By Olu Fasan
ASK Nigerians, and the overwhelming majority would say this country’s problem is leadership. Nigeria, they would tell you, suffers from bad leadership. But if you ask me, I will say the problem is also acute failure of followership. In fact, I would say that the problem of complicit followers is worse than that of incompetent leaders. Truth is, Nigeria lacks the critical mass of enlightened and active citizens to protect against bad leadership.
Let’s be clear: leadership matters hugely. The quality of a nation’s governance is directly proportional to the quality of its leaders. Which is why the ancient philosophers cautioned against putting inept leaders in positions of political power.
In The Republic, Plato says that only “those with the most intelligence should rule” a nation. And Cicero admonishes that “those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land”. His argument is that: “If leaders don’t have a thorough knowledge of what they are talking about, their speeches will be a silly prattle of empty words and their actions will be dangerously misguided”.
Think about that. Scholars argue that leaders need three tools to transform their countries: narratives, actions and institutions. But it takes a bright leader to deploy these tools. I mean, only visionary leaders can articulate the right vision to inspire a nation; only intelligent leaders can take the right actions or develop the right policies to move a country forward; and only competent leaders can build the right institutions to transform their nation.
So, you can see why, for Cicero and Plato, the key to governing a country well is to put “the best and the brightest in the land” or “those with the most intelligence” in charge. But this is where followership comes in. Every citizen has a cardinal duty to protect against bad leadership by electing only visionary and competent people into political offices. And if they fail to do that, they, not the leaders, should take the blame.
That’s why the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously said that: “Every nation gets the government it deserves”. George Carlin, the American author, put it even more bluntly. “Ignorant citizens elect ignorant leaders,” he said, adding matter-of-factly: “It’s as simple as that”! Sadly, Nigerians shirk this critical duty of followership, of citizenship. They routinely elect incompetent people into political offices, and then, after an election, spend the next four years complaining bitterly about bad leadership and poor governance.
That is what is baffling with the re-election of President Buhari. By the first year of his first term in 2016, people were already crying: “This is not the change we voted for”! And at the end of the first term, he had failed utterly to deliver the promises he made in 2015. Insecurity took thousands of Nigerian lives; poverty and hunger ravaged Nigerians; in fact, on his watch, Nigeria became “the poverty capital of the world”; and corruption remained, according to Transparency International, a hydra-headed monster! Yet, in 2019, Buhari was comfortably re-elected with 15 million votes and 56 per cent of the vote-share!
Now, how many of Buhari’s vociferous critics on social media and elsewhere voted in last year’s election? In the whole country, only 27 million people, out of the 82 million registered voters, about 34 per cent, voted. In the South, where Buhari was deemed to be unpopular, most people didn’t vote, with the turnout being less than 25 per cent. Indeed, in Lagos State, only 18.5 per cent of the 5.5 million people who collected the Permanent Voter Card voted in the presidential election. The majority of the electorate simply didn’t vote, and, with the widespread vote-buying, most of those who voted were easily bought with bags of rice, bales of clothes and wads of money!
As Paul Johnson said in his book, Enemies of Society, the true essence of democracy is the ability to remove a government without violence, to punish political failure by votes. But Nigerians have the tendency to reward political failure! Some might say: but where was the alternative in 2019? Buhari’s main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, despite his sensible programmes of political, economic and institutional reforms, was not liked in the North and not trusted in the South. But elections are also about sending out messages. For instance, voters in the West, tired of the mainstream parties, have turned to smaller parties.
Recently, the two parties that have dominated Irish politics for decades were denied power in Ireland, and a fringe party won the popular vote. Of course, that’s easier in a parliamentary democracy, with proportional representation, than in a presidential democracy, with a first-past-the-post system. But in France, a semi-presidential system, Emmanuel Macron came from nowhere in 2017 to defeat the two mainstream parties that had governed the country for decades.
In last year’s presidential election, there were candidates such as former deputy Central Bank governors, Obadiah Mailafia and Kingsley Moghalu, both with considerable international exposure, who should have done better if Nigerians really cared about competent leadership. Yet, Mailafia secured a miniscule 97,874 (0.36 per cent of the total votes) and Moghalu got an inconsequential 21,886 (0.08 per cent)!
Recently, in a bizarre statement that reflects the hopelessness of Nigerian politics, Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment, chided Dr. Moghalu for daring to want to be president, saying: “You have not carried politics bag. You have not served anybody in politics. Why would you jump into presidential race?” Really?
But it’s not the views of people like Ngige that should matter. What do Nigerians want? Do they agree with Cicero and Plato that Nigeria should be governed by some of its best and brightest, some of its most intelligent? Apparently not. For if they do, they won’t be willing pawns in the political game of ambitious but utterly clueless demagogues. To the extent that, by their action or inaction, they support the ambitions of such leaders, they must accept culpability for the misrule of Nigeria. It’s as simple as that!