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Nigeria’s ‘War Against Indiscipline’

The other day, driving around Liverpool (a fine but faded city), I heard on the radio a short item looking back on the experiment of a 1980s military government in Nigeria, whereby the General in charge, President Buhari (later to become a civilian, elected President, but only after being overthrown and jailed in another coup) had got his deputy to launch a ‘War Against Indiscipline‘ or ‘WAI‘ (why?) in March 1984.

One of the visible objectives of WAI was the encouragement of customers and citizens to line up to board buses and mostly line up or queue for high demand services.

This was, like most government ‘wars’ these days, directed against its own populace. But it was one with immodest objectives such as to get officials not to take bribes (rather than getting rid of officials’ jobs), stopping students cheating in exams, and getting people to learn the national anthem, not merely to get people not to fight for a place on a bus. I wonder what government’s programme inspired it? It seems to have a touch of a Lenin Saturday.

Some elements had a slightly comical aspect, such as making civil servants turn up for work on time (anyone see that as a good idea?) with soldiers making them do star jumps in front of colleagues if they were late for work. Someone also named an album after the WAI, so it has some resonance in popular culture.

There were others programmes too, a ‘clean-up’ campaign to improve hygiene, which I’m told persists to this day. I had not heard about this ‘war’ previously, in the 1980s a military government in Nigeria seemed to be about as regular as the US Congress hiking the Federal debt limit, it was more ‘when’ not ‘if’. Nigerian acquaintances and a family member doing business there had told me plenty of grim stories about the behaviour of police and soldiers in Nigeria as it was, I had not realised that a whole new justification for State thuggery had been dreamt up.

Of course, there was the implementation, the basic idea seems to have been that the common soldiery would go around the country and would ensure that the civilian population ‘behaved themselves’. What, might you think, could possibly go wrong?

The program was criticized by some for poor planning and engaging in draconian and unreasonable punishments such as public flogging and long sentences for minor offenses. A student above 17 years of age caught cheating could get close to 21 years in prison while counterfeiting, arson and illegal oil bunkering could lead to the death penalty. (3) Some analysts also allege that some of WAI’s patriotic objectives such as reciting the national anthem and national pledge had little do to with order or corruption.

So was patriotism the first resort of a scoundrel? The radio programme reports beatings being handed out by soldiers. The ‘war’ ended when another faction in the military overthrew Buhari, and the effort at expressly changing popular behaviours by force was more or less at an end.

One might hope that the example of this dirigiste thinking, which I now see faintly echoed in old Labour Party proposals for yobs to be marched to cash machines by police in order to pay an on-the-spot fine, might be enough to make those who seek to change behaviour (other than aggression) by force think again.

But there will be no use of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s idea, floated in July, that police should be given powers to take drunken louts to a cash machine and pay £100 on-the-spot fines.

That proposal was rejected by the police as impractical.

Impractical, is it not also tyrannical? Is living with other people’s annoying behaviour (when not affecting you or your property) that hard for people? Let people be, if they see a harmony of rightly-understood interests in queueing and civil behaviour, then fine. If not, then that is how they are. A government ‘war’ isn’t going to be the right answer, unless your end is war itself. And of course, there are the Nudge Nazis.

But there’s nothing like nostalgia, and some are calling for the President to re-start this war.

And in Benin, if this report is believed, a woman motorist lashed out at their own, newer, better WAI officials.

According to the woman,one of the officials hit her in the face while the others ran away when the arguement between the woman and the WAI officials got intense.However,she was able to hold the official that hit her in the face.The official was beaten mercilessly by the woman.

Eyewitnesses made no attempt to help the man as they were not happy with the WAI officials. One of the eyewitnesses said:

“WAI officials and Oshiomole boys should be called to order.They always harass people unnecessarily….especially women.It is not advisable for any woman to drive alone in Edo State again. You should have someone in the car with you, specifically, a man unless they could pounce on you….guilty or not.”

Back in Liverpool, this facade on the oddly-named State House caught my eye; the motto ‘Trade and Navigation‘, the State playing the biggest role in that city now. State House

7 comments to Nigeria’s ‘War Against Indiscipline’

  • Stonyground

    Does anybody else here sometimes find the libertarian principle hard to maintain when people insist on behaving somewhat badly? I think that the instinct to control other people might be hard wired in us so that we need to make a conscious effort to overcome it. I cycle to work every day and part of my route is along a disused railway line. This path passes the boundary of a housing estate. between the perimeter fence of the estate and the path is a shallow ditch. The residents of the estate dispose of their garbage by throwing it over the fence, so that the ditch resembles a long thin landfill site. These people do me no real harm, apart from having to cycle past their rubbish every day. So why do I wish that I could have them all buried up to their necks in garbage to be pecked to death by seagulls?

  • Mr Ed


    I think that this is part of the inner struggle that the Sage of Kettering refers to, the knowing what is right and wrong, and the flashes of anger at other people’s behaviour. My scathing contempt for any motorist that I disapprove of, those who drive too quickly, or too slowly, or too erratically, or who hesitate, or who do a constant (speed limit -10 mph), or who litter, evaporates when my journey ends, or when they disppear. My wish for Draconian retribution on offenders fades when I reflect on the journey, and their own struggles in life of which I am aware.

    However, you proposed seagull sanction seems admirably proportionate.

  • rxc

    Some might say that this sort of “indisciplined behavior” is a part of their culture, and that attempts to change that culture, from the outside, reek of cultural imperialism/colonialism. And attempts to change it from the inside reek of cultural appropriation (of another, less indisciplined culture).

    But when there are consequences to the indiscipline, due to, say, lack of food or medicine or clean water, then who will take responsibility for those situations, and who will be called on to deal with those consequences? For, of course, there will innocent children who will suffer, and the poor will also suffer, as well as women and other oppressed groups. How can we reconcile the need for some societies to maintain their original ways of life with the demands of western civilization for a different way of life in order to sustain the “benefits” that we all expect from a “civilized” society?

    Maybe we just have to leave the indisciplined civilizations behind, with all the suffering children and poor people and suffering minorities. The only alternative I can see is to accept all the refugees who want to leave those societies into enclaves in the west, where we can provide them with all the material needs, while they continue to live their indisciplined existences.

    It is all very confusing.

  • When I lived in Nigeria I was surprised to discover that the last Saturday of every month (in Lagos, at least) was given over to “Sanitation Day”, whereby residents were banned from the streets and instead expected to clean up their homes and the area around it. In order to enforce this, this uniformed group of useless fuckwits in bright green shirts would patrol with an expected manner of corruption, bullying, and incompetence and shake down anyone they believed was transgressing. Louis Theroux did a documentary called Law and Disorder in Lagos which featured the Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) mob, and is well worth watching.

  • staghounds

    “You see things; and you say, ‘WAI?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘WAI NAT?’”

  • Rich Rostrom

    Civil society is dependent on civil order, which is dependent on people habitually behaving with courtesy and responsibility. In a well-founded society, such behavior is inculcated by the traditional culture. People grow up knowing what one should and should not do.

    The fanatics of the libertine Left and libertarian Right, who regard any constraint whatever on personal autonomy as the equivalent of slavery and chain gangs, have spent the last century systematically obliterating any such social teaching. It took a long time for the residual power of tradition to wear off, but eventually it did. The result is that most of the latest generation feel free to be utterly rude, destructive, abusive, selfish, dishonest, and generally irresponsible.

    And heaven forbid that an aspirational society should attempt to establish norms of good behavior.

    Probably Nigeria is screwing up; possibly not. But how can they get better if they shouldn’t even try?

  • Mr Ed


    I fully agree with your first and second paragraph, as for the third, it’s a ‘how’ to me.

    I suppose it is a question of how cultural change comes about, can it be imposed, or does it have to be cultivated and come from within? I was once driving in England on a quiet road late at night with a Mexican froend who was studying economics at Uni. I stopped at a red light at a crossing, no one was around us apart, and waited, he was incredulous, asking why I didn’t ignore it. I said ‘Para que tengamos aqua potable‘ – so that we have drinking water, which baffled him, and I said that the same sense of order that enables us to keep the taps running potable water is needed when faced with an apparently pointless regulation on a road, maintain order so that our standards do not slip across our lives. He was even more baffled, but look at the Mexico of today, with mass graves.

    Was thw WAI a start? Perhaps it was, but perhaps the answer should be to let them be, and show what works. I think rxc saying maybe leave them ‘behind’ is part of the answer, in Morocco once I was disgusted by the sights in the streets, sheep roasts in the open air in a casbah when up the hill prople urinated in the same street, but then I thought that this is the world that they have made for themselves, the aggregate outcome of their behaviours and what is done to them by their state, so in a sense, it is what they ‘wish’ for. Litter is dropped or left, it is not spontaneous.