“Had it not rained in the night of 17-18 June 1815,” wrote Victor Hugo in his famous account of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, “the future of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, were what determined Napoleon’s fate. Providence needed only a downpour of rain to make Waterloo the retort to Austerlitz. An unseasonably clouded sky sufficed to bring about the collapse of a world.
“The Battle of Waterloo could not start until eleven-thirty because the ground was too wet. It had to dry out a little before the artillery could manoeuvre. And it was this that enabled Blucher to arrive in time…” “Had the ground been dry, so that the artillery could move,” Hugo reasoned, “the battle would have begun at six in the morning; it would have been over and done with by two, three hours before the Prussians could turn the scales.
“How much of the blame for his defeat is to be attributed to Napoleon? Is the navigator necessarily responsible for the shipwreck?” Hugo’s answer to these critical questions is that “… a series of hazards dictated the course of events at Waterloo…,”meaning that (British General) Wellington and Blucher’s routing of Napoleon was due not to either general’s tactical nous or strategic brilliance, but sheer luck, in this case a brief downpour that fell ever so propitiously.
But what is luck, and where does it come from? What do we mean when we say a leader, or, as in the above example, two army generals, were lucky? (Or better still, in the case of Napoleon, unlucky?) Can the notion of luck illuminate the contradictions of leadership and political action in African politics? What deeper meaning, if any, does its mobilization portend about a chosen political setting? What forms of political and moral praxes does an acceptance of luck instigate? Finally, are there circumstances under which luck can become an attribute of a leader or part of the repertoire of good leadership?
Since no definitive conclusions can be vouchsafed by what is basically a preliminary foray into a deeply intriguing and philosophically tangled subject, my strategy here is to use a particular example to expose and engage with some of the problems raised by the deployment of the language of luck and its application to the socio-political process.
The example I have in mind here is the rapid and, in all honesty, quite unusual political ascent of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. To what does President Jonathan owe his unusual political ascendance to the coveted Nigerian presidency? Can we apprehend his dramatic progress with the usual tools of sociological analysis?
In the middle of 2010, a debate on these matters was foisted upon me after Father Mathew Hassan Kukah, the current Bishop of the Sokoto Catholic Diocese, published an article in The Guardian (Lagos) titled “The patience of Jonathan”. In his article, Father Kukah argued that, other than sheer luck, or what he calls “a monumental act of divine epiphany,” there is really no rational sociological explanation for President Jonathan’s journey to the summit of political ambition in Nigeria. For Father Kukah, “This man’s rise has defied any logic and anyone who attempts to explain it is tempting the gods.” He added:
This man has never spent any money to purchase a form of (sic) declaring his intention to run for public office in politics. This man does not seem to have been sponsored into politics by any known godfather. Like the rest of us who are considered children of lesser gods, he comes from an insignificant family and a village that hitherto, could not easily be found on the national or state map. He does not seem to have invested heavily to become either Deputy Governor or Governor.
In this account, the facticity of which is a different matter entirely, President Jonathan’s career seems to perfectly encapsulate what, according to the philosophical literature on luck, we might call positive unchosen luck. How? According to Fr. Kukah, the President has found himself in his current situation (and it’s not a bad one when you come to think of it) due to no calculable agency on his part, but precisely due to a convergence of circumstances and a series of (at least for him) happy coincidences outside his capacity which eventually catapulted him to the nation’s highest office- being deputy to Alamieyeseigha, vice to Yar’Adua, etc. By merely hanging around, Fr. Kukah seems to suggest, “all these events have cascaded on his laps within a period of a mere 12 years.”
For Fr. Kukah, probably the most significant symbol of President Jonathan’s luck is his name, Goodluck, and that of his spouse, Patience. Other than that, Fr. Kukah argued, “Dr. Jonathan has done absolutely nothing to warrant what has befallen him. I am sure I can safely say he has neither prayed, lobbied nor worked for what has fallen on his lap.” In other words, he was a lucky beneficiary of, shall we say, a series of fortunate events.
To be sure, Fr.Kukah was not alone in what appears to be a hurried construction of a shallow biography of President Jonathan as a merely fortunate siddon-looker. In the period immediately following the demise of President Umoru Yar’Adua in May 2010, even as the then interim president Jonathan sought frantically to impose himself on the political terrain, the notion that nothing except one or a combination of luck, destiny, coincidence, providence, happenstance, or contingency could ‘explain’ his career was very popular. For instance, according to Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of Abia state,
Those who followed (sic) consistently the metamorphosis of President Jonathan from a university lecturer to a deputy governor, then governor, vice president and now president, will see a definite pattern-a pattern never witnessed in the annals of the country. The enigma of the man Jonathan does not lie in his meteoric rise to the apogee of the nation’s political hierarchy. It lies rather in the hand of God upon his life. Anybody may sir or write whatever he likes about him, but one thing nobody can dispute is his manifest covenant with God. It is epitomized succinctly in Jonathan in practical, unambiguous terms. Can anybody tell the difference between Goodluck Jonathan and David the son of Jesse?
Furthermore, the idea that the Jonathan presidency was positively underserved, and that an inexplicable ‘luck’ was the lodestar of the new president’s political career became the fuel for various jokes. I am sure you’ve heard this one, titled, “If your deputy is named Goodluck”. It goes like this:
In your own interest, no matter the position you are offered in any organization, if your deputy is named Goodluck, please decline. Even if it is UN Secretary General or Head of African Union, just decline. Why? Check out these facts:
Goodluck Jonathan was Assistant Head Boy in his primary school days. The Head Boy was expelled and Goodluck took over
Goodluck was Assistant Senior Prefect in Secondary school. After the Senior Prefect died, Goodluck took over.
Goodluck was Deputy Local Government Chairman. The Chairman got implicated in corruption allegations and Goodluck took over.
Goodluck was Deputy Governor to Dipreye Alamieyeseigha. He took over after the latter was engulfed in an oil concession corruption scandal.
Goodluck was Vice President to Umoru Yar’Adua, and you know how that one went.
A friend just called off a wedding because his best man name was named Goodluck.
I find it significant that President Jonathan, especially in the first few months of his presidency, did a lot to fan the embers of this creeping luckism for the purposes of social acceptance and political legitimation, particularly through the many public ‘confessions’ and ‘testimonies’ in which he clearly strove to articulate an autobiography as a humble man on whom God, providence/fate/luck had so inexplicably smiled. In this regard, the notorious picture of President Jonathan kneeling before Pastor Adeboye in an attitude of prayer, apart from being clearly strategic, could not have been more exquisitely timed.
On this note, allow me to close these preliminary reflections by briefly exploring some of the political and cultural implications of the social acceptance of luck. Ultimately, my objective, as stated earlier, is to determine whether luck (in any of its various enactments) can be a useful conceptual tool for explaining and understanding the political process and/or the trajectories of leadership? Can the notion of luck, for instance, help explain how leaders emerge or are chosen by peers in specific political situations? Is the concept of luck a useful complement to, or a detraction from the conventional analytic approaches of sociologists, psychologists and political scientists?
One immediate consideration is that if luck becomes a substitute for, or is too closely associated with what, for want of a better word, we might call Fate or Destiny, it makes the attribution of agency or any kind of individual or social responsibility for that matter, especially problematic. For the concept to have any sort of utility, this problem has to be wrestled with, and one way to escape the looming gridlock of inevitability is to marry unchosen luck with what philosophers call option luck. In the latter, individuals are not totally at the mercy of fate, but exercise agency, which is also not totally pure. In the case of President Jonathan, a combination of the two should produce a more nuanced socio-biography in which, to paraphrase Fr. Kukah, although events did cascade into President Jonathan’s laps, that does not establish him as totally lacking agency.
A second implication of the acceptance and promotion of the language of luck, specifically in the Nigerian case, is that it comes with the danger of reinforcing the metaphysics which is instantiated in sayings like: “ise ko lowo,” and kira kita o dola.” Afterall, if everything is a matter of unchosen luck or ‘favor’ (to put it in the language of modern day Pentecostals), where is the incentive to strive, search, or build?
Third, and with specific regard to the question of leadership, if leadership or the emergence of good leaders ultimately rolls on the dice of luck, whither the imperative to invest in the training of good leaders? Whither the sociology of leadership? Whither, in fact, justice?
 Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the commander of the Prussian army, 72 at the time of the Battle of Waterloo.
Mr. Obadare, a one-time journalist, is a professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, in the United States. He read this paper at the just concluded International Conference on Leadership and Governance in Africa, Obafemi Awolowo Institute of Government and Public Policy (OAIGPP), Lekki Town, in Lagos. You can reach him via his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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