In Search of Leadership (2): Restoring Hope by Avoiding Breakdown By Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai

Nasir El Rufai
Nasir El Rufai

In the light of the historic challenges that have been become part of our polity, is it easy to restore hope once lost? Certainly not, but transformational leadership for Nigeria can begin the long process. From my modest experience spanning a decade in public service, I am convinced that almost any human being can excel when a visionary, disciplined and goal oriented leader is visible to set examples – a transformational leader. Conversely, almost anyone – however competent or well-meaning can be a failure under an unfocused, corrupt and immoral leader – a transactional leader. It really all boils down mostly to quality of leadership. As the common proverb says, ‘fish starts to get rotten from the head’.

Another issue is the fact that human beings are by nature strategic, and thermometers, will adjust their behaviour to conform to the leaderships and their environment. So, to change their behaviour we have to change the quality and style of our nation’s leadership, and put in place a clear regime of rewards (for merit and good conduct) and sanctions (for poor performance and misconduct). There is simply no other way to develop a well-ordered, rules-driven and progressive society. The symptoms of Nigeria’s problems are many but the cure would begin with just one thing – good leadership by example.

Coming back to the present, what we all need to do is to study history and learn from our past. We would see that at the point where Nigeria begins to make progress at good governance, human progress and social justice based on hard work, patience and sacrifice, suddenly, from nowhere, there comes a false messiah to offer the people relief and immediate gratification (like ‘fresh air’) which then stifles national growth. Since those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, our task is to learn from the mistakes of 2007-2012, and avoid being deceived by transactional leaders who will only end up making Nigeria poorer even where we have the natural and human resources to attain a reasonable standard of living for all – not just a declining minority of our people.

Such false messiahs are easy to identify – usually they have had no proper education, no profession, no national exposure beyond their narrow provincial circle and no track record of performance in public service. They have also never run businesses employing people, neither have they any known source of income to justify their clear opulence and high standards of living other than being in low-paying public service jobs! These are the sort of “leaders” we must never have in the future.

We need a paradigm shift in leadership identification, nurturing and selection – something new and something different. We need to throw up political platforms and candidates with the knowledge, skills and proven record of performance and integrity in public service to transform our nation. It is my humble view that we should scrutinize all those that offer themselves for leadership bearing in mind at least the following parameters:

1.     Education, Experience and Pedigree are Necessary but not Sufficient

Though our first two university graduate presidents disappointed all except their villages, family and close friends, we must not write off educational attainment as a necessary indicator of leadership effectiveness. Experience that is relevance to governance – in managing resources, administering large, complex organizations, and mobilizing our nation’s diversity into inclusive strength matters. The schools a prospective leader attended, the alumni network he can tap on demand, his elders, family and friends that can look him in the eye and say “do not let us down because you represent us” all contribute to the pressure needed to make a leader perform with integrity.

2. Search for Team Players not Lone Rangers

The burden of governance in a diverse, ‘post-conflict’ nation like Nigeria requires more than one good person, however intelligent, competent and well-meaning. A strong, competent and cohesive team, not a single “strongman” is needed to transform a nation not in one or two election cycles but several. Only a team with clear succession planning can implement a long term vision that transforms nations. It takes a generation to move any country from Third World to First like Japan (LDP, 50 years), Malaysia (Mahathir and UMNO – 25 years) Singapore (Lee Kwan Yew, 33 years), Botswana (BPP, 35 years) and China (Deng Xiao Ping, CCP, 35 years and counting), and only a dedicated team sharing a common vision across parties and platforms can do it.

3.     Bold, Courageous Leaders with Clear Vision

Transformational leaders are bold and courageous. They envision and see what appears impossible to others, and persuade the followers that it is not only possible but attainable, outlining practical steps to realize the vision. Imagine meeting the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum 30 years ago and listening to his vision for converting his desert city wasteland to modern day Dubai. You would probably laugh and tag him unrealistic at best, or insane at worst – but Al-Maktoum persuaded his cabinet and citizens to believe and achieve this vision in less than a generation. That is the power of visionary leadership   – bold, courageous but realistic and realizable.

4.     Democrats in Words, Actions and Practice

It is one thing for aspiring leaders to talk repeatedly about democracy, but another to practice it. We should scrutinize our leaders’ words, actions and practices to ensure that there are no disconnects between all three. People driven by the politics of personal interest and primitive accumulation do not believe in democracy nor are they capable of practicing it in governance. They neither believe in social justice and equal opportunity for citizens. By nature, they are capricious and seek to exercise power singularly for private accumulation, not for general welfare, service and public good. They therefore have no regard for people capable of independent thought, merit and performance, so they inadvertently put blind loyalty above the Constitution.

5.     Public Service Skills and Performance

Public service experience particularly at Federal level is essential for effective future public leadership at that level. Similarly, any person aspiring to leadership at state or local government level ought to show some understanding of, experience in and exposure to that level of governance. Private sector success helps but is not a conclusive indicator of future public sector performance. In any case, there is a huge difference between the skill sets required for politics and governance because often persons that get a government elected are not the best persons to help it govern.

6.     Strong, Dedicated Advisers and Inner Circle

There is a Nigerian proverb which translated is “there is no wicked ruler without wicked advisers”. Effective leaders usually have a team of advisers that are brighter, more experienced and exposed than they are. Self-confident leaders identify their personal skills and experience gap and choose staff to furnish what is missing. A leader, however brilliant, who is surrounded by an inner circle of insecure, incompetent and mediocre people, often comes to grief. A leader, whose family is unable to keep away from affairs of state, and thereby fail to keep him grounded to the realities of leadership, often goes astray.

7.     Bridging Regional and Religious Divides

Nigeria’s diversity, history and recent experiences require leaders that build bridges across our genders, ethnic groups, regions and religions. No one should be elected to national leadership unless by expressions, actions and practices that have shown this capacity not to discriminate, but to unite, integrate and include every Nigerian of whatever background in his inner circle, comfortably. Careful scrutiny of the track record of any prospective leader in his or her past public and private life would show how diversely they recruited their staff, picked advisers and made decisions on siting of projects and programs. This principle can be applied to aspirants even seeking office at state and local government levels in a careful and discerning manner.

  1. 8.     Recognition for the Imbalance in our Federalism

Nigeria’s federal structure exists only in the official name of our nation. Years of administrative centralization by the military has created distortions and imbalances in our federalism. This needs to be recognized by our prospective leaders. We must raise this debate on federal imbalance to put on hold the senseless quest for the creation of more states, demand the  legislation of State and Federal crimes and cause the amendment of our Constitution to enable States and Local Governments establish community-level security agencies to address our disparate internal security needs. We must encourage inter-state competition by devolving more powers and responsibilities to lower tiers of government and reducing the scope and scale of Federal encroachment into the daily lives of our citizens.

The leadership parameters listed above are derived from limited experience and detached observation and therefore neither exhaustive nor silver bullets. As in everything in human affairs, there will be exceptional persons that may not meet all the requirements listed and still turn out to be effective. However, assuming that will be relying on chance – those ‘divine interventions’ that we pray and wait for instead of taking our destiny in our hands. I am a firm believer of the saying that “fate is what God gives you, and destiny is what you do with it.”

It is time for Nigerians to stop passing the buck to God, or waste energy on the needless blaming of everyone other than ourselves or those we like. By failing to stand up to resist bad rulers, we abdicated our destinies to the shameless criminals that permeate our political space and the public service. Our fate is the endowment that God gave us. It cannot be our destiny to continue to have bad leaders by selection or election. It is time to say ‘enough is enough’ and choose right.

As the world moves firmly into the 21st Century, we must firmly reject those that want Nigeria to remain in the dark ages – and move forward to restore dignity and hope in our younger generation. They must see a country that can work in their lifetimes – where electricity is stable, crimes are solved and criminals brought to justice – a Nigeria where capability and hard work are the primary tools for success in life.

Failing to do that within the next decade will lead to the breakdown of our society if not the total failure of the Nigerian state. We will not be able to handle the influx of 5 million hopeless and angry 18 year olds added every year during the ensuing period to our army of the under-educated and under-employed. In this avoidable scenario, none of our great grand-children may have the opportunity of seeing Nigeria celebrating its century of Independence. That will be a sad indictment on us all, particularly those born just before or around the end of colonization.

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