The Nollywood movie experiment to research Nigerians’ anti-corruption behavior

Working on a clearer image of Nigerian corruption.
Working on a clearer image of Nigerian corruption.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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The popularity of Nigeria’s Nollywood movie industry—the world’s second largest by volume—was covertly deployed for a social cause five years ago.

Researchers from Princeton University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collaborated to commission a feature film to test local habits on reporting corruption. The research for the movie, which was funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and an anonymous donor, was approved by by the Princeton Institutional Review Board.

Given the popularity of the local movie industry and the prevalence of corruption in Nigeria, the researchers looked to study how Nigerians report corruption using the high-profile actors to model behavior.

Nigeria’s corruption problems are well-documented with a landmark survey two years capturing the scale of corruption especially among public officers. Despite his well-publicized anti-corruption stance and message in office, Nigeria’s president Buhari has struggled to definitely address the problem with his administration suffering corruption-related scandals of its own.

Water of Gold movie.
Water of Gold movie.
Image: Water of Gold study

As a first step, the researchers commissioned iROKOtv, a local streaming service and content producer focused exclusively on Nollywood, to  produce Water of Gold, starring popular Nollywood actors Yemi Blaq, Clem Ohameze and Mike Ezuruonye.

The movie plot focused on corrupt government officials in the oil-rich Niger-Delta and depicted actors playing activist roles, encouraging people to report corrupt actions through a prominently advertised SMS short-code. Upon its release, 31,000 copies film were then distributed in four states (Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers) in the Niger-Delta region where the study was focused.

While the film’s plot focuses so strictly on activism as a social cause, Nigeria’s Nollywood industry has grown popular in the country and across Africa for its comedy and dramas often dominated by glamor and aspirational stories.

The tactic to test audience behavior was two-fold, says Graeme Blair of UCLA. “First, we distributed two versions of the film directly to their communities, which included information on the cover and in the film about how to send in reports. In one version of the film, actors modeled reporting corruption, and in doing so provided an additional way for viewers to see how to send in a report,” he says. “Second, we sent a mass text message to everyone in each of the study communities several days after they would have watched the film” to send corruption reports to SMS short-codes, like the movie’s actors had done, Blair says.

The move yielded results as researchers received texts from 1,181 unique senders “discussing corruption or the study’s campaigns.” Of that number however, 241 unique individuals sent in “concrete corruption reports explicitly mentioning a specific act, person, or institution.” The researchers say those reports were then shared with local civil society organizations.

The results notably contrasted with the local expectations met by researchers at the start of the project: “When we first described the campaign to experts and activists on the ground in Nigeria, they didn’t think anyone would participate,” Rebecca Littman, one of the researchers said in a statement. The newly released results of the study have just been published in the journal Science Advances.

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