I listened to Tony Blair’s speech on Respect, with a grin on my face and laughter in my belly. It was funny, not because most of the measures are amusingly unworkable (which they are), but because it has parallels to the Nigerian military regime of the early 1980s. The Prime Minister has been accused of being many things, being presidential, and even being a Tory, but one suspects he’s never been likened to a military dictator.
When Generals Buhari and Idiagbon seized power in a coup d’etat in 1983, they set to rooting out corruption and indiscipline from Nigerian civil society. Civil servants were lazy, members of the public were disorderly, and so the military government thought up a military solution to the problem. In similar rhetoric and fervour to the war on terror, and the war on drugs, they coined the phrase War Against Indiscipline (WAI).
During the days of WAI, mobile courts dispensed summary justice on the streets of Nigeria. Commuters who’d ordinarily rush for the few buses available had to mimic their former colonial masters, the British, and queue. If you didn’t queue, there was a policeman toting a whip itching for the chance to use it. If you dropped litter on the streets, you were pulled aside, and given a lot more than just a fine. Civil servants who turned up late for work (a very Nigerian disease), were forced to do frog-jumps. For those not public school educated, Sandhurst trained, or bullied by the PE teacher, frog-jumps entail grabbing your ears, squatting, and jumping repeatedly. Painful. Imagine Whitehall mandarins frog-jumping down the Mall for being delayed by the Northern line tube.
In a country where “reasonable chastisement”, and the “spare the rod” mentality is not just legal but encouraged, WAI was essentially corporal punishment for errant adults. People are born naughty and rude, and politeness and courtesy have to be beaten into them was the mantra. People died of heart attacks when made to do frog-jumps, and the well meaning discipline agenda eventually descended into detaining journalists and the serious curtailing of civil rights. Despite this, some Nigerians today look upon those days as the golden age of discipline in their society, much like Blair looks to Victorian England for his cue on etiquette and manners. In fact, some measures enacted then still exist.
Flogging people and making them do frog jumps would never be allowed here. This is a civilised liberal democracy, apparently, but something tells me the Prime Minister hankers after the kind of power military men have. A few years ago, President Obasanjo (former general, but now in civvies and democratically elected) took a cane from a policeman and began to whip him with it. The policeman’s offence? Caning members of the public while trying to restore order, after the president’s arrival had caused chaos. What wouldn’t Blair give to be able to do that? If only he could avoid getting an ASBO…