Can this theory explain Nigeria’s indiscipline?

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By Dr. Ibraheem Dooba

A story was told of Nigerian election observers who visited an East African country to find an election worker sleeping on a bench while waiting for voters to come out and elect their leaders. What baffled the Nigerian observers was the fact that the electoral officer had with him all the election materials. To boot, no one was there to harass, destroy or steal the materials from him; even though there were no security agents present to protect the man and stop the bad guys.

The observers were stunned because they knew that in Nigeria, a scene like that was improbable. Those election materials wouldn’t have been safe with a single man or 10 men. Even in the presence of security agents, they could be destroyed or stolen. Mahmud Jega argued – and I agree – that trying to account for our indiscipline is what makes elections very expensive and a logistic nightmare here.

Many have wondered what is wrong with us. More specifically, why are we so indisciplined to the extent that governing the country has become too expensive? Why would a Nigerian be a complete gentleman who obeys all rules abroad but turn into a thug who refuses to recognize any authority immediately he steps foot in Nigeria?

The following theory may explain our situation.

In 1982, James Wilson and George Kelling proposed the Broken Windows Theory as an analogy to argue that when you leave broken windows unfixed for a while, that gives the residents the impression that there is no one in charge and no one cares – which invites more crime and infractions worse than the broken windows. In other words, crime is a result of a disorderly environment.

Let us assume you come into a new neighborhood and see broken windows everywhere. Left unfixed, after a while, you get the impression that there is no one in charge in the community and no one cares.

So what do you do? You do something worse because you know that no one is available to stop you. Even if they did stop you, you know that you can get away with it – so that you come back and re-offend.

This type of environment then causes more serious crimes; because the broken window gives us the tacit approval to commit more crimes. In essence, if the police tackle simple infractions, they wouldn’t become gateways to serious crimes. For example, if the police prevent public drinking, that would not show the way to criminals to commit car theft or kidnapping.

The Broken Windows Theory has been employed to address different societal problems – from classroom management to crime-fighting.

While James Q. Wilson and George Kelling proposed the theory, it was Malcolm Gladwell who popularized it in his book ”The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”

In the book, he wrote:

”Broken Windows was the brainchild of the criminologist James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.”

Britannica says the ”theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.”

Is there any Evidence on Broken Windows Policing?

A 2015 review by Braga, Welsh, and Schnell showed that policing strategies directed at disorder, ”had a statistically significant, modest impact on reducing all types of crime.”

Also, the prestigious academic journal Science reported, “One example of disorder, like graffiti or littering, can indeed encourage another, like stealing”.

Accordingly, crime fighters have used The Broken Windows Theory to fight crimes in many neighborhoods. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, as the mayor of New York used it as the basis of cleaning up graffiti to drive down crimes. And it worked.

In Nigeria, you see broken windows everywhere. Can you think of one? What about a driver who drives on the wrong lane against traffic? Other drivers insult him and he also insults back. Other drivers see this and assume that since there is no one to call him to order, they are free to do the same thing or even worse. That is why you see two friends going opposite directions stop in the middle of the road to have a conversation while ignoring the honks and screams of other vehicles behind them.

For a foreigner, it starts at the airport. First, he is astonished to see someone openly giving money to an officer in uniform. As he moves away, he recognizes a man introduced earlier as a senator sharing money to airport staff.

When he leaves the airport, he sees a policeman trying to shake down a taxi driver; then people driving beyond the speed limit. As he goes to the hotel, he sees more broken windows. Then he realizes that he can get away with anything in this country.

If you are in Nigeria now, look around you and would find broken windows everywhere. If you are in the toilet, as I am while writing this column, you would observe that the cleaner did not clean the toilet properly. They have allowed dirt to linger and coat the corners of the room. Users of the toilets see this and take their permission to go and commit further infractions in the office.

It may also be a school that allows students to cheat during examinations. The students graduate with the assumption that when things get tough in life, they are permitted to cheat. So they become corrupt politicians. Their children see them and also learn corruption.

It may be a father, who drives with rage and curses other road users. Or a mother who beats her child for every little misbehavior. The child grows and assumes that the only way to solve a problem is to be verbally or physically aggressive; because children do not do what they do not see.

It is my opinion that this theory explains our situation and can be used – to some extent – to solve it.

You can recognize a broken window now, so as you move around the town, let’s see how many you can count in a day. Then you have a choice: to break another one or do your part to help fix the ones already broken.

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