“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership”, wrote Chinua Achebe in his 1983 book “The Trouble with Nigeria” . Much of the country nodded in agreement then. In the thirty-six years since, much has been said about Nigeria’s leadership problems. Yet little has changed on this front. So, what gives here? Considering the systemic causes of Nigeria’s leadership conundrum have been repeatedly analysed, perhaps we can shed some light from another angle by discussing leadership’s twin –power– in the Nigerian context.
All leadership involves the exercise of power. To understand why leadership is practised a particular way in a particular society, it is thus worth examining its prevalent attitudes to power. Power can be understood as the capacity to shape the behaviour of others by providing or withdrawing resources and administering punishments. We should not, however, associate power solely with governments or billionaires, but recognize it is a phenomenon shaped by millions of everyday interactions in society.
Most human relationships contain a power dynamic, be it parent and child, employer and employee, client and corporation, teacher and student, husband and wife, and so forth. Power is relational and contextual. Its resources, be they economic, military or other, must be relevant to the motivations of a power-recipient for the power-wielder to maintain a relationship advantage. If you put a president and a suicide bomber in one room, who do you think has the power to shape whose behaviour? Or imagine a rich male CEO in a relationship with an averagely-paid female nurse. Surely, the man has all the power, right? Now imagine he is madly in love with her while she is not really that into him. Does that not change the power dynamics between them?
Power’s relational dynamics differ across societies. There is a concept in cultural studies known as “power distance.”This measures the extent to which power inequalities are accepted as unavoidable, legitimate and functional in a society. This matters because it reveals to what degree the less powerful members of a society, always the majority, expect and accept unequal distributions of power. This in turn shapes views on how individuals with differing levels of powers should interact.
Based on responses, Nigerians score high (80) on what is known as the Hofstede Power Distance Index. This signals a strong propensity in Nigerian society to accept a hierarchical order with significant power inequalities that require no justification. Of course, there are significant numbers of Nigerians whose views on power deviate strongly from the norm and who question hierarchies. But it is majority attitudes that shape society-scale power dynamics, not minority views.
So, what do societies like Nigeria which score high on the Power Distance Index tend to expect from their leaders and how do they envisage their relationship with them? First of all, they believe authority figures should be shown significant respect and deference in contrast to low power distance cultures who treat leaders much less reverently. They believe power hierarchies reflect inherent human inequalities and view powerful individuals as possessing superior qualities. If not, how did they manage to get where everyone else wants to be, goes the logic. Those with less power tend to accept their place in the hierarchy, defer judgments to leaders and instinctively obey authority. Social progress in gender equality or human rights is hampered in such societies as the tendency is to conform to traditional social roles, maintaining the status quo. Organizations will tend to be centralized, with participative decision-making and consultative leadership rare.
In such societies, those higher up often shout on those lower down. These public displays of anger, while sometimes spontaneous, are also deliberately used to reinforce the power hierarchy, reminding everyone who the superior is in the relationship. Followers closely observe the behavioural nuances of leaders as they consider them people to learn from and mimic. Hence, the average Nigerian employee can read Oga’s mood from the briefest of glances at his facial expression. “Ah, Oga is in a bad mood today o! Better don’t annoy him. Did you see his face this morning?” Leaders are expected to be paternalistic in such societies. According to the Hofstede model, high power distance societies consider the benevolent autocrat the ideal leader. Unsurprisingly, there tend to be fewer checks and balances on power in such countries.
Three important points. First of all, there are societies similar or even higher than Nigeria in the power distance spectrum that are successful. These include countries like China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and United Arab Emirates. Hence, being a high power distance society does not prevent the creation of an efficient ruling class. Importantly, some of these societies are vibrant democracies, like India and Indonesia, though the most successful ones tend to be governed autocratically.
Second, ideas and values are not constant in any society; they respond to circumstantial changes. An overly-deterministic view of Nigerian society presuming the attitudes to power of today will be the attitudes of tomorrow would be a mistake. New generations decide what to keep of the cultural repertoires they inherit from the past. Changes in Nigerian attitudes to power are already visible.
Social media has enabled young folk publicly question power practises ranging from patriarchy to the exploitation of religion in a manner impossible when I was growing up in 1990s Nigeria. Back then, public debate was largely limited to platforms controlled by those who ran the country. No longer. The time is coming when not just powerful Nigerians, but the norms of power in Nigeria, will be challenged by those fed up of living in a society whose powerful seem incapable of delivering a functional state.
That said, I think it might also be time for some deep soul-searching on why Nigerian society throws up the kind of leaders it does at present. Leaders are the products of the beliefs of their followers. Nigeria’s leaders are rarely people who have inherited power or taken it (primarily) via violence; rather, they have often risen up society’s ranks, often from humble beginnings and they often enjoy significant popular support. As mentioned earlier, the systemic foundations of the emergence of Nigeria’s current ruling class have been well-documented. But aside that, they are clearly fulfilling certain, perhaps often subconscious, societal expectations of power. Either those expectations change rapidly and widely, or we figure out how to produce an efficient governing class realistically factoring in current dominant attitudes to power. I don’t see a third option here.