Boko Haram and Nigeria’s Collective Action Problem
Boko Haram and Nigeria’s Collective Action Problem
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Boko Haram and Nigeria’s Collective Action Problem

Most Nigerians, it would seem, know what must be done to combat Boko Haram, the conundrum is they don’t trust their leaders – and each other – to do the right thing. 

When I was conducting research for the International Crisis Group’s latest report on the group (published April 2014), nearly everyone, including officials and politicians, admitted that rampant corruption and bad governance were denying most citizens even basic services, including security. This, and the related lack of development and opportunities, made people more sympathetic to the radical group’s call for an Islamic (believed to be more honest) government and provided a ready pool of young and desperate recruits.

Additionally, most had lost faith in the police and were beginning to question the army’s ability to pacify the North East, a 153,000sq km area. Calls by the national security advisor, among others, for a more holistic approach, including a “Marshall Plan” for the North, are gaining more traction, but the challenge remains finding the resources and political will to implement and carry out the necessary programs and reforms – which is where Nigeria’s collective action problem arises.

The collective action problem refers to a common challenge, whenever a group is faced with a problem that cannot be solved without some bearing the brunt of the burden while only retaining a portion of the benefit. In Nigeria, the problem basically boils down to pervasive corruption. 

Many, many people “benefit” from it, including those who are not corrupt, but who instead rely on assistance and hand-outs from corrupt leaders in exchange for their continued political support (in large part because the state no longer prioritises public services). They realize it is a problem, but their incentive is to continue their own corrupt practices while getting others to end theirs. Absent some kind of arrangement to ensure most people don’t cheat, the status quo –massive corruption that is undermining the country – appears to remain an individual’s best choice.

One would think that Nigeria’s elite recognize they are slowly killing the golden goose. Boko Haram is only the most prominent example of numerous groups rejecting state (secular) “authority” and taking the law into their own hands. 

Insecurity is rife, not only in the North East, but elsewhere as well. Like Boko Haram, some of these groups could morph into a much more dangerous threat. The federal government has been forced to deploy security forces, including the military, to 28 of 36 states. But this is not enough, in part because the security services are being hollowed-out by the same individual-corruption-logic as the state. What’s more, those officials and politicians who benefit the most from public malfeasance have the means, and property, to live extremely comfortably abroad if things get too bad.

The government has done very little to combat corruption. For example, it has failed or been unable to prosecute at least fourteen former state governors who have been standing trial for several years, some now in the Senate, others running for offices again in 2015. It’s no wonder that public theft continues unabated, and unknown billions are lost that could be used to provide basic services, reform the security services and develop the North, as well as other desperately poor parts of the country.

Unable or unwilling to raise government revenue, by fighting oil theft for instance (costing as much as $1.5 billion per year), President Goodluck Jonathan is asking for international support. Some Nigerians are even asking for more international development assistance. However, not surprisingly, most donors (already stretched by their own budget woes and other commitments) are leery of providing more money if it is likely much of it will be pocketed by officials.

Rather than looking outside, Nigerians should look within. Nigeria is an ostensibly middle-income country with a $520 billion GDP, millions of well-educated people and capable institutions (if allowed to function as intended). President Jonathan, state governors and other leaders must recognise that unless issues of bad governance and systemic corruption are addressed vigorously and transparently, all other measures will be nothing but stop-gaps. They must also free up the necessary national resources to address sustained economic hardship, rising inequality and social frustration by expanding and strengthening the anti-corruption agencies, and ensure they work effectively at state and local levels, free of political manipulation.

Development cannot occur overnight, but most radical groups do not prey on poverty but rather a loss of hope. They would have much less support were the government to implement the necessary reforms and programmes to give people confidence in a better future. This, more than a security crackdown, can help bring Nigeria back from the precipice. It can be done. One example is Lagos, which two decades ago naysayers painted as “dystopian” but since then has made significant, if qualified, progress.

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