President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday set out his vision for a better Nigeria, imagining an incorruptible paradise where drivers don’t run red lights and internet scams are a thing of the past.
In Buhari’s Nigeria, police turn down bribes from rich men driving SUVs, militants in the oil-rich Niger delta lay down their arms, rubbish is thrown in bins, not the street, and workers are on time.
“I won’t sell my body for marks,” a student is quoted as saying in a promotional video to launch the initiative before a gathering of high-profile politicians in the presidential villa in Abuja.
“I no go do yahoo yahoo or 419 again,” says another in pidgin English, referring to the online scams originating from Nigeria that have snared victims around the world.
The “re-orientation campaign” conjures up images of social engineering and Big Brother-style state control but Buhari maintained it was first and foremost about a change in “mindset”.
“We must resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship, pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our country for so long,” he told delegates.
“You must first ask how far have I changed my ways? What have I done to be part of the change?”
The campaign, set to an infectious jingle with the lyrics “change begins with me”, appears to be a gentler revamp of the “war on indiscipline” Buhari introduced as military ruler in the 1980s.
Then, soldiers in his regime enforced orderly queues for buses and fair prices in markets, while tardy civil servants were made to do star jumps if ever they arrived late for work.
More than 30 years on, the issues are the same: police and public sector workers still solicit bribes, while stopping at traffic lights remains more of a suggestion than the law.
Buhari was voted into power in 2015 on an anti-corruption platform and Nigerians have largely praised the retired general for his commitment to restoring order and accountability.
The straight-laced president has before criticised Nigerians for being “unruly” and urged people to reform their “lawless habits” while embarking on a wide-ranging corruption crackdown.
Yet then, as now, his social crusade risks being undermined by the country’s dismal economic performance.
This month Nigeria reported that it had entered a recession, with the oil sector reporting a double-digit decline following a wave of attacks by rebels in the oil-producing south.
Still, Buhari emphasised that by changing “personal behaviour” the country can overcome hard times.
“Every one of us must have a change from our old ways of doing things,” he said. “We cannot fold our arms and allow things to continue the old way.”