Nasir El-Rufai on Friday In Search of Leadership (1) – Roots of Historic Crisis

Published:18 Jan, 2013


Nasir El-Rufai on Friday
In Search of Leadership (1) – Roots of Historic Crisis
By: Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai

In 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan’s New Year gift to Nigerians was a massive hike in the prices of petroleum products which ultimately translated into a tax of about N4,000 paid during the year by every man, woman and child in our country. The Kolade SURE-P bureaucracy alone consumed nearly over a billion naira of that surreptitious tax on offices, staff, travel and stationery.

In 2013, President Jonathan’s gift was to pollute the highways of Abuja with posters announcing that there would be no vacancy in the Aso Villa in 2015. In other words, the campaign to sustain the unprecedented insecurity, massive corruption, shameless fraud and social divisions that have become the official policies and outcomes of the Jonathan presidency has started – with all of us as spectators.

We all know the modus operandi of the sponsors of those “no vacancy” posters. They intend to take for Jonathan, the PDP nomination by any means necessary, ignore our votes and write the results of the general elections, declare themselves winners by significant margins, and attempt to compromise the Judiciary to uphold the electoral fraud – as they assume we will all sit back and let them. We must not, because if we do, our nation will continue to slide towards piecemeal societal breakdown or total state failure that will end up consuming every one of us.

As the campaign for the Nigerian presidency has started in earnest, it is vital that we give some thought to the issues of leadership, selection process, and credible elections and learn from the mistakes of the past. Over the next two weeks, this column will analyse and summarize the how we lost our way as far from good governance as possible. We will examine the extent of this institutional destruction and how it occurred, amidst the claims of good intention in some cases and complete malevolence in some. The purpose of this is not to apportion blame but to learn from past errors and move our nation forward. We hope to conclude with some thoughts about the issues to look out for in the emerging leaders for Nigeria (and Africa) in the twenty-first century.

We all know that societies make progress when visionary leaders emerge to organize and direct collective actions for peaceful coexistence, with sensible rules, clear incentives and sanctions that enable individuals realize their full potentials. The Nigerian nation first elected its leaders at both national and regional levels in 1960. Around that period, Malaysia, Singapore Botswana and Indonesia had their first set of elected post-colonial leaders going into offices as well. The Japanese had elected the first LDP government five years earlier in the aftermath of the American Occupation. Forty years later, these five nations in Asia and Africa have enjoyed democratic continuity, protection of freedoms and basic rights, rapid economic development and improvement in the quality of life for its citizens. Nigeria has not. What went wrong?

A little over five years into Nigeria’s Independence and First Republic, a group of young, misguided and naive military officers wiped out nearly all of the nation’s political leadership. The bulk of those murdered on January 15, 1966 were leaders from regions and ethnic groups other than those where the coup plotters hailed from. This coincidence or design of the actions of what I call the Class of 1966 led to mass killings, counter-coups and civil war laid the foundations for Nigeria’s unfortunate political, economic and social trajectory for the ensuing forty plus years. And Nigeria’s story is typical of most of Africa such that by 2004, five years into our nation’s fourth republic, the leading African politics professor at the Harvard Kennedy School published a scathing summary of the leadership failure in Africa in an article published in “Foreign Affairs” :
“Africa has long been saddled with poor, even malevolent, leadership: predatory kleptocrats, military-installed autocrats, economic illiterates, and puffed-up posturers. By far the most egregious examples come from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe — countries that have been run into the ground despite their abundant natural resources. But these cases are by no means unrepresentative: by some measures, 90 per cent of sub-Saharan African nations have experienced despotic rule in the last three decades.

In what is an accurate description of these despotic and progressively appalling ‘leaders’ that foisted themselves on Africa usually through military coups or rigged elections, Rothberg continued:
“Such leaders use power as an end in itself, rather than for the public good; they are indifferent to the progress of their citizens (although anxious to receive their adulation); they are un-swayed by reason and employ poisonous social or racial ideologies; and they are hypocrites, always shifting blame for their countries’ distress.”

Rotberg went further describing the consequences of this continent-wide failure of leadership as these leaders replaced the colonialists without doing more – but did everything to destroy the bases for economic growth, social equity and fairness in the nations they ruled and ruined:
“Under the stewardship of these leaders, infrastructure in many African countries has fallen into disrepair, currencies have depreciated, and real prices have inflated dramatically, while job availability, health care, education standards, and life expectancy have declined. Ordinary life has become beleaguered: general security has deteriorated, crime and corruption have increased, much-needed public funds have flowed into hidden bank accounts, and officially sanctioned ethnic discrimination — sometimes resulting in civil war — has become prevalent”

Long before Rotberg, and nearly 30 years ago, Chinua Achebe observed in his book “The Trouble with Nigeria”, that the problem of our nation was fully and squarely the failure of leadership. This remains true today in Nigeria and indeed as Rotberg summarized so succinctly in most of Africa. As observed earlier, leadership is important in any social grouping, but far more central in Africa to the overall success and wealth of nations than anywhere else in the world because we happen to have weak institutions in the continent.

Thanks to malaria, the British never intended to remain in Nigeria for long, investing only in the minimal but necessary institutions and infrastructure to extract, transport and export natural resources to Europe. Contrast our situation with the Caribbean nations, Namibia, South Africa and Kenya for instance, where the more friendly weather and lower malaria intensity persuaded the British colonialists to plan for long-term settlement, and Nigeria’s colonial legacy is more clearly comprehensible.

At independence, our “Founding Fathers” inherited sound but relatively weak institutions, confusing property rights and minimal infrastructure. The new rulers merely supplanted the colonialists and adopted in totality the defective governance structures suited to colonial exploitation, and nothing more. A simple example was (and still remains) the total absence of a mortgage system – which the colonial administrators did not need as they have their mortgages set up in Britain!

None of our founding fathers thought it fit to think of designing and entrenching one with the attendant need to clarify and codify formal property rights! Needless to add that the easiest way of creating a virile middle class is through widespread home ownership, and until we created a pilot mortgage system in the FCT in 2005-2007 to enable public servants and the general public to purchase over 30,000 houses in Abuja, no one bothered to try. Sadly, our successors failed to convert the inchoate pilot into a complete national program of home ownership financing, as envisaged.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, our best and brightest university graduates joined the public service. The honest and those with educational, integrity and leadership pedigree and skills went into politics. Public servants were well paid and assured of their security of tenure. Politics attracted those willing to serve. Political parties were funded by membership contributions. Elections were relatively clean and largely reflected the will of the voters. The coup of 1966 ended these positive trends that would have truly built a democratic, merit-driven federation in the long run.

The murder of political leaders in 1966 without trying them and finding them guilty of any offence, and affording the assassins immunity and protection from court martial by the indecision of the Ironsi administration ensured that coups would remain a recurring decimal in our polity. The coups of 1966 made political assassination a crime without sanctions in Nigeria. It also made politics the vocation of the bold power seeker rather than the honest public servant. The purges of 1975 however well-intentioned were executed in a way that destroyed security of tenure in the public service, and made the best and brightest look for other options to live well, and safely. Illegitimacy and poor economic management gave rise to the endless appeasement of citizens and public servants using salary reviews (Adebo and Udoji by the Gowon Administration alone) and incessant creation of non-viable states which destroyed the basis of our federalism.

Public services and infrastructure provisioning were politicized and thousands hired without regard to quality and standards – and Nigeria became a real rentier state in which those connected to military regimes became rich overnight without any abilities, hard work, innovation or rational basis. Our traditional rulers which supplemented the weak formal governance structures were converted into the tools of the military by compromising them through intimidation and systematic corruption. Independent voices – from civil society, the media and conscientious people like Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory – were similarly targeted for purchase and conversion, and failing that repeatedly imprisoned.

Our human capital infrastructure – schools and hospitals suffered irreparable damage under the years of misrule. Systematic under-funding, capricious appointments, poor pay and frequent killing of university students led to the collapse of our tertiary educational and health institutions. The leadership had no clear interest in developing the Nigerian state. Their wealth is in Switzerland, France, Germany, Lebanon and Dubai. Back in the 1980s, they began the practice of sending their children abroad for education and healthcare and therefore had no interest in the deteriorating quality of our schools and hospitals. Their holidays are spent in Europe, America and Asia, so felt no need to develop our urban areas or our immense tourism potentials.

These ‘prestigious’ practices of depending on foreign schools and clinics then assumed the status of national culture of the successful so virtually every middle class family now strives to copy these ‘standard operating procedures’ of the ruling elite. On the positive side, the ruling elite kept our nation united after the first Class of 1966 had plunged us into a needless civil war. The Murtala-Obasanjo administration gave us a presidential constitution, a local government system, the Land Use Act and the new federal capital of Abuja. The Buhari-Idiagbon regime rekindled our notions of patriotism and discipline, and showed the will to try the ruling elite for corruption without fear or favour.

However, the sum total of these is a country that is over 52 years old but not yet a nation. We have a generation of Nigerians who have never known when the Nigerian state functioned, and served the people. We have young people – about 5 million achieve the voting age of 18 every year – that think they can only pass exams through cheating, paying or sleeping with their teachers. And even if they are qualified and passed the job interview, they can only get a job when they have a godfather to intervene. Merit, performance or hard work as ingredients of success, are totally unknown to this generation. The ruling elite have given birth not to Generation Next but one of “Anything Goes” – a generation without hope, with bewildered parents unable to understand them and give them succour. And only a courageous, focused and inspiring leadership can change them and give back hope to the nation.

Many of us that are older than 40 years of age are part of this chequered history, and therefore must take full or partial responsibility for the current state of affairs either by our acts of commission or omission. As Edmund Burke observed, all that is required for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing. Many of us have done nothing thereby encouraging the growth of evil in our land. We have a choice of ending this by standing up to the ruling party and what it represents or accelerating towards complete breakdown of order in our nation and respective communities. How do we restore hope in our younger generation, our nation and democracy? We will attempt an answer next Friday.

Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai

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