How Tunde Idiagbon’s WAI Brought About Singing Of National Anthems In Schools

In the wake of a series of coups that engulfed Nigeria and set the once ‘promising black nation’ into a struggling entity, the January 1966 coup, often referred to as ‘the Igbo Coup’ due to its sparing of the lives of Igbo political and military leaders, in hindsight, paved the way for the recurring coups that plagued Nigeria between 1966 and 1999.

Whether Kaduna Nzeogwu, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, and Adewale Ademoyega “struck” to end the ‘corrupt government’ of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, what materialised from that supposed good intention was the realisation by the armed forces to arbitrarily evaluate a government, adjudged it as corrupt, and intervene to end the impunity of any administration found wanting in its own self-made assessment.

In September 2023, a Neusroom correspondent based in Umuahia, Abia State capital, travelled five kilometres to meet with Iheoma Ogbonna, who was 19 years old when the first coup that ended Nigeria’s first Republic occurred on January 15, 1966.

The correspondent’s visit with Iheoma Ogbonna didn’t aim to revisit the details of the first coup he witnessed in 1966, which had ushered in a period of almost three decades of military rule in Nigeria. Instead, the focus was on the War Against Indiscipline (WAI), a controversial program implemented during the military regime of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon.

Born on February 28, 1947, Ogbonna, who lives in Umuala in Isiala Ngwa North, Abia State, just 1 kilometre away from ancestral home of Nigeria’s first Speaker House of Assembly, Jaja Wachuku, was already in the civil service during the military regime of Buhari.

Nine years after the Nigerian Civil War and three years after former Head of State Murtala Mohammad was gruesomely killed during a failed coup attempt, his successor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, held an election on August 11, 1979, that resulted in Shehu Shagari becoming Nigeria’s first democratically elected President.
Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo
Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s Head Of State, during the January 1977 African Festival Of Arts And Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos.

Given the history of coups in the country, it perhaps wasn’t a surprise to many when on January 1, 1984, less than four months after Shagari was re-elected, Nigerians woke up to the military anthems and later received the announcement by Buhari about the suspension of the Nigerian constitution.

Although it was Ogbonna’s 4th coup witness, he recalled that people celebrated the military takeover.

“People felt Shagari wasn’t doing his best, but the truth was that when these people came onboard, they were not better. They wanted their cronies to have better positions too. But as layman, you might not see it. But most people who were knowledgeable enough knew that he was also corrupt.”

However, at the time of the coup, and for many reasons including that Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon were seen as stern, unsmiling, disciplined, and incorruptible younger officers, many Nigerians rejoiced when the duo seized power.
Tunde Idiagbon And Muhammadu Buhari: ‘The Incorruptible Officers’

Idiagbon, 42 years old at the time of the coup, had an impressive military career. Born on September 14, 1943, Idiagbon joined the Nigerian Army by enrolling in the Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC), now the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), in 1962. Within 18 years, Idiagbon rose to the rank of Brigadier General in 1980, four years before he became Buhari’s deputy.

Idiagbon’s steep rise in the military was often attributed to his dedication to his job. Renowned Nigerian historian Max Siollun, in his book ‘Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993),’ described Tunde Idiagbon as “disciplined, tough, and stoic.”

Also, in the words of Nigerian veteran journalist Sola Odunfa, during a 2021 interview said, “Tunde Idiagbon was a young man who made it his point of duty never to smile. He was almost frowning all the time.”

Buhari, who later reinvented himself as a democrat, contested three times as president in the Fourth Republic, was, unlike Idiagbon, a prominent figure in coup plotting, involving himself in all but one change of government from the July 1966 counter-coup to when he ousted Shagari and became the Head of State.
General Muhammadu Buhari
General Muhammadu Buhari was a known coup plotter who was involved in all but one coup from the July 1966 counter-coup to when he ousted Shagari. He reinvented himself as a democrat, contested three times before winning the 2015 President election.

As with every military regime before and after them, measures aimed at addressing the priorities identified by the mutineers as the reason why they seized power were often put forward through Decrees.
War Against Indiscipline (WAI)

Surprisingly, amidst ravaging poverty and a grappling economy, the new regime identified indiscipline, disorderliness, and unpatriotism as major concerns. As such, Tunde Idiagbon, who became the regime’s de facto leader and controlled all visible instruments of administrative power, announced the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) on March 20, 1984.

“Beginning by drawing public attention to little but important everyday manifestations of indiscipline such as rushing into buses, driving on the wrong side of the road, littering the streets, and parks, cheating…,” Idiagbon announced at Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos. Therefore, WAI became a comprehensive and controlled corrective measure aimed at addressing ‘unruly behaviour.’

While WAI was launched in five phases: Queuing, Work Ethics, Nationalism/Patriotism, Anti-Corruption/Economic Sabotage, and Environmental Sanitation, the Nationalism and Patriotism phase, launched on August 21, 1984, was designed to promote national unity after the 1967 civil war had polarised the country.

In a 2015 article, just before Buhari was elected, Max Siollun remarked:

“In March 1984, Buhari’s administration launched a campaign called ‘War Against Indiscipline’ (WAI), aimed at promoting environmental sanitation, patriotism, a strong work ethic, punctuality, and civic virtues such as queuing for buses, not littering, and not urinating in public.

To instil a sense of national identity at a young age, schoolchildren were mandated to line up in school and sing the national anthem before the start of daily academic activities. But to what extent did this initiative inculcate the spirit of patriotism in Nigerians years later?

“On the periphery, it was working, because as of that time, if you wanted to enter a train, a bus, or a fuel station, you couldn’t jump the queue. You had to go to work as early as you could, fill the register, and be in the office until 4 p.m.,” Ogbonna said.

But Ogbonna, who entered civil service in 1972, and was stationed at Isuikwuato in Abia State at the time of the coup, understood that such measures were not meant to have a long-term effect on Nigerians.

“When you force people to do what they should have done, the economy will not grow, because it is not their way of life.”

Perhaps fixated on ‘whipping’ Nigerians into line, as Ogbonna described it, months after they took over, the Nigerian economy entered a recession. Inflation soared, and the cost of living became unbearable for many Nigerians. Yet the administration continued to blame the people for being unruly.

“It is better for somebody to be reoriented in such a way that you’ll know your responsibility and conform to it without somebody looking at you. That’s how I look at it.”

His wife, Ezinwanyi, who was in secondary school at the time, says that people dreaded going to school late for fear of being caught by military officers.

“If they saw you going to school late, they’d pursue you and even look for your parents,” she said.

With a population of around 3.2 million, Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria, was the busiest city in the country, remarkable for its fast-paced economic activities. As it is today, with a population almost six times what it was in 1984, Buhari and Idiagbon’s WAI was most felt in parks, fuel stations, and government offices.

“If you have been to Lagos, everybody acted the way they liked. Whatever you could get away with, you did it,” Odunfa said. But “when WAI started, I remembered when I saw Lagos, I asked, could this be Lagos?”

Aside from being reminded about the campaign against indiscipline through radio and TV commercials, the enforcement was visible in every nook and cranny. Ogbonna said that soldiers flogged civil servants who arrived late with their ladder whips, treating them like schoolchildren. Commuters were forced to queue in lines while boarding buses in parks. Littering, unreasonable loitering about, and other ‘indisciplined actions’ were offences whose punishment often depended on the soldier who caught you in the act.

The War Against Indiscipline (WAI) mandated compulsory singing of the national anthem in schools, displayed the national flag prominently in public offices, and instituted “Sanitation Saturdays” where Nigerians stayed home for cleaning activities (a practice that persists in many states). However, critics argue that WAI, much like the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program formed after the Civil War, achieved little beyond human rights abuses perpetrated by military officers under the pretence of fostering discipline and patriotism.

“It came to a stage where it challenged the humanity in all of us… Something that we all thought came out of the patriotic zeal to cleanse up the nation became a monster that nobody could rationalise,” Odunfa said.

A 1984 New York Times article quoted a Nigerian lawyer who scathingly criticised the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) as a “misallocation of resources and effort.”

“A society doesn’t become disciplined through slogans and threats,” a Nigerian lawyer told the New York Times in 1984. “African societies, especially, are impressed by example. If leaders lived by their words instead of just saying them, it would have a far greater impact,” he said.