The Politics of Discipline: A Nigerian Love Affair.


I have come to discover that very few things rival the affinity between adult Nigerians and discipline politics. This piece of text intends to delve into the workings and repercussions of this love affair and how it affects Nigerian life. Seemingly from birth, Nigerians are handed a love letter from discipline, recited usually by a parent or guardian.

This haughty document promises affluence and prosperity if only they commit themselves to discipline. As an adult Nigerian, I too was read the letter, a sobering text to a then wayward young man. This letter, like the biblical book of Proverbs, is chuck full of promises and conditions of agreements.

At will, any given Nigerian can recite some of the many virtues of discipline, as well as the ills associated with those who forsake it. The belief in this romantic proclamation is evident in everyday Nigerian life, with heavy critique to those who apparently lack discipline.

Acres of blog space and print media are devoted to naming and shaming the few that veer from accepted disciplinary lines. For most, the lack of discipline would inevitably mean the presence of shame and or failure.

A conversation with my colleagues on our way to lunch some time ago veered into the subject of corporal punishment and when my reticence on the topic was spotted there was real anger.

How dare I forsake the well-trodden path of behavioural control? Did I want unruly children? Someone in the back of the car suggested my time spent abroad had inured me to indiscipline and disorder. It was clear that to these young professionals, raising children with the proverbial iron hand was crucial. Order at any cost was to be instilled.

It would seem then that the natural order of things in Nigerian life would adhere rather strictly to these precepts. A visit to any busy Lagos intersection, hospital lobby or government institution would say otherwise.

Events, both casual and official, are famous for starting many hours after the billed time. Constantly skipping lines and flouting regulations, the lovers of discipline have strange ways of showcasing their allegiance.

Statehouses at the federal and state level have on occasion been known to descend into mass brawls, a sophisticated version of the brazen lynchings of thieves at local markets.

Upon observation, it’s apparent that in the Nigerian context, discipline does not necessarily mean order, regulation or anything of the sort, but rather obedience to enforceable authority and societal norms.

This speculative definition of Nigerian discipline is apparent in the popularity of romanticisation of the past Nigerian military era, a time most of the outside world associates with numerous human rights abuses.

When one looks at how dissent of any form in present-day Nigeria is treated with contempt and often violence, the definition presented beforehand is further justified. No societal institutions deal in authority and enforcing of societal norm quite like organised religions.

As such, I will take a look at the role, if any, they play in Nigerian discipline politics. Nigerians are very religious people, with more than 90% of Nigerians identifying to at least one religion according to the CIA Fact-book on the country.

Religious leaders in Nigeria are often held up as the paragons of order and good behaviour, shining lights for the faithful to aspire to. In this instance, the definition of discipline often directly means what the religious leaders say to do.

Predictably, these religious icons often fall short of the lofty and often unrealistic expectations placed on them. Whether through ill-advised political campaigns, violence-inciting hate speech or pilfering of
congregational funds.

Some posit that our reliance on religious figures rather than concrete well-thought ideals for guidance is often the root of our many problems. I am inclined to agree. Reliance on ideologically shifty individuals for guidance could in some ways explain the insistence of practised morality as opposed to the real thing.

There exists on the corridors of power, in the Nigerian context at least, a quiet acceptance of corruption and graft. Practices, themselves embodying indiscipline, that fervent religiousness and the much-loved tool of
corporal punishment have to date been unable to exterminate.

As though blind to the grand irony of it all, Nigerian religious leaders are often eager to give notoriously iniquitous statesmen and politicians elevated places at their respective places of worship.

It is a commonly held belief that indiscipline stands as the biggest deterrent to Nigeria becoming a super-nation. It is, for all intents and purposes, the evil force holding back the giant of Africa from its true potential.

This belief was further highlighted in the 2015 elections when Nigerians voted en masse for an ex-military dictator whose apparent redeeming quality was his famed discipline. His considerate age, past failings and general ill-will towards him were remarkably shoved aside, his campaign reiterated the belief that when discipline is involved, all else pales in comparison.

So with open arms Nigerians, including yours truly, embraced their old new leader and the change he promised to bring. A choice that has been proven, unsurprisingly, not to be a good one for the West African country, nevertheless, Nigerians persist with discipline politics.

While this essay is not about government or the current administration, that example is vital because, in the face of what was the most pivotal electoral decision in decades, discipline took centre stage. The infatuation with performed discipline is not only dangerous because of the misguided decisions it encourages, but its insidious rotting of a society’s moral core.

A popular Colombian saying suggested that because Colombia was such a naturally blessed paradise filled with so many treasures, God had to even the score by filling it up with the evilest of men. A bit of dark humour that evokes disheartening parallels with the Nigerian reality.

It is clear that the Nigerian obsession with its peculiar iteration of discipline is problematic, one that needs tackling. The fabled love letter must in all seriousness be done away with for the sake of future generations.

While there are many possible ways to go about forming a new normal, I have chosen a simple path towards this cause. A path that involves unlearning the norms of pretend discipline, the deification of authority and the romanticising of corporal punishment.

Finding new ways to maintain order will only be possible when we embark on serious social introspection; hard looks at the practices we have come to accept. If Aristotle was correct in positing that men acquire characteristics by simply acting them out constantly, then there is indeed hope for a sane, orderly Nigeria.

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