This is important – We are underestimating the problem, and overstating our capacity (#NewLeadership Series by Chude Jideonwo)

Published:14 Jan, 2013

This is important – We are underestimating the problem, and overstating our capacity (#NewLeadership Series by Chude Jideonwo)

There is a truth young Nigerians need to know – and it is that if many of us find the privilege to step into public office today, we will act the exact same way as many of those whom we criticise, even despise.

Recover quickly and let’s interrogate that assertion.

The problem is neither a default in character (the “all Nigerians young and old are corrupt” doctrine) nor a sudden absence of conscience – the problem is, as I see it, one of understanding.

More than once, I have quieted down and listened to government officials who were once activists or critics or columnists or opposition members repeat that they “did not fully understand the depths of the problem that existed” or that suddenly they have seen the light.

That in itself is a major problem, and I don’t think we understand how grave a challenge it presents – and why we need to pay attention to what these people are saying.

It is very troubling to listen to the public discourse amongst young people and see them belittle and simplify the magnitude of the problems Nigeria faces or why it has been impossible for many brilliant, determined Nigerians in government to fulfill the promise that they made orrepresented.

They are preparing themselves to fall into the same traps that have caught their predecessors.

Let’s look back on perhaps the finest example of this tragedy – Bola Ige, that excellent man who government took away from us. It had been barely days since he joined the government, without looking at the files, sitting down with the decision makers, understanding the bottlenecks or indeed having a cup of coffee to think over the mountains ahead, but he went to the public space and declared that he would solve the problems of NEPA in a couple of months.

His timeline came and passed – and, of course, he failed.

Government in Nigeria is surely not a matter solely of good intentions.

If you are a politician, you face a number of woes: a severely corrupt set of grassroots politicians that subsists almost entirely on cash-patronage and is driven by primal, primitive interests. To break all that English into a simple phrase – it is cash-and-carry (to win a local government election in the South-West, I have heard, you need at least N20 million).

You face an electorate populace that will sit outside the home of a Senator to get their “dividends of democracy”, most times in cash. On rare occasions, they demand that a legislator sink a borehole in the community or build a bridge, a responsibility that is neither his nor does he oversee whose it is.

If you are, say a minister, your woes surely multiply – government is a complex layer of mundane, redundant, and gravity-defying bureaucracy that can consume (and corrupt) you. There are permanent secretaries who have outlived two decades of ministers whom you have to co-opt or circumvent (ask Adenike Grange). By the way, you cannot fire them, nor can you discipline them.

The Ministry of Youth Development is perhaps a good example here. It is a ministry that “handles” the National Youth Service Corps, but then, that is easily a joke.

Despite the fact that its budget is taken almost 90 per cent by the service corps scheme, the minister unfortunately has very little control over matters as simple as whether corps members allowances have been paid – in fact, effectively, the director-general and other officials of of the Corps are beyond his control No amount of “fire and brimstone’ threats can make any real change in those places unless he somehow finds himself having the ears of the president on a constant basis. Unfortunately, youth development is not a ‘powerful’ ministry – another major problem.

You find yourself beholden to a severely corrupt National Assembly whose members have been there since democracy returned in1999, who already know “how things are done here” and are armed, dangerously, with small minds and huge egos.

You are pressured on every corner to ease your own passage during sittings and hearings (ask Fabian Osuji) for everything fromyour budget to mini-controversies, and you find yourself having to learn a whole new range of social skills to get any work done.

And I have only mentioned two principalities.

One remembers Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tell a tale on her first course in Nigerian government about how she had to go out and buy pens for the ministry herself because the process of getting the monies out was about to drive her crazy. And that’s just pens.

Have I told you the story of a government minister who entered into office and sought to do the simplest thing possible –a re-design of the ministry’s website?

Ah, then maybe I should tell you. First and foremost, the directors in his office could give him no clues, claiming the previous minister had single-handedly managed the site. There was no email trail made available to the new minister, no proper handover in documented format (theminister before him had simply upped and left).

When he eventually got a contact, informally, to the special assistant to the former minister (whom, as you must recall was no longer in the vicinity), he was told that the contractor who managed the back-end of the site could not reached.

Cut a long story short, to get anything done, he had to register a whole new URL and get a new website designed, leading to a situation where different ministries in Nigerians government circles have wildly different URLs.

Of course, when you go down to Twitter to hear the chatter, you hear things like this: “Why can’t this minsiter do a simple thing like change the website of this country?! Why do we have such daft people in government in Nigeria?”

The problem unfortunately, is not daft people. The problem is a daft system that has made itself so impossible to change that it takes the will and guts of a mad man.

What do you find, therefore? Brilliant technocracts who have blazed trails internationally or in the private sector or in the development community who find themselves hampered by the labyrinth of government in Nigeria – where they are unable to do the most basic things. Cushioned unfortunately by the interminable luxuries of that same government, they will not resign, but will simply throw their hands in the air, do the little that they can to “satisfy their conscience”, moan about how terrible it is to steer any change in Nigeria.

Where they are smarter, they launch into quick wins – developing a string of nice-sounding ideas and projects that will quickly win them column inches and the admiration of donors and foreign governments. They are seen as visionary and transformative, but they know that the minute they step out of government, their unsustainable ideas will be churned out, along with their strategists, consultants, and other suits.

The result is that we take no step forward, and two backwards.

This is the challenge that a new generation of leaders faces. Government is the most important force for change in any society so ultimately to make any sustainable change, you have to have people in this imperfect, impossible governance structure.

Getting into public service without seeking to correctly understand how deep the corruption, the ineptitude, and the failure of common processes runs means that you are getting into government without the competence and the capacity that you truly need to make any change possible.

We don’t need another generational merry go round where people go into government all fired up and ready to go and come out with no concrete achievement – ending up as additions to the long list of failed “whizkids”.

Therefore, any young person who is desirous of joining that system (indeed, any system) on a tangential or major level, must begin to take the time to understand that system –indirectly through observation, monitoring, and knowledge osmosis (conferences, sittings, etc), or directly through internships, mentorships and other interactions.

That is what will truly differentiate a new generation of leaders from the old: knowledge, and the capacity to make change happen.

Not to complain about how hard it is when you eventually arrive there, not to be crippled by the relentless graft that defines it, not to be slowed down by its institutionalided inadequacies; but to come into those offices fully understanding the complexity of our problems and how deep they run and armed with a plan and a strategy on how to circumvent or de-mobilise those situations and achieve sterling results.

For now, we are not at that stage yet.

Many of us are still under-estimating the problem, and we are over-stating our own capacity to make that change happen simply because we have read a couple of textbooks that have outlined “alternative sources of energy in emerging economies”, we have not faced any situations that test our character, or have attended one or two conferences on “The Asian Tigers” during our summer holidays at Stanford.

Many of us still imagine for instance – and this is truly worrisome – that good intentions are enough to solve our power problems and dismiss the circling of vultures including ex-heads of state who have vested interests in that sector and will fight reform tooth and nail; or that it takes just one fiery senator to dismantle the wickedness in high places that are siphoning Nigeria’s oil wealth.

I’m sorry, but it doesn’t have anything to do with passion, or righteous indignation. It has everything to do with the competence and the capacity to navigate these treacherous waters.

The solution bears repeating – Any young person who is desirous of joining that system (indeed, any system) on a tangential or major level, must begin to take the time to understand that system –indirectly through observation, monitoring, and knowledge osmosis (conferences, sittings, etc), or directly through internships, mentorships and other interactions.

These are not times for trial by error.


Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV & He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.

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