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The meaning of political leadership in an age of pessimism

By Obadiah Mailafia

OURS is a confused and  illiberal age. Our people have become so pessimistic about the future it’s alarming. My experience with politics so far has even deepened my sense of pessimism. A few days ago I found myself in a room with some of the greatest movers and shakers in the political arena. There was not a single discussion of how we could take Nigeria forward. I felt as if I was in the midst of gangsters.

Today, the one sphere of human endeavour where ethics, integrity and honesty count for nothing is the pursuit of power. Politics exposes the nakedness of human nature more than anything else does. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed it “the crooked timber of humanity.” You will meet otherwise perfectly respectable gentlemen and women telling you barefaced lies. Back-stabbing is their stock-in-trade.

And there is nothing they will not do for money and power. A politician in Osun State was recently caught bathing naked in blood. We could not ascertain whether it was human or animal blood. Innocent virgins are being buried alive. A spiritualist was said to have requested an aspiring senator to bring the tongue of an infant. He delivered a fresh one in three days. Such are the dark and sinister forces that underpin the struggle for political power in contemporary Nigeria.

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The followerships are equally corrupted. Some people will bring you hare-brained schemes that have no basis in reason or logic. Some will badger you until you lose your cool. And it’s a trap. They will judge you by one episodic outburst because you could no longer stomach their stupidity. Nigeria is a land of geniuses. Our most gifted people shun politics for the reasons I spelt out above. The murkiness of politics and the bare-knuckles struggle and elbowing is often too much for what sensitive minds can take. In the more advanced countries of actually existing democracies, they have solved the problem by agreeing certain basic minimum standards. They also have a prosperous middle class with vested interest in social and political stability who demand qualified and accountable leaders.

Consider the case of the United States. If you look at the last 10 presidents of that country, none has anything less than a Masters degree. But it’s not just a question of minimum qualifications. They would have been tried and tested before ascending the high magistracy of the republic. Even Donald Trump, whose public rhetoric casts doubts on his intellectual culture, is a graduate of the prestigious Ivy-League University of Pennsylvania. Or consider Great Britain. Their premiers have been mostly Oxford and Cambridge men and women. The French are even more rigorous. Young Emmanuel Macron is a graduate of the elite École National d’Administration, ENA. His predecessors, with the exception of François Mitterrand, have been “enarques.” For better or worse, the French Republic is governed by an aristocracy of talent.

Apart from the dark period of military tyranny, even neighbouring Ghana has managed to upscale the level of its political leadership. The current president of Ghana Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was educated at Oxford. And so is his vice-president, my friend Muhamadu Bawumia. Bawumia is a first-rate economist. The president has mandated him to drive economic reform in Ghana. The results have been salutary.

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And if knowing all we know now, you would ask, why are we in politics? We are in politics because leadership is a calling – a calling to change lives and improve the human condition. I know of no other sphere by which a human being can single-handedly change the life-chances of millions of people. I am a humanist who believes human life is sacred. I am a believer in social justice and solidarity.

Leaders set the tone and determine the moral standards of society. If they are men of low degree, they would only dumb down society to their own level. When a land of geniuses is ruled by monkeys, even the most gifted will begin to behave like monkeys so as to conform to the lowest common denominator. Number 1 of the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene says, “Never outshine the master”. If a country is ruled by inferior minds the first victims would inevitably be gifted people. Your mere existence would become an indictment for such rulers.

We are not saying that academic brilliance must be the exclusive qualification for leadership. As a matter of fact, there are many first-rate minds that have no leadership skills whatsoever. A childhood friend with a first-class honours degree used to reject promotion to the post of Director in an international organisation where he worked for many years. He said he couldn’t handle positions involving responsibility over others. His metier was projects and solving technical problems. There will always be people like that. The ideal is for higher minds who are also called to leadership.

The crass and shameless monetisation of politics in Nigeria today means that only moneybags have the capacity ultimately to call the shots. As a young man I had an opportunity that would have made me a dollar billionaire. I turned it down to pursue graduate studies, after which I went into teaching, and later, finance and banking. Looking back, it was a life-saving decision. The chap who rushed for the job I turned down made his billions. He bought himself a glistening private jet. Unfortunately, he and General Abacha quarrelled over money. The man perished mysteriously.

Nigerians can be cruel. People have looked me in the face and have angrily demanded: “If you know you don’t have money, why are you in politics? If you can’t bring out the money, please, don’t waste our time!” Total strangers will knock on our gates and demand hotel accommodation and return tickets on the pretext that they are my political supporters. I am proud of who I am and of the fact that I have never defrauded the state or stashed away some ill-gotten fortune which I can use to bribe potential voters.

What we need in Nigeria today is what the Israeli policy scientist and social philosopher Yehezkel Dror terms “avant-garde leaders”. Dror has been an adviser to a succession of Israeli leaders from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Professor Dror came across something I wrote and was so impressed that he sought me out and sent me a copy of his book, Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch (Cadmus 2014). He defines avant-garde leaders as, “innovative and entrepreneurial leaders who focus on critical, long-term issues. They mobilize public support, but do not determine their conduct in response to polls, public opinion or mass media”.

Avant-garde leaders are frontier philosopher-kings who can think and operate in novel space-time perspectives. They are able to move from a three-dimensional Euclidean perspective to seven-dimension Einsteinian quantum relativity thinking. Our country is in dire need of transformational statesmen. Nigeria is destined for world leadership. The black race and Africa are waiting for us. The destiny of our continent depends on our choices. We need world-class leaders who are able to think outside the box – who can focus on the long-term and help us build a prosperous democracy. It is not a vocation for inferior minds.


Disclaimer

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