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Nigeria fights disarray with discipline

By Peter BlackburnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1985



Lagos, Nigeria

Arriving late at Lagos's Ikeja National Airport, I tried to jump to the head of the ticket line -- a normal practice in most west African countries. But the Nigerians in the line would have none of it: I was politely but firmly told to ``get in line.'' More surprising, the line had formed spontaneously; there were no soldiers or policemen on hand to enforce it.

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Lining up -- whether at the airport, bus stops, market stalls or at the elevators in government ministries -- has become a regular part of daily life here. It is a main feature of the campaign called ``War Against Indiscipline'' (WAI, pronounced why) -- a campaign launched by the military shortly after they seized power from the civilians in a bloodless New Year's Eve coup just over a year ago.

The military government of Nigeria has a formula for its twin problems of economic disarray and corruption: more discipline and more austerity. WAI's message is hammered home through the news media as well as street and office posters.

``We shall remain here and salvage [Nigeria] together,'' Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, Nigeria's military ruler, has told his estimated 100 million countrymen.

Nigeria gained independence from Britain 25 years ago. But although the military has ruled Nigeria for more than half of those years, it has not been notably more successful than the ineffective and corrupt civilian governments it has overthrown twice before.

The present military government represents a return to a national austerity program -- the kind of program that the previous civilian government under President Shehu Shagari tried to initiate but was unable to enforce.

Major General Buhari and his Supreme Military Council identify themselves with the anticorruption campaign initiated by Gen. Murtala Ramat Muhammad, who came to power in a bloodless coup staged in the summer of 1975. General Muhammad said that the move had been prompted by the previous government's ``lack of consultation, indecision, indiscipline, and even neglect'' of public affairs.

Some Nigerians and other observers wonder whether the current military leaders have the charisma or authority to root out the problems Muhammad cited.

They also express some dismay that the new government remains committed to certain prestigious but uneconomic projects, such as building the new federal capital of Abuja. They fear that unless Buhari's government moves more decisively it risks becoming bogged down in the same web of corruption that has ensnared previous governments.

Buhari, however, says much has already been achieved. Recalling the position that the military inherited at the start of 1984, he recently said, ``The law-and-order situation was desperate. Weakened by massive corruption, the civilian government lacked the will to tackle these serious problems. There was a real danger of complete chaos and social breakdown.''

Nigerian cities are now safer and cleaner Buhari claimed. In fact, bulldozers have been busy removing the innumerable abandoned cars that litter the streets of Lagos. Squads of Nigerians sweep the sidewalks and burn piles of rubbish on weekends.

Buhari added that, before the coup, the economy had been on the verge of collapse. ``Our finances were in a perilous state. . . . Foreign banks were refusing to do business with Nigeria on account of huge debts and arrears.''

The government has since moved to ``stop the rot,'' he said. Imports have been sharply reduced and are now being paid for as they arrive. ``We are paying our debts and no longer begging anybody.''

Some 90 percent of Nigeria's export income derives from oil products. The country has thus been hit hard by declining world oil prices.

Buhari admitted that there was still ``inflation, unemployment, and shortages of basic food and consumer items.''

The inflation rate nearly doubled last year to an estimated 40 percent. Shortages of basic commodities such as rice, milk, and sugar have pushed up prices, despite campaigns against hoarding and profiteering by middlemen.

The government has tried to improve supplies and deflate prices by negotiating bulk purchase agreements for imports of rice and other commodities. Smuggling of legally imported commodities into neighboring countries has been greatly reduced since Nigeria's land borders were closed in April 1984. Although this has improved the amount of supplies available, it has not had a great impact on prices.

Nigerians are having to pay a greater share of health, education, and other social services. But massive retrenchment in both the public and private sectors has meanwhile made it more difficult for most Nigerians to pay their sharply rising bills. The private sector has been badly affected by the sharp cut in raw material imports and government spending. The construction industry has been worst hit with some two-thirds of the work force laid off.

Increased unemployment and lower living standards have meant that armed robbery continues to be a serious problem in Lagos and other large cities.

``There has been a colossal loss of life and property,'' said Brig. Tunde Idiagbon, the No. 2 man in the military who declared the ``War Against Indiscipline'' last March. Speaking to a meeting of regional police chiefs in Lagos recently, he said, ``We must face the onslaught of daredevil enemies of society and control the crime ravaging the country.''

Some 35 armed robbers have been publicly executed by firing squad in Lagos state alone during the past year, but this has apparently had little deterrent effect.

Various economic crimes, including smuggling and the tapping of oil pipelines, are also punishable by death. A Spanish sea captain, accused of illegally exporting petroleum products, recently became the first foreigner sentenced to death for an economic crime. Marie McBroom, an American woman who faces death by firing squad if convicted of illegally trafficking in oil, will be officially sentenced tomorrow.