By Oghene Omonisa
It is 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning. But the streets are unusually empty and quiet, devoid of traffic, neither vehicular nor human. One could stand at one end of a street and sight the other end as there is no traffic to block one’s view. However, on the sides of the streets, and in residential premises, some behind walls, others without walls, are residents working earnestly to keep their environment clean or to “sanitize their environment”. Some residents are clearing gutters, others cutting grass or the overgrown lawns, while a few others are tidying up the premises generally.
The uniqueness of the day is not peculiar to any town or state. It is a nationwide thing. And it is not just any other Saturday. It is the last Saturday of the month, a day set aside by the Federal Government for Nigerians to sanitize their environment between 7am and 10am. During this period, movement is restricted.
This practice has been ongoing for 31 years, since March 1984. That was when the 3-month-old military government of Major General Muhammadu Buhari enacted its War Against Indiscipline (WAI) law by military decree. Environmental Sanitation was a part of the WAI law.
Among others, the intention of WAI was to instil public morality, discipline, social order, civic responsibilities and the promotion of Nigerian nationalism. At the basic level, WAI emphasized the discipline of queuing at bus stops, post offices, essential commodities distribution centres, stadiums, licensing offices among other public places. WAI also required Nigerians to sing the National Anthem in public gatherings as well as recite the National Pledge in schools.
Some civil servants were disciplined for their inability to recite the National Anthem and the Pledge. Pedestrians, especially in Lagos, were given corporal punishments for crossing the busy highways instead of using the overhead bridges. Nigerians started queuing at bus stops, banks and other places.
Aside the monthly environmental sanitation exercise, part of the sanitation efforts of the Buhari military government included the demolition of thousands of houses in townships across the country, because they had no approved plans and permits. Buildings under high-power electric cables were also demolished.
And on Environmental Sanitation Day, WAI officials went round to enforce the movement restriction order and to ensure that citizens cleaned their environments, and mobile courts tried offenders who broke the law, where various fines and corporal punishments were meted out. Though, initially, many Nigerians considered the enforcement of the Environmental Sanitation law to be militant, the results were eventually generally appreciated as Nigerians suddenly began to imbibe the culture of cleanliness and discipline.
31 years after, many Nigerians still recognise and appreciate the contributions of the Environmental Sanitation law to a clean and healthy society. “I cannot imagine the level of filth and dirt our environment would have attained without the monthly sanitation exercise”, wonders Mrs. Veronica Omokhodion, a lawyer based in Surulere, Lagos.
“Cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness,” she asserts, and admits that some people may question the need for such a law before the citizens needed to clean their environments, but she quickly adds that “considering our kind of society, some times we needed to be told what we ought to do.” She says even remaining at home till 10am to obey the movement restriction order is difficult for many.
To Mr. Chidi Okorocha, a trader at Alaba International Market, Ojo, Lagos, “Environmental Sanitation has contributed a lot to our health consciousness. Due to this monthly exercise, cleaning of gutters and clearing of grass has become part of us.” Interestingly, both Mrs. Omokhodion and Mr. Okorocha are not aware that the Environmental Sanitation law was enacted and the exercise begun by President Buhari during his military government. She reveals that she is in her early 40s, while Mr. Okorafor is in his mid 30s.
But not Mr. Cyril Obada, a senior banker who is in his mid 40s. “I know the exercise started during Buhari’s military government”, he affirms. “I was a young teenager then, and can still recall everything.”
He states that “at that time, soldiers used to go round town during Sanitation Day, to beat people who refused to clean their surroundings or who broke the 10 o’clock movement restriction order.” He avers that with time, Nigerians got used to cleaning their environment and remaining indoors till 10am, and that the society became better for it as “everyone started cleaning his or her environment.”
However, a few also argue that it is wrong to shut the whole country for three hours because of an exercise that everybody ought to be doing daily and not a day set aside for clean-up in a month. National affairs commentator, Jimi Disu has been campaigning for the end of the restriction every last Saturday of the month. “People should develop the culture of cleanliness, and if we do, it will be a daily thing and we would not have to shut businesses and restrict movements for three hours in a day,” Disu argues every time on Classic FM radio.
Last one standing
But WAI is not the only policy Buhari is noted for in his 20-month military reign. Other notable policies included the retroactive State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree of 1984, which empowered the government to detain anybody deemed by the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Headquarters (military equivalent of Vice President) to have been “concerned in acts prejudicial to state security”, “to have contributed to the economic adversity” of Nigeria, or to have been involved in their perpetuation or instigation.
To effectively fight corruption, there was also the Exchange Control (Anti-Sabotage) Decree which established special penal provisions for acts subversive to exchange control, just as there was the Banking (Freezing of Accounts) Decree which gave the Head of State the power to order the investigation of financial accounts of people suspected of involvement in bribery and abuse of office, and restrain their use of such accounts.
The Buhari military government also promulgated the Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree, otherwise known as Decree No. 4, which made it an offense to publish any statement which is “false in any material particular”, or “likely to bring the government into ridicule or disrepute.” It meant that if you published a true story which embarrassed or ridiculed the government, you were liable. Two Nigerian journalists, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson went to jail under this law.
In the more than 30 years before Buhari’s return to power, Nigeria has had seven leaders, every of them naturally with his own agenda on how to better society, improve the lots of the people and leave his footprints on the sands of time.
In the process, Buhari’s successors abolished, repealed or reviewed some of his policies and decrees. Over the years, some other of his policies were simply rendered ineffective due to non-execution or enforcement.
The closest to appreciating the legacies of Buhari’s first government was General Sani Abacha’s 1994 introduction of War Against Indiscipline and Corruption (WAI-C), a modification of Buhari’s WAI exactly ten years after. Abacha’s WAI-C, however, did not generate the same enthusiasm, both in its execution and public perception, as much as that of Buhari’s WAI.
And unlike Buhari’s WAI, public perception of Abacha’s WAI-C was apathetic, which worsened with revelations after Abacha’s death, that the self-styled anti-corruption czar had secretly siphoned mind-boggling public funds, establishing for himself a notoriety not in any way associated with Buhari in the 31 years he was out of office.
Interestingly, none of Buhari’s successors tampered with Environmental Sanitation, that section of WAI, which survived every government for 31 years, a clear indication that it is a policy completely appreciated by all, governments and the governed.
Saturday, May 30 was the first Environmental Sanitation Day after the swearing in of President Muhammadu Buhari and the elected governors on May 29. Though only a handful of states formally cancelled the exercise and declared the day free of movement restriction to allow full participation of Nigerians in all activities lined up to celebrate the inaugurations, there was free movement throughout the day, as the inauguration activities would not have effectively held if there had been restriction of movement.
And President Buhari finally moved into Aso Rock Presidential Villa on Sunday, June 21. Saturday, June 27 was the first Environmental Sanitation Day the President would witness inside Aso Rock.
Certainly, the President’s busy schedule for that day would have been altered to make room for the 3-hour movement restriction. Perhaps too, a few members of his domestic staff might have resumed late, having participated in the exercise and having observed the restriction.
With the movement restriction reflecting on his schedule, and with no official function within the Villa and outside for the 3 hours between 7am and 10am, the thought would definitely have crossed the President’s mind that it was his own making, having enacted the law 31 years before. Then perhaps a self-satisfactory smile had lit up his face, knowing it is a legacy he returned to meet among the many he left behind.