Nigeria and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Marcus A.
3 min readAug 5, 2023


The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an excellent framework, and it can help understand why some societies “work” and some don’t.

A ChatGPT summary

All of civilization is basically an iterative game of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In societies that “work”, people follow the rules because they BELIEVE everyone else will do the same (and if they don’t, they’ll be punished). As this is the default assumption everyone works with, we have the ideal outcome where everybody cooperates and society is the better for it.

In other societies though, where we have severe erosion of trust in institutions, the average person assumes other people will break or are already breaking the rules and getting away with it. So they fail to see the value of being the lone righteous man in a city of thieves.

Such is the case with many Nigerians. Nigerians are not inherently lawless. At least no more than any other group of people. However, as nobody wants to “carry last”, people do things they wouldn’t normally do in societies with functioning institutions.

Former Head of the National Bureau of Statistics

Nigerians have been taught to distrust each other. Not because we are less trustworthy than other people. Just decades of being failed at every corner by the powers that be.

Even in situations where citizens of other societies like the UK doubt their governments, they still trust public services. Nigerians on the other hand have spent decades living with failed services and dishonest governments. Trust is a scarce commodity.


We desperately need a national reorientation. Not the occasional boring moralizing sermon from corrupt leaders asking you to be a good citizen.

Nigerians need to be taught and retaught to believe in the country and in each other. To trust their fellow Nigerians (sounds ludicrous) and to trust in their institutions. For this to happen, we need to rebuild our institutions. We need to see crime penalised and hard work rewarded.

Nigerians need to believe in the Nigerian dream. And the government is the one that needs to sell that dream.

But that’s only possible if the leaders themselves believe in this dream.