Three weeks after the country’s general elections, Nigerians across 28 states returned to the polls to vote for their governors and state-level representatives. On both occasions, widespread disenfranchisement and violence became focal points of the elections. But something else stood out, especially during the presidential elections — Nigerians became joint coordinators with INEC officials.

Nigerians are not unfamiliar with glitches during electoral processes. So, they knew that their participation would exceed thumbprinting on ballots. For example, some people had to bring internet facilities to ensure result uploads, while others provided their own security.

But they didn’t stop there. Reading election results from INEC’s website is difficult for many. So Nigerians also started enforcing transparency by collating results themselves. Some people even created digital platforms to this effect. An example is Oo Nwoye, who launched Collate Africa, a live election collation and monitoring platform.

What’s interesting is that this behaviour did not start with the elections. Nigerian residents have been self-organizing for many decades. And it’s arguably why the country has defied the expectations of many observers who think it should have become a completely failed state.

Nigeria’s public sector has done a poor job of providing fundamental necessities — education, health, security, power and infrastructure—yet Nigerians adapt. They display the drive to organize their lives independently, both at the individual and group levels. So we see these impulses in millions of Nigerians as they go about their daily business (not in easy circumstances, to be sure) trying to earn a living, get an education, create a career path, find a spouse, raise children, and just generally, make meaning of life.

It’s true that Nigeria is not the only country that uses the BYOI (Bring Your Own Infrastructure) model. But what distinguishes Nigerians is the sheer scale of their self-organizing abilities. For example, Nigeria’s power sector generates only about 5,000 MW of electricity. Meanwhile, Nigerians privately produce at least double as much electricity as they get through large-scale grid suppliers by using generators.

Similarly, the powerful Nigerian diaspora is a self-organizing phenomenon with virtually no government involvement. Emigrants handle all necessary tasks to emigrate, including researching, applying, finding a job, and organizing their departure. Despite this lack of official coordination, Nigerian brains — via the diaspora — have become the largest export earned for Nigeria, surpassing even the country’s oil revenue.

While this ability makes a good case for Nigeria’s anti-fragility, there’s an obvious downside: Nigerians can’t trust the government with their taxes. Even though taxes might not be nearly as high as Cote D’Ivoire’s, people would rather not pay. Hence, the country’s chances of escaping its acclaimed revenue problem become slimmer.

There’s a saying that “play is nothing if not the spontaneous creation of structure, an improvisational practice that illuminates the intersection of freedom and constraint.” In Nigeria, citizens have been forced to play a game with very little structure, yet they have found ways to improvise and create new forms of order, against all odds. The result is a fascinating example of human resilience, but also a cautionary tale about the limits of relying solely on individual initiative and the risks of neglecting public goods. And now that the country has concluded its elections, we’ll wait and see if the country will learn quickly enough.

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