By Olu Fasan
LAST year, I wrote a piece titled “A lesson of Christmas: Nigeria needs sacrificial leaders” (Vanguard, December 27, 2019). A year on, I’m returning to the same theme. For while Christmas brings hope as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to save the world, thinking about Nigeria fills one with utter despair, not hope.
Even the most congenital optimists must worry about the future of this country. And the abject lack of visionary and transformational leaders must elicit a heartfelt cry: who will save Nigeria?
Jesus was, of course, a purposive and transformational leader. In an interview with Forbes magazine, Fr. James Martin, the American Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine, described Jesus as “the greatest leader the world has ever seen.” Jesus, he said, set out an idea of what the world could be like, and inspired others to work for that vision.
He carefully selected his disciples and led them with integrity and purpose. And He “was probably the most effective communicator who ever lived.” Above all, Jesus delivered!
In the secular world, inspirational and effective leaders have transformed nations. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, is universally hailed as a leader who took a sleepy port town and transformed it into one of the world’s wealthiest nations. He later wrote: “I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.” He was right!
Take one indicator. In 1960, Singapore’s GDP per capita was a meagre US$443, but by the mid-1980s, Lee had raised it to US$6,634. Today, it’s US$65, 233 (2019). By contrast, Nigeria’s GDP per capita was about US$400 in the mid-1980s; today, it is just US$2,229 (2019).
What makes the difference is productivity, enhanced, in Singapore’s case, by the fact that, as one British journalist said: “In Singapore, it’s not just the escalators that work, it’s everything”. In Nigeria, hardly anything works properly!
But why? Well, blame bad leaders! Professors Paul Collier and Tim Besley said in their report on state fragility: “The competences, honesty and interests of those who are elected to power can make a decisive difference in effective government.” So, Nigeria is failing because its leaders lack the competences, the honesty and the interests to transform it from mediocrity into greatness. And, of course, the vision!
Take vision first. Leadership is, firstly, about political steering, about envisioning. The metaphor of steering the ship of state evokes an image of a leader who has the right vision of where his country should be going and who inspires people to share in that vision, just as Jesus set out a vision of what the world could be like and inspired people to work for the vision.
But what vision do Nigerian leaders have for this country? Do they think, for instance, that Nigeria can make any meaningful progress with its current political structure? Last week, the British Labour Party established a “constitutional commission on devolution”, promising “the boldest devolution project for a generation.” But why does Britain need a “bold devolution plan” but our politicians think Nigeria doesn’t need a constitutional and political settlement, doesn’t need restructuring? Is that vision or myopia or self-interest?
As Nigeria’s leader, President Muhammadu Buhari should be providing the political steering and navigation. But he is an epitome of reactive leadership, not visionary one. He is not preoccupied with the problem of “going somewhere”, but with the task of reacting to crisis after crisis. As a result, rather than the transformational leader and progressive nation-builder that Buhari was expected to be, he is, in fact, as some scholars put it, an “old-fashioned, conservative system-maintainer.”
But system-maintenance will not take Nigeria out of the rot, let alone transform it into a great nation. It will not address the perennial problem of insecurity. It will not tackle the socio-economic crisis, such as the deepening poverty and inequality. Are Nigerian politicians proud that, according to the World Bank, just 10 per cent of the working-age population is employed in formal wage labour?
Of course, there’s no point asking if they have a vision of how to tackle the problem for, even if they do, they lack the competence to fulfil it. Trust in government is low in Nigeria because policy announcements and commitments are hardly matched by concrete actions or discernible progress. In 2018, the World Economic Forum’s Index on Trust in politicians ranked Nigeria 130th out of 137 as the country with the least trusted politicians.
But that’s not surprising when the honesty of those in power is always questionable. Take the release of the 344 abducted Kankara schoolboys. President Buhari’s spin-doctors and loyalists said the schoolboys’ release showed “the Buhari Administration has the will and has demonstrated unquestionable capacity to protect Nigerians” (Garba Shehu) and “vindicated the president in his untiring efforts to rid the country of insecurity” (Bola Tinubu).
Of course, neither claim is true. The release of the Kankara schoolboys, the circumstances of which raise more questions than answers, does not show Buhari’s “unquestionable capacity” to protect Nigerians. As the Gombe State governor, Muhammad Yahaya, recently said, “Nigeria is facing the worst security challenges in history”, and Buhari has no clue how to tackle the problem. He is a system-maintainer, not a radical reformer.
Yet, Nigeria is failing. It’s internally unstable and externally unattractive. The world is not beating a path to its door. Winston Churchill famously said: “Do not let a good crisis go to waste.” This is an opportunity for a visionary leader to build a national consensus for restructuring Nigeria. But not Buhari. Sadly, not other politicians, too, who are self-interestedly fixated on the 2023 elections.
So, it’s about system-maintenance – again! You can understand why I’m crying out for a saviour!