Simon Kolawole: In a Nutshell, Nigeria Can Work

NigeriaI’ve spent the past few weeks discussing what I call the Nigerian project – that is, our hope of conquering the misery of economic and political underdevelopment to become a prosperous and peaceful nation. I started the discussion with an argument that there is nothing happening in Dubai or Singapore that cannot happen here. All we need is a visionary leader to drive the process. The leader, as the chief architect, will articulate the vision. No country develops by accident. There is always a well thought-out master plan. However, we must accept the reality that Nigeria will not develop overnight or even in eight years. Therefore, the “visionary leader” must build a team of “actualisers” who will continue to run the race after he or she has left the scene. Continuity and consistency are very crucial to the development of any country. India, China, Singapore and Malaysia are good examples of this.

In the follow-up articles, I wrote on the need to develop a workable industrial policy to diversify the economy and create millions of jobs. Our non-oil income can and must overwhelm our oil income. I also took on the opposition, asking them to market themselves as the better route to the actualisation of the Nigerian project. Corruption was the focus of the last two articles. In the first one, I pointed out how corruption is ruining our chances of developing, especially “hyperinflation of contracts” and “outright looting”. I then took on the elite in politics, civil service and private sector. They collude to raid the public treasury, thinking they are having fun – but they are indeed prisoners in their mansions, yachts and jets. It is in their own interest to move from collusion “to loot” to collaboration “to develop” the country, I posited.

In a nutshell, I am confident that Nigeria can make it, in spite of all these daunting challenges. I know I am not as optimistic as I used to be, but I am optimistic all the same. A little optimism is enough! To be honest, our problems appear insurmountable. As you are tackling one, another surfaces. There seems to be a competition on who can destroy Nigeria the most. The executive is trying its best to loot the country dry; the legislature is striving hard not to be outsmarted in the race to the bottom; and the judiciary does not want to be left behind in the sleaze. The private sector is a willing accomplice – sometimes the mastermind – in the game to ruin Nigeria. Politicians are manipulating everything possible to achieve their selfish goals. There are times you ask yourself: who really is genuinely interested in the progress of this country?

In my subdued optimism, though, I would like to make a few points as I round off the series. If Nigeria is going to change for good in a democratic dispensation, something has to give. I will explain myself. One, the “visionary leader” may emerge through an imperfect electoral process. If we are expecting clean elections to produce that leader, we may have to wait forever. My hunch is that the leader will emerge ostensibly as a “stooge” but then develop a mind of his or her own in the national interest. We saw it with Dr. Chris Ngige in Anambra State. He played the fool to get to power but became a “man” once he became governor. We can say that of many governors who ditched their godfathers on assuming office. The only snag, though, is that many of them are not development-minded. They are worse than their godfathers. But the person who is going to lead the change we desire must, of course, be development-minded.

Two, and this is a repetition, Nigeria will not develop overnight. We are never patient with our leaders. We easily write them off. Yet, there is no perfect leader anywhere. Sometimes, good things take time. What we need is to be sure of the leader’s direction, to be convinced that they know what they are doing. Let’s face the fact: we won’t go to bed one night and wake up the following day to discover that Nigeria had suddenly developed! The problems we are facing in education, power, healthcare and roads today did not start yesterday. Decades of neglect and underinvestment led us to where we are now. In other words, we must temper our expectations. With all that Governor Babatunde Fashola has done in Lagos (and I can testify that he has done a lot), he still hasn’t solved half of the problems! The caveat here, then, is that the leader must inspire us to believe in him or her in spite of the enormous problems and challenges. You may choose to call that “credible leadership”.

Three, the “visionary leader” will have to be strong-willed. The Yoruba will say it is not easy to extract the nut from palm kernel. Interests are entrenched. The leader must step on toes to inspire change. Nobody is going to lead change in Nigeria by being a weakling or soft-touch. We need leaders who will take decisions without minding whose ox is beheaded as long as those decisions are in the national interest. This is where former President Olusegun Obasanjo ultimately got it wrong. He was a strong leader who could take decisions and not look back. But he was undone by his own contradictions as he began to use state power for selfish ends. He allowed vendetta and narrow ambition to ruin his work. The “strong leader” is the one that will use power for progress. He will have to take tough decisions. The process of transforming Nigeria is going to be painful. There are plenty sacrifices to be made by all, including the leaders themselves. Nothing is called gold until it passes through fire.

All I have been saying about the Nigerian project for several weeks can be compressed into a nutshell – leadership. I often employ two signs in judging a leader – the quality of the cabinet and the commitment to anti-graft war. We need competent and sincere leadership. A competent leader will assemble a competent team. A sincere leader will tackle corruption headlong to free our resources for development purposes. If we get these two things right, we will progress in geometric proportions. Nigeria can work. Honest.


Simon Kolawole (

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