The Nigerian government has announced it is relaunching the controversial “war against indiscipline” task force, more than 32 years after it was first introduced during a military dictatorship.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected last year after running a campaign promising to fight corruption, first established the brigade in 1984 and charged it with maintaining public order.
Pledging that it would once again fight for “orderliness in our society, both in private and public life”, the 170,000-strong force made up mostly of volunteers will be redeployed across Nigeria. When operating under Buhari, the force was able to hand out fines for offences such as littering or “not queuing correctly” at bus stops.
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At the official launch in the capital on Monday, the head of the National Orientation Agency, a government organisation tasked with running the brigade, announced that in a period of insecurity and violence exacerbated by the Islamist group Boko Haram the war against indiscipline (WAI) would play a crucial role in “civil intelligence gathering”.
The minister of information, Lai Mohammed, has also said that the brigade will help to address the “lack of ethics and values” in Nigerian society.
“Many Nigerians are worried about the erosion of values, widespread indiscipline, dwindling integrity and poor attitude to work,” he told reporters when plans for the WAI’s return were first announced in May.
‘It got extreme’
But while complaints from politicians on the lack of public order are not new, the relaunching of the WAI marks a controversial turn in Buhari’s administration.
Though it is unlikely to be as aggressive as it was in 1984, there is little clarity on the powers that will be granted to the modernised force, leading some citizens to fear a return of the brutality of the public order campaign of the 1980s, a period of beatings and human rights abuses that came to characterise Buhari’s military regime.
Hannah Oke, a 58-year-old former nurse in Ibadan, remembers how pervasive the campaign’s propaganda was. On television and radio, broadcasters repeated the slogans of the campaign and encouraged people to queue correctly and to behave with integrity.
“[The] idea was that we all had to act in the right way to make Nigeria great for everyone in the country,” she said. TV news presenters reportedly wore badges with “war against indiscipline” printed on them and theatre productions and art exhibitions found creative ways to reinforce the campaign’s mantra.
“But it got extreme. People were being sent to prison for years for doing petty things. On our street someone was detained because they threw their rubbish in a wrong place and was reported. Really it just became too much,” Oke said. “I don’t see why in a supposed democracy you need organisations like this. Let the police enforce the law and other security forces, not WAI.”
But others remember the time with nostalgia. Alphonso Ajayi, a retired manager living in Lagos, remembers a time when Nigeria was more orderly and organised. “Back then I was a supporter of WAI because Nigeria needed something that will correct so many bad practices,” he said.
“It was a good initiative because it brought a lot of order and stability. People responded to it because it was a strict approach. I think it is a good idea that it is being relaunched because since the 80s things in our society have so deteriorated. It is much needed again.”