Monday, May 26, 2008

Changing our penchant for indiscipline

THE pages of our newspapers are replete with prescriptions for progress by our policymakers. "Making Vision 2020 a reality" is the current catch-phrase in public policy speak. Alongside this is our fervent drive to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Articulating the big picture has never been the problem. After all, our leaders did not just start waxing lyrical about vision today. Alas, it is some of the smaller and much more easily identifiable challenges that seem to elude the vision, and it is one of these that I want to underscore here: discipline and respect for the rule of law. The best economic prescriptions will amount to precious little if we do not create the right enabling environment in which they can take root. A country where there is little or no regard for the rule of law can only expect limited progress.
Our penchant for indiscipline is legendary. Nigerians are a naturally gregarious people and that is wonderful. But there is a difference between gregariousness and indiscipline. Sadly, we tend to let our wanton disregard for the rule of law overshadow our more positive attributes. Years ago, the military administration of then General Muhammadu Buhari and Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon boldly launched what it called its "War Against Indiscipline" programme, or "WAI" as the programme came to be referred to more popularly. Pursued with vigour by the authorities, the programme worked splendidly-for a while. We became orderly. We were less aggressive towards one another. We queued at airports and in post offices, and we displayed common courtesy on our roads without finding it necessary to abuse our fellow motorists' parents in the process.
Today, the most visible reflection of our indiscipline can be seen on our roads. They are the perfect microcosm. I have always thought how interesting it would be to launch a public information campaign to introduce the concept of the unmanned four-way stop sign in Nigeria. But then I try not to delude myself. It would never work as an initiative on its own-not without another "WAI" to create the right foundation. That is because I do not think we have the civility or the discipline it takes to stop and yield to one another in traffic on the first-come-first-go basis with which the system works in other countries. And I don't necessarily mean industrialised countries. In other African countries motorists drive with far more civility and discipline than we do on our roadways. I become absolutely apoplectic when I see the melee my fellow citizens cause as they jam intersections unreasonably in the absence of a traffic warden.
Then there is the plethora of Nigerian VIPs who plough obnoxiously through traffic with blaring sirens and weaving patrol cars in complete disregard for the fact that sirens have been banned except for use by the head of state and emergency vehicles. But what do laws mean to these errant citizens? Absolutely nothing of course, which is why they continue to make the lives of ordinary motorists living hell on our highways. And who are these people? Why, for instance, should the managing director of a commercial bank need a siren in traffic? Woe betide you too should you get in the way. Their mobile police escorts will not hesitate before taking their rifle butts to an offending vehicle. Between these obtrusive convoys and the ubiquitous okadas, or motorcycle taxis, that reign our roads darting in and out of traffic at will and often riding illegally against on-coming traffic, driving has now become the ultimate encounter with indiscipline in Nigeria.
There are no visible standards or controls. Everyone does what one pleases, safe in the knowledge that should any controls be exacted, as little as a few hundred naira can always do the trick. Unfortunately, our leadership's proclaimed preoccupation with safeguarding the sanctity of the rule of law is little more than lip service.
We can do better than this. We can become a far more disciplined people and go about our daily business with less aggression, less anger and more passion for order in society. How refreshing it would be if we could make this happen. How nice it would be if we could also project a more favourable perception of ourselves to the outside world on this score. As Nigerians we customarily take pride in our well-known penchant for being forthright and independent-minded. That is a good thing. But we can do so while at the same time observing and respecting the rule of law and being a disciplined society. When we get this right, then we can aspire to the more lofty goals of a real Vision 2020.

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