Making sense of the insanity of lootings

Mrs Bosede is a 45-year-old widow who lost her job in a Bank three years ago. She invested her severance allowance as well as a loan facility from the Bank to set up a clothing line for corporate clients. She relied on her previous network of banker colleagues – knowing fully well that many of them would prefer well-tailored and affordable clothing that took their preferences into consideration.

She engaged two young tailors and after an initially rocky start, she has started smiling to the bank. She had paid off her bank loan but invested her profits over the last two years to purchase better sewing machines for a smoother finish. She is immensely proud of how far she has come, and she is now more confident that she can put her children through the University. Until her world came crashing down when her shop, equipment, and store of clothing materials from China were looted and then burnt down…like others in the shopping complex. She stared at the ruins of her source of livelihood in horror, as hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Where will she start? What will happen to her children? She felt very alone and defeated in her soul. If only her husband was still alive.


Why do people loot and destroy during riots?

All protests, no matter how well-intended and justifiable, often brings in all sorts of characters who may resort to looting, lawlessness, and destruction of properties. And all sorts of agenda will find shade and expression under the umbrella of the legitimate protests. The important question to address is to answer the question, why?

Psychology offers several theories that shed light on this pattern of human behaviour. The theory of ‘bad elements’ suggests that individuals with criminal inclinations find expression under the guise of any legitimate protests to steal and destroy. The second theory relies on the initiation of such bad behaviour, to unleash a ‘mad mob’ mentality. This theory suggests that individuals within a group or crowd, tend to lose their sense of rationality and that extreme views tend to be more popular and carry more sway. To support this theory, social experiments have shown that individuals tend to be more reasonable and less confrontational when alone, as compared to when they are present as a member of a group, when a more extreme and hard line position is more likely to be adopted. Thus, once the bad elements initiate destruction or looting, and the mad mob effect takes place, voices of caution are less likely to be heeded. It is worsened, when there are no consequences or repercussions …which embolden others to join in the looting. Unfortunately, there is a thrill or a high associated with doing bad things and getting away with it.

Group psychology offers another interesting theory to explain this behaviour. The theory of Group or Collective Identity. Thus, individuals utilise labels and symbols to promote a collective sense of belonging/bonding and community. In the recent protests which were initially peaceful, we can clearly discern the use of identity labels such as ‘Soro Soke’ (Speak Out); and ‘GbenuDake’ (Keep Quiet). Thus, you were either in the In-Group or in the Out-Group. Youth versus Old folks. Us versus Them. Oppressed versus Oppressors. Poor versus Rich. Masses versus Government. Such labelling made it easier to rationalise attacking and looting ‘symbols’ of the oppressors/government/rich people such as shopping malls, government agencies – including hospitals and parastatals. This is what happens to the psyche of the average citizen, which makes it easier for enemies of the state, to hide and point out targets that may appear spontaneous to the unwary. Psychological warfare is an old art.


Mental Health Consequences

Lives have been lost and many families are grieving. Families of protesters, policemen who have lost their lives…every single Nigerian life lost is one too many. Hundreds if not thousands of Nigerian citizens are in the shoes of Mrs Bosede and have lost their livelihood. There is a general sense of heightened anxiety, worry, depression, acute stress reactions, and post-traumatic stress disorder.


What Can We Do?

The government owes a duty to guarantee safety of lives and property. It is worrisome to see security men standing by while looting and destruction continues unhindered. This must stop. Governance must be felt at the grassroots, in a responsive and sensitive manner that provides basic needs and social welfare support. And for all of us as citizens, we need to reinforce and strengthen our sense of community, show empathy and offer a helping hand to those in need. Don’t share unverified, divisive and anxiety provoking messages. We all need to speak with one voice to condemn wanton destruction and lootings.


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