The “Unruliness” of Nigeria

Sometimes Nigeria seems like a land of anarchy! While there is a centralize government that keeps the country from splintering into various fiefdoms, the blatantly disregard for the rule of law is evident in the way people drive through the streets and refuse to follow the queue. Just yesterday, I was with a friend at the supermarket when the security guard asked her to return to the other side of the metal detector and re-enter. Just as she was about to enter, a woman stepped up and threw her purse down on the table and started to enter the detector the same time as my friend. My friend said, “excuse me, but he told me to re-enter.” The woman responded in a very angrily tone –  “You were just standing there…” I could not help but laugh because this is a common occurrence in Nigeria. If a person sees you queuing then they go around because clearly, you have no clue what you are doing – because you are waiting.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote the following article for the BBC. She did an amazing job providing historical background to the “unruliness” of Nigeria. I wanted to include her article so you can get a glimpse of what I experience each and every day in the land of green and white. Ms. Nwaubani is also the author of “I Do Not Come to You by Chance,” a novel set amidst the perilous world of Nigerian email scams. She is the winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa).


A passenger urinating out of the window of a bus in Southwest Nigeria.

Can President Buhari stop Nigerians being unruly?

By Adaobi Tricia NwaubaniAbuja

When President Muhammadu Buhari took over power in May 2015, many Nigerians expected him to wave a wand and bring about change.

They felt that their votes had hired the right man who would immediately fix all that was wrong with our country.  But, while delivering a speech to commemorate Nigeria’s 55 years of independence from the UK on 1 October, President Buhari made it clear that he would not do the job on his own.  He invited every Nigerian to share the burden of change with him: “We all have a part to play to bring about change.  “We must change our lawless habits… We must change our unruly behaviour… To bring about change, we must change ourselves.”

Few of us who live in Nigeria can deny knowledge of exactly what our president was talking about.

We are quite familiar with ubiquitous unruly behaviour:

  • The Nigerians who will never stand in any queue, who must make their way to the front as soon as they arrive
  • The drivers who will never stop at a traffic light, who consider it anathema to allow an empty space in front of their vehicles
  • The invisible individuals who excrete piles of solid waste on the pavements, night after night
  • The staff who take three weeks’ leave to attend their father’s burial, then another three weeks later in the year to attend their father’s burial, again. “That first one was my father who paid my school fees,” they say. “This one is my biological father”
  • The mothers who threaten the head teacher with fire and brimstone because their children were punished for coming late to school
  • The bosses who, in the presence of their entire staff, praise you for your excellent work skills, then wink and ask if you also have excellent “bedroom skills”, while everyone present bursts out laughing
  • The top government officials who show off their importance by the number of people jam-packed into their waiting rooms. They give you an appointment for 7am, knowing full well that they do not intend to see you until 10pm
  • The air hostesses who frown throughout the flight, to avoid giving you the false impression that they are at your beck and call
  • The “big men” and “big women” who scream “Do you know who I am?” when you ask for some identity before they can be allowed through the gate
  • Those who ring the airline to request that the flight be delayed for their sakes, while their fellow passengers gaze out of the aeroplane windows for an hour, wondering why the flight is delayed, this time

I could go on and on. The catalogue of unruly behaviour in Nigeria is endless.

And, like President Buhari has pointed out, for the country to move forward, these bad habits have to change.

But change will require more than passionate appeals from revered leaders.  For many Nigerians, unruly behaviour has become ingrained. It is now a case of “I know it, but I just can’t help it”.  Back in 1983, when he took over power in a military coup, President Buhari enforced his “War Against Indiscipline” (WAI) with the help of armed personnel, who punished unruly behaviour with instant penalties, such as frog jumps in the street.  WAI worked. Nigerians began to behave themselves.

But times have changed. Today’s Nigeria is a democracy. Doling out instant corporal punishment in public with soldiers both administering and executing justice goes against the country’s constitution.  A good place to start would be to understand the origin of this unruly behaviour.

Would you do this in London?

The same Nigerians who find it impossible to queue up at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos immediately stand in line when they arrive at Heathrow. And you are unlikely to hear a Nigerian “big man” barking “Do you know who I am?” to a cleaner on the streets of London. He knows that he could easily end up spending the night in jail.

My father once told me how anyone who defecated in public was punished back when he was growing up. The pile of excreta would be set alight, and a generous quantity of red pepper added to the flames. Doing this was believed to cause the culprit’s anus to begin to burn and itch wherever he was. And this belief acted as deterrent against people defecating in public places.

In today’s Nigeria, where weak modern institutions have replaced traditional checks and balances, hardly any deterrents against lawlessness exist. People have become used to getting away with almost anything. Many Nigerians consider themselves a law unto themselves. But, anything is possible. President Buhari wants Nigerians to change and change we can. After all, the Europeans who berthed on Africa’s shores in the colonial era were able to replace entire peoples’ habits with completely new and different ways.

Nigerians of today can learn new habits.

The past few decades have seen Nigeria inviting all manner of experts from far and wide to assist with recommendations and solutions for our country’s diverse issues. We have had the economic experts, the financial, security, political, agricultural, trade, health, but now may be the time for the Nigerian government to engage psychologists, experts at uncovering and disabling the inner forces that drive undesirable behaviour. These behaviour modification experts could develop special programmes for leaders at different levels. They could collaborate with government corporations and private organisations. They could tinker with the curriculum in our country’s schools, infusing regular lessons with programmes that would produce Nigerian citizens who would consider the effect of their every action on the world around them.

2 Comments on “The “Unruliness” of Nigeria

  1. Pingback: Peace Out 2019! Hello 2020! | A FREDAY in AFRICA!

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