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The primacy of national purpose

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NATIONS, like individuals, have a national purpose or none at all. Unless a person has defined their life-purpose they couldn’t be regarded as being fully alive. Without purpose, people will float across a life-time swayed here and there like flotsam and jetsam across turbulent waters. The secret of great nations is national purpose. Americans believe in “the American dream” – in their quest for freedom and life, liberty and happiness, however defined. The French, the British, the Germans and always have a sense of national purpose. Same goes for the Chinese, whose current world ambition is to resurrect the Middle Kingdom as the centre of the universe.

Dr. Obadiah Mailafia

What is Nigeria’s national purpose? Apart from our cruel and wicked pursuits of ethnic and religious hegemony, what collective purpose do we have? Beyond all the bickering over parties and elections, what unifying goal can bring our people together in the pursuit of great national undertakings?

It is an open fact, universally acknowledged, that Nigeria is among those countries in the world whose performances in all the indices of development are grossly below their actual potentials and promise. To transcend its proverbial mediocrity, it is vital that the country recovers its sense of national purpose and destiny. I would like to make the case for grand strategy as the key vehicular instrument to up-scaling the Nigerian national project so as to set us resolutely on the path of national greatness and, indeed, world power status.

Today’s piece only aims to outline the framework for new thinking about national purpose.  We begin from the premise that the most fundamental goal of a country is national survival. Survival entails national security, which can only be achieved by the instrumentality of national power and national defense. We must enhance national power to prevail over enemies, real or potential, latent or imminent. This of course begs the question as to what we mean by national power. The latter, in the classical realist sense as espoused by thinkers from Sun-Tzu to Morgenthau and Kissinger, has to do with the ability of X to compel Y to behave in ways that Y would not ordinarily have wished to do. Power sometimes requires the use of physical force. But, in our age of complex interdependence, it more often entails the exercise of influence deriving from ‘softer’ sources such as economics, finance, culture and ideology. Indeed, Joseph Nye has underlined the concept of ‘soft power’ as being more important as an explanatory variable in our contemporary post-Cold War system of international politics than the widely recognised traditional instruments of military power.

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Because power derives from a variety of sources — from military capability to science and technology, finance, national morale, trade and ideology and cultural factors — the quest for national power must of necessity embrace a broad spectrum of variables and geometrical constants such as geography, climate, natural resources and population. Being able to bring all these factors together in a coherent, decisive and effective manner is the most important challenge of national security. Success in this endeavour requires deployment of intellects and creative talents of the highest order. It is ultimately about reconciling ends and means; being clear about objectives and reconciling those objectives to the constraints and limits of available resources and capabilities. Indeed, as one noted expert asserts: “To know what one can do on the basis of available means, and to do it; to know what one cannot do, and refrain from trying; and to distinguish between the two – that, after all, is the very definition of military greatness, as it is of all human genius in general.”

Crucial to the creation and sustenance of national purpose is the critical factor of leadership. In a report on global governance prepared for the Club of Rome, the Israeli policy scientist Yehezkel Dror observed that “contemporary governance is obsolete and unable to deal fittingly with rapidly mutating problems and opportunities”. In developing countries as well as in the mature democracies, there appears to be a virtual crisis of leadership; a crisis rooted in the erosion of public ethics and what could only be described as the fear of greatness. A key problem of government is, according to him, a question of its steering capacity, i.e. the ability to shape and achieve core objectives, including management of networks, linking outputs with outcomes, building information technology, enhancing capacity for follow-through, effective workforce management and efficient budget and evaluation systems. For Professor Dror, the ultimate solution lies in a ‘new order of leadership’ at the heart of government, a new mindset anchored on transformational leadership that is rigorous intellectually and politically savvy and entrepreneurial.

I believe that the process of leadership selection in this country is still skewed in favour of those who are adepts at grand larceny — money bags, crooks — and those with sharp elbows and twisted minds. Ours is a system that makes way for garrison commanders and thugs, whilst the most gifted stay away in the confines of the Academy or the gilded pavilions of the corporate boardroom or banking headquarters. Above all, it is for moneybags — regardless of how that money was made. Politics in this country has never been a terrain for men of ability. It is only in Nigeria that anybody can wake up one morning and insist that he has to become a ruler or legislator. In Europe, in Asia, in the entire civilised world – and even in an America that instinctively distrusts intellectuals – a leader must be a man of proven ability and character. If Nigeria is to become a great country, we would need great men and women and we must evolve a system that can identify, nurture and mentor such future leaders.

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Building a sense of national purpose requires several other crucial ingredients. 

Firstly and most crucially, national power elites must have a consensus on the Nigerian national project. We have to agree that we need a national rebirth and that we can join hands together to build a strong, united, virile and prosperous democracy. And we have to agree on what kind of nation ours should be and the framework of civil association between all our groups and nationalities. With all the ethno-religious tensions that have beset this country for decades, it is doubtful if such a national consensus currently exists. Even our Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, has often spoken derisively about ‘this nation entity’. And with the kind of disarray being faced by the ruling party itself, with such movements as rampaging herdsmen militias, MASSOB and the frightful bedlam of Niger Delta anarchists at large, it is clear that we are far from having a national consensus by a long short.

Linked to this is the need for an overarching public ethic which all of us can identify with. The great American strategist John R. Boyd argued the case for the articulation of such a national ideology to bring a nation’s elites together. He called for a ‘ grand ideal’ that represents a “coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances—yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems”. According to him, such a unifying vision should also be as compelling as to serve as a beacon “around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things”.

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