NIGERIANS might be forgiven for thinking they have travelled back in time. Their president, Muhammadu Buhari, has revived some of the economic policies he favoured when he was last in power, as a military dictator in the 1980s, such as restricting imports and propping up the currency. Such retro thinking has failed to rescue Nigeria from its first recession in 20 years; indeed, it has probably made it worse. And now social policy is going back in time, too.

Under a new “national reorientation” campaign called “Change Begins with Me” Mr Buhari wants to tame Nigerians. Moral “degeneration”, he says, is the reason that drivers run red lights and militants blow up pipelines. “Our value system has been badly eroded,” the president lamented in a speech that plagiarised Barack Obama’s 2008 victory address. A presidential spokesman blamed an “overzealous” speech-writer who will face “appropriate sanction”.

Others may face the same fate. A “War Against Indiscipline” brigade, first drafted by Mr Buhari in 1984, was relaunched last month and is hunting for funds for its 150,000 volunteers, who are patriotically clad in green and white. According to the National Orientation Agency (whose Orwellian departments include one for “Behaviour Modification”), their job is to restore order and “inculcate the spirit of nationalism in all Nigerians”.

Nigeria’s public services have been hollowed out by years of corruption, and some locals remember the era of military rule as more orderly. Others remember it as brutal. During Mr Buhari’s first War Against Indiscipline soldiers used horse whips to beat those who littered or jumped queues and punished others by making them jump like frogs. “It became totally arbitrary,” says Clement Nwankwo, a human-rights campaigner. One of his friends, he recalls, was jailed for owning an unlicensed telex machine.

The dangers of unleashing the moral police are manifest. One man has been arrested for naming his dog after the president. In Kano, a mostly Muslim northern state, an Islamic unit called the Hisbah has long terrorised people accused of committing adultery.

Mr Buhari’s critics gripe that, if he wants to make Nigeria a more moral country, he should start by cleaning up the government. Police officers regularly extort bribes with menaces. The army is accused of killing and torturing civilians. In Lagos the state government’s “Kick Against Indiscipline” enforcement team demands weekly bribes from long-suffering roadside vendors.

Matthew Kukah, a bishop in the northern city of Sokoto, doubts that Mr Buhari’s campaign will work. “Chaos is a function of scarcity,” he argues. “You cannot expect hungry people to line up for a few bags of rice.”

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