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Nigeria as I see it: Reflections on the challenge of leadership


Author: Uma O. Eleazu

Date of First/Current Edition: 2020.

Price: Paperback N20,000 and Hardcover N25,000.

Genre: Political History/Biography

Subject Matter: Nigerian Leadership Challenge, ‪1900-2020‬.

Page: 418.

Publishers: Green and Cherished Ltd. 1 Dada Oni St. Igbo Oluwa Estate, Ikorodu, Lagos State. Email: [email protected], phone: ‪01 892 5908‬, ‪080 2460 4515‬ and ‪070 5872 4224‬.

Reviewer: Chigachi Eke; Email: [email protected], phone: ‪081 3515 9313‬.

Uma O. Eleazu was born in Asaga town of Ohafia in Igboland, Nigeria. He earned his Doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, the US, after studying in the United Kingdom. In 1954 he was Polling Clerk in Abakiliki under F. J. Ellah during the Eastern Regional Election. Having served his country in different capacities as university teacher, national policy adviser to the Murtala/Obasanjo government and Chairman of Pipeline Product Marketing Board, he contested the presidency of Nigeria in 1991 under the Social Democratic Party, SDP.

His “Nigeria as I See It: Reflections on the Challenge of Leadership” is the story of one man’s triumph from the relative obscurity of traditional Igbo democratic-gerontocracy, overshadowed by the British Empire, to eminence. In this eventful journey he captured the tragedy of post-colonial Nigeria that moved in the opposite direction. Though a distinguished statesman, brilliant scholar and family man, he feels unfulfilled as a citizen of Nigeria. As a participant-observer, in Uduma O. Kalu’s words in the Foreword, in Project Nigerian, his frustration is a true reflection of the Nigerian oddity; which basically is leadership failure that leaves its mark on his generation, “I feel Nigeria’s failure as a personal failure as, in fact, most of my generation do…. Nigerians of my generation were wasted in the sense that we were the people trained to take this country to its potential, but a cocktail of events conspired to deny us the opportunity to do so” (p.13).

To demonstrate how these events imposed on Nigeria poor leadership, he formulates three arguments: (a) He examines the personalities of three of our founding fathers or nationalists, namely, Dr Nnamdi (Zik) Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello, who led Nigeria to political independence (b) How real was esprit de corps among the military officers that toppled the nationalists? and (c) He did a critical analysis of our traditional, or what he calls “native,” institutions suppressed by the colonialist and the new, or “alien,” ones favoured to replace them.

It is only after sifting through these purities and impurities that “We will then be able to ask whether it is the people or the institutions that were at fault” (p.30).

Critique of Founding Fathers

Normative ethics explores the right way political leadership should go about exercising power not to alienate the followership. He defines a leader as a goal-oriented entity with ‘innate ability to visualize the future, assemble resources needed to achieve desired goals, and motivate the people to join him or her in the journey to a new future. He must understand the systems and processes that produce result” (p.3).

He examines how the personalities of the three nationalists impacted negatively on Nigerian unity. His argument is that laws do not operate themselves but depends on humans for enforcement and this is where attitude and motive count. A bad law in the hands of a sympathetic leader yields positive result even though an intolerant leader will employ a good law to defeat the finest principles of the social contract.

There can only be a leader within the context of a follower. A valid leader commits to the expectations of the follower. Without one the other ceases to be in a true Hegelian tradition. The two have their respective needs but, subconsciously, each needs the other to realise his envisaged self:

“Thus, leaders engage potential followers by creating in the minds of the people a congruence of the needs and wants of the leader on the one hand and those of the would-be followers on the other. Furthermore, when leaders are able to dive deeper to unearth the needs of the followers that lie at the subconscious level and to bring these to the level of communal consciousness, an ‘Aha moment!’ is created for the followers; that instance of leadership becomes revelatory, something like a great and novel awakening. Such moments often help to bring leaders and followers into a bond not easily broken” (pp. 20-21).

Unfortunately, the three nationalists failed in understanding the unspoken, and even spoken, needs of their followers, especially their regional minorities. They also failed to understand one another making unity of purpose impossible. Although they talked about “unity in diversity, their inability to reconcile their ideological and ethnic differences made mockery of Nigerian federation:

“Zik had an idea of a strong, united country where all citizens would be equal and free, leading other African nations to form an even greater and stronger black country- the kind of unity in the United States of America. His views and utterances showed him as a pan-Africanist. Awolowo would have liked a strong nation whose strength was drawn from the nationalities that make up Nigeria; he would rather have a strong base at home (Nigeria) rather than venturing into pan-African politics (at least not in the early years of independence). Bello (the Sardauna) saw the unity and oneness of Nigeria in the theocratic terms with Islam at the center…. His idea of ‘North for Northerners, East for Easterners, West for Westerners, and Nigeria for all’ did not quite sit well with the idea of common nationality implied in common citizenship” (p. 287).

Their intolerance created avoidable exclusion, tension and resultant violence. The Eastern and Western minorities were disaffected; just as minority Tivs of the Northern Region were at war with Bello with Joseph Tarka in prison. This untenable situation moved the military to oust the three from power as there was no love lost between the nationalists and military.

Critique of Nigerian Military

Eleazu’s detailed account of the evolution of Nigerian military leaves the reader in no doubt that this institution, a derivation of colonial conquistador army, was concocted for the sole purpose of securing the British economic interests. While negotiating with the nationalists for Nigerian independence, the British was also preparing the Sandhurst-trained officers to topple the nationalists after independence should the latter turn left wingers.

Esprit de corps was there quite alright but the author argues that the military officers that seized power on 15th January 1966 and beyond were far from being united as they fraternised in different ideological circles:

“As would be expected, those who became officers after university education had a different outlook on the role of the military in national life than those officers, like Ironsi and Ogundipe, who were not graduates but worked their way through the ranks before being commissioned as officers. Those who joined the army from secondary school had a longer period of military indoctrination into their roles than the graduates who came through the ‘short service’…. While the graduate soldiers were somehow suspect because of their tendency to show off their academic learning, the regulars were proud infantry men. So…there were these three classes of commissioned officers; although they had not gone to the level of forming secret societies as in Latin America, they certainly moved in different circles off duty” (p.132).

The ideological circle of the 15th January coupists comprised mainly of officers who joined the military after their university education. In January 1966, the army had six graduates, namely, Lt-Cols Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Victor Banjo; and Majors Olufemi Olutoye, Adewale Ademoyega, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Oluwole Rotimi. Three or four of them were involved “conceptually or physically” in the coup. They must have been exposed to Marxism at some point in their studies.

The military was also permeated with the same parochial tribal “solidarity group orientation” seen among politicians. The resultant effect was mutual suspicion as “one’s actions and motives were judged by others, first through the lens of their solidarity relations before any other considerations” (His emphasis, p. 133).

The military wasted no time plunging Nigeria into a brutal civil war condemned by Professor Wole Soyinka as a war of solidity that only reinforced those factors that gave rise to it in the first place. One of such factors is corruption that became institutionalised under military rule:

Indeed, war can be big business. Non-combatants among the leadership class joined in, the top civil servant became civil masters who had in their hands power to make one rich or poor, simply by giving out one kind of supply contract or withdrawing patronage from another…. Gradually a culture of get-rich-quick replaced the culture of merit, excellence and integrity in public affairs…. By the end of the civil war, both civil servants, soldier-politicians, officers, and men in uniform, had lost the ethic of service to country, and became worse than the rapacious politicians they replaced (pp.‪177-178‬).

Critique of State Institutions

The modern African state loses steam at every given time due mainly to little talked about structural defect. While a colony its traditional or “native” institutions like kingship, democratic-gerontocracy, ancestral worship, communal land ownership, etc, were suppressed. Alternate Western or “alien” ones like the court of justice, electoral system, military, etc, were favoured to replace them. Indigenous foods were also outlawed as “illicit” for imported ones.

The hunger ravaging Africa today is not by accident. Under colonialism Africans were forced to abandon food crops cultivation for cash crops needed by factories in Europe. Rubber, cocoa, palm oil, groundnut, cotton, etc, were grown in plantations in vast arable land originally used for maize, cassava, yam, vegetable and plantain cultivation. With political independence, our leaders were not creative enough to revert to food crops production leading to perpetual famine.

As long as the colonialist was around, the alien institutions worked like magic. With political independence, however, the pendulum swung to the opposite end as they were depleted and deliberately bastardised by the politicians:

“As both government and opposition splintered and recombined to splinter again, all the institutions of democracy, including the electoral commission, judiciary and the civil service, were undermined, if not destroyed. It was most pronounced in the case of the electoral commission; its officers could not be trusted to conduct a credible election and electioneering campaigns were conducted in the language of warfare. Trust and confidence in the system failed woefully” (p. 291).

As colonialism destroyed our traditional institutions that held us together; political independence also destroyed whatever institutions planted by the colonialist to foster national unity leaving us marooned in the middle of nowhere. A rudderless Nigeria was a vulnerable one as no meaningful governance could be sustained. Neither here nor there, the business of state suffered leading to the failure alluded to by the author.

At the end of his inquest, Eleazu tends to hold Nigerian leaders accountable for the systemic rot. The constitution, one of such alien institutions inherited from the colonialist, was treated with impunity by the ruling class, “When we treat our Constitution as trash, any wonder we have acts of impunity which simply means no rule of law. Without rule of law, there can be no justice or good governance and that is where corruption finds fertile ground” (p. 274).

In conclusion, at 94 the author confesses his lack of energy to right things. He implores the younger generation to learn from the mistake of his generation and rescue Nigeria from the troubled waters it found itself, “They should join Nigeria’s ruling class and help in steering the country from the protruding rocks that have imperiled it since the birth of the nation…. They can make Project Nigeria a success; and it is on them that I now anchor my dreams” (p. 342).