THERE would normally be an outcry if a country’s president called his compatriots unruly. But not in Nigeria, where many people agree that Muhammadu Buhari made a fair point.
Last week Buhari, a straight-backed, straight-laced former army general, called for an end to the “hustle” that characterises life in Africa’s leading economy—which for many is part of its charm.
“We must change our lawless habits, our attitude to public office and public trust,” he said in a speech to mark 55 years of Nigeria as an independent nation last Thursday.
“We must change our unruly behaviour in schools, hospitals, market places, motor parks (bus stations), on the roads, in homes and offices.
“To bring about change, we must change ourselves by being law-abiding citizens.”
Balogun market in the heart of Nigeria’s financial capital, Lagos, is the definition of chaotic: market traders line the narrow street, loudly hawking their wares from under colourful umbrellas.
Shoppers and commuters pack the spaces in between; battered yellow “danfo” minibuses and keke (motorcycle rickshaws) pick their way through the crowds.
Horns, music and shouting merge with the smell of spices, cooking and sweat.
At a junction with Broad Street—home to banks, Nigeria’s stock exchange and a branch of the central bank—a state government pick-up truck is parked, the officials inside keeping watch.
On the side of the vehicle is the slogan “Kick Against Indiscipline”, a Lagos state government scheme designed to enforce a ban on street trading and other petty offences.
‘An ethical revolution’
Few would argue that “order” is a word which describes Lagos, where 20 million people live cheek by jowl and the “anything goes” outlook on life attracts more every day from across the country.
But stall-holder Bola Fabian agrees it is time for a change.
“President Buhari is right. We need to change our attitude. The situation we are in now, if we want things to get better, we need an ethical revolution.
“Anyone that falls short of expectations… should be punished,” she told AFP.
“We have to break from the past. We cannot just continue to do things the same old way. It has not helped us. It will not help us.”
Buhari, now 72, earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian during his 20-month tenure at the head of a military regime in the 1980s.
Then, civil servants who turned up late for work were made to do star jumps; orderly queueing was enforced while traders selling goods at above agreed rates were punished.
Older Nigerians who remember those times say Buhari’s “War Against Indiscipline” was effective—even if it wasn’t popular and the excesses raised objections from rights groups.
In the years since he was deposed to his election as civilian president in March, corruption took root and good governance faltered.
Billions were plundered from state coffers, infrastructure crumbled, poverty increased and Nigeria’s reputation abroad suffered.
Buhari’s promise during the election campaign was to clean up Nigeria, starting by ordering his security detail to stop at red lights then cracking down on monumental fraud in the oil sector.
Last week’s comments were a call for collective responsibility in a society that has become more about personal gain.
Discipline and attitude
On the street, people agreed behaviour needed to be addressed, to help reverse an economy on the slide after the fall in global oil prices.
“We are so arrogant, unorderly and impatient,” said fashion designer Habeeb Ajisegiri, 25.
“We like to cut corners. All these are manifestations of unruly behaviour which the president spoke about.”
Nojeem Oyeniyi, a 45-year-old shoe seller, even called for the re-introduction of the War Against Indiscipline.
“Any country without discipline… cannot move forward,” said Kenneth Eke, a 30-year-old trader.
For Olanrewaju Oladimeji, “everything has to do with our attitude”.
“Once you have the right attitude to things, they will work,” he said.
Not everyone agreed, pointing to other issues such as the fact that most of Nigeria’s population of 170 million still live on less than $2 a day and the fact there are 10.5 million children out of school.
“I don’t think we are unruly as a people,” said textile trader Kenneth Ibanu.
“The issue is poverty and lack of education. If people are well off, you will see them behaving well. I don’t agree with the president,” he said.
“He should try to improve our living conditions first and you will see that everything will fall into place.
“Nigerians will behave once their welfare is assured.”