Opinion Research in Africa: A tall Order?

In welchem Ausmaß haben sich in Afrika die öffentliche Meinungsbildung und gerade auch die Marktforschung unter dem Einfluss mobiler Kommunikation, sozialer Medien und einer vielfältigeren Presselandschaft verändert? Darüber schreibt für uns Paul Nnanwobu, er ist CEO bei Random Dynamic Resources in Nigeria und Herausgeber des "Research Intelligence Magazine – the voice of marketing Research Industry in West Africa".

Paul Nnanwobu

The desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people – or the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem – is called public opinion. For the first time, it became important what people thought, as forms of political contention changed.

It is the prevailing and widespread belief of the majority of people in a society about a given subject or issue. Public opinion is aggregate views of majority of vocal people within, and sometime without, a society on a local, state, national or international critical issue that requires any governmental level or international action or inaction.

Public opinion research helps the government understand the views of its citizens and identify their needs and expectations.

How Public Opinion Shape Africa Democracy

Democracy is now opening up in most African countries and this has continued to grow tremendously since the last decade of the last millennium. Prior to this period, military coups and dictatorial governance was the order of the day. Under the military or dictatorial regimes, the common person in most African countries hardly have any say and majority were living in fear. To express an opinion about the respective administration meant taking risk of harassment, intimidation or in extreme cases imprisonment without court trial. Political leaders were highly intolerant (Many still are today) of even constructive criticisms of their governance. Even countries with long standing democratic rule, the common person on the street has no say and expression of opinion was limited. However, all these are giving way slowly as many countries in Africa embrace democratic or quasi-democratic governance.

African diversity also plays a crucial role in shaping opinion of the populace. Nigeria, a largest country in African by headcount with an estimated population of 190 million people has over 250 ethnic nationals and over 450 indigenous languages. Opinion on national issues are often viewed on the benchmark of how it favours a particular ethnic divide depending on who is it that expresses it and on what issue. This is the reason for so many reported internal ethnic conflicts and tribal wars in some African countries. In some cases, these issues are often politicized and are not expressed in the interest of the common good. This sort of situation gives ways or prepares the ground for selfish intervention from other foreign countries who capitalizes on bad situation to sell their market or product.

The advent of the social media (Facebook, linkedin, twitter, Instagram etc) has also opened up the new way public opinion is consumed or expressed in Africa and in some instances, hasten democratic rule in most African countries. The Arab spring of 2012 in Tunisia which later spread to Egypt is a formidable example. There is now some sort of pressure on the leaders to perform as there seems, now, to be no hiding place for bad governance, because everyone is now a reporter an analyst and a commentator on national and international issues via the use of mobile phone. Before now expression of public opinion were limited to few social or political activists, or journalists who have signed to give up their lives in bringing to the fore (often in National newspapers/magazines or TV ) issues which the government or leaders consider no-go areas or highly sensitive. Majority of the populace discuss these issues in private, either in comfort of their homes or among their friends for fear of arrest or intimidation. All these has changed in the last 10 -15years with the advent of mobile technology.

Another very interesting development is the liberalization and use of electronic and print media. Most newspapers and Television stations before now were solely state owned. Meaning that what is read or watched on this media are always from the perspective of the government: they expressed the views of the government of the country without any opposing views. However, with the privatization/liberal policies of most African government and the need to connect with the outside world, or join a regional economic block they are invariably forced to open up their economy and create more jobs and this means they need to let go of the control of certain areas. The result is that private individuals start setting up media houses and now this brings a liberalization of thoughts and opinion among the populace. There are still challenges in many countries but it is no more business as usual. Professional bodies and associations also form a strong catalyst for change in matters of public opinion.

Sentimental Analysis

The diversity in African Languages, culture and composition can be an opportunity as well as a threat. The language barriers in most countries of African is a stumbling block in connecting with common purpose. Even peoples within one country often hardly speak or hear each other due to myriad of local segmented languages. Some simply adopted as lingua franca some foreign languages like English, French, Portuguese, Arabic as a result of colonialism to bridge the tide of division. The way languages are communicated and understood are different and when opinions are expressed, they are often either biased or misinterpreted or simply misunderstood. For example, the people of North African extraction have nothing much in common (in terms of culture, languages, lifestyle) with the rest of Africa except that they belong to the same geographical constitution- this relates to languages, culture, manner of speech, Stereotypes, temperament as well. As a matter of fact, because the countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, etc have a large Arab population in their domain, other members of the Sub-Sahara African view them as wholly Arabs with strong affinity to Middle East. Even when opinion expressed on them on purely human and simplistic term, they often carry the connotation of strong Islamic allusion due to sentimental perception. The Sub Sahara African region which connects mostly West, East, Central and Southern African sub regions may also have the same scenarios or nuances especially in terms of language barriers.

On another hand, religion plays a strong role in communicating and expressing public opinion in Africa. When a Moslem or a Christian key opinion Leaders express views on some national or international issues, they are not swept under the carpet but they provide opportunity for robust (often sentimental), discussion by other members of the society. Depending on the nature and sensitivity of such issues, it may lead to breakdown of law and order. This has happened in the past in some African countries. Managing the diversity in religion is also in key to development. In Nigeria for example, the recent Pew Research report puts Christian population in Nigeria at 51% ahead of Moslems’ 48% and traditional beliefs at 1%. The Moslems has kicked against this and has questioned the validity of such report and their leaders will hardly ever accept this. It is a plus to say the least, that with nearly equal religious population of Christians and Moslems, a country like Nigeria for example, has fairly managed to co-exist peacefully except for the recent carnage of Boko Haram insurgence in North Eastern Nigeria and the Al Shabab in some parts of Kenya.

Are African leaders afraid of Public Opinion?

Public Opinion should add flavour and shape the way the populace is governed and in all contribute to the development of the state. But because most leaders on the African continent are either selfish, greedy and sectional in their approach to governance they seem to be afraid of losing the grip of the people and power and they can go any length to malign opposition. There are laws that restrict freedom of the press for example in many countries of African even when their constitution guarantees the opposite. Take for example the incident some time ago in Egypt, during the Arab Spring, we witnessed how the Egyptian Authorities (after the fall of Mohammed Moussi of the Moslem Brotherhood) detained some Al Jazeera journalists who were doing their professional job. In Zimbabwe, Southern African, before the downfall of the Strongman Robert Mugabe few weeks ago, all opposing views are often muzzled up and maligned to silence. In Nigeria (West Africa) recently when the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB,( South Eastern Nigeria) heightened their engagement and dissension voice for self -determination and autonomy, the government of Nigeria pushed out the military to silence them and even labelled them a terror organisation, a view opposed by the international community which said it does not see IPOB as a terror organisation. All those who expressed opinion in support of or in sympathy of the course of the IPOB are either labelled as the enemy of the government or are intimidated tacitly. A call on the government by the majority of the populace to restructure the country (which will address the many dissension in the land) seem to have fallen on deaf ears. In Cameroon, (Central Africa) the ruling party has continued to intimidate some minorities agitating for fair share of the common good especially those from the English speaking North West province. The president, Paul Biya, has been in power for over 35years and has built strong ruling cabal around him.

The truth is that Most African regimes are highly intolerant of criticism. The situation in some countries are better than in others with slim margin. This cuts across not only in political leadership but in other areas like sports and business. On a measure of integrity public leaders in Africa never resigns or find it difficult to do so when indicted by scandals or misappropriation of public good rather they look for a way to justify their idiosyncratic behaviour or manipulate the situation to their own advantage. This is inimical to growth and development in the continent. And the best way to change this mindset is for political leadership to begin to give good examples through their behaviour and also to set national achievable goals which the populace may key in over a period of time. One way to do this is for example accepting election results when it is glaring to be a free and fair election instead of engaging in perennial court cases and promoting tribal discord or using crooked means to undermine the voice of the people when one loses an election so as to scuttle the wish of the majority of people.

Impact on electioneering & opportunity for growth and development

All over the world opinion poll has played a viable role in shaping the outcome of elections. Social and opinion research companies, media houses etc undertake series of surveys to predict who will win a particular election. Sometimes the pollsters get it right but some other times, they get it wrong. A case of wrong prediction via polling is the Brexit and Trump emergency in White House respectively. In Africa opinion polls are hardly ever used to predict election results, not because they are wrong in themselves but they bother from ignorance, lack of vision/money to risks associated with pollsters publishing and predicting election result in a highly volatile African environment.

In 2007, in western Nigeria, a famous politician commissioned a survey to determine the voting pattern of the people of the region with a view to predicting the outcome of the election. The politician is a strong financier of one of the candidates for the governorship election who belongs at the time to the opposition party that controls only one state out of 6 states of the region. The Local market research company started fieldwork (it was a door to door pen and paper interview) and way into the final days of the fieldwork, the ruling party loyalists got the wind that a research is being conducted by unknown persons (Market research company) who went about asking people their choice candidate and party. The incumbent governor (who belong to the ruling party and a political foe of the opposition candidate,) was informed eventually. The governor hence ordered the seizure of the questionnaires and subsequent arrest of the interviewers with the belief that the interviewers were working for the opposition candidate. It took up to 7 days to release the interviewers from the police detention and they were highly traumatized. The Market research company in question paid large sum of money to security agencies clear things up and subsequently the fieldwork could not go on in that particular county which incidentally was where the sitting governor came from.

In another country in African three years ago, a politician commissioned an opinion poll study to one of the global Research company operating in the country. After the report has been delivered the to the client. The politician published the result in several of the dailies which predicted a positive win for the opposition candidate in an upcoming presidential election. Within hours of the publication some security officers stormed the Headquarters of the Research firms and carted away several computers and laptops and drove all the staff out of the office and locked them out that day. They were sent by the authority of the then ruling party. Reason: the market research firm was quoted in the publication of having conducted the opinion poll that gave a winning scale to the opposition candidate. They believe that the market research company manipulated the result to favour the candidate and hence they are culpable. This company paid huge sum of money to clear things up amidst the embarrassment they suffered in the process.

This kind of scenario may not be necessarily the same in all countries of the continent but it is similar. What happens in some cases is that some foreign embassies often commission opinion surveys for internal consumption and strategy of their home country. Opinion research or media houses do not want to venture into using opinion poll to predict election result in most African countries because they are unwilling to take the consequences, except in few cases where such studies are commissioned by the ruling party and if the predictive outcome favours them, they quickly publish them and create some hype about the result. The point here is that it is not a normal practice in Africa for opinion or market research companies to conduct and publish such result that seeks to understand or influence the voting pattern of the publics in matters of election.

Africa contributes less than 5% of the world public opinion research studies. Predicting election results via opinion research is a new phenomenon and leaders hardly ever use or pay much attention to Poll results. Research companies who conduct opinion polls do so for internal consumption, as publishing of such results may be a very high-risk venture especially where the results do not favour the ruling government. Politicians often sponsor private opinion polls for own-consumption and strategy. Opinion Polls studies do not often influence the outcome of election decision or policy formulation. The use of social media has lightened the load of fear as many pollsters now conducts studies via mobile phone. Using opinion poll to predict election results in Africa will add a great flavour to the electioneering process and provide robust topics for discussion during election months. It will also reduce the over dependence of monetary inducement to win votes and lastly it will bring to the fore what the publics want their leaders to focus on. This is the essence of good governance.


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