Effective Leadership in Nigeria? It’s Power, my friend!

Tuesday, January 18, 2010

By Elimma C. Ezeani

A history of military rule with its flurried exchange of batons of power and a democracy beset with more challenges than hope, the Nigerian political scene is a perfect exhibit of power confused as leadership

A history of military rule with its flurried exchange of batons of power and a democracy beset with more challenges than hope, the Nigerian political scene is a perfect exhibit of power confused as leadership. The inability of the people to consolidate their desire for good governance and to present an articulate, non-negotiable mandate for a free and secure nation stems from that tacit agreement that the person with the power is the Messiah who must be obeyed and feared. In that sense, we concede that we are powerless in determining our own lives and acquiesce in our own subjugation by placing ourselves at the feet of the powerful to be trod over.

Is power necessarily bad? Do we not need powerful leaders? Should we not demand that those with access to power come and rule over us? Surely it is only the powerful who can take away our problems and who can destroy those other bad powerful people? In the face of threats to our personal lives, our response has always been – let the powerful man step up and rule over us! When the ruler makes life unbearable, we cry out again for another powerful person: Please come and save us! As we dance and celebrate the powerful from our hip-shaking and bottom-rolling adulations at our parties while we yell out as money is sprayed all around by powerful men and women, to the fear-filled agitations for the military powers to come and rule over us, or for Western powers to come and solve our problems, we are unable to see the damage our distortion of this potent value has done and continues to do to us individually, and as a nation.

A. Power and the Individual:

Believing that the greatest person is the person with power, the individual readily concedes that he is unable to achieve much until he also acquires power. Failing this, he is at the mercy of anyone else who can lord it over him. The corollary of course is that the individual though free is as Rousseau posited in his Social Contract truly, in chains. Predicating an existence on avoiding the corrupt excesses of the powerful further endangers any attempts in the development of the human potential. The individual is not preoccupied with making the best of life; he is preoccupied with preserving himself. It is back then to the brutal basics of human existence where what is paramount is survival against the odds. And the 21st century is not without its odds – global inequality, political and economic instability, financial insecurity, religious extremism, terrorism, extreme poverty, internal armed conflicts, etc. In Nigeria, the odds are just as real – social oppression, an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, kidnapping, abuse of power by the state security forces, administrative and bureaucratic incompetence, and most important, the time location in Nigeria’s march towards political stability – we are in a nascent democracy and the challenges overwhelm us.

Thus the Nigerian individual lives in perpetual fear of those in power all the while trying to arm himself with whatever he can to make him more powerful than he is already – education, the security of a job, marriage, business contacts, wealth. The real purpose of all his acquisitions and endeavour is nothing to do with the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and peace, but with the desperation to ensure that he survives in a world populated with people he deems more powerful than he is. His fervent prayer is that one day he will acquire power himself. It is also his self-delusion.

B. Power and the Armed Forces:

The barefaced abuse of power by state security forces such as the police in the first instance, whether at check points or in their failure to offer any succour to the citizens they purportedly serve is only possible because the citizen believes that the police is ‘powerful’. The power of the uniform and the gun means the police does not exist to protect the individual; the police is power to be feared. One can then understand the perplexing Stockholm syndrome type relationship of the people with the army in Nigeria. Years of the terrible retrogressions of military rule have only succeeded in confirming the idolisation of power and the ignorance (or self-induced amnesia) which military incursion into politics has inflicted on generations of Nigerians. The military’s purpose which is the security and defence of the territory of Nigeria is not understood as service which is what it ought to be, but as ready power – armed power to be called into play whenever we think the current power is not powerful enough. So the military come in with their guns and with the collusion of those civilians, who acquire power by association, bulldoze the people into submitting to their greater power – the power of weapons and a mentality ready to squash any opposition.

But power is a restricted value – its exercise is limited only to the ability of those who possess it and their capacity to induce fear. Therein is the weakness of military rule – it can only employ power in the way it is able to – in an attacking or defensive role, and it is only as strong as its opponents are weak. Armed power is unable to create enduring systems of governance; it is not equipped to incorporate individual contributions or to translate ideas into sustainable policies because it does not know how to do so. Armed power can follow orders and it can make orders but it cannot operate as a tool of governance over a people that are not afraid. Its ability to question orders and to analyse decisions for their relevance or potential efficacy is severely limited because that is not its usual modus operandi. Military power cannot negotiate freedoms; its calling is to defend against attack or, to attack another. It can however effectively rule as a dictatorship but its continuity even then rests only on its ability to obliterate the freedom of expression. A free people for a dictator, are a dangerous people; they are a threat to his power the allure of which he cannot relinquish.

Aside from the fact that it does not have enough personnel to do so, the ‘successes’ of the military regimes in Nigeria i.e. successes in keeping the country in motion, has only been done by the appointment of civilians – a classic monkey and organ grinder scenario which we fail to remember every time we call on the military or advocate for war as a solution to saving the country. When under the influence of anger and pain as in the face of pogroms, violence and terror-inducing attacks on innocent people, it is easy to grasp for an immediate solution. Asking for the powerful to step in and save us is an immediate solution – a more powerful person can immediately do what we who are powerless cannot do – employ power to destroy the present oppressor. Sun Tzu’s admonitions in The Art of War clearly warn against such descent into rationalising with one’s hearts and sentiments and not with strategic thinking with one’s head. Power in the wrong hands is dangerous. In the hands of the military already equipped with weapons of warfare and a mentality of attack and defence, it is an unholy injection of corruptibility into the ordered and disciplined ranks of men and women whose lifetime training of duty and service is just as easily distorted by the seductive appeal of irresponsibility and domination.

C. Power and the Country

What do Nigerians perceive leadership to be? It is a generalisation no doubt but we tend to see leadership as being about power in its raw form– the ability to dominate, to manipulate, to lord it over others. Our country is hardly seen as a country in the true sense of the word, as a land with diverse cultures and peoples; it is seen as an enclave. Our vision of Nigeria is rather myopic and narrow. We are unable to see its potential (apart from the irregular population counts, an ever-increasing number of ethnic nationalities and languages, and the barrels of oils contributing to our national GDP). When Nigerians look at Nigeria we see only 140+ million people, a fragmentation of tribes and the distrust amongst them, proliferation of languages, religious intolerance, the oil fields in the Niger Delta, and a society where only the most powerful are relevant. How do we expect Nigeria to be anything great when we cannot see beyond these limitations?

It is tragic that as we bemoan the colonial powers for amalgamating the northern and southern parts of the country in 1914, we fail to see beyond the difficulties in staying united and exacerbate our differences. Shouldn’t we ask instead: What potential did the colonial powers see in one Nigeria, and how did they harness this potential to build up their own empire until they relinquished control to us in 1960, more than forty years after the amalgamation and a full century after they first appeared on the shores of what was to become Nigeria? Today the fight is about the oil in the Niger Delta and its control. Contrary to popular opinion it is not only the North spearheaded by the individual lust for resource control however that is our problem. The South also is inordinately blinded by the appeal of the oil wealth, failing to realise that the threat of competition from emerging oil producing countries, research into alternative energy to decrease oil dependency especially from our main buyers in the West, the shift of investment to lower areas of oil exploration by the oil companies, and the inevitable drying up of the oil wells, is a real threat. Must the South wait till the oil wells dry up before it realises that there is a potential for the cocoa and cotton farms, the fish and vegetable farms or the groundnut pyramids?

While we define ourselves by our differences and thereby allow for the increasing polarisation of our communities by religious extremists, we ignore the strength in our unity. Rather than collectively work for a governance structure that exploits our potentials for greatness, we idealise a disengagement from the union merely for its temporal appeal, and even so without any clearly thought-out strategies for what will happen after our disintegration. The fact that it has been tried before on even stronger grounds than any at present with lasting dire consequences on our political and psychological landscape seems not to shock us into resisting a second attempt.

Unlike Shakespeare’s comment in As You Like It where he suggests that life is a stage and all men and women are merely players, our perception of our own country is that Nigeria is a stage and it is only the powerful who get to play – those who can strut their power and crush any opposition. This is why everyone wants to get their hand on the so-called national cake, and to become a permanent member of the ruling class. Unfortunately, even with civilians and under a democracy, the afflictions of power remain.

D. Power in a Democracy

The confusions of power with leadership are even more systemic in a democracy where the leader lacks the added power of the gun. Without the gun, the power resides in money and tyranny. Those who get into power are those with the money, those who can terrorise others into submission by any means possible, and those who can manipulate the power of opportunity. And when he succeeds, the leadership position is guilefully held up as a position of sacrifice. The person who thus sacrifices him or herself immediately occupies a moral high ground and must not be challenged: ‘I have abandoned my comfort in order to do something for you, so how can you question me?’

A quasi-cultural element rears its head here. Condemning such a person presents a moral and intellectual dilemma, much like a child criticising his parents, incidentally, an aberration across most if not all African societies. Since the sacrificing leader effectively limits the venom of criticism, he adopts a patriarchal (again, a largely African characteristic) attitude to his followers’ deference. He will use his power only  according to the dictates of his own conscience. There is no room for calm, logical, and collective consensus. It is not too difficult to understand the emotional disconnect by leaders in relation to their citizens therefore.

Where the leader derives his position on the benevolence of other powerful persons, there are serious repercussions to the public’s detriment. When he becomes a leader, those loans borrowed to support his decision to be a leader are repaid first to himself, and then to others by way of inflated government contracts, or job positions in public service. This latter means of repayment is ultimately disastrous for the polity; it removes the requisite independence of the public service who understand their loyalty to be to the person in power who appointed them to office and not as it should be, to the people for the common good. When the leader leaves, the government machinery he established leaves with him, and is immediately replaced with the paraphernalia of the next powerful man.

So what can be done to bring Nigeria into the 21st century in terms of political stability? Incidentally, it is only power again that can help, but this time, power in the hands of those who ought to have it – the power of the people.

E. Power of the People:

1. The Vote:  The vote is a powerful instrument with its foundations in the needs of the people for good governance.  If Nigerians wish to look to a future of political democratic stability, we must vote at the next, and at every election. For now, the promise of stability is real – the elections are not being organised by a military in the wings ready to pull the strings at an outcome they do not want. Granted, the track record of our nascent democracy is wobbly. Poor social welfare conditions, failure to establish necessary infrastructure from power generation to health facilities, insecurity from kidnapping and armed robbery to ethnic and religious clashes with bomb explosions killing many, our civilian experiment is in dire straits. These terrible incidences however should not blind us to the beauty of the democratic system : it places power in the hands of the people. If the people seize that power and year in year out, in the face of whatever explosions and political manipulations of exigencies by the greedy ambitions of those who lust for power, the system ultimately will weed out the tyrants and opportunists. But it is a system that must be passionately defended and protected. No stable democracy got to where it is without its own challenges and many who enshrined democracy in their countries never saw their hard work yield the fruit they worked for.

It is only democracy that allows for the people to state their wants and to make demands on their rulers. No other political system will tolerate the full expression of human rights and freedoms: the first thing the military does is to shut down any avenues of dissent from clamping down on the national press and other publications to making it impossible for creative artistes to carry out any work – why tolerate musicians who can sing against the government? It is democracy that can bring the promises of social welfare alive – education, housing, water, power, transport networks, wealth creation and distribution, security of lives and property. This is because it is a system that inevitably must place the people at the heart of its policies. Because it allows the ultimate human freedom, the freedom of expression, it is difficult to stay immune to the promptings of democracy – get involved in deciding your own fate!

No matter how long it takes, and it will take a long time (as it has in other countries where it survives), it will take lives, and it will make demands on many. To quote Machiavelli’s The Prince out of context (considering the Prince was a model of a dictator), the end justifies the means. So long as people have the freedom to decide they want a better life for themselves, democracy will eventually make it difficult for extremists, corrupt bureaucrats, and mediocrity to thrive. To give up on democracy and the power of the vote is an insanity we must prevail against.

2. Citizenship and Education: This is the herculean task which falls to all of us. From schools to market places, we need to know our civic rights and responsibilities and to educate those who don’t. We need to know our history and the political history of the countries whose political structures we emulate. We need to acknowledge our differences but to emphasise the things we hold in common– our desire for good governance and individual freedoms. Should we not have copies of our Constitution and its fundamental rights and freedoms accessible to all Nigerians in whatever language they speak? Why call for a Sovereign National Conference when the people have no idea of what they should be discussing at such a conference? It is a pity that it is those who lust for power understand and exploit the harm of an ignorant populace – what the people do not know they have as an inalienable right, they cannot demand.

The people must recognise that they hold the power to their freedom from oppression, terrorism, religious extremism, and political wrangling at their expense. The people must make their demands to the rulership: articulated needs and concerns by the society which ought to be the social contract between the leaders and their citizens. Sadly, this is not the case in Nigeria where it is the leader who presents a list of promises which the citizen hopes will be met. This premise for good governance is fundamentally flawed. The people must be able to recognise their primary needs and wants; those requirements essential for humane living (for not every need and want is essential for the common good and not all can be readily satisfied). What there is no shortage of however is criticism of the promises and agenda of politicians without any cogent demands made by the people. This leaves it open for leaders to exploit this inadequacy in the leadership model – rather than a contractual relationship, a benevolent relationship is assumed. The citizen having not made any prior demands is effectively powerless; he continues to shout himself hoarse about injustice to no effect: without a consensus ad idem, the leader owes him nothing.

3. Ideas, Vision, and the Resilience of Hard work: Three things are always undervalued in Nigeria: ideas, vision and hard work. Our national terrain is replete with shoddy work and ill-conceived projects. Insistence on quality is considered a waste of time and money, perseverance in difficult situations (apart from when we voluntarily resign to things we find too difficult to solve which is just about anything tough and challenging) is mocked as stupidity, and time spent in reflection and analysis is dismissed as star-gazing. If only we had more star-gazers! The thing with good ideas of course is that they are hardly ever the products of impulse, instincts, sentiments, emotions, or arm-chair postulations. Neither are strategic policies founded on as is common to us, knee-jerk reactions of daily chattering sessions, hearsay assertions, text-book induced theories whose origins and applications we neither understand nor can analyse, the stale logic of anyone who is either older or more powerful than us or, the suffocating opinion of the person who can shout the loudest.

Good ideas are none of these. They are the products of deep reflection. They are based on hard, empirical evidence, the pursuit of which is in truth, tasking. We always opt for the path of least resistance mistakenly assuming this is the right path: Why not throw money at our problems? Why not ask powerful people to take over rather than labour to build the foundations for a stable democracy? Why work for the long term when we can easily compromise for the short term?

This attitude belittles us. It makes us infantile and juvenile and the world knows it. They know that we are not willing to work tenaciously and that we will always buckle under challenges. They know and can smell our fear and our impulsiveness. Remarkably, they know that we have a very poor understanding of what makes a country great. They know that we have a superficial grasp of the fact that even in the most peaceful developed countries, there is ethnic distrust, cultural differences, and harsh political and religious divides and that these things cannot topple a sound system of governance. They understand that we know little of global politics not to mention of our own history and they are aware that we are easily seduced by our impulses and by the promises made by powerful people, both in and outside the country.

We need to become people of observation and analysis who respond to events not on the basis of our impulses but relying on long reflections borne out of deep thought. This latter mode of response to events takes the injunction, ‘live for the moment’ to an absurd extreme. We, especially the products of our numerous higher educational institutions must become a nation of positive thinkers, a people with vision. We must develop and inculcate in ourselves and in our children, the habits of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (and the Eight Habit) developed by Stephen Covey in his works on the same topic.

Often we presume that where the West for example the USA responds to an incident immediately it happens, the US President has only just thought up a solution. This is a gross misunderstanding. There is more time and money spent by advanced societies on making projections into the future and on seeking for solutions to events that have not happened including providing alternative scenarios to imaginary circumstances from science to religion, from the outlandish possibilities of an alien invasion to the threats of a global war of terror or even a WW III. Our patterns of thought and analysis must be along these lines. It is not enough to grasp obvious suggestions as solutions without subjecting them to rigorous analysis based on a study of past events and a projection into the future.

4. Encouraging Reformers and Inspirational leaders: Contrary to our belief that those who have done something good or noble in a particular area of human endeavour or in their execution of their work must be political office holders, social reform is not actually a task that must be executed by a person with political powers. Granted, it is possible to have a political power who becomes also, a social reformer. Britain’s William Gladstone was Prime Minster four times, one of the country’s longest serving politicians who also managed to advocate for the social welfare of poor young women who often ended up working as prostitutes. Yet many of the great names of social reform did not occupy political leadership positions before they did their greatest works, from Ghandi to Wilberforce, from Martin Luther King Jnr to Mother Teresa, from our own Gani, Soyinka, Ojukwu, to South Africa’s Steve Biko. The Great Mandela himself did his greatest work as a political activist.

We also have reformers in Nigeria today from public servants to class room teachers, academics and business people; men and women who rather than be encouraged to carry on doing work which transforms the society for good are pestered and distracted until they cease their good efforts. If we like them we insist that they become political leaders. If we dislike them we hound them out of office. We have not learnt that a political leader cannot do everything; that when we let the people with ideas and strategies go, we rob ourselves of the expertise required to build up the various aspects of social welfare around the country from the health to the financial sector, from education and agriculture to transport, communication, welfare, and national security.

5. Collective Civic Responsibility: Ultimately, a stable political system depends on how much we want it. Do we have a passion for it? It is not enough to coast along through life, complaining about problems while making sure to mind our business as long as we are not harmed by the injustice in the society until a problem affecting us arises and then we start running helter-skelter for immediate and temporal solutions. A huge part of our problems is that we do not employ the weapons at our disposal – the weapon of a collective civic responsibility. If we want to eradicate bribery and corruption, we should refuse to give or receive bribes. If we want to gain things by merit, we should insist on hard work. If we want to eradicate tyranny, we should stop applauding the tyrants. If we want the police to work for us, we should force them to work for us. If we want to eradicate religious extremism, we must make it difficult for those who stoke the fires of our differences to spread their terrors. Again only the benefits of democracy can do this. It is easier to fan the flames of extremism in places where poverty, absence of education, social oppression, and a detachment from the national polity exist.

Underneath our unproductive rhetoric and constant vacillations between condemning the corrupt excesses of power by our leaders and searching for the next powerful leader whether in khaki or in civilian clothes, we sink under the burden of fear and suffer the repercussions of knee-jerk reactions, lack of strategies, and the absence of critical thinking. A strong enduring political system where the voice and welfare of the people prevails is only possible if we are passionate and intelligent about how we the people can harness our power to entrench it. It is only our endurance (not resignation, detachment, violence, or ill-conceived and lazy options no matter how militant we make them sound) that can win us and the future generations of Nigerians, our lives.

Dr Elimma Ezeani is Lecturer-in-Law at Aberdeen Business School in Scotland