The Cobra Effect: Incentivizing Violence in Nigeria


So I’m not going to argue on the politics behind handing out amnesty in Nigeria. That’s not what this blog’s for. This blog was made to analyze economic decisions that Nigerians make and attempt to explain why these decisions are made. In this case, we’re going ‘macro’ and analyzing a decision made by the Nigerian Government. One important lesson from Economics is that every policy enacted has an effect, and often times, a bunch of unintended effects. One of such unintended effects is known as the Cobra Effect. Essentially, the Cobra Effect happens when a party engages in an action with noble intentions to solve a problem, but due to that action, the problem actually gets worse. Why is that? Economists call it ‘The Law of Unintended Consequences’. It happens because the incentives drawn up by the controlling party do not take into account all the possible decisions the reactive party can make. Like game theory, the second party chooses a strategy that provides them the best outcome in relation to the first move. Why’s it named after a snake? Vikas Mehrotra on Freakonomics explains the origin:

“So the “Cobra Effect” refers to a scheme in colonial India where the British governor, or whoever, the person in charge in Delhi, wanted to rid Delhi of cobras. Apparently in his opinion there were too many cobras in Delhi. So he had the bounty placed on cobras. And he expected this would solve the problem. But the population in Delhi, at least some of it, responded by farming cobras. And all of a sudden the administration was getting too many cobra skins. And they decided the scheme wasn’t as smart as initially it appeared and they rescinded the scheme. But by then the cobra farmers had this little population of cobras to deal with. And what do you do if there’s no market? You just release them. And so this significantly, by a few orders of magnitude, worsened the cobra menace in Delhi.”

So you see, what started off as a good idea turned out to be bad in the end. Mind you, for a while, the population of snakes would have declined, but eventually, it ended up getting worse than before. Now what’s Nigeria got to do with Cobras (well..except in juju Nollywood movies)? We haven’t got a cobra situation in Nigeria. What we have is much worse and far lethal than cobras. Our own cobras are terrorists: both the religious and financially motivated ones.

Now the policy in vogue these days is granting of amnesty. In order to fight terrorism, the Government hands out money to those who bomb and kill in lieu of the terrorists putting down their guns and embracing peace. Sounds like a fair deal, right? Sounds like something that could certainly reduce the amount of bombings in Nigeria? Well, on face value it does, but upon closer economic inspection, such a policy engenders a very detrimental effect.

So first things first, we can safely define amnesty as placing a price tag on violence. Consequently, amnesty tells people that engaging in crime with the ‘obvious’ aim of causing enough headaches to the Government, not getting killed, and planning to retire from it can be pretty lucrative. It’s essentially like a retirement package, except the cash starts coming in way before one is 60.

So, what stops anyone from bringing the whole family into the ‘Boko Business’? Even a neutral party would be hard-pressed to stay neutral in this case. Imagine your neighbor’s son now drives a new Honda car, courtesy of amnesty, while your son’s straining your pockets by going to school. Only few would resist the temptation to take the ‘Boko-path’ to amnesty.

Another micro-incentive is the demarcation of financial renumeration from amnesty based on the rank of terrorists. The foot soldiers get 100,000 Naira and I’m assuming the leaders get a lot more money. Do you see where this is going? As I said, we respond to incentives as humans. Now who wouldn’t want to be on the top rank? In crime-lucrative organizations, one has to be ‘bigger and badder’ than the rest of the acolytes to get to the top rank. So I suppose that doing something extreme helps one climb the rank faster, which leads to more violence, as Boko lads would kill to get to the top…literally . Also, now imagine different violent groups begin to compete for turfs in the same area. Next thing, we’ve got intra-group violence occurring.

Do we all get the point? At first these sorts of incentives seem to work, but eventually, someone always finds a way to beat the system. As Steven Levitt of Freakonomics says ‘I think you start by admitting to yourself that no individual, no government, is ever going to be as smart as the people who are scheming against you. So when you introduce an incentive scheme, you have to just admit to yourself that no matter how clever you think you are, there’s a pretty good chance that someone far more clever than yourself will figure out a way to beat the incentive scheme.’

It’s never fun being the prophet of doom, but if the Government keeps relying solely on amnesty as a means of peacefully solving the issue of violence, more places in Nigeria could start lighting up like a Christmas tree…and it’s not going to be cause NEPA has gotten better.

Please reread, comment, and share this article! You’ve got an incentive to educate your friends! 😉

  • Amazing! Truly brilliant write up and really timely. Not everyone has a conscience and in truth, with the high rate of unemployment and job insecurities in the country today, a lot of people would be more than willing to migrate to the latest source of fast income. It’s basically a new “oil well”. I really hope the government would do something soon about terrorist groups in the country. America does not negotiate with terrorists, Nigeria caters for them. What a country!

  • I have to say, this is one of the best and most educative Write i’ve read in a while. You couldn’t be anymore accurate!

  • Agree with everything but one.. Finding a way to beat the system eventually.

    In Nigeria, the system is beaten before it is created. And it is beaten by the same people who create it. The money people have made from this amnesty thing eh..

    • Excellent writeup too.

    • Haha! I certainly agree with you! Nigeria is unique in this case that the system is typically set to fail from the onset by the people who create them. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

    • lol. sad but true!

  • Nnamdi

    Very true, this is all I have been saying and its beats my understanding how our government can see amnesty as an antidote to terrorism. I think we are the first in the world

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  • chidi umeh-ujubuonu

    I wish our leaders will read this,but we have people who are academically lazy ,they won’t have to read this wonderful piece that will make them have a re-think over this senseless policy of giving incentives to violence. Good write up.

    • lool. An attack indeed! Sure they would! Apparently, the term “constructive criticism” is soo lost on them! haha

  • funsho

    Well said sir. In a country like Nigeria, being a law abiding citizen is like depriving oneself from the good of the land. To enjoy the fruit of the land u must be a law breaker, terrorist, cheater etc. We are in a country where the norms is now the abnormal and the abnormal is now the norms. What a shame!

  • Agama

    Without trying, to defend the government of the day, its on record that; Amnesty, in the case of the Boko Haram was not and is not the government’s baby. Months on end, elders. And elites from the North drummed up appeal for the Central government to consider amnesty for the terrorist group and in no time, the opposition political groups joined the bandwagon for the clamour for amnesty for terrorist. It now beats me, to see majority of the same people, who had surpported the call for amnesty to turn around and start criticizing the government the moment it considered implimenting amnesty for the terrorists leaves much to desire

    • As illustrated above, the source is irrelevant: whether the govt or northern leaders. When a policy is enacted, it really doesn’t matter who came up with it or who didn’t. What matters is the effect it has.The economic consequence is what’s important. I’m harping on the fact that the govt hasn’t come out to say, this and this is the reason why we don’t support amnesty. Cheers! 🙂

  • That the Amnesty idea is a bad one is a no brainer, but making the case in an objective and less emotive fashion is what has been lacking in Nigeria’s public discuss. Thank you for the well written piece. I hope we can have objective public debate on policies of our Governments without the usual noise ocassioned by ethnic, religious or political sentiments.

  • Today Asari at a press conference stated that the only reason the Niger Delta Militants are not causeing carnage is because of the President and not the Amnesty Given to them .
    This should be a clear Indictation that the concept of Amnesty is flawed .
    After all the US is very Bold to say ” we do not negotiate with Therorists”
    I recently watched a movie Olympus Has Fallen. And In that movie the government did indeed negotiate with the terrorists and in the end the body bags pilled up.
    My view is that ever Conra has a nest and that I order to take care of the problem we should smoke out the snakes and cut of their heads , and destroy their eggs

  • Johnson Jackson

    This is an excellent write up. If this should get to authority and is thrashed, then no truth will ever be upheld for correcting wrong motives and move. God bless you.

    • now favor allowing ilalgel immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens.”a0 As we pointed out last week, the AP asked a question totally unrelated to any possible legislative solution and offered only

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  • peterbabs

    Ha ah! The effect!!!
    Oya, tag Mr. President 🙂

  • AB

    Great post.
    Though I don’t agree with the point that amnesty is a good idea on the face of it. As a matter of principle, it is wrong. Give them money to make them stop (for the “greater good”) is just another way of saying reward people for doing bad things. And if the people up there had the least discernment, they should have known that this “cobra effect” was inevitable. If not from new terrorists, at least from the militants, say in future, they want a raise? I considered this the first time there was talk of amnesty so I really can’t consider this an unintended consequence.

    If you want to shoot someone outside, and you shoot through a window, putting a hole in it- you can’t say I intended to shoot X, not put a hole in the window. The hole in the window could have been easily contemplated by any reasonable person. To shoot, you had to put a hole. In this amnesty situation, the expectancy of our terrorists, is the hole in the window.

    • Oh. It’s not a good idea at all. I raised those questions to lead people on. As you said, it’s paying for bad behaviour. At what point does we stop paying them? In 5 years, 10 years? Are we going to adjust for inflation too? Haha. We’re throwing money at the issue, and frankly, cash doesn’t put out fires, it makes them worse.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

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  • Chudi Ezeks

    Lovely piece. Hopefully this is not the governments intended path to employment generation. 🙂

  • goood

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  • kelechi

    One argument i’ve heard pro-amnesty supporters use to discredit the “we shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists” statement is the fact that we lack the fire power and organized counter intelligence to actually clamp down on these insurgents effectively, unlike our american counterparts. A valid argument i dare say, but certainly not enough to validate an amnesty move. Whilst i laud your argument as a valid one, i’ll like to say that criticizing isn’t enough. Proferring alternative solutions to the problem is the way to end a valid objective criticism, and its clearly lacking here.

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