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The Power of Youth That Drove The #GrowNigeria Movement – By Edward Israel-Ayide

Middle of this year, I had a burnout. I lost the drive, became almost depressed and felt that everything was meaningless. It was one of the lowest points in the year, and I really craved for something to excite me. Work became increasingly drab, and Lagos traffic did not help matters. My daily commute to work on the Third Mainland Bridge, the longest of three bridges connecting Lagos Island to the mainland became times of personal reflection and soul-searching; it also made me realise how broken Nigeria’s system had become, looking at the excessive traffic on this highway. I kept wondering why it had become so difficult to fix this much touted “Africa’s 7th largest economy”. I also remembered with anger, that the present government in Lagos had campaigned that if we “Align Lagos with the centre” and voted for the same party in Lagos and in Abuja, we would find solutions to most of the problems facing the state.

That was in 2014, and almost 4 years later, there we were, still struggling to use the same bridges and roads that are the legacy of Nigeria’s past military rulers. I grew increasingly uncomfortable of whining and silent complaints. I promised myself that if the opportunity ever presented itself to be a part of a national campaign that ends our hallmark of incompetence and finger-pointing, I would dive in and do my part to save Nigeria from a promised change that had delivered no real substance.

The opportunity presented itself in August when my friend Ayobami Adekojo invited me for a meeting to discuss the presidential campaign of Nigeria’s Senate President, Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki. The meeting came as a surprise because before that time I had never met any member of his team and only knew of some work being done by his media team through friends. The meeting gave me an opportunity to see beyond what I had followed in the media about the man. At the first meeting, I met Femi Odewunmi, the team leader whom we all came to call FO. He gave me resources to study on my own and make up my mind if I wanted to join the team. I knew Ayobami to be a political strategist and a, our paths had crossed in 2015 when my partners and I were working on the Gubernatorial campaign of Seyi Makinde in Oyo State; Ayobami was working for the then PDP candidate Teslim Folarin. I had also done some work for FO’s agency INK Business Design on the Goodluck Jonathan campaign back in the days and knew immediately that this team was a formidable one.

The offer was for me to join the strategy team, but I was doubtful about the seriousness of it all, as I was in a room of young people, wondering if any of our strategies would ever be adopted by the old men politicians I assumed would be the ones running the ship. Within a few days of joining the team, I would be in for a rude shock to discover that the team I had met earlier were the “old men” and there were no pot-bellied Oga-at-the top middlemen to report to. It was a mean lean team driven by youthful energy and vibrancy led by FO, and I looked forward to what magic we would make together. What followed were 38 days like I had never experienced before; of sleepless nights, early flights and countless hours of standing on your feet throwing around ideas before they hit paper or a design screen.

I had worked in the music industry for over five years, and project managed album releases and concerts for some of Africa’s biggest music stars, but even I was not ready for the level of work that was required by a client who asked for only one thing: excellence. I half-expected that after all the initial rush, this politician would live true to those infamous ideals of “anyhow” Nigerian politics; but not Alpha, as we came to call Dr Bukola Saraki; for this man, work was to be done to the best of standards, and this filled me with renewed passion and excitement. The long hours would come to fill the emptiness that had enveloped me for the past months, and the adrenaline rush was enough to drive me with new-found purpose. FO’s calls at odd hours of the day became a norm, and it was not strange to hear, after working till 11 pm on one day, that you had to catch a 7-am flight out of Lagos the next. Dr Saraki had entrusted us with the task of driving the message behind his vision to bring inclusive growth to all Nigerians. We were not going to fail.

So we got to work polling, interviewing and trying to get the pulse of the nation. We did not want to work in an echo chamber, believing that all Nigerians were tired of the present government and would jump at any opportunity to put another person at the helm of affairs. We asked the people what issues were most important to them, what challenges of governance had the most impact on them and their daily lives, where had government failed them and what and who could provide a solution. From the mountain load of feedback we got from everyday Nigerians, we realised that poverty and economic turmoil were top on people’s minds and joining this with Dr Saraki’s vision to bring inclusive growth to all Nigerians we crafted a message and movement to #GrowNigeria

An exciting story must be told of how we came about #GrowNigeria. As the resident “OBJ” (a nickname I had been given by the team because I was always writing) I started creating possible campaign slogans based on the feedback we had gotten from the field and I spent days trying to capture the essence of our message in two words or less. The first few ones I got were bland I must confess, I mean who was going to align with #NigeriaFirst? I must have become too exposed to Donald Trump’s brand of nationalism or the constant pecking at keyboards was getting to me. One morning though, FO after a meeting with the candidate, suggested that the message should be anchored on Growth and we spent hours going back and forth arguing on the best way to capture Growth in a way that would resonate with a middle-class Lagosian or a trader in Aba. Some of us argued that the idea of growth might sound too much like a fancy economic term and were ready to shoot it down, but after a simple exercise of asking each other what we all were praying for and working towards, we all came to the realisation that we all wanted to grow in our various stations. We wanted to be better, we all wanted an increase. Growth was the underlying reason why we were all braving Lagos traffic each morning trying to improve our hustle.

Executing the message and driving the movement were the tough parts, but luckily we were working with a candidate who trusted young people to deliver and who himself was in tune with global trends and modern tools. Ideas could go from ideation to approval in minutes as there were no red tapes and middlemen to stifle the creativity of a team whose average age fell below 30. With the core team comprising of planners and strategists like  Kelechi, Sam, Enniye, we were always ready to move.  We created multimedia social multimedia content along with fact-checked Op-eds for distribution via multiple media platforms to provide information and counter false narratives; all this without having to send countless approval seeking emails or travelling for needless meetings. The candidate trusted us to interpret his vision to the target audience, and this confidence paid off as within a short while, Nigerians became endeared to the message. In fact, what started as political messaging began to serve the dual tool of helping to clear preconceived notions the electorate had of Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki.

In the six weeks from when Dr Bukola Saraki declared his intention to run for the office of the President of Nigeria, we would build a community of over 50,000 unique followers across the Grow Nigeria handles. Hundreds of other fan accounts were helping to amplify the #GrowNigeria hashtag; so much that posts from our Twitter handle were recording an average reach of at least 3.5 million per job. We delivered over 300,000 emails to subscribers on the Grow Nigeria mailing list and got 148,000 clickthroughs to the website. The raw content was provided continuously by agile young Nigerians who were out on the field and followed the candidate as he travelled across Nigeria, spreading his message to Nigerians and members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

During the course of the campaign, we realized that the Buhari Media Center (A propaganda arm of the Buhari Presidency) were not going to leave us be, we had expected that it would be a battle of ideas and issues, but we would soon find out that mudslinging and misinformation was mostly their stock in trade. For every piece of content we put out, armies of bot-accounts on Twitter and Instagram would flood our mentions and comments sections  throwing around false narratives. It seemed like they had put a tracker on the GrowNigeria hashtag and “Saraki”. They were on high alert to attack any content with either of these keywords. We started out with a conscious effort to respond with the truth, but we soon realised that their tactic was mostly focused on diverting our resources away from advocating the #GrowNigeria message. Once we understood this, we chose to ignore their bot accounts and stay focused on our task; we had a destination to get to and were not going to get derailed.

As the PDP National Convention and Presidential Primaries drew close, we had countless pitches from various consultants who wanted a piece of the action and brought ideas that ranged from stellar to the most mundane. A personal favourite of mine was a meeting we had with Malcolm and Richard (not real names) two British political strategists who came in expecting Dr Saraki to be the usual African politician one could sway with their fancy words and brighter grammar pitch. Boy, were they surprised to meet a man who had a clear political strategy, hands on the country’s pain points and a keen insight into the minds of Nigerian voters. As four of us stepped out of Dr Saraki’s home office, Malcolm jokingly asked me if we could loan them Dr Saraki to take home to the United Kingdom. He confessed that for an African leader, he was astonished at alpha’s knowledge of crucial issues locally and internationally.

Moving into primaries stage, I knew that our task going would become an uphill one, but with each passing day, I became a bit more confident that we could bring about a much needed generational shift in Nigerian politics with Dr Bukola Saraki driving the #GrowNigeria vision. I saw the way people were accepting Dr Saraki on the campaign trail, and our informal interviews with taxi drivers and Keke Napep riders in various states told us that people were taking notice of Dr Saraki as a viable option to the incumbent. It was exciting to see that our work was being noticed in the streets as much as it was in professional offices.  We also realised the need to keep the momentum up with more engaging content. So when I was tasked with managing the process of creating a catchy jingle we could deploy on radio and use for video content, I told myself I had no other choice but to literally “kill it”.

After days on speaking to various producers, I settled for an old contact who had created the memorable “Gbabe” theme song for Akinwunmi Ambode’s Governorship campaign in 2014. I briefed him on working with the key messages from our campaign and informed him that the competence, vision and innovation of Dr Saraki had been captured by one of our copywriters as “Follow Man Wey Sabi” and left him to do his magic. Within days he came back to me with a first sample that needed no further edits; a catchy, groovy tune in pidgin English that was just right on the money. So we commissioned him to create the Pidgin, Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa versions. The Hausa jingle has quite a funny story about it. The spokesman for the campaign Ilemona Onoja,  sent a message into our Whatsapp group informing us that he had come across a fantastic jingle that had been created in Borno State where they had gone for a campaign visit, he sent the song into the group telling us all that we needed to adopt the song. We all howled with laughter and told him this was one of the jingles we had been working on. We all had a good laugh about it, but it was mind-blowing to know that a song we had created barely weeks ago had made its way from Lagos to phones in Borno State.

When we eventually landed in Port Harcourt, the venue of the PDP’s presidential primaries, I was not surprised to meet a larger team of young people running around driving various tasks leading up to the big day. From delegate contact management to logistics and candidate support, there was a confident air of youthful energy enveloping the Swiss Spirit hotel, which we made our headquarters. We set up a situation an media room from where we were monitoring the build-up to the convention, mainstream media coverage and creating on-the-ground content to keep the conversation going. Dr Saraki’s personal media team; Olu, Hussein, and Wale (awesome guys) provided us with a steady stream visual content and updates from last-minute meetings between the candidate, delegates and PDP Executives and also live reports from the venue of the primaries. Everyone walked with a spring in their steps; many interactions and engagements with the candidate had led us all here, and we were all hopeful, some prayerful, that our candidate would emerge as the PDP flag bearer for the 2019 general elections.

On the Day of the Primaries, we put the finishing touches to our situation rooms in Port Harcourt and Lagos; enabling a flow of information between what was happening on the ground in Port Harcourt, and our media support team in Lagos. With this, we were able to send breaking news and updates out to media outfits and for use on social media long before others could update their teams. In Lagos, Kelechi and other content developers were taking these updates and distributing them to key media outlets. By afternoon, we got an update; that all 37 special needs delegates of the PDP had pledged their votes to Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki. Their reason being that he was the only candidate who had made time to interact with them and whose plan to Grow Nigeria involved their input. It was a particularly pleasant moment for everyone in the room, it was not just about the 37 votes, it meant that our message of inclusion was producing visible results. In Dr Saraki’s speech at the convention, it was about a call to Nigerians and its youth than the usual political plea targeted at party delegates. On the podium with him was Aminu, a young who that night came to represent the millions of youth in our nation who are asking “where is my future”. It was arguably the best speech by a candidate that night, and the overwhelmingly positive energetic social media reaction filled us with new hope. Many applauded the speech for its brevity and the manner in which it succinctly captured the path to follow that would bring inclusive growth and prosperity for all. The PDP ticket was now in view.

Sadly, this was not to be. On the 7th of October, after nearly a day of accreditation, voting and collation, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa who was the Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party National Convention Planning Committee announced that Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a former Vice President would be the party’s candidate to contest against the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019. Alhaji Atiku had polled 1,523 of the total 3,221 votes cast by delegates from Nigeria’s 36 states and Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. We polled third ahead of 9 other candidates. As Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki gave another inspiring and gracious speech on behalf all the other candidates, he congratulated Alhaji Atiku and assured him that the PDP would work as a united front going into the 2019 elections, and ultimately for the good of the country. He also promised in his personal capacity to support the candidacy of Alhaji Atiku with his resources.

Back at the hotel, we all welcomed Dr Saraki back with a standing ovation; Despite the initial disappointment, there were no long faces. For the #GrowNigeria team, it was an end of one road to the presidency, but the beginning of another as a think-tank focused on the development of the Nigerian economy.

As we followed viral comments about our 38-day campaign, we were humbled; Nigerians were applauding the clean, vibrant, issues-based campaign we had run. Many were tweeting at the PDP to include the Grow Nigeria team in its party structure, others would continue to ask the Alhaji Atiku campaign organisation to adopt a team that had shown that “young people when given the opportunity to get involved in political campaigns always bring life into what is normally a mundane affair”. For the team, it was a moment of intense emotions as we all congratulated each other for a job done with the highest degree of professionalism. Our candidate might have lost the chance to be Nigeria’s President in 2019, but the kind words from social media filled us with a sense of victory. Now is the time to throw in our support for the Atiku campaign; to get Nigeria working again.

Edward Israel-Ayide provides marketing and communications strategy for political candidates and creative professionals. He is on Twitter @wildeyeq 

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