Tech Advocates, and Various Meet Up groups in North East of England.

In this encounter, he speaks on his digital democracy project, the need for accountability by public office holders, fake news, among other issues.

You are the brain behind the now globally rated Rate Your Leader app, which has its base in the United Kingdom. How does the app  work?

Rate Your Leader is a cutting edge bridge between the elected representatives and their electors. The app will help politicians to listen, connect and engage with the voters within their constituencies, providing them with the tools to improve their voter reach, target and broadcast to voters at the touch of a button, encourage people to register to vote, and engage directly with voters without fear of abuse.

On the flip side, it allows confirmed voters to communicate directly with elected representatives from their phones or tablets in a way that makes abuse impossible, as well as rating them for responsiveness. It pre-populates for voters their elected representative based on their ward, local council, federal constituency, senatorial district and states after which confirmed voters can directly start a conversation with the elected leaders that serve them, constructively.

What motivated your interest in leadership and democracy and at what point did you get the idea for this app?

I joined the United Bank for Africa as a corps member in 1999/2000 and around 2001/2002, our then Managing Director, Mallam Abba Kyari (now Chief of Staff to the President) introduced a 360-appraiser system to the bank, where customers, colleagues, line managers all have a say in your annual performance evaluation. I could remember then that, the junior staff couldn’t be trusted to give feedback on our director’s performance; hence the question came to my mind, who appraises the chairman, directors and managing director.

As God would have it, I was privileged to join the bank’s condolence team to late Justice Atinuke Ige, shortly after Chief Bola Ige was murdered. In the bank’s team were our Chairman then, Hakeem Bello-Osagie; my branch manager, Busola Adebusuyi; Arnold Ekpe and Alero Otobo, from Human Capital Management, among others. I thought that having these people in Ibadan would proffer an answer to my question as to who appraises the directors, and consequently the chairman of a bank and by extension the governor of a state, a president of a country or who is qualified to appraise them.

There and then, the seed of Rate Your Leader was sowed. Getting to the United Kingdom was just the icing on the cake; more often than not politicians would send flyers to houses inviting people for surgeries, to join their campaign and all that. One day, I asked myself, why can’t the politicians reach the residents online real time through a credible platform and allow engagement within their constituencies?

This would not only give back power to the people to hold their leaders accountable, but will also help the leader to know what matters most to the people whose interest they are serving. That was the beginning of the digital democracy project – Rate Your Leader

Are there plans to replicate this novel app in Nigeria and other developing countries?

Yes. We did a pilot in Nigeria earlier this year and we are planning the launching of the app in a few weeks’ time across all the states. We will be looking at about four other African counties in our first phase of expansion.

What does the Nigerian system stand to gain if this app is enlisted in the country’s democratic system?

Crucially, as many that have lost faith in their elected representatives will have their faith rekindled. Recall that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo sometimes last month, called on the media to do more to tackle “fake news or provocative information” he believes “can cause chaos, civil unrest, war, and even death.” However, I am of a considered opinion that the project’s Rate Your Leader app helps politicians engage with voters in their constituencies, helping them understand what matters most to the people who elected them and build relationships of trust with the electorate.

Politicians need to ask themselves why social media provides such fertile soil for dangerous rumours to take root – one of the main reasons is the lack of trust electors have for the elected. Young Nigerians are more likely to own smart phones than they are to vote. That is why it makes it so important for politicians to use that technology to build relationships of trust with the voters. Fake news of the kind we have seen in Nigeria of recent necessitates the public having reliable sources of information, and where is a better place to go than directly to their local representatives?

How secure is the app from invasion or disruption, especially by politicians who have perfected means of subverting processes?

It will be extremely difficult for anyone, either a politician or voter to register multiple accounts on Rate Your Leader. We use one of the most credible platforms to verify all users, unlike most social media giants where you can create thousands of accounts.

What is your take on the phenomenon of fake news and what impact do you think it will have on democracy, especially in developing countries?

The phenomenon of fake news and its impact on democracy all over the world needs to be nipped in the bud if nations are concerned about their unity and harmony. I urge electors to embrace new technology to take back democracy or risk the downside. From military rule to Africa’s biggest democracy, Nigeria has come this far in my lifetime. But fake news threatens our fledgling democracy. Fake news of fake explosions, fake massacres, fake roads and even a fake president are inimical to our growth as a society. This cannot continue.

How do you intend to get youths involve in this drive since it has more to do with technology?

The recent presidential election in Africa’s most populous democracy saw the lowest turnout since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, with just a third of voters turning up at polling stations. Almost half of young Nigerians now own smartphones, with research from analysts Pew showing that 48 per cent of 18-34-year-olds, and 39 per cent of all adults, access the Internet using their mobile telephones. We would take the news to universities, football pitches, club houses and everywhere we can, to draw the youth to the platform.

What do you think is responsible for the no motion movement in the country’s democracy since 1999?

There are a series of challenges that are responsible for this; the major one has to do with the electoral process. There is a lack of internal democracy within the political parties. Here, candidates for elective positions mostly emerge as the highest bidders. More often than not, people with deep pockets get nominations to be the flag bearers of their political parties.

I think at the party level, all the party members should be allowed to vote and choose who to represent them at any election. Selecting delegates to vote for presidential candidates, state governorship candidates as we’ve done over the years laid the corrupt foundation for vote-buying. This has now extended to our polling stations.

There is a huge disconnect between our elected representatives and the people who elected them. No means of reaching them at all, immediately they are voted in, they disappear only to come back after four years, canvassing for votes.

There are no means of holding them accountable for their campaign promises. In the United Kingdom, almost two-thirds of Britons believe the political system is “rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful” and only half believe they can influence politics.

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These figures cannot be significantly different if the same research is conducted in Nigeria. There are no popularly known ways of sending direct messages to our elected leaders in Nigeria. No official emails, a majority of our elected leaders are still using Yahoo email, Gmail, or Hotmail for official matters; there are no official phone numbers and where one is provided, you can’t reach them. Your call goes straight to a voicemail or answering machine.

Vanguard

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