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Nigeria suffers from acute crises of leadership and followership

It would be simplistic to say that running a country is not rocket science. It can be complex. Yet, human government is about the ability of human beings, not celestial angels, to govern in a way that guarantees stability, generates prosperity and increases general welfare. Thus, the quality of a country’s governance is directly proportional to the quality of its people.

David Hume made this point powerfully in his treatise: “Of the Jealously of Trade” (1758). He argued that with specially endowed resources and geniuses, no nation should lack manufactured goods to export, adding that “and if, notwithstanding these advantages, they lose such a manufacture, they ought to blame their own idleness, or bad government; not the industry of their neighbours”. In other words, Hume was saying that every country’s greatest assets are its people, and that the quality of a country’s economic and political governance depends on the quality of its people.

But when we talk of “people”, we must, in the context of governance, divide them into leaders and followers. Here, leaders are those with the power and authority to run a country, and followers are the governed. Now, my first point is that both leadership and followership are critical to the success of any country; my second point is that, sadly, both have failed utterly in Nigeria. This country has acute and chronic problems of leadership and followership. Let’s start with leadership.

Centuries ago, the ancient philosopher Cicero wrote about how to run a government, and one of his principles is that “those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land”. He argued 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”. Plato addressed the same issue in The Republic. He argued that each political community has three principal functions: to ensure that it is governed well, that it is adequately protected, and that it can sustain itself in material terms. The task of a society, he posited, is to allocate citizens to each of these three functions. But how? Well, Plato said the strongest should protect the nation (that is, form its military arm); those with the greatest artistic and technical abilities should provide for it (that is, run businesses, etc), and “those with the most intelligence should rule it”. So, 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.

Given Buhari’s appalling performance in his first term, he shouldn’t have been re-elected. Of course, his victory was by default because his main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, was not liked in the North and not trusted in the South.

This is where followership comes in. For in a democracy, it is the duty of citizens to protect against bad leadership by making sure that only those with the necessary intelligence and ability are elected into political offices. Sadly, in Nigeria, the citizens don’t perform this critical duty of followership. They rarely elect competent people into political offices, and yet, after every election, they spend the next four years complaining bitterly about bad leadership even though their action or inaction facilitated it.

Recently, someone tweeted the following about President Buhari: “National unity – failed; economy – failed; security – failed; rule of law – failed; human rights – failed”, adding, “What’s Buhari doing in Aso Rock please?” Yet, this is a president who was re-elected for a second term with 15,191,847 votes and 56% of the total votes. I couldn’t help replying to the tweet. “How did he manage to secure a second term?” I asked, quoting Joseph de Maistre, “Every nation gets the government it deserves” and George Carlin, “Ignorant citizens elect ignorant leaders”!

Let’s face it, how many of President Buhari’s most vociferous critics on social media and elsewhere voted in last year’s election? In the whole country, only 27m people, out of the 82m registered voters, about 34%, voted. In the South, where Buhari was deemed to be unpopular, most people didn’t vote, with the turnout being less than 25%. Indeed, in Lagos State, only 18.5% of the 5.5m people who collected the Permanent Voter Card voted.

Given Buhari’s appalling performance in his first term, he shouldn’t have been re-elected. Of course, his victory was by default because his main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, was not liked in the North and not trusted in the South. But there were competent candidates in last year’s presidential election – people like former deputy Central Bank governors, Obadiah Mailafia and Kingsley Moghalu – that should have done better in the election if Nigerians really cared about competent leadership. Yet, Mailafia, who came a distant fourth nationally, secured a miniscule 97,874 (0.36% of the total votes) and Moghalu got an inconsequential 21,886 (0.08%)!

Recently, in a bizarre interview, 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?” Clearly, to Ngige, someone who was a former deputy governor of Central Bank of Nigeria and has considerable international exposure must still “carry politics bag and learn from his master” before he can become president of Nigeria. In other words, it’s not possible for a Barrack Obama or an Emmanuel Macron, people who break the mould of the old patrimony, to emerge as president in Nigeria.

But it’s not the views of people like Ngige that should matter. What do Nigerians at large think or want? Do they want visionary and competent leaders? Even if people like Moghalu and Mailafia didn’t win last year’s election but secured millions of votes, it would have sent powerful signals that the people wanted, as Cicero and Plato prescribed, one of Nigeria’s best and brightest or one of its most intelligent to run the country. But they failed that critical test of followership.

Yet visionary and competent leaders matter. In their report on state fragility, Professors Paul Collier of Oxford University and Tim Besley of the London School of Economics said that leaders need three tools to transform their countries. These are narratives, actions and institutions. But only visionary and competent leaders can effectively deploy these tools. Take narratives. Good leaders are first-and-foremost communicators; they inspire the people through good narratives about a shared prosperous future. But it takes a visionary leader, a leader with great ideas, to use the right narratives to inspire and mobilise the people. Sadly, Nigeria has never been governed by a visionary leader.

Then take the second tool: actions. Narratives are not enough; they must be matched with credible actions, that is, policies. But only competent leaders, those with high intelligence, can take the right actions or develop the right policies to move a country forward. Has Nigeria been governed by any of its best and brightest? Again, sadly, no!

What about the third tool, institutions? Professors Collier and Besley said: “Good leaders change policies, but great leaders build institutions”. Of course, they are right. But where are the great leaders to build institutions in Nigeria? For instance, it takes an intelligent leader to know that Nigeria can’t make progress with its deeply flawed politico-governance structure and, thus, must be restructured. But where are such leaders? None, so far!

All of which brings us back to followership. It takes the citizens to elect the right leaders, and it takes them to put pressure on leaders to perform. Every country needs a critical mass of enlightened citizens, who are censorious and can act as a checking mechanism on bad leadership. Sadly, Nigeria doesn’t have such citizenry. Instead, it has passive, compliant and alienated citizens. Nigeria’s deep crisis of leadership is worsened by its deeper crisis of followership. Little wonder progress eludes it!

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