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The Courage to Challenge : Tackling the challenge

By Ikedi Ohakim

In Nigeria, change is difficult if not impossible because the country’s politics is not denominated in ideological or value propositions but in Naira and Kobo. In Nigeria, the ruling party at local, state and federal government can easily prophesy that it will remain in power for decades.

Several years ago, when I was still the national president of my  town union, I visited my home community, Okohia, from my Lagos  base to find that then governor of Imo State, Chief Sam Mbakwe, had run high tension overhead cables over the town in readiness to electrify it.

I was very happy because up until then, we did not enjoy electricity from the national grid. But I also knew that we still had a long way to go before electric light could finally come into our rooms in Okohia. So, I said to the people, “Mbakwe has done well, now we must take things from where he has reached and work towards completing the job of actually bringing electricity into our homes if we want it quickly”.

I came to this point, aware that the government of that time had done what it could. That the government was concentrating in running high tension cable round the state as the first phase of its rural electrification project.

Baton of change: I look to the future and see a new Imo; I smile, hopeful: With former President Olusegun Obasanjo and my predecessor, Chief Achike Udenwa (2007)
Baton of change: I look to the future and see a new Imo; I smile, hopeful: With former President Olusegun Obasanjo and my predecessor, Chief Achike Udenwa (2007)

I figured that it may take a while before the government embarked on the phase of procuring and installing transformers to step down the electric current and actually get electricity into people’s homes in the rural areas of the state. I felt the wait would particularly be long in our own case because we did not have anyone from Okohia community in government at that time so we could not push or lobby for fast tracking the process.

Thereupon, I began to make private arrangements. I contacted a contractor who quoted what it would cost to acquire and install the transformer and low tension cable from which we could finally draw light into our different homes. The community was excited and agreed that the people would contribute to pay the contractor. I went back to Lagos after promising the community that any money the people raised towards that project, I would match 50 per cent on behalf of my family and I.

The contributions began to pour in earnestly from members of the community. But about two months into this special fund-raising, the leaders in the community suddenly made a u-turn and instructed those who had made contributions to come and retrieve their money.

Apparently, one Jonathan, a well-respected son of Okohia, who was then in Lagos came home, and in the company of another distinguished Okohia son addressed the community over the electricity project. They told the people that I had come to swindle them; that the high tension wire that crossed our community was all we needed to bring electricity into our homes, and that we did not require any low tension cable or transformer to finish the job.

They told the people that anyone who wanted electricity should just go ahead and connect from the overhead cables installed by the government. Not knowing any better, over 90 percent of the entire community believed them and turned against me. They were shocked that I, whom they loved so much and chose to lead them as union president in spite of my very young age, could attempt to swindle them. They judged me in my absence and passed a verdict of guilty without hearing from me.

My father, a former president of the union himself and a prominent elder in the town, spoke in my defence but could not convince them of my good intentions. He quickly got word to me and I abandoned all and rushed back home. Once there, the first thing I did was to invite NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) engineers from Owerri, the state capital.

By then, the two mischief makers had left the village and gone back to the cities where they lived and worked. But I called a meeting of the entire community, and the NEPA engineers addressed them, explaining the process of electrifying the community. The NEPA officials then took some of the leaders of the community to other communities to see for themselves the low tension cable and the transformer that completed the process of electrifying those communities.

It was only then that the people knew that they had been misinformed  and many were profuse in their apologies to me. Having restored my name, I decided that I must complete the job. I took it upon myself to single-handedly take care of the community electricity project without contributions from anybody.

That year I went to NEPA, procured the electric meters required for my community, bought the cable, over two kilometres long of low tension cable, and fortunately, I got the government to provide a transformer and the work began in earnest. The people were surprised when the project kicked off without anyone asking them for input.

Today, nearly twenty years after, there is electricity in my community because we saw a challenge, and we faced it and dealt with it. When I saw the overhead high tension cable, I mobilised the community to step down the current and bring the light into the homes. When the people in the community saw the challenge of waiting for the government to provide the step down cables and transformer, they stepped up to the challenge and began to contribute. And when detractors came with tales of doom and dislocation, I stood firm, tackled the problem and went on to complete the project.

After forty-eight years of independence, Nigeria may safely be judged a study in failure amid plenty. This is even more so when we compare Nigeria’s performance against its peers and contemporaries—nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and India, even Pakistan. On the critical human development indices of access to health care, education, food, housing and jobs, Nigeria does not fare too well.

It is even worse, in the area of manufacturing and processing. Some nations like India and Pakistan have even pushed the technological frontiers with breath-taking achievements in military hardware design and manufacturing and rocket science. They have literally guaranteed their independence status. But Nigerians are not even asking for all that. They just want a government that can guarantee the basic amenities of road, water, housing, health, education and make life worth living. In these, the last forty-eight years have been a disappointment to many. Will the next decades be markedly different?

So, here we are — a dislocated people, a disjointed nation, now what? What do we do? What must we do? Are we to fold our hands and do nothing; accept the slide to perdition because it is difficult to change our course? Do we give up the fight to rescue our country from debilitating corruption, for instance, because corruption has eaten deep into our society? Do we surrender to the evils of ethnicity and religious bigotry? Do we just simply lie down there and give up like a spineless and defeated people?

My experience in Romania recently was jaw-dropping. I could not help but wonder if I was in the right country. I marvelled at the paved roads, the well-lit streets and the glittering shops of Bucharest, the capital city of that former communist enclave. The prosperity in the city was also evident in the flashy cars and the contented faces that smiled from behind the wheels. No, Bucharest is not yet New York or London, or Paris or any of the modern capital cities of the capitalist West. But it is coming close. Progress is being made there — stunning progress!

Ten years earlier, when I visited the city, there were practically only two brands of cars and they were not the kind of cars you would fancy to have a pleasure ride in. Then the people looked stern and harassed. Their faces bore those tell-tale signs of a people in a struggle to survive. Many were creased and contoured, everyone seemed to wear a frown.

On my recent visit, I was quick to ask questions. What happened here? How did this small Eastern European country achieve this transformation in such a short time. I got some quick answers. After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, Romania started the process of transformation from a state central system to a market economy. One of the major policies it adopted was the privatisation of most of the state owned corporations.

Expectedly, this process was fraught with a lot of problems, least of which was not the fact that the people were already steeped in their ways and considered the selling off of government-owned corporations a sell-off of their common wealth.

But the administration of President Emil Constantinescu remained focused and kept its eyes on the ball. Of course, several mistakes were made and privatisation proved to be difficult and uneven. But in 2004, the European Union which the former communist country had sought to join, certified Romania a functioning market economy fit to be among its peers in the Union.

The country has not looked back ever since building systems, institutions and infrastructure to drive its development. Today, unemployment is below 5%, wages are rising sharply and foreign investment in Romania is generally regarded as an economic success story with major global manufacturing companies such as Nokia relocating their factories to the country.

Of course, there are still those challenges of fledgling democracies, challenges of corruption, of policy confusions and capitulations, challenges which sociologists recognise as the birth pangs of an emerging nation.

Servant Leader: President Umaru Yar'Adua's philosophy of the leader as a servant is one I share.
Servant Leader: President Umaru Yar'Adua's philosophy of the leader as a servant is one I share.

And the country is still battling with poverty, especially among the rural dwellers comprising mainly of peasant farmers, and the minority Roma people who often have no access to health care, education and utility service. But for sure, Romania is on the march, and it seems to know where it is going.

That gives me hope for our country. We can pull Nigeria from the brink. We can reverse this ugly trend of breakdown and decay. And truly galvanise the process of rebuilding our country. We can make Nigeria great again. There are ample reasons to hope and to believe. Nigerians are strong and resolute, brilliant and resourceful, modern and civilised.

We are a land of sturdy and determined people who can rise to any occasion when we put our minds to it; a land of winners and not quitters. We have the resources: arable land, fantastic climate and rich human agricultural, solid mineral and other natural endowments, including crude oil.

There is another reason. Many nations have returned from the brink. Nations less blessed, nations less endowed, nations less opportuned. However these nations seemed to have only one thing ahead of us: purposeful leadership!

In the affairs of a nation, there is no determinism. Fate never wills it. Anation is a social construction. We make our nation just as we make our destiny. It could be said of Nigeria what that favourite and much revered black American novelist, James Baldwin said many years ago about the United States, we must achieve our country. Just as a people can achieve or miss their destiny so a country as a collective of individual wills, can achieve or miss its destiny.

Apart from God, every other thing is fashioned by humankind. Prosperity is a creation of society. Poverty is also the handiwork of men and women. I like the way Stephen Covey, the author of the much-acclaimed 7 Habits of Successful People expresses the contingence of history and the indeterminacy of the destiny of people and nations. Covey says that:

The lesson of history is that to the degree people and civilisations have operated in harmony with correct principles, they have prospered. At the root of societal declines are foolish practices that represent violations of correct principles.

Put simply, he is saying that we need to run our polity in harmony with correct principles.

If we truly mean to recover Nigeria from the precipice of state failure we must begin seriously to erect and adopt correct principles of social justice and effective state action. We cannot continue to act as if the laws of cause and effect and those of demand and supply, vary in Nigeria while they remain constant everywhere else. Nigeria is part of the commonwealth of human society or global village. The general principles of what worked elsewhere would also apply to Nigeria.

One vital area where we need to align ourselves to the developed world is in electing political leadership. We have perfected in our clime the art of installing mediocrity and institutionalising incompetence in our politics. It is depressingly instructive that it was only in 2007 when we elected President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, that we had the privilege for the first time ever, of having a conventional university graduate as head of state. Of course, we had the great Zik as President from 1960 to 1965, but he was not the head of the government.

Prime Minister Tafawa Belewa was the head of government. This is not to suggest that only persons who hold university degrees are furnished with the mental and moral capacities to offer transformational leadership. But it does say something about our diligence for the upper limits when setting standards for those who aspire to lead us.

Like Singapore and Malaysia, Nigeria can become a great, prosperous and stable country if it builds up the capacity for transformational leadership. Malaysia is particularly instructive for us. By now every Nigerian that can read, or has the intellectual capacity to understand television and radio debates and discussions, must know why. Nearly every speech maker, writer, analyst, every pseudo-intellectual who addresses an audience on development in Nigeria, uses the story of Malaysia to buttress the point that we have not taken our numerously available chances to achieve greatness.

Here is a country that borrowed its first palm kernel seedlings from the Iva Valley in Enugu in the late 1960s and is today the world leading exporter of palm kernel while Nigeria has slumped from a leading exporter into a net importer of palm oil. The point may have been flogged, but it can never be over-flogged because it is true. Leadership matters. Leadership makes the difference. Poor leadership accounts for the near state failure in Nigeria. Good leadership will create the enabling environment for revival and redemption.

In Nigeria we have not paid attention to the art and science of leadership. We have acted as if leadership means just acquiring power. The great Plato wrote about the “philosopher-king”. In the Republic he argues that until “philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one”, the city cannot be stable and the state cannot be the harbinger of the excellent life.

Plato has put it succinctly. Wisdom and political greatness must meet in one if we must recover our path from the woodwork of instability and poverty. In the 1960s after the colonialists were driven out of power, Nigerian nationalists did not adequately take cognizance of the challenges of leadership facing the nation. It was the most auspicious time to put the nation on the road to transformation, the time to bear the pains of radical change before the nation got set in its ways. It was a time of euphoria and great enthusiasm.

Everything would have been possible. It was a time of founding and our leaders could have unified us on a grand vision that would have constituted a powerful and compelling myth like the myth which the founding fathers of the United States weaved in the US Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence.

But, we lost the opportunity. The transitional leaders who piloted Nigeria after independence were not properly possessed of the ethical and idiosyncratic qualities to initiate an irreversible transformation. Committed as they were to independence and freedom for Nigeria, they lacked the sophisticated world view to deal and cope with the complexities of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and most populated black nation of the world just emerging to compete in a world dominated by western interests.

They soon caved in to the pressures of their differences and each retreated to his regional enclave to become a tribal lord instead of the sophisticated nationalists and statesmen they started off as, and in the event sowed the seeds of ethnic and religious bigotry and deepened the gulleys of cultural and nationality differences, arresting the thrust and enthusiasm for national development.

The answer to our leadership crisis and a real fillip to our quest for transformation is paying attention to how our political leaders emerge. We cannot elect people into sensitive political offices and expect them to perform creditably if they lack the fundamental acumen required to envision profoundly and execute effectively and efficiently.

We cannot elect persons who have had neither the learning nor the culture to intelligently diagnose society’s problems and intensely direct energies to solving them. It is not just about formal education or professional training. It is also about talent and worldviews. Without the right values and perspectives the required synergy and mobilisation required for collaborative solutions to the crisis of governance will be largely absent.

We cannot begin to solve the leadership problem if we do not take care to ensure that the right people get
elected or appointed into important public offices. We cannot get the best results if we insist on putting aside our first eleven and fielding even our second best in every tournament. As it is with the game of football so it is with public governance.

To remain competitive, a country must put forward for political office, its best and brightest. When you read the resume of top political office-holders in advanced democracies, you see evidence of meritocracy. Some of these leaders attended the best universities in the world and received professional exposure in the best corporate organisations in the world.

They cut their teeth at important public institutions where they get exposure to critical public issues and the processes of decision-making. Some of them were the ablest in the professional and graduate schools they attended and easily and quickly took to the life of public service carrying with them their penchant for problem solving and excellence, and embodying the virtues of public spiritedness.

We cannot continue with the ethics of mediocrity in selection and appointment of public officials and expect excellence in public leadership. There is no magic about public leadership. Yes, it is true, leaders are not just born, they are made. With proper motivation people can become great leaders. But, this presupposes that they have the basic talent and value orientation to aspire to transformative leadership.

Robert K. Greenleaf gave the world the priceless and timeless concept of the “servant leadership”. He argues that the servant-leader first begins with a hunger to serve—but not above his innate abilities. The servant-leader first sees himself or herself as a servant who is keen to ensure that the people he or she serves experience a better life.

If our leaders lack the basic values of selflessness and public spirit they cannot be servant leaders. So we must make sure we bestow the mantle of leadership on those who show evidence of the care and commitment required to bring about public good.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.