Outside my office window, situated on the 4th floor of a high-rise building, is a narrow walkway that connects a major expressway to several streets in Victoria Island. It is a shortcut from the bus stop on the expressway that saves hundreds of proletariats an additional transportation cost to get to their offices. Having observed people walk through that path daily, I noticed something striking – if not remarkable. People who felt pressed while walking through at different times were urinating at almost the same spot. I wondered why that was so as no sign said: “Urinate here.” Actually, there was. While there were no written signs, urine patches were obvious on a particular section of the wall, and that was all the sign that people needed to stop briefly and let the urine in them rip.
The thinking was evident: if others could do it here, it was ok for me to do the same. It didn’t matter whether it was right or wrong. All that mattered was that others were doing it, and there was proof of it. Behavioral scientists describe this phenomenon as social proof. Robert Cialdini, the legendary behavioral scientist, explained the concept of social proof thus: “We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do. People are often persuaded by the actions of others.”
While social proof could help explain why people were urinating at a particular spot on a narrow walkway, it may also explain why kidnapping and banditry are now increasingly commonplace in Nigeria. In a recently published report by SBM Intelligence, about 2,371 have been kidnapped in the first half of this year alone. Not to mention that over N10 billion was demanded in total as ransom. The harsh reality is that the more we splash ransom payments on the front page of National Dailies, the more we are inadvertently telling desperate Nigerians that banditry and kidnapping are an option. A lucrative one at that.
Why is this so, you may ask, and shouldn’t poverty or unemployment be fingered as the real drivers of crime and criminality? That may be correct, but this is how people get influenced into a life of crime. When people are poor and unemployed, they are consciously and subconsciously looking for opportunities to escape their painful predicament. If, for instance, they live in a community where many young people are regularly enlisted into the armed forces (and these people are seen to escape the poverty and lack that once entrapped them) what that will suggest to the several unemployed is that joining the force is a guaranteed path out of poverty. Hence, you are likely to notice a heightened interest in joining the police force from young people living in such communities.
The same logic applies to kidnapping and banditry, especially in rural communities in the country’s northwestern region. Although many of these kidnappers and bandits come from impoverished homes and communities, banditry is rising because there is nothing else to aspire to. When a poor and unemployed youth, forgotten in a village or bush in northern Nigeria, listens to reports of millions of naira paid as ransom to kidnappers daily, they aspire to be one – regardless of the risks involved. And that is the ugly situation we are now confronted with as a nation.
Many young people in far-flung rural communities are turning to banditry and kidnapping because that seems to be the guaranteed path they hear about. When we break the news of how millions were paid to secure the release of children, women, or monarchs, we are inadvertently running a free commercial for banditry and kidnappings. If we must stop kidnapping and banditry from becoming a frontline economic activity, the government and the people must consider many steps.
The Federal Government must continue to strengthen the capacity of the state to hold the monopoly of violence. It would require more than military deployment to deal with the issue of kidnapping and banditry. The government needs to restore hope in many forgotten communities spread across the country by offering a clear pathway to social mobility. The more people escape poverty through legitimate means, the less glamorous criminality becomes.
More importantly, the media may need to find a different way of reporting banditry and kidnapping such that it does not glamorize the practice. Rather, such reporting should dissuade anyone thinking of such route. For as long as bold headlines scream how kidnappers and bandits are “making money” (and very few on how many, if any, are prosecuted), we would continue, for no fault of ours, to encourage far more people into taking the path of crime.