Office LivesPolitics

Office Lives: Jiro Ejobe Wanted to be a Traffic Warden, But Now Deploys Technology to Help Win Elections in Nigeria

Media is playing an increasingly significant role in Nigerian politics, with Facebook emerging as a crucial platform. Contrary to some expectations, Twitter is not as influential…”

From a childhood dream of becoming a traffic warden, Jiro Ejobe eventually ended up a Computer Science graduate. Today, Jiro is at the forefront of the quest to turn Nigeria around through technology as Managing Partner of Viisaus. With a rich career history that spans two decades and three continents, Ejobe has seen how data and technology can be deployed in a bespoke manner to solve complex governance problems.

In 2016, he dived into political consulting when he founded VIISAUS and has since then employed data-driven technologies to steer several aspirants to victory. This technology is also being applied to provide solutions in Security, Revenue Generation and Job Creation across several states in the South-South and South-West regions of Nigeria. He also led Nigeria’s first Local Government Council revenue digital transformation with a success rate of over 600%.

In the run-up to the 2023 elections, Jiro Ejobe had led the VIISAUS team to analyse voting trends in Nigeria since 1999; he provided perspectives on Nigerian politics and elections post-1999, and these perspectives were validated by the outcomes of the 2023 general elections.

In this interview with Arbiterz, Jiro shares how he went from a childhood of conflicting career dreams to a fulfilling career where he deploys technology and communications to solve complex governance problems in Nigeria.

 What did you study at the university?

My university journey was a bit prolonged due to the university strikes prevalent during the military era in Nigeria. Initially, I pursued Geography and Regional Planning at Ambrose Alli University (then Edo State University) in Ekpoma. Then, I spent a year studying Law at the University of Ibadan (UI).

Following that, I went abroad and completed my degree in Computer Science at Queen Mary and Westfield. Additionally, I obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Management from Birkbeck University. So, I began with Geography and Regional Planning but eventually graduated with a degree in Computer Science.

Which of the three was your childhood career dream? You must have dreamt of becoming a lawyer like most people wanted to at that age. Is that correct?

(Laughs) Actually, no! The very first thing I wanted to be was a traffic warden — those individuals in bright orange uniforms at the traffic stops. That was my initial dream. Later on, I aspired to be in entertainment; I wanted to act or sing. During my time abroad, I delved into music production, and I used to rap.

Also Read: Rational Amateurism: The Atiku and Peter Obi Campaigns Compared

I even participated in rap competitions. Never did I imagine becoming a multi-sectoral consultant offering socio-political advisory or using data and intelligence to create solutions in Research and Tech. I couldn’t even remotely picture it. Law wasn’t something I was very keen on either. Despite my parents being lawyers and wanting me to pursue it, I wasn’t interested.

While growing up, who were your role models?

It may sound surprising, but at the time, I was a big fan of Michael Jackson. I admired Mandela and Muhammed Ali as well. Many of the people I looked up to were in the music world. Ice Cube and NWA had a significant impact on me. I wouldn’t say they were my role models; I didn’t want to be like them but I looked up to them a great deal.

Can you talk through your role as Managing Partner of Visaaus?

My current role is in leadership, although it didn’t begin that way. Initially, I had a hands-on role actively involved in creating solutions for clients. However, as the team has grown and reached a certain phase in its development, my focus has shifted more towards leadership. I now oversee strategy, business development, and client management, especially for our High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNIs) clients who sometimes require my presence.

Managing clients and representing resources at meetings are key aspects of my role. Beyond that, team building is probably the thing I like to do the most. I love to do a lot of team building; I also spend a lot of time with the team. I’m very passionate about research and technology, I like to stay on the cutting edge of things like that, particularly in areas like artificial intelligence.

While my role predominantly involves mentorship, leadership, and guidance, there are occasions when I have to get involved hands-on, such as working on proposals or addressing intricate situations that require advisory from my level. Fortunately, I have a capable team that handles most of these tasks, so what I try and do is guide them to do that job.

 

Leaders and Elections in Nigeria
Community Leaders play a big role in deciding Elections in Nigeria

What skills, in your opinion, are most critical to doing business development well in Nigeria?

In Nigeria, business development for us is heavily centered around networking. Understanding and navigating diverse cultures are crucial aspects of our approach. It’s about knowing how to connect with people in a way that resonates with them, avoiding actions that might be off-putting. I’ve found that Nigerians can be excellent clients and customers, but building relationships is key. Simply treating a business interaction as purely transactional tends not to be effective in my experience. You must invest in the relational side of things.

Culturally, making an impact as someone who is respectful and understands the background of the person is essential. Once you’ve established that connection and broken through cultural barriers, the business aspect becomes much more manageable. However, approaching the relationship with a focus solely on business and profit tends to be less successful. It’s crucial to first establish a rapport, showing an understanding and appreciation for the cultural context, before delving into the business side of things.

Who are your main clients? And what does each category of clients seek from you?

We work and partner with a diverse range of entities, including multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and FCO (formerly IFAD and USAID), public sector agencies, political players and organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs), and large private companies. While we are widely recognized for our political work, it is not the biggest part of what we do.

I should say, that the largest revenue driver is probably the introduction of technology into governance. One of our key focuses is on assisting individuals already managing states and large agencies in implementing process automation. Nigeria still relies on many paper-based processes, presenting vast opportunities for improvement. The scope for making a significant impact with seemingly small changes is immense, given the manual nature of numerous operations.

For instance, we worked with a state governor who had to sift through paper reports from various security agencies for Security Council meetings. By digitizing this data, creating a dashboard, and mapping out incidents across different local governments, we provided a powerful tool. This tool enabled the governor to instantly identify prevalent issues in specific regions, streamlining discussions during the Security Council meetings. This simple digitization process allowed for quick insights, such as identifying kidnapping as a prevalent issue in one area and addressing it accordingly.

I often emphasize that the challenges we face in Nigeria and Africa differ significantly from those in other parts of the world. While elsewhere, there may be an abundance of solutions for a limited number of problems, here we have numerous problems but not enough solutions. It underscores the importance of leveraging technology and innovative approaches to address the unique challenges we encounter in our context.

How does Viisaus combine technology with communications when working for clients? How do you bring what many people see as two disparate disciplines? How do you combine both to deliver solutions to your clients?

First of all, my background is in tech, and we’re very much into the tech industry. We initially believed that the impact we made would speak for itself, attracting numerous clients and business opportunities. However, it didn’t work out that way. We realized that people struggled to understand what we did and struggled to grasp the impact we could make. This realization led us to invest more in communications, resulting in the establishment of a. We have a large, well-paid communications team at Viisaus. (laughs) Let me just emphasize their tremendous dedication.

We recognized that the better we communicated and put effort into telling the story of why we’re doing things and the impact we’ve made, it went hand in hand with our growth. At Viisaus, we have a strong commitment to attention to detail, Attention to detail is everything in our business. We started as a data company, and we’re still a data company. Drawing from my programming background, having worked for the BBC and Sony, I’ve led programming teams worldwide. Programmers would attest that just one semicolon or dot out of place can cause the entire system to fall apart.

One of my co-founders, Omowunmi, shares a similar passion for technology. She has a first-class degree in Computer Engineering from King’s College, London. This commitment to ensuring detailed excellence permeates the entire firm. So, when we began focusing on communications, we applied the same level of effort. This approach has proven to be a win-win situation for us. It not only clarifies the value of our work but also opens doors to opportunities that might have remained closed. Suddenly, people got used to that. It gets us into places where people wouldn’t normally go, because, you know, people are going, “Oh, wow, this is something that I should be interested in,” because we’ve taken that extra effort to communicate it and tell that story.

What do you regard as the most high-impact project or commission you’ve worked on?

There’s a project we did on Internal Generated Revenue (IGR) that significantly impacted the lives of market women and contributed significantly to revenue growth in the state. We also worked on a human trafficking project, collaborating with IOM to reshape how people were brought into Nigeria. Not necessarily huge money, but it had a high impact. More recently, we were extensively involved with Adamawa State during the incident where a lady declared herself Governor. Our background work played a crucial role in ensuring that the right actions were taken, involving a substantial amount of data work to support the correct course of action.

If I were to pick a project, I would highlight Edo Jobs, you can Google it. It is a substantial initiative aimed at getting people in Edo State into employment. Our company initiated this project by drawing up plans, hiring individuals, setting up the agency, and incubating it. Over time, it has taken on a life of its own and has successfully facilitated employment for hundreds of thousands of people. For the sheer sustainability and positive impact on lives, I would consider Edo Jobs as one of our standout projects.

Is there a profile of the kind of Nigerian politicians that solicit and use political advice very well?

It has evolved over time. When we commenced about 8 or 9 years ago, primarily, only technocrats were interested; politicians weren’t keen, with a few outliers. Notably, the current President has always been data-driven. Over the years, as INEC’s efficiency improved, our services gained more recognition. The demand for our services has consistently increased, particularly during the last election, when we were exceptionally busy – the busiest we’ve ever been.

Also Read: Obi Leads in Another Poll as Elections Are Projected to Enter Run-Off

The landscape is changing. Initially, people were indifferent to data and services; their primary concern was winning. The attitude is now more focused on obtaining tools that can secure victory. If we can demonstrate that our offerings contribute to winning, then there is heightened interest. The impact and effectiveness of our services in helping people secure victories have drawn more attention and interest over time.

 

Social media is changing Elections in Nigeria
Social media is changing politics and election campaigns in Nigeria

Could you describe your typical day in the office? When do you get in? What do you do first?

On a typical day at the office, I get in late. I am not a morning person and have never been a morning person. I get in around 11 am. I have a personal rule that designates any time I arrive as the morning. Upon entering, I review my schedule for the day. My Executive Assistant, who has been working with me for a while, sits down with me, and together, we strategize about the tasks and goals for the day. Even when I’m away from the office, which happens frequently, we kick off the workday with a scheduled meeting.

It’s a balance of things, a mix of in-house meetings, interviews, maybe appraisals, maybe KPI reviews, going over finance policies, mixed with external meetings, for example, today I’ve been in meetings with the US Embassy, in meetings with clients, mixed with maybe having to go to a client site, or maybe just a networking drink or dinner with somebody, but it’s a real mix.

What do you typically do during your last hours in the office?

I like to leave the fun meetings till the end. Some meetings will drag and I can’t put a cap on when it’s going to end, so I like to leave those to the end. Occasionally, I have meetings that involve lighter topics, such as discussing a product I’m enjoying or having a team meeting with the expectation of it being enjoyable and laughter-filled. I like to end the day on a positive note, so those meetings are deliberately placed towards the end. On the other hand, I tend to schedule more challenging meetings, such as those related to finance, at the start of the day.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

I think my favourite part of the job is seeing people grow, watching the growth of the team. Seeing people who join the firm with a certain level of capacity grow into a much higher level of capacity is something I believe brings me more satisfaction than anything else.

Could you share some insights, maybe three ideas on how e-government could enhance economic growth and people’s welfare?

We are discarding valuable data as we underutilize our resources in Nigeria. The insufficient level of digitization is evident, with even secondary school results stored on paper. I recall entering a room where they presented a large room full of secondary school results in one of the Southwest states, all on paper. Simply digitizing this data, even if just in Excel, could reveal insights into teacher effectiveness and other aspects. The foremost aspect of e-government that could greatly enhance efficiency is digitization. It would optimize the utilization of our money and scarce resources.

Also Read: Can the Labour Party Become a National Party?

The next crucial aspect is Process Automation, though it can be controversial due to concerns about potential job loss among civil servants. Process Automation involves simplifying procedures, such as acquiring a Certificate of Occupancy (C-of-O) for land. Instead of navigating a paper trail from point A to point B to point C to point D, imagine a system where approvals are automated with a simple press. We implemented a land management system for a state, and the revenue they generated skyrocketed by closing the gaps in their processes. While it’s not perfect, the system has significantly increased their revenue.

A third aspect, which is a combination of process automation and digitization but goes beyond that, is improving the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) of local governments. In Nigeria, local governments have been overlooked, unlike in other countries where they play a crucial role. By law, local governments in Nigeria are responsible for various functions like naming and tarring roads, managing markets, issuing certificates of residence, and more.

They have untapped potential for revenue generation from areas such as transportation. Unfortunately, they often rely on funds from Abuja, and some governors misappropriate these funds, rendering local governments ineffective. Implementing e-government solutions at the local government level could make a significant positive impact on these communities.

What do you think went wrong with the polls during the last elections?

The Nigerian landscape is very volatile. We are not a country where you can do a poll three weeks before the election and expect it to be accurate, you need the poll the night before, that’s the poll that’s going to tell you exactly what’s going to happen. However, all the polls that we did never put Peter Obi forward as the winner. Yes, he was going to win a lot more votes than anybody thought but in Nigeria, one has to understand the influence of community leaders.

When you’re polling, you’re polling the electorate, and they can say “This is how we want to vote.” However, on the day, the influence of the leader is humongous. The leader comes down and says, “We’re not voting like this, we’re voting like this.” And at that polling unit, that leader can sway 20-30% of votes on the day. If you don’t take into consideration the leanings of the leaders, you’re going to struggle with predicting the outcome, which is one of the things the current president has always been very good at.

Managing leaders, working with leaders, understanding that you win elections in Nigeria currently by proxy. You don’t win them by just getting the grassroots to vote for you, but that is changing! 6.1 million people did not vote for you because their leaders were saying something, they’re not huge labour leaders, they’re not massive people in labour, who are going to tell people on the day you must vote like this. All those people who voted for Obi or the vast majority of them who voted for Obi voted because they wanted something different, and no matter what the leaders were saying, they couldn’t be swayed. You can’t also take out ethno-religious viewpoints.

This is the first election we didn’t do a prediction, we knew the table was going to be shaken so badly, and we knew that something was going to scatter and it turned out that way. One trend you can observe is that the number of registered voters keeps going up, but the people that turnout keeps coming down. In 2015, we had 64 million registered voters and 28 million people voted, in 2019, 26 million votes out of 84 million registered voters. Now we have 90-something million voters, and we had only 24 million votes, the system is correcting itself, and that’s why polls are not as accurate.

The whole nation is changing the way it reacts, the political landscape is changing so rapidly. You can’t use a basic system like polling alone, to gauge what will happen. You have to include the ethnic and religious sentiments, you have to include the role of leaders, that’s how to do a Nigerian prediction. You can’t just do a prediction saying everybody here said it’s going to go this way. Are you kidding? Go out there on the day itself, when the political leaders are out there sharing money, and food, and beating people.

The role of the polling agent is critical because they know the areas that are loyal to different parties. There’s a polling unit in the South-South called Goretti, they have about 3000-4000 votes, it’s a super unit, and they have enough votes to swing an election. Since voting began, that polling unit has never recorded a valid election. There is always one party to scatter the voting process, and history keeps repeating itself.

Also Read: 2023 Elections: 40% of Rural Nigerians Will Vote for Peter Obi, Nextier Polls

Peter Obi created this huge change in that it was stronger than the local politician’s effort for the first time, but that strength wasn’t everywhere. We had a project called Project Glasshouse, which we funded ourselves, the project monitored incidents across the country, and from the trends, we observed that most of the fights, violence, and issues were occurring where Peter Obi was doing very well. What that tells us is that there is a fight against the establishment. In a country that’s going through that kind of upheaval, you’re not going to get accurate polls, you can’t get accurate polls.

Violence is a factor in elections in Nigeria
Election opinion polling has to account for violence at the voting booths

How well is the Obi movement ready to play the role of an official opposition party, leveraging on the massive support it got during the last election?

Media is playing an increasingly significant role in Nigerian politics, with Facebook emerging as a crucial platform. Contrary to some expectations, Twitter is not as influential, particularly in the North, where radio, particularly BBC Radio Hausa, holds significant sway. The North relies heavily on BBC Radio, with BBC Radio Hausa being the most subscribed channel of communication in Nigeria.

The impact of media is notable in the South East, where internet penetration rates in cities like Onitsha, Aba, Lagos, and Port Harcourt are similar, indicating a considerable online presence, especially among the youth. However, as political commentators, the real power behind movements like the Obidient movement might not be fully evident.

The Obidient movement successfully rode the wave of media influence, but there is a sense that they did not fully comprehend the dynamics at play. The movement’s success appears to be driven by a combination of factors, including ethno-religious sentiments. Questions like “Is it not time for the Igbo man?” and expressions of discontent with continued Muslim rule played a substantial role.

The analysis suggests that historically, voters in Nigeria have had options representing both Christian and Muslim choices, North and South choices. However, the 2019 election presented a unique situation where there seemed to be no viable option for the Christian voter and limited choices for those outside the Southwest. This forced voters into making decisions based on different considerations, with ethno-religious factors playing a significant role.

The outcome indicates that 14 states in regions won by Obi have consistently supported the PDP in the past, and the majority of them shifted to Labour. It is suggested that these states would likely have remained with the PDP if a Southern Christian candidate was on the ballot, showcasing the influence of leaders in swaying voter choices.

Now that the precedent has been set, and it’s evident that such shifts can occur, media and other influencing factors may play a more substantial role in future elections. Lagos, being the only state outside the “Bible Belt” region that went to Obi, further demonstrates the evolving impact of media in shaping voting patterns. Despite these changes, ethnoreligious factors continue to be a dominant force shaping voting choices in Nigeria.

Are there any services you render to politicians outside the election cycle?

We primarily provide governance services, specializing in technology, process automation, and digitization. Currently, we are in discussions with several House of Assemblies to implement a Document Management System for their laws, providing them with accompanying software. Additionally, we offer policy advisory services, including a specialized offering called Public Sector Concierge. This service aids foreign companies or individuals interested in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in navigating government processes, essentially functioning as a form of lobbying.

We foresee significant growth opportunities in this sector and aim to expand our capabilities, particularly in automation. For instance, the digitization of the Federal House, including capturing the political inclinations of each member, can be stored in a comprehensive database. This database has the potential to enhance efficiency significantly.

What’s the next big challenge you’re looking forward to? And when do you plan to quit Office Life?

We believe that we have to attract investments into Nigeria, we’ve been to some seminars looking at some of the statistics, and we cannot fund our development in Nigeria. I think it was IBB who said Nigeria can’t build the Third Mainland Bridge again. If you want to build another Third Mainland Bridge, you pack all the money in Nigeria, we still can’t build it.

Also Read:  High stakes as Nigeria prepares for elections 2023

We’re in a situation where we want to do a welfare state but we don’t have enough money to build. For us, the next big challenge is to be part of that story that brings that investment into Nigeria. We have within the firm what is called Africa Rising. Let’s look at the glasses half full, let’s get that big investment, and let’s be part of that story that brings investment into Nigeria to make this place the Nigeria of our dreams.

I don’t intend to ever retire, I want to work into the grave. I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like work. Sometimes it feels very difficult, but it never feels very stressful. I look at people like Rupert Murdoch, Warren Buffet, and others, they are in their 80s, they’re knocking on death’s door but they’re working, they’re self-employed. For them, it’s not about the money anymore.

I think people like Rotimi Williams worked till his 70s too. Some lawyers also do it, they work till they die, it’s not about the money anymore, and I mean, for them it was probably never about the money anyway. I’ve noticed people that retire, age so quickly. I’ve seen it happen to people in my family, they stopped working and then suddenly they just aged. My mum is in her 80s, she has a school, she’s run a school for the last 30 plus years and she’s still running that school. She’s an educationist, and she won’t let us take it from her.

Ruth Imafidon

Ruth Okwumbu-Imafidon has built a decade-long portfolio across news reporting, economic analysis, corporate stories and biographies. Ruth enjoys reading, storytelling and listening to good music. She enjoys in-depth discussions around political and socio-economic issues. You can follow Ruth on X via https://twitter.com/Okwumbu_RuthAnn More »

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