Why are people stealing women underwear in Nigeria? – The Question Marker
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Dept. of Sociology

Why are people stealing women underwear in Nigeria?

As long as Nollywood and other popular media continue to inherently assume that rituals are potent, there will continue to be a demand for pants

In parts of Nigeria, female pants have become endangered
In parts of Nigeria, female pants have become endangered

Illustration by Nonso Brendan for The Question Marker

Since late last year, the Nigerian media has been reporting on how women underwear has become an in-demand ingredient for rituals conducted by online fraudsters, popularly known as ‘Yahoo boys’. A report in the Vanguard noted the responses of women in Warri, Delta state, who walk around with the fear that their underwear is now under threat. “As a rule now in my house, we pour anointing oil and sprinkle holy water on our pants before wearing them,” one of the girls in the report said. In another report in the Punch Newspaper, a lady confirmed to a reporter that some ladies no longer wear pants in some parts of Delta state, with its ritual-price now as high as N500, 000. But, since the pant-stealing news became viral across the country, the police have arrested no one. Responding to a related incident of a man who slept with a girl (she later started to breed maggots in her vagina), the Police Public Relations Officer, Delta State Command, Andrew Aniamaka, said: “What offence shall we arrest him for?”

The pant-stealing reports has a lot of believability value among Nigerians, because it is an offshoot of how most believe the world works. Is it possible to produce money from a woman’s underwear? Yes, because in Nigerian cosmology, everything has a spiritual value, good or bad, which cannot be isolated from the physical world. Before the introduction of Christianity and Islam, virtually all Nigerian societies had traditional religions which, generally, encompassed beliefs “in a supreme God, other gods, ancestors, communal rituals, personal rituals and recognizes the existence of witchcraft, magic and sorcery, sacred specialists and other spiritual forces,” according to two scholars, Sunday Alawonde and Stephen Fatonji, familiar with the subject.

Also, Christianity and Islam, the two most powerful tools for constructing meaning in modern Nigeria, acknowledge that things, even non-living things possess energy, which can be used to alter matter in the material world.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that the Nigerian penal code recognizes the crimes that can be committed based on these beliefs. “But you have to be able to prove that there was cause and effect,” a Lagos-based lawyer, Tobi Williams, told me.

In 2013, at the first annual International Interdisciplinary Conference held in Azores, Portugal, Alawode and Fatonji, both from the Lagos State University, delivered a paper on ritualism in Nigerian home videos. For research, they had watched thirty Yoruba home videos and realized that close to 10 per cent of the video playtime was “devoted to ritual scenes or ritualism.” In 23.9 per cent of the rituals that appeared onscreen, the purpose was for protection or security, 15.2 per cent was for wealth or prosperity acquisition and 13 per cent was for evil/evil machinations. Only a fraction of 4.4 per cent, the academics reported, was related to communal good.

“The purpose of rituals is neither good nor evil,” the authors said at the end of the paper, “ritualism itself is an application which can either be used positively or negatively.” However, they went on to note that the use of ritual imagery in the media “serves the purpose of framing, reflection and identity construction” and urged filmmakers to exercise caution in their “presentation and emphasis of certain cultural themes.”

Alawode and Fatonji’s paper went unnoticed in Nigeria’s popular culture stream, perhaps because its findings offered no shocking or sensational details about the country’s media habits. In fact, in another study conducted by Ezekiel Asemah and Leo Edegoh the following year, a pool of Nigerians were asked to rate the extent to which ritual activities are portrayed in Nigerian home videos; 72 per cent of the respondents answered “to a very great extent”. When the researchers asked the same set of people whether this portrayal of ritual activities had negative effects on those who watch them, 47 per cent “strongly agreed”.

In the conclusion of their paper, Asemah and Edegoh observed that if the Nigerian home video set the agenda of ritualism, “the audience members will begin to see that as a means of solving life’s problems.”

When I first read about the pant-stealing trend, I was curious to why people believed the news and shared it on social media without demanding any sort of evidence for its plausibility. One person shared it, another echoed it, and so it went on. Even in the newspaper reports I reviewed, the reporters did not speak to anyone whose pant had been stolen and had subsequently been struck down by a strange ailment or unfortunate life-crisis. There was also a tacit agreement in those reports that the pant-stealing operation was potent and bears material success for those who engage in them.

In 2003, Jenkeri Okwori, the late Professor who taught at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, published a paper in the Journal of African Studies, describing how rituals of human sacrifice (an offence under the penal code) are presented as being an effective means of getting wealth in Nigerian home videos. Is it possible to kill someone and money is produced, directly as a result of the murder? Well, there is no objective evidence to prove cause and effect in this case. But those who produce and consume the country’s most viral media believe it is, creating a spiral of believability that feeds the demand for ritual killings.

An important point in Okwori’s 2003 paper was his argument that although the intent of media (in this case, home movies) is to denounce human sacrifice as a route to get rich, the films never achieve their purpose. He offered two reasons: one, after a character’s confession to ritual killings in these movies, he is not taken to a law court and prosecuted, but is usually dealt with (or even rescued) by God. In other words, the characters suffer no real consequence under the law. Secondly, in films where the rituals are done in a group, only one character (usually the protagonist) suffers any consequences while the rest of the group continues to be successful, Okwori said.

Last December, popular artistes, Olamide and Lil Kesh, released a song titled ‘Logo Benz’. “If no money no enter, I go do blood money,” they sung, “pata ni logo benz.” A major refrain in the song is: “won ka pata”, which loosely translates to “they are picking up pants.” As soon as the song was released, it was harshly criticized on social media for promoting blood money rituals. The Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation said it was monitoring the station and could stop radio stations from airing it. In response, Olamide took to Twitter and wrote: “Logo Benz is for the 3rd party to have a glimpse into the current state of youths in our society. (Runs girls x runs boys) I’m not sure if there’s anything like 2 much awareness, but pardon me if there is. It’s all over the news, it’s always been in movies, don’t box musicians.”

Why do people engage in activities like money rituals? I conducted a small, unscientific survey by sending messages to random people I know and most of the responses I received were related to impatience, greed, desperation, poverty, frustration, laziness, and peer pressure. No one mentioned that people do it because they believe it works.

The stream of media content consumed across the country, apparently, cultivates this belief. Or is the other way round? Are media content influenced by the people’s beliefs? A classic chicken and egg question.

But one thing is clear: as long as Nollywood and other popular media continue to inherently assume that rituals are potent, there will continue to be a demand for pants. ✚

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