Lagos has been given a uniformed squad to enforce a mammoth clean-up.
And, as of next week, the squads will be backed by heavily armed policemen and a fleet of mobile courts, ready to slap on-the-spot fines on litter bugs, spitters, street hawkers, jaywalkers and public defecators.
As dawn rose on Monday over the rusting, beached cargo ships lining the harbour and Marina Street’s raucous traffic jams, officers in crisp lemon-yellow uniforms and polished jackboots fanned out through the crowds.
Their mission: to bring a little order to a sprawling city where more than 13 million people jostle to make a living among the open sewers, pot-holed roads and teeming, lawless slums of a once-great capital.
Kick Against Indiscipline
This week the Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) brigade will introduce itself to the citizens with its credo of zero tolerance for litter. But it will have to confront the famously independent spirit of those who eke out a living among the chaos.
“You will draw the wrath of God if you dare mishandle me,” shrieked a beggar, crippled by polio and squatting on a skateboard, as he lashed out at officers attempting to stop him seeking handouts amid Marina Street’s dense traffic.
As 500 KAI enforcers poured on to the streets, one of them, Jide Oladosu, said: “What we are doing this week is to sensitise members of the public on the existence of KAI and offences that attract punishment under it.”
From next week the new force will be empowered to hand out fines to individuals ranging from 1000 to 10,000 naira ($7.5 to $74), more than a month’s wages for many in Lagos’s toiling underclass.
Businesses, churches and corporate bodies will also face fines of between 2000 and 100,000 naira ($750) if they breach the terms of a 2001 sanitation and environment law, officials said.
On Monday, however, in the absence of the mobile courtrooms, some KAI officers were meting out justice by forcing offenders to perform humiliating “frog jumps” on the roadside.
“The law is good if it can be faithfully implemented. It will restore the beauty of Lagos”
Meanwhile, illegal street stalls and other structures were torn down.
Many expect that, like the police before them, the brigade will eventually abuse their broad powers to shake down Lagosians for bribes.
“The law is good if it can be faithfully implemented. It will restore the beauty of Lagos,” journalist Abd al-Kamal said.
Tinu Akadiri, a market worker, was dubious: “KAI could be an avenue to enrich the so-called enforcer.”
Others clearly feel they are above any manmade law.
A cassock-wearing pastor, arrested while trying to cross the highway, pleaded for clemency, then threatened to use the Bible to curse anyone who dared cause him “public embarrassment”.
The new squad does not respect rank. The first patrols reprimanded a senior naval officer driving on the wrong side of the road, a common tactic used to beat the city’s jams.
KAI’s tactics are draconian, but the task is monumental.
Despite losing its role as Nigeria’s capital to Abuja almost 12 years ago, Lagos has continued to attract immigrants from across west Africa.
The UN Population Fund believes it could be the world’s third biggest city, with more than 25 million people, by 2025. Public services are already breaking down, traffic is gridlocked and crime and disease are rampant.
Fines of up to $750 could be issued
Faced with such challenges, Lagos governor, Bola Tinubu, and his environment commissioner, Tunji Bello, have sought inspiration in one of Nigeria’s most notorious military dictators, General Muhammadu Buhari.
The retired general this year failed to recycle himself as a civilian ruler when he lost the presidential election, but the spirit of his 1984 War Against Indiscipline (WAI) lives on in the KAI.
Bello denied that the new move marked a return to Nigeria’s bad old days of military repression.
“We are not going to use military diktats,” he said. “We are in a democracy. But we combine the use of persuasion and, sometimes, force to achieve our goal.”
Offenders can appeal against their fines at regular courts and anyone unable to pay a fine imposed by a mobile court may be made to work on state projects “to teach him a lesson”, he said.