Photo: A car passenger’s view of traffic policemen at a kiosk in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Satanoid, Wikimedia Commons.

Every day, governments make demands of their citizens, ranging from the mundane (e.g., obey traffic signals) to the potentially dangerous (e.g., report lawbreaking). In each case, citizens decide whether to comply with the state by accepting the demand or not to comply by rejecting it. Without compliance from its populace, the state wields little authority. These decisions can be difficult for citizens, especially given that the state often is not the only actor seeking compliance. Non-state actors, such as gangs, have their own set of competing demands, which complicates compliance decisions. In territory contested between a state and non-state actor, compliance with one actor may necessarily mean non-compliance with the other. Take an individual that witnesses illicit gang activity. She must decide: provide that information to the police (comply with the state) or remain silent (comply with the gang).

What motivates a citizen to comply or not comply with state or non-state actors? And, when making these decisions, how do citizens assess the risk of retaliation for non-compliance with one actor? This project aims to test two competing approaches on these questions. One school of thought maintains that citizens make largely normative decisions; that is, they comply with the actor perceived to be the most legitimate. From this perspective, people are inclined to accept the authority of the actor that they believe has the right to govern. Another school of thought argues that these decisions are largely instrumental; that is, people make the decision that maximize their own interests, in particular their security, while minimizing potential costs. The instrumental approach offers a useful framework in contested environments given the uncertainty and insecurity created by two actors competing for authority. In this context, the wrong compliance decision can have dire consequences.

Understanding what motivates compliance and how citizens perceive risk can help states establish authority in contested environments. It can inform state messaging strategies to encourage tax payments, adherence to city ordinances, reporting of illicit activity, among other compliance requirements. MIT GOV/LAB is providing seed funding to MIT doctoral candidate Andrew Miller to explore this issue in the context of Lagos, Nigeria. Early discussions with two local non-governmental organizations focused on criminal justice issues in Nigeria have helped to inform the project. The project implements a multi-method empirical strategy involving semi-structured interviews, legal case file analysis, and a large-scale survey. The survey leverages experimental methods aimed at eliciting truthful responses to sensitive questions. This work provides the foundation for the project’s future stages that will implement experimental interventions aimed at promoting state compliance.

Andrew C. Miller is a doctoral candidate in the MIT Political Science Department and Security Studies Program. His work in Lagos is funded in part by the MIT GOV/LAB seed grant program. Prior to joining MIT, he was assistant director and research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action. He has field experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, among other conflict-affected states. Andrew can be reached at