Do online petitions matter? Why do people take part in them, and what happens after signing one?
For a long time, 29-year-old Ebenezar Wikina wondered why Nigerians and other Africans had to take the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams to gain admission into foreign universities in the US, Australia, and Europe. At $210, the tests cost more than thrice the national minimum wage and expire after 2 years, meaning many have to bear that cost multiple times when they repeat the test.
In January 2022, Wikina started a petition campaigning for the exemption of Nigerians from taking IELTS. At the time of publication, the petition has received 74,358 signatures, 642 shy of his current goal of 75,000.
“I was surprised that the petition became a national conversation, but it deserved to be because it’s really insane that the IELTS requirement has been left to continue for such a long time,” Wikina told Techcabal. It’s not clear when the IELTS requirement was officially instituted for Nigerians, but public records show that it has been around since as far back as 2005.
Every month, 70,000 petitions like Wikina’s are created on Change.org, a worldwide campaign platform; and every week, 1.7 million new people join Change.org’s global network of users. The platform, founded in 2007, has about half a billion users across 196 countries, with more than 150 staff members in 27 countries.
Despite the popularity of petitions around the world, some critics have labelled online petitions as just another form of slacktivism—online support of social and political causes without any real-world action or commitment.
But there have been online petition victories that led to tangible change, whether by casting a spotlight on long-ignored issues or rallying the public to demand societal change.
The biggest petition and movement in Change.org’s history took place in the summer of 2020 following the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. More than 19 million people from all over the world signed a petition started by 15-year-old Kellen S, urging the mayor of Minneapolis to take action against racial injustice. The petition, together with relentless global protests, increased the visibility of the crime as well as the institutional racism that led to Floyd’s death. The police officer who killed Floyd was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, and was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes.
More recently, last September, social entrepreneur Dennis Ekwere started a petition calling predatory loan apps to account for exploiting Nigerians out of their hard-earned money. Faith, a supporter of Ekwere’s petition, lamented on the site: “They [predatory loan apps] don’t even want to know what havoc their defamation can cause. It’s just so unfair…No one wants to be a debtor, only certain circumstances bring people to taking loans. They are not God, for crying out loud.”
Signed by 8,768 people, the petition recorded victory on March 1, when a joint task force stormed into the offices of 6 of such predatory lenders and shut down their operations.
Advocacy beyond the streets
Wale Ajiboye, Nigerian Country Director for Change.org, is aware of online petition sceptics but insists that online petitions ensure more people feel empowered to fight against injustice in their communities.
“We’re getting more than 700 victories a month. This is a pointer that [online] petitions are effective,” Ajiboye said over a call.
He explained that advocacy has now moved beyond the streets, where only a few people have access to those in power.
“Times have changed. If you look at advocacy in Nigeria, there were times only the Nigerian Labour Congress or student unions would be the ones to speak up,” Ajiboye said. “The advent of the internet and social media means that anyone anywhere can speak up.”
Indeed, the social consciousness raised by online petitions can lead to a change in people’s mindset around power. In 2019, Change.org introduced the People’s Power Index, a tool to measure the impact of social change petitions and assess countries on the basis of this index. The tool was derived from 5 other surveys, including The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index and the IDEA Global State of Democracy Index.
Nigeria currently scores 37 out of a total score of 100 on this index, according to Ajiboye, implying that Nigerians generally feel that their voices don’t count. It’s a sentiment echoed in the country’s low political participation and turnout often recorded during elections. The success of petitions, Ajiboye believes, can reignite the belief among Nigerians that they can demand for similar changes in their community.
The Change.org country director also pointed out that just because a petition does not record a victory does not mean the campaign has failed.
Nigerian activist Maryam Bukar Hassan, popularly known as Alhanislam, recently created her first online petition calling on President Muhammadu Buhari to declare a state of emergency in the north of the country due to insurgency. She’s been advocating for social issues since she was 13 years old.
“I’ve been speaking about it on my social media page, but I wanted to do something that galvanises action beyond being a keypad warrior,” Hassan, 25, explained to TechCabal over a call.
What has the result been so far, considering that the President hasn’t yielded to her request?
“More northern leaders are talking, people are active, they are waking up to take responsibility,” Hassan said. “They are now saying, ‘If the government is not going to come to our help, what else can we do to protect ourselves?’ In as much as that’s not the direct response we hoped for, I think there’s been some sense of progress.”
The road to success
While Wikina’s petition is yet to record an official victory, he’s seen some wins along the way.
He’s also been encouraged by earlier success against a US-based online university that had once mandated he write the IELTS. In February 2020, Wikina applied for a business degree at Nexford University in Washington, DC. He was dumbfounded when confronted with the school’s IELTS requirement, as he had already shared his secondary school leaving certificate, university degree, and certificate from a 3-month course at Harvard Kennedy School.
“I just thought, with all these documents I’ve submitted, what other form of English will they be speaking at your school that I haven’t spoken? This doesn’t make sense,” Wikina said of the matter over a call. He pushed back.
He took his complaint to Twitter in a thread explaining the issue. Other users resonated with it, sharing the tweets until they trended. Eventually, with pressure from Twitter users and email exchanges, Nexford changed its policy. The university now allows applicants from all English-speaking countries to gain admission provided they passed an introductory course that is compulsory for all students.
Wikina expects that it’s only a matter of time before the UK home office succumbs to the demands by thousands of Nigerians to remove the requirement to take IELTS exams.
A few months later, in August 2020, Wikina and a group of friends founded Policy Shapers, a civic tech organisation that places young people at the centre of policymaking through social media and new media tools. After a year of campaigning around the IELTS issue, they started to attract media attention.
“The BBC wrote to the UK Home Office asking, ‘What’s the challenge? Why are there no African countries on the list?’” Wikina said. “The response from the UK Home Office was that they do not have the required evidence that shows that the majority of people in Nigeria speak English as their first language.”
Policy Shapers followed up by asking for the specific evidence needed to show that a majority of Nigerians spoke English as their first language, but the UK home office didn’t respond.
Last October, Wikina mentioned the IELTS issue at an anniversary event of the #EndSars movement. Nigerian Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, and US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, were in attendance. The vice president said he’d look into resolving the complaints, but it remains unclear whether any action has been taken.
The online petition effect
Eventually, Change.org took note of Wikina’s advocacy work. In January, one of the organisation’s senior campaigners, Bukola Adebayo, reached out to Wikina asking him to consider creating an online petition for his campaign against the IELTS that specifically targeted the UK government and citing its colonial relationship with Nigeria as one of the reasons to eradicate the exam requirement.
After it launched, the campaign quickly gained traction online, a result Wikina attributes to Change.org’s reach.
“Without the petition we might not have gotten the attention of the media or social media,” Wikina said. “But beyond going viral, it has helped us to gather evidence. It’s one thing for some young people on Twitter to say, ‘This is a problem’, but it’s another thing to have almost 75,000 saying that this same thing is a problem.”
Adebayo explained that in addition to encouraging Wikina to start a petition, Change.org also did its part with media and community outreach to relevant parties.
“We worked with Wikina to inform education reporters in the Nigerian media houses about the IELTS campaign, who in turn wrote about it,” she said. “We’ve also had meetings on how we can make it a campaign in [other] Anglophone African countries.”
At the height of the popularity of the campaign, on January 26, the UK Home Office finally responded to Policy Shapers’ email—3 months after they’d sent it. The office explained that they relied on “publicly available evidence such as official censuses…along with other academic sources” to determine whether a country had a majority English-speaking population. The office added that based on available information, Nigeria did not meet the requirement to be included in its Majority English Speaking Countries (MESC) list.
This response spurred Wikina and an advocacy task force of more than 80 members to write a 15-page policy brief explaining why Nigeria should be part of the list of countries with at least 51% English proficiency.
“The brief has data from the annual English proficiency index, which is a global index that ranks countries based on their English proficiency,” Wikina said. “We found out that Nigeria has ranked within the top 30 over the past 5 years.”
On February 14, the task force sent a letter to the UK Home Office. A few days later, the office replied, only to inform Wikina and his team that they could no longer respond to their questions.
But Wikina didn’t let up on the pressure; he continued to engage. On March 31, the UK home office said it would consider the evidence he and his team shared and update its list of countries in the future, but pointed out that while the data provided showed a “generally significant level of English proficiency and literacy in Nigeria, it does not show that more than 51% of the population speak English as a first language”.
The office appeared to be moving the goalposts on the issue, and Wikina and his team sent a counter-response on April 14 to remind them of their initial response to the BBC, which stated that there must be evidence to show that “at least 51%” of the Nigerian population speaks English as a first language, rather than the “more than 51%” they now requested. The task force also asked that the office “cancel the [2-year] expiration clause of the IELTS test result, in recognition of the fact that the English knowledge of Nigerians cannot expire since they live in an English-speaking country.”
The fight to get the UK home office to change this unjust policy is still on, and the movement is gaining momentum across the continent.
Inspired by Wikina’s petition, a member of the Ghanian parliament, Rockson–Nelson Dafeamekpor, in February raised a motion to have Ghanaians exempted from taking IELTS, too. Similar petitions have been started in Kenya and Malawi.
Policy Shapers is also trying to get across to the British parliament and media on this issue.
Notably, for every significant milestone of petitions Policy Shapers hit on Change.org, the UK home office gets an email alert notifying them that a certain number of petitions have been registered—a feature available to all petitioners who include the correct email address of the person or organisation the petition is levelled against.
In some instances, Change.org helps make direct contact with the right authorities that the petitions are directed at, asking them to respond to it.
“Most people direct their petitions to the president, but he’s not always the right person. Yes, he has the power to call the shots, but he’s not the one that’ll take all the decisions,” Ajiboye said.
Without clear next steps, petitions may lead nowhere
Some governments, like those of the UK, US, and Canada, have their own processes for online petitions, including rules that mandate their response when petitions receive a certain degree of support. In the UK, for example, when a petition earns 100,000 or more signatures, the issue will be considered for debate in parliament.
Unfortunately, a similar law doesn’t exist in Nigeria, which Ajiboye believes is a result of the government’s lack of interest in accountability.
“The government typically ignores protests, strikes, or petitions until there’s an outcry or movement,” he said.
Abdulwasiu Esuola, a legal practitioner and policy advocate, told TechCabal that he supports the general idea of online petitions but remains sceptical of their impact. He suggested that to increase their effectiveness, Change.org should encourage lobbyists to introduce a similar law to ensure petitions are taken seriously in Nigeria.
“Digital advocacy and online petitions have a lot of potential. Perhaps it’s one of those things that, if we get right, will lead us out the trenches,” he said.
Esuola added that the petition platform, as a measure of quality assurance, will have to properly vet its users’ identities to ensure that when petitions are championed at a state or regional level, they are actually being championed by the people affected.
Seeing the progress that’s been made on the campaign to reform IELTS so far, Policy Shapers is now working to engage young people in public policy through a policy hackathon in August to set the agenda for the Nigerian 2023 Elections.
“We have moved from just petitions to policy engagement,” Wikina said. “I think the progress made so far is a symbol of what is possible when we decide to stop complaining and do something about it.”