“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land, or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to its responsibility…” – Prof. Chinua Achebe.
Whatever the result of the match between Nigeria and Burkina Faso on Sunday, the point has been reinforced – the problem with Nigeria, simply put, is that of leadership. The challenge that confronts us is that of leadership – one with a developed mind of its own, unmoved by the shenanigans of an ignorant, boot-licking sections of the media, yet vociferous and always seeking to arm-twist leadership into going the wrong direction. What is lacking is a leadership that is resolute enough to proceed on the strength of its foresight and conviction to do what is right. A leadership not overwhelmed by the need to dance to the populist tune of a less-than-knowledgeable mass with claim to expertise on subjects they know little about. A leadership, daring to push the people on a track it had designed with the objective of taking the people to the promised land. A leadership strong enough to fly on the wings of its well-founded conviction, damn the nay-sayers, and go down on its dagger, should the outcome not be favourable.
Stephen Keshi has always stood out for his sterling leadership qualities. A man of unmistakable charisma, the ‘Big Boss’ started making his mark, from his days at St Finbarr’s College, Lagos. As the Captain of the famous NNB Football Club, Benin in the 80s, Keshi soon became an integral part of a crop of an NNB-dominated national football team. In a twist of fate, the late arrival of the Stephen Keshi-led group of players from NNB to the Green Eagles Camp resulted in their suspension by NFA for 6 months from all football-related activities in Nigeria. But that was to open another vista for him and his generation of footballers. He left for Ivory Coast and from there, for Europe, opening the gateway for other African players to make a career of football abroad.
It was in the national team, however, that Stephen Keshi’s leadership was more evident. For 14 years, he bestrode the Eagles like a collosus. He was not called ‘Big Boss’ for nothing. He was powerful. He was influential. He was reported to have had input in team selection, at that time. Whatever was the case, you could not ignore Keshi. He had a mind of his own.
It was for the reason that Keshi was his own man that it took the Nigerian football administrators so many years, until their hands were forced into giving him the opportunity to serve as Head Coach of the national team. They knew him as one they could not push around. He had served meritoriously as an Assistant to Shuaibu Ahmodu (another man serially wronged by Nigeria, in spite of his tireless work for the national team, qualifying the team for the World Cup two times, only to be shoved aside by the Administrators on both occasions.) The no-nonsense stance of the Coaching crew that led to the suspension of Victor Agali and others at Mali 2002 for breaking camp rules was instructive. But a compromised section of the sports media was not for that effort to instil discipline and worked to see Ahmodu out of the door. His major sin – not exactly media-cuddling.
It is no surprise that Stephen Keshi, with a single-minded approach, has built the present Eagles team, away from the orchestrated campaign to undermine his efforts, on the backbone of discipline, character and right mental attitude. These values, he is pushing, that have long gone AWOL in our national life. Is it a surprise that not many saw the sense in what Keshi was doing? In his own words, “… there were lots of problems back home when I left out some of the senior players in the team, but I had my own reasons, which are known to me only… I know that some people did not understand, but I knew exactly the type of players we wanted, the mentality, the players who can work for the team.” In only 5 weeks, he has been able to build a team of an otherwise indisciplined set of Nigerians that has some semblance of unity of purpose, unlike teams of the recent past.
Keshi proceeded with his work, in spite of distractions from detractors and beer-parlour analysts who always seem to know more about football than those who are professionally involved with it. The Administrators’ body language was all too obvious. In any case, they had only reluctantly fallen back onto Keshi following the monumental failure of the favoured son, Siasia. Not a few felt they were only waiting for Keshi to fail for them to bury him. The report in the papers last week only confirmed the known.
But Keshi beat them to it. He kept to his plan, a joker to his chest. He was man enough to identify the strengths of Daniel Amokachi, who has proved fearless with his thoughts and voice on football, just as he was a rampaging bull on the field. He expressed his preference for Keshi as National team Coach, even when it was politically incorrect and inexpedient to do so. A good Leader is never afraid to surround himself with strong men.
Keshi opted to give the home-based players a chance. He inspired them, shored up their confidence and incorporated them into his main team. The 23-man team to the Nations Cup is made up of 17 debutants. There are not those names that easily roll off the tongues. Same Nigerians who had, before now, called for ‘fresh legs’ and home-based players were not impressed. He did not decorate the bench with the new boys. He made them core members of the unit. Oboabona and Mba are first team players, even though they play at home. The Captain of the team, Joseph Yobo, has spent more time on the bench than the field of play. Keshi has not played names or reputation. He has proved himself a Leader not given to nepotism.
So, what has Keshi done differently that has made him succeed, where many others have failed? What is Keshi doing that the political leadership not doing? What stands out in his style of leadership? What does he bring to the table that Nigeria can learn, given, as we have, on the wings of Chinua Achebe, submitted that leadership is the major problem facing Nigeria? Here are some : Keshi is not a product of some good luck. He has, for a while, sought the job. He considered himself qualified for the job and did not wait on some benevolent god to ordain him for it. He prepared himself for it. The knowledge gathered from his mistakes and misfortune have prepared him for the position. When the Abuja gods would not nod in his direction, he got his hands dirty in Togo and Mali, gaining valuable experience that has become handy in his march to the Nations Cup final. He has not built a team based on quota system or embarked on a vendetta mission. He has remained focused, refusing to be distracted by rabble-rousers. He has not been capricious, but dedicated and deliberate. He did not need to set up committees to address what common sense will easily lead one to do.
Keshi was confident enough to build a team in line with his own template. He built a team, and did not simply assemble an array of stars to jostle for shirts with bulging ego-pips on their hefty shoulders. In so doing, he has succeeded in instilling discipline, forged character and harvested commitment from the team. He was not afraid to pick and drop players. His team is not made up of nominees by Governors of the 36 states and party stalwarts. He was not afraid to pick raw diamonds and refine them for his use. He was not afraid to lose his job, by risking it all, and for that, he has gained it.
Nigeria needs a Keshi. A man who is not only prepared for the job, but has the wherewithal to inspire, stand his ground and build from the ground up, even in the face of cynicism. Nigeria needs a leader with a roadmap on where he wants to take us and is ready to stick with it, see it through, irrespective of criticism by those who do not know and do not know that they do not know. Nigeria needs a Keshi – a man who is not afraid to appoint strong lieutenants, one who is not intimidated by paper tigers mouthing jaded jargons borrowed from templates handed down by Bretton Woods institutions, but can see original thought and locally-grown solutions for what they are. Nigeria needs a Keshi that is charismatic – inspiring his people, engendering a camaraderie that is necessary for teamwork and nation-building. Nigeria needs a Keshi – a man ready to lose it all on the strength of his conviction. A man who will be ready to lay down his life so Nigeria can have hers. Nigeria needs a Keshi – a man whom Nigerians might not believe in until he dislodges the formidable forces of Ivory coast that seems invincible to all and pulverise the Mali of poverty presently running riot in the land. When Nigerians are convinced they now have a Keshi, they will be willing to back him, all the way, in running over the Burkina Faso of stagnation that has held the nation down for over 50 years. Nigerians need a Keshi now. This is the hour for our own Keshi.
– Simbo Olorunfemi (firstname.lastname@example.org)