The Crisis of Leadership
Societies make progress when visionary leaders emerge to organize and direct collective actions for peaceful coexistence, with sensible rules, clear incentives and sanctions that enable individuals realize their full potentials. The Nigerian nation first elected its leaders at both national and regional levels in 1960. Around that period, Malaysia, Singapore Botswana and Indonesia had their first set of elected post-colonial leaders going into offices as well. The Japanese had elected the first LDP government five years earlier in the aftermath of the American Occupation. Forty years later, these five nations in Asia and Africa have enjoyed democratic continuity, protection of freedoms and basic rights, rapid economic development and improvement in the quality of life for its citizens. Nigeria has not. What went wrong?
A little over five years into Nigeria’s Independence and First Republic, a group of young, misguided and naive military officers wiped out nearly all of the nation’s political leadership. The bulk of those murdered on January 15, 1966 were leaders from regions and ethnic groups other than those where the coup plotters hailed from. This coincidence or design, by what I will refer to as the “Class of 1966″ laid the foundations for Nigeria’s unfortunate political, economic and social trajectory for the ensuing forty plus years. And Nigeria’s story is typical of most of Africa such that by 2004, five years into our nation’s fourth republic, the leading African politics professor at the Harvard Kennedy School published a scathing summary of the leadership failure in Africa in an article published in “Foreign Affairs”:
“Africa has long been saddled with poor, even malevolent, leadership: predatory kleptocrats, military-installed autocrats, economic illiterates, and puffed-up posturers. By far the most egregious examples come from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe — countries that have been run into the ground despite their abundant natural resources. But these cases are by no means unrepresentative: by some measures, 90 percent of sub-Saharan African nations have experienced despotic rule in the last three decades.
In what is an accurate description of these despotic and progressively appalling ‘leaders’ that foisted themselves on Africa usually through military coups or rigged elections, Rothberg continued:
“Such leaders use power as an end in itself, rather than for the public good; they are indifferent to the progress of their citizens (although anxious to receive their adulation); they are un-swayed by reason and employ poisonous social or racial ideologies; and they are hypocrites, always shifting blame for their countries’ distress.”
Rotberg went further describing the consequences of this continent-wide failure of leadership as these leaders replaced the colonialists without doing more – but did everything to destroy the bases for economic growth, social equity and fairness in the nations they ruled and ruined:
“Under the stewardship of these leaders, infrastructure in many African countries has fallen into disrepair, currencies have depreciated, and real prices have inflated dramatically, while job availability, health care, education standards, and life expectancy have declined. Ordinary life has become beleaguered: general security has deteriorated, crime and corruption have increased, much-needed public funds have flowed into hidden bank accounts, and officially sanctioned ethnic discrimination — sometimes resulting in civil war — has become prevalent”
Long before Rotberg, and approximately 25 years ago, Chinua Achebe observed in his book “The Trouble with Nigeria”, that the problem of our nation was fully and squarely the failure of leadership. This remains true today in Nigeria and indeed as Rotberg summarized so succinctly in most of Africa. As observed earlier, leadership is important in any social grouping, but far more central in Africa to the overall success and wealth of nations than anywhere else in the world because we happen to have weak institutions in the continent.
Coming back to Nigeria, I am of the view that the fledgling but somewhat sound institutions we inherited at Independence were weakened by the succession of military and civilian graduates and students of the Class of 1966. The destruction wrought by this group of barely-educated and short-sighted power elite with continued links to the coup plotters of 1966 is responsible for Nigeria’s continuing crisis of leadership.
I will summarize herein the extent of this destruction and how it occurred, amidst the claims of good intention in some cases and complete malevolence in some. The purpose of this is not to apportion blame but to learn from past errors and move our nation forward. I will also argue that Nigeria will not make much progress unless the umbilical cord linking our nation’s governance to the remnants of this Class of 1966 is severed and a fresh leadership class with new attitudes, orientation and competencies emerges. I will conclude with some thoughts about the issues to look out for in these emerging leaders for Nigeria (and Africa) in the twenty-first century.
The Tragedy of Post-Colonial Governance
Thanks to malaria, the British never intended to remain in Nigeria for long, investing only in the minimal but necessary institutions and infrastructure to extract, transport and export natural resources to Europe. Contrast our situation with the Caribbean nations, Namibia, South Africa and Kenya for instance, where the more friendly weather and lower malaria intensity persuaded the British colonialists to plan for long-term settlement, and Nigeria’s colonial legacy is more clearly comprehensible. At independence, our “Founding Fathers” inherited relatively weak institutions, confusing property rights and minimal infrastructure. The new rulers merely supplanted the colonialists and adopted in totality the defective governance structures suited to colonial exploitation, and nothing more. A simple example was (and still remains) the total absence of a mortgage system – which the colonial administrators did not need as they have their mortgages set up in Britain! None of our founding fathers thought it fit to think of designing and entrenching one with the attendant need to clarify and codify formal property rights! Needless to add that the easiest way of creating a virile middle class is through widespread home ownership, and until we created a pilot mortgage system in the FCT in 2005-2007 to enable public servants and the general public to purchase over 30,000 houses in Abuja, no one bothered to try. Sadly, our successors failed to convert the inchoate pilot into a complete national program of home ownership financing, as envisaged.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, our best and brightest university graduates joined the public service. The honest and those with educational, integrity and leadership pedigree and skills went into politics. Public servants were well paid and assured of their security of tenure. Politics attracted those willing to serve. Elections were relatively clean and reflected the will of the voters. The Class of 1966 ended these positive trends that would have truly built a democratic, merit-driven nation in the long run.
Democratic Truncation, Militarization and the Legacy of the Class of 1966
The murder of political leaders in 1966 without trying them and finding them guilty of any offence, and affording the assassins immunity and protection from court martial by the indecision of the Ironsi administration ensured that coups would remain a recurring decimal in our polity. The coups of 1966 made political assassination a crime without sanctions in Nigeria. It also made politics the vocation of the bold power seeker rather than the honest public servant. The purges of 1975 however well-intentioned were executed in a way that destroyed security of tenure in the public service, and made the best and brightest look for other options to live well, and safely. Illegitimacy and poor economic management gave rise to the endless bribing of public servants and the public using salary reviews (Adebo and Udoji by the Gowon Administration alone) and incessant creation of non-viable states destroyed the basis of our federalism.
The military regimes – all remnants of the Class of 1966 – got progressively venal after the Buhari/Idiagbon administration. While Buhari only clamped on freedom of speech, tried persons for offences based on retroactive legislation and abused human rights, the Babangida administration relaxed on these but wiped out the middle class when the nation’s currency lost 90 per cent of its value over an eight-year period. Civil servants then began to demand a share of profits in procurement contracts, and now execute the contracts themselves through dummy companies. No private companies now can exist except if they are either huge and well-connected like Julius Berger, or front companies for the decision makers – the public servants themselves.
Public services and infrastructure provisioning were politicized and thousands hired without regard to quality and standards – and Nigeria became a real rentier state in which those connected to military regimes became rich overnight without ant abilities, hard work, innovation or rational basis. Our traditional system which supplemented the weak formal governance structures were converted into the tools of the military by compromising them through systematic corruption. Independent voices – from civil society, the media and conscientious people like Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory – were similarly purchased and converted, and failing that repeatedly imprisoned.
Our human capital infrastructure – schools and hospitals suffered irreparable damage under the rule of the Class of 1966. Systematic under-funding, capricious appointments, poor pay and frequent killing of university students led to the collapse of our tertiary educational and health institutions. The Class of 1966 and its successors had no interest in developing the Nigerian state. Their wealth is in Switzerland, France, Germany, Lebanon and Dubai. They began the practice of sending their children abroad for education and healthcare and therefore had no interest in the deteriorating quality of our schools and hospitals. Their holidays are spent in Europe, America and Asia, so felt no need to develop our urban areas or our immense tourism potentials.
These ‘prestigious’ practices of depending on foreign schools and clinics then assumed the status of national culture of the successful so virtually every middle class family now strives to copy these ‘standard operating procedures’ of the Class of 1966. I was alarmed recently when I learnt that one of the Northern states spent N900 million in 2009 for “overseas medical treatment” for the well-connected, while the general hospital – once the best hospital in the state did not attract that much in funding in the same period! Suffice it to add that the state governor was a student of the remnants of the Class of 1966 and perhaps saw nothing wrong with this clear contradiction. On the positive side, the Class of 1966 kept our nation united after plunging us into a needless civil war. The Murtala/Obasanjo administration gave us a presidential constitution, a local government system and the new capital of Abuja. The other military regimes and their civilian surrogates mostly wreaked more havoc than provide much public good!
The sum total of these is a country that is not yet a nation at the age of 50. We have a generation of Nigerians who have never known when the Nigerian state functioned, and served the people. We have young people – about 4 million achieve the voting age of 18 every year – that think they can only pass exams through cheating, paying or sleeping with their teachers. And even if they are qualified and passed the job interview, they can only get a job when they have a godfather to intervene. Merit, performance or hard work as ingredients of success, are totally unknown to them. The Class of 1966 and its successors have given birth not to Generation Next but one of “Anything Goes” – a generation without hope, with bewildered parents unable to understand them and give them succor. And only a courageous, focused and inspiring leadership can change them and give back hope to the nation.
Restoring Hope – Transformational Leadership as the Answer
It is not easy to restore hope once lost but transformational leadership for Nigeria can begin the long process. From my modest experience spanning 9 years in public service, I am persuaded that almost any human can behave well when the example of a visionary, disciplined and goal oriented leader exists – a transformational leader. And conversely almost anyone however competent or well-meaning can be a failure under an unfocused, corrupt and immoral leader – a transactional leader. It all boils down to quality of leadership. As Nigerian proverb goes, ‘fish starts to get rotten from the head’. So if the top of the pyramid is good, the bottom will also more likely to be good.
This principle is called the law of the Lid. A people can never grow beyond the level of their leader and if you have a leader who is not fully developed mentally, spiritually and emotionally, such a leader will be a lid on the people much like a lid over as pot and the country will not progress beyond his ability to govern. A recent example was President Umaru Yar’Adua who was unable to grow beyond his Katsina circle, his spiritual addiction to marabouts and limited development vision. Nigeria became the worse for it, losing our foreign reserves, wiping out the over $20 billion excess crude account with nothing to show for it and putting on hold all investment decisions in electricity, rail transportation and petroleum refining for three years.
It also boils down to the fact that human beings are by nature strategic and just like a thermometer they will adjust their behavior to suit the leadership and their environment. So to change their behavior we have to change the quality and style of our nation’s leadership, and put in place a clear regime of rewards (for merit and good behavior) and sanctions (for poor performance and misconduct). There is simply no other way to develop a well-ordered, rules-driven and progressive society. The symptoms of Nigeria’s problems are many but the cure is just one thing. The cure is good leadership by example which gives the people vision, hope and exemplary behavior with which to model themselves and their institutions after.
Emerging Leaders for the Twenty-First Century Nigeria
Coming back to the present, what Nigeria needs to do is to study history and learn from our past. From our history we see that when Nigeria begins to make progress at good governance, human progress, justice and enthroning a disciplined leadership that drives the delayed gratification without which there cannot be any long term growth, suddenly, from nowhere comes a false Messiah to offer the people relief and immediate gratification which stifles national growth. Since those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, our task is to learn and make sure we are not deceived into recycling failed leaders who will repeat their actions of making Nigeria poorer even where we have the natural and human resources to attain a reasonable standard of living for all – not just a select few – of our people.
Such false messiahs are easy to identify – they have no profession, business employing people or any known source of income to justify their riches, opulence and high standards of living other than being in public service all their working lives! These are the sort of “leaders” we must never have in the future. The leadership taxonomy of the Class of 1966 (and its successor generation) that created the problem of failed leadership the least qualified to solve it. We need a paradigm shift in leadership identification, nurturing and selection – something new, something different, throwing up Nigerians with the knowledge, skills and proven record of performance and integrity in public affairs to transform our nation. It is my humble view that we should scrutinize all those that offer themselves for leadership bearing in mind at least the following parameters:
(1) Education, Experience and Pedigree are Necessary but not Sufficient
Even though our first University graduate president disappointed all except his family and close friends, we must not write off educational attainment as a necessary indicator of leadership effectiveness. Experience that is relevance to governance –in managing resources, in administering large, complex organizations, and mobilizing our nation’s diversity into inclusive strength and focus also matter. The schools a prospective leader attended, the alumni network he can tap on demand, his elders, family and friends that can look him in the eye and say “do not let us down because you represent us” all contribute to the pressure needed to make a leader perform with integrity. When these are absent as we have seen in recent times with some of our rulers, the results can be fatal to the leader and the nation!
(2) Look for Team Players not Lone Rangers
The burden of governance in a diverse, ‘post-conflict’ nation like Nigeria requires more than one good person, however intelligent, competent and well-meaning. A strong, competent and cohesive team, not a single “strongman” is needed to transform a nation not in one or two election cycles but several. Only a team with clear succession planning can implement a long term vision that transforms nations. It takes a generation to move any country from Third World to First like Japan (LDP, 50 years), Malaysia (Mahathir and UMNO – 25 years) Singapore (Lee Kwan Yew, 33 years, Botswana (Seretse Khama and BPP, 35 years) and China (Deng Xiao Ping, CCP, 32 years and counting), and only a dedicated team sharing a common vision across parties and platforms can do it. Beware of one-person parties and always look beyond the person and at the circle around the Presidential or Gubernatorial candidate. Team maketh the Leader.
(3) Bold, Courageous Leaders with Clear Vision
Transformational leaders are bold and courageous. The transformational leader envisions and sees what appears impossible to others, and persuades the followers that it is not only possible but attainable, outlining practical steps to realize the vision. His intellectual curiosity, persuasive skills and inspirational qualities galvanize followers to perform at unexpected levels, thus achieving what once seemed impossible.
Imagine meeting the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum 30 years ago and he outlined his vision for converting his desert city wasteland of 100,000 fishermen and women into a modern city with over 50,000 three to seven star hotel rooms, an airport that would transit 20 million passengers in 2008 and would house global icons – the largest man-made aquarium, the tallest building on the planet and the biggest artificial island in the world, you would probably laugh and tag him unrealistic at best, or insane at worst – but Al-Maktoum persuaded his followers to believe and achieve this vision in less than a generation. That is the power of visionary leadership – bold, courageous but realistic and realizable.
(4) Persuasive Democrats in Words, Actions and Practices
It is one thing for aspiring leaders to talk repeatedly about democracy (but as a general once remarked in the White House – “we are here to protect democracy, not to practice it”), than to act and practice it. We should scrutinize our leaders’ words, actions and practices to ensure that there are no disconnects between all three.
Latter day, born-again and pretentious democrats, that include all the graduates, students and the successors of the Class of 1966 neither believe in democracy nor capable of practicing it in governance. They are by nature capricious and exercise power for private accumulation, not for general welfare, service and public good. They therefore have no regard for independent thought, merit and performance elevating blind loyalty to persons in power as more important than allegiance to the Constitution. The Class of 1966 have displayed utter disregard to any person’s ability to deliver on national assignments but their narrow and short-sighted world view of wealth without work.
(5) Public Service Skills and Performance
Public service experience particularly at Federal level is in my view essential for future effective public leadership at that level. Similarly, any person aspiring to leadership at state or local government level ought to show some understanding of, experience in and exposure to, that level of governance. Private sector success helps but is not a conclusive indicator of public sector performance. And in any case, there is a huge difference between the skill sets of politics and governance because often persons that get a government elected are not the best persons to help it govern. In public leadership, education, relevant experience, skills and record of performance are the best indicators of future transformational leadership.
(6) Strong, Dedicated Advisers and Inner Circle
There is a Nigerian proverb which translated is “there is no wicked ruler without wicked advisers” and this is eternally true. An effective leader usually has a team of advisers that are ideally brighter, more experienced and exposed than him. A self-confident leader identifies his personal skills and experience gap and chooses staff to furnish what is missing. A leader however brilliant that is surrounded by an inner circle of insecure, incompetent and mediocre people often comes to grief.
A leader, whose family is unable to keep away from affairs of state, and thereby fail to keep him grounded to the realities of leadership, often goes astray. There are too many examples in our recent history for Nigerians not to appreciate the destructive impact of a clueless and greedy inner circle of family and advisers!
(7) Bridge Builders Across Regions and Religions
Nigeria’s diversity, history and recent experiences require leaders that build bridges across our genders, ethnic groups, regions and religions. No one should aspire to national leadership unless by expressions, actions and practices has shown this capacity not to discriminate, but to unite, integrate and include every Nigerian of whatever background in his inner circle comfortably. Careful scrutiny of the track record of any prospective leader in his past public and private lives would show how diversely he had recruited his staff, picked his advisers and made decisions on siting of projects and programs. This principle can be applied to aspirants even seeking office at state and local government levels in a careful and discerning manner.
(8) Recognition for the Imbalance in our Federalism
Nigeria’s federal structure exists only in the official name of our nation. Years of maladministration by the Class of 1966 and its progeny with the military tendency towards centralization has created an imbalance in our federalism. This is crying for correction which can only begin if recognized by our prospective leaders. We must raise this debate on federal imbalance to put on hold the senseless quest for the creation of more states, demand the legislation of state and Federal crimes and cause the amendment of our Constitution to enable States and Local Government establish police forces to address our disparate internal security needs. We must encourage inter-state competition by devolving more powers and responsibilities to lower tiers of government and reducing the scope and scale of Federal intervention in the daily lives of our citizens.
Conclusion – Our Fate to Succeed or Our Destiny to Fail?
The foregoing leadership parameters are derived from my limited experience and detached observation and therefore neither exhaustive nor silver bullets. As in everything in human affairs, there will be exceptional persons that may not meet all the requirements listed above and still turn out to be effective leaders. However, assuming that will be relying on chance – those ‘divine interventions’ that Nigerians pray and wait for instead of taking our destiny in our hands. I am a firm believer of the saying that “fate is what God gives you, and destiny is what you do with it.”
It is time for Nigerians to stop passing the buck to God, or waste energy on the needless blaming of everyone other than ourselves or those we like. God has given Nigeria the human and natural resources to be successful – conquer poverty and provide the basic needs of our people. We either chose our leaders or tolerated them when foisted on us via military coups or civilian “elections”. God has given us the wherewithal to scrutinize them, protest their imposition and resist their rule of ruin, and we have not done that ever – so far. By failing to stand up, we abdicated our destinies to the shameless criminals that permeate our political space and the public service. Our elites have chosen to be selfish and lacking in the enlightened self-interest of collaborating to create a functioning society if not a good one.
Our fate is the endowment that God gave us. It cannot be our destiny to continue to have bad leaders, all derivatives of the Class of 1966. It is time to say ‘enough is enough’ and choose right – promoting public interest, enlightened self-interest even, rather than the primitive accumulation and resultant social inequalities that would destroy everything and everyone.
As the world moves firmly into the digital age, electing Blackberry users, – young people like Obama and Cameron in their 40s and the likes of Sarkozy in their 50s – communicating with friends and constituents via Twitter and Facebook, we must firmly reject those that want Nigeria to remain in the 20th century – and move forward to restore dignity and hope in our young generation. They must see a country that can work in their lifetimes – where electricity is stable, crimes are solved and criminals brought to justice, and capability and hard work are the primary tools for success in life. Failing to do that within the next decade will lead to the total failure of Nigerian state as we will not be able to handle the influx of 4 million hopeless and angry 18 year olds added every year during the period to our army of under-educated and under-employed. And in this avoidable scenario, none of our great grand-children will be opportune to see a Nigeria celebrating its century of Independence, and that will be a sad testimony to us all, those born just before or around the end of colonization.
Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, OFR was born just before Nigeria’s independence. He was the Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises – the Federal privatization agency (1999-2003), Minister in charge of Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria and member of the Presidential Economic Team (2003-2007).
 Robert I. Rotberg (2004): Strengthening African Leadership, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004, New York, Council on Foreign Relations. See http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/59914/robert-i-rotberg/strengthening-african-leadership, accessed on March 23, 2010.