Nigeria: The leaders’ undoing

Muhammadu Buhari, Nigerian President, Mahatma Gandhi , Lee Kuan Yew, former Singaporean Prime Minister and Nelson Mandela, former South African President

Last Saturday, Nigeria celebrated its 56th independence anniversary. For a country that started on a very promising note, its current state is a great let down to those who put their lives on the line for her independence. Compared with other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which also gained independence about the time Nigeria got hers, Nigeria is a study in retrogression.

The per capita income of Nigeria today is lower than it was in 1960. Infrastructure is in a better state then than now. The education system was better in the 1960s than it is now; ditto for health services. Rate of employment in 1960 was higher than it is in 2016. Rate of poverty is higher today in Nigeria than it was in 1960.

According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, at independence in 1960, about 15 per cent of the population was poor. This rose to 28 per cent in 1980. By 1985, it had risen to 46 per cent, dropping to 43 per cent in 1992.

However, by 1996 poverty in the country had gone up to 66 per cent before climbing further to the current rate of 67 per cent. Why is the situation this way in this country?

It’s all about leaders

The state of a nation is a reflection of its leadership. As put by John Maxwell, one of the world’s most respected leadership teachers, everything rises and falls on leadership. Leaders shape and mould their societies in the form they want, and determine the course of events in their countries. The height attained by a nation is determined by its leaders. Similarly, the depth to which a country slides is a function of its leadership. The success recorded by any society or country is dependent on the kind of leadership it has at a point in time. Therefore, the fate of a nation hangs on its leadership. Great nations, just like great organizations, don’t just happen; they are made. Every great nation or organization is a product of great leadership. Every thriving nation today has been led consistently over a period of time by a group of selfless leaders. So, the situation of Nigeria today is a pointer to the quality of leadership it has experienced.


Leaders show or blur the way

If things are working well in a country, it is because the leaders are doing what is right. Not only do leaders provide the direction in which the rest should go, they also determine the speed at which they move. So, everything rests on the leaders. To think otherwise is to think amiss. Corruption will thrive in a country with corrupt leadership. Uprightness will take root in a country where the leadership celebrates uprightness. It is trite knowledge that whatever the leadership encourages grows while what it frowns at declines. At times, some leaders attempt to push the responsibility of leading to the followers but it is wrong. Leaders must show the way for the followers to toe. If the followers consistently go in a wrong direction it is because the leaders overtly or covertly approve of it. Rot in a fish starts from the head. The rest of the body is as good or bad as the head is. Pushing leadership responsibility to the followers is a failure of leadership. Followers take a cue from the leaders. Even when the initiative for a change comes from the followers as in the case of a people-led revolution, some members of the masses must still lead the change. It is all about leaders; nothing less, nothing else.


The problems with Nigerian leaders

While occasionally there appears a flash of good leadership in a few of those who occupy leadership positions in the country, the firmament is dominated by those who are ill-equipped for the positions they occupy.



The primary problem with Nigerian leaders is self-centeredness. To the average Nigerian leader, leadership is not about service but about self aggrandizement. Most of those who occupy or aspire to occupy leadership positions are driven by selfish motives. They do not see the platform as an opportunity to improve the lot of the people but an avenue to feather their own nest. Hence, everything they do once they ascend the position is focused on themselves. Legislators change the constitution to improve their own welfare at the detriment of the people. Those in the executive arm of government deploy security vote to servicing their own interests. The leaders are goaded by their greed leaving the state and the people poorer for it.

But as opined by Gerald Brooks, a leadership teacher and pastor, “When you become a leader, you lose the right to think about yourself.” This admonition means nothing to Nigerian leaders. Once they assume that position they think the world of themselves. This is evident in the fact that as soon as a political leader is sworn into office, he starts making plans for the next election. So, instead of working for the people, he starts to scheme to win the next election. Consequently, brainstorming for the good of the people will suffer and so will planning and execution. The result of all of that would be collapsed infrastructure and retrogression in the society.



Not only must leaders be unselfish, they must also be willing to make sacrifices as a result of the position they occupy. One of the marks of great leadership is sacrifice. Leadership is nothing without sacrifice. But this is bunkum to the average Nigerian leader. While leaders in other climes deploy their resources to birth a positive change in the lives of the people they lead, the average Nigerian leader is unwilling to sacrifice anything. Instead of making sacrifices, he wants to profit from the system. He wants to manipulate the system for his personal benefit.

Nelson Mandela is regarded as a global hero, not because he was behind the bars for 27 years, but principally because of the sacrifices he made to make his nation great. After being elected the President of South Africa, the Madiba set up the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to investigate crimes of the apartheid years. But his mission was not to retaliate. Rather, it was a move meant to help South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation. Instead of using his office to deal with his persecutors, he used it to forge cohesion in the country. While he was in office, he took time to visit the last Apartheid President, Pieter Botha; he was also with Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the brain behind apartheid. The Madiba was also a guest of Percy Yutar, the vindictive prosecutor who had tried to have him executed at the Rivonia Trial. Nigerian leaders would rather keep their perceived political enemies in the gulag than reconcile with them. They will not sacrifice the opportunity of evening things out with their opponents for the unity of the nation.

Then, after spending a term in office as President, Mandela opted not to run for a second term. The whole country wanted him to but he declined. He was 79 years by the time he completed his first term and handed over to his younger deputy, Thabo Mbeki.

Such is rare in Nigeria. Even when it becomes obvious that they are unable to perform their role as stipulated in the constitution, Nigerian leaders will still hold on tightly to office. They never consider it statesmanlike to make sacrifice for their country.


Not interested in continuous self development

Very few Nigerian leaders are interested in self-development. Although this is a general malaise in the country, leaders should be different. Leaders should make it a point of duty to develop themselves because what they know will determine what they can do. For a legacy-minded leader, self-development is sine qua non. One of the critical criteria for leadership is being ahead of others intellectually. This enhances the leader’s ability to solve problems. If a leader knows little, he will only be able to do little. If a leader knows much, he will also be able to do much. Leaders reproduce after their kind. A leader with an underdeveloped mind will only be able to lead his country into underdevelopment.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the former premier of the defunct Western Region, was unrepentantly committed to self development. He was so much in love with knowledge acquisition that there were not many topics under the sun that he could not discuss intelligently. This is why he was clearly ahead of his peers. Continuous learning makes a leader see farther than others. This is the reason he was able to see problems before they became manifest. This is why he was able to decipher that the best freedom anyone could have was, and still is, freedom of the mind, hence his commitment to the education of his people. That is why he was able to think of setting up a television station in 1959 when even France, a first world country, had yet to do the same.

For giving himself to intellectual matters, he became reflective rather than reflexive. This is a clear advantage of intellectualism. Developing the intellect delivers an individual from the tragedy of being a pawn in the hands of situations and circumstances. Being intellectually prepared saves a leader from the antics of opportunistic lieutenants or advisers. A leader that wants to make a positive impact must develop the ability of thinking through matters. Awo had this ability in abundance. So, rather than being driven by impulses, he was moved by convictions. Every project embarked upon by the administration led by Awo was targeted at investment. Every shilling spent was expected to yield a return. They were not throwing money at problems. They were not looking for quick fixes. They never allowed the urgent to drive them; they did only those things that they found very important after subjecting same to serious reflection.

But the tide is different now. Many of today’s leaders are moved by emotions. They hardly take time to reflect on issues before acting. Hence, their interventions never last the distance. This is a function of their intellectual shallowness.


They support nepotism

Nigerian leaders are inflicted by nepotism and they have also inflicted the nation with that. Most Nigerian leaders are clannish; they believe more in their tribes than they do in the nation. They promote regional and religious issues than they do national ones. They sacrifice merit on the altar of ethnic considerations. As a result, there has been a multiplicity of mediocrity in the land. This has retarded the nation’s growth.

Lee Kuan Yew, the man who turned Singapore into a developed country, abhorred nepotism with a passion. He went out of his way to bring to government best brains that were available in the country. He picked a first class team. He did not allow any other consideration, apart from the ability to deliver, to determine who he picked for what position. He took his time to select the best hands. It is then no wonder that success trailed everything his administration did.

Singapore is populated by a mixture of Chinese, Malaysians and other Asians with the Chinese in the majority. At a point in the country’s development, ethnicity became an issue. To tackle it, Yew, who was Chinese, legislated that nobody should make any reference to their ethnic origin. That ended the issue of ethnicity in the country. Nigerian leaders are not like that; they play the card of ethnicity and religiosity to gain personal advantage to the detriment of the nation.


They are not visionary

Many of Nigerian leaders live for the moment; they never think beyond what they can do or get immediately. Many state governors are into programmes that will yield result during their tenure. They do not want to embark on a programme that will be completed in the tenure of their successor so that the credit would not be for their successors. Because of their affliction with myopia, they fail to create opportunities for succeeding generations. Many of the leaders are beneficiaries of free education, but now education has become a luxury. Many of them enjoyed bursaries and scholarships as undergraduates, now those have become history. Many of them were offered employment even before the completion of their education, now that is a rarity.

At the 2012 Democratic Party’s National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Julian Castro, a former Mayor of San Antonio, who was the keynote speaker at the convention, gave an unforgettable speech.

After regaling the audience with the story of his grandmother, an orphan who had arrived in the USA with little education, Castro said the woman was able to see her only daughter through college because of the opportunities available in the country. With her college education, the daughter had a better life than her mother. And by extension, the life of Castro, a third generation immigrant who is now United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is an improvement on both his mother and grandmother’s lives because of the opportunities available in the country.

According to Castro, “America didn’t become the land of opportunity by accident. My grandmother’s generation and generations before always saw beyond the horizons of their own lives and their own circumstances. They believed that opportunity created today would lead to prosperity tomorrow. That’s the country they envisioned, and that’s the country they helped build. The roads and bridges they built, the schools and universities they created, the rights they fought for and won—these opened the doors to a decent job, a secure retirement, the chance for your children to do better than you did.”

Therein lies the difference between the USA and Nigeria; every generation creates opportunities for the succeeding one. That is why the American story keeps getting better one generation after the other. Contrariwise in Nigeria, every generation narrows the opportunities available to the succeeding one. That is why the glorious days in the country seem to be in the past. It is common in the country to refer to the past in glowing terms and the present in gloomy tones. This is because every succeeding generation is worse off than the preceding ones.


Changing the curve

The responsibility of changing the narrative from its present unpleasant tone rests squarely on the shoulders of the leaders. When the leaders are unflaggingly committed to doing what is right, they will have the moral courage to demand same from the people. Then the change will come.