By Rotimi Fasan
The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else.
The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.
Potent and portentous, those are the opening lines of Chinua Achebe’s famous little book The Trouble with Nigeria, a political treatise on the Nigerian condition. Achebe’s critique, offered in the heat and tail-end of the Shehu Shagari government has achieved the resonance of scriptural immortality almost unequalled in the entire gamut of Nigeria’s political literature.
It has gained in an unprecedented way the buy-in of many if not most Nigerians who readily locate the Nigerian problem in the poor quality of leadership the country has been afflicted with right from independence.
Achebe in his disquisition goes on to train the force of his rhetorical assault on the first generation of Nigerian leaders often held up as the best cohort of ideologically and intellectually grounded politicians the country has had.
From Obafemi Awolowo to Nnamdi Azikiwe, through to the succeeding generations of leaders thereafter, none is spared the withering assessment of Achebe.
Perhaps the only exception in this rarefied class of Nigeria’s political aristocracy, the powerhouses that determined the tone and timbre of pre- and post-independence politics – the only politician that passed muster for Achebe and who incidentally was the only one he openly associated with was the talakawa politician, leader of the downtrodden masses of Northern Nigeria, Mallam Aminu Kano, whose Peoples Redemption Party Chinua Achebe joined as a practising card-carrying politician.
But this essay is neither about Nigerian politics, politicians or political governance strictly speaking. The subject of this week’s talking point is not a politician. I will rephrase that: the subject of our discourse is a vice chancellor and to be a vice chancellor means you must be a fast player of academic politics if only in the innocent sense of managing and allocating scarce resources in an academic context.
But the reason Achebe’s famous words were invoked as an opener is for the simple reason that the subject of my concern here, a professor of Forest Economics and Sustainable Development at the University of Ibadan, and current Vice Chancellor of Osun State University, Labo Popoola, holds a position diametrically opposed to Achebe’s in their respective diagnosis of the pathologies of the Nigerian state, the reason the country is universally viewed as an under-achiever in spite of its enormous human and material resources that are almost always described in terms of their ‘potentials’ for greatness.
A fan-fiction rendition of Achebe’s opening sentence in The Trouble with Nigeria by Professor Popoola would be: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of followership.
“He holds firmly to this view, as a factor in or outcome of organisational failure, with the zeal of an old testament prophet. He espouses it with even greater vigour and without apologies. But what I intend to show here in the short space of a column is that Professor Labo Popoola’s integrity-governed leadership style is the very proof of Chinua Achebe’s thesis, namely, that the trouble with Nigeria is a failure of leadership.
He has demonstrated in his three years as VC that, at least in the Nigerian context, if no other, leadership makes all the difference. Not leadership that thrives on grubby populism but a goal-driven mandate.
The turbulent welcome he received in UNIOSUN during the patchy months of his arrival in 2017 through 2018 could have upended the administration of a less-driven man. But he has not only stayed course, he has gone on to make some really remarkable achievements.
He is a man of very high standard and he has raised the bar so high for his successor even with relatively lean resources. He is the vice chancellor for these penurious times, a consummate manager of the purse, in his averment that he finds it easier to receive money than to spend it.
Which may explain why he has consistently ensured salary payment not a day later than the 25th of every month. Not a mean achievement at a time when many states/institutions have backlogs of unpaid salaries.
He is gradually but steadily improving on infrastructural deficit in the university, while spearheading the crusade for social and attitudinal change in academic and administrative practice.
He has the record for holding the first online matriculation and convocation ceremonies in a public university in Nigeria. Only blind hate or a rejection of truth as a principle of life would make anyone deny the high level of moral, financial and moral discipline that he has brought to UNIOSUN under his watch.
It is a measure of this high level of integrity that he could boldly cause to be put at various parts of UNIOSUN’s six campuses messages proclaiming the university’s intolerance of bribery and corruption. His CV which unlike that of Nigeria’s academics is freely available online, looks like an account of a man with nothing to hide.
His pedigree as an achiever goes back to his birthplace in Inisa, his journeys through secondary school, graduating Division 1 at Saint Patrick’s Ibadan and the University of Ibadan.
He is an incurable optimist of Nigeria’s greatness. When these views are expressed in the hectoring register of a man sure of what he is saying, particularly when confronted with the scandalously jejune thinking of some from whom more could be expected, his tone assumes a bullying edge which together with his high academic position could be truly unsettling for some.
Which may not necessarily be his intention. He is generally soft-spoken and beneath that calm exterior is apparently an ecumenical spirit that must have been suppressed in order to deal with the more practical demands of human relations. All of which points to another trait of this profoundly intelligent academic: he is a man of strong views.
This is not a character evaluation, neither a virtue nor a vice- just a statement of fact. Which should not be surprising or, perhaps, should be expected of someone, one of whose hobbies is debating ‘current thinking in a variety of fields’.
Together with his unquestionable love for music and various forms of high culture, he is the quintessential renaissance man. At odds with the apparently dull ways of scientists?
Then cast your mind to Akinwunmi Adesina and you understand that even a scientist could possess a subtle apprehension of the harmless pleasures of life. This masquerade has danced well and his minders are pride-swollen. Here is wishing Professor Labode Popoola 60 happy cheers on his Diamond Jubilee!