Nigeria is in difficult times anyhow you look at it. It is a tough time for its residents. A few days ago, Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) started selling for N640 per liter in many parts of the country. This means that in less than 6 months, PMS has increased from N184 to N640 without any increase in minimum wage and even improvement in per capita GDP. Nigerians are mostly poor (about half of Nigerians live below poverty level) but pay more for everything. For government, it is battling to escape fiscal bankrupt and stagflation as it borrows to stop forex volatility. Nigeria’s social condition is very fragile, with insurgency and criminality weakening state capacity to provide security and other social and economic goods. The people themselves are more disunited than ever in recent times. Critical economic indicators are very poor, even as the index of public trust is at all times low.
In this context, Nigeria needs transformative leadership. But alas, it does not have it. Most Nigerians agree that Nigeria has a leadership problem. The literary genius, Chinua Achebe, penned his thoughts about the challenges of development in Nigeria with the title, The Trouble with Nigeria. In it, he declared magisterially that the trouble with Nigeria is simply the problem of leadership, honest and courageous leadership. As a moralist, Achebe related the leadership failure in Nigeria to moral failure. Many will relate to technical failure, the chronic lack of managerial and leadership competences.
Those who lament about leadership failure in Nigeria, whether from the perspective of morality or technical competence, allude to the importance of leadership. Leadership matters, that is why its absence is lamented. But how does leadership matter. What makes leadership so important to society? What moves a society forward? Who makes history? Leaders or followers, or situation?
Some have believed that it is the strong man who makes history. That is the argument of the strong man theory of history. This was mainly propagated by Thomas Carlyle in his book, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History”. This theory exaggerates the impacts of strong men in history. It builds from the Nietzschean idea of the Superman. But as Archie Brown argues in the Myth of the Strong Man: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, strong men are shaped by the contextual understanding of political leadership. The argument of the contextualists is, as Harvard leadership professor, Ronald A. Heifetz puts it, is that strong men as ‘history makers’ were successful because “they stood at the vortex of powerful political and social forces, which themselves were of interest. Thus, the more or less contemporaneous emergence of the United States’ first great leaders- Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, and Franklin- is not attributed to a democratic fluke but to the extraordinary times in which these men lived”. Therefore, the contexts of a society matter for the quality of leadership in the society.
In modern political economy, there is the reemergence of the structuralists in the form of New Institutional Economics, who argue that economic and social transformation comes from the institutions that determine the quality of interaction between the people and the leaders. Douglas North is the leader of the group and got a Nobel prize for showing how society changes through institutional reform. But the question is: how does institutions change, is it through social dialectics or extraordinary efforts of a strong man? The reality is that no matter the theory of social change, the role of leadership in socioeconomic development is invaluable. A nation cannot get better than its leadership.
To say that Nigeria has a leadership problem is not saying anything new or insightful. Even those occupying the highest political offices will be first to acknowledge the dearth of effective leadership. Of course, they will shrug off responsibility for the situation. They may attribute it to the notorious Nigerian factor that makes every convention of mankind fail in Nigeria. They may complain about the legacy of dysfunction institutions that militates against their great efforts. Oftentimes, they argue that we must be patient since Rome was not built in a day. Of course, while they urge for incrementalism on matters of social progress, they leapfrog in acquisition of civilizational goods from the advanced societies.
Despite self-serving arguments of Nigerian leadership in passing off responsibility for leadership failure to the people, we should acknowledge that great leadership requires effective demand by citizens. Where such demand is lacking, it may be difficult to have great leadership. Also, inherited institutions define and constrain leadership. Leaders themselves emerge from institutions and influence the development of those institutions. So, where institutions are terrible, it becomes more difficult to have great leadership.
Recently, Rotimi Amaechi who has lived the best of his adult life exercising political power accused Nigerians of being responsible for the leadership failure. In his opinion, the real problem is the docility of Nigerian people who do not revolt against political rulers. Nigeria’s leadership is simply the fact that its citizen suffers fools and criminal too long. They do not storm the Bastille and stone the criminals to death. This is an iconic gaslighting. Evidently, Hon. Amaechi who has done nothing else of value than exercise power blames the traumatized people rather than the rulers for the failure of Nigerian as social proposition.
But all these excuses and explanations of leadership failures are not comforting. They do not overcome the bad consequences of leadership failures. So, we need to understand why leadership fails, and be able to create the conditions that enable the emergence of great leadership. The failure of leadership or the absence of real and effective leadership is a global concern. But the consequences of global leadership failure are more devastating in developing or underdeveloped economies. Developed countries have many mitigating institutions. Nigeria does not have any. It needs great leadership to create great institutions that can mitigate the effects of low-grade leadership that may arise occasionally.
Nigeria’s leadership failures are glaring. What is not very evident is how to end the run of failure. How do we get a leadership fit for purpose? Every new administration is an opportunity to begin afresh the quest for good and effective leadership. But sadly, it is easily lost because the pressing urgency of politics as usual prevents the beginning of a different leadership journey.
Nigeria’s main leadership failing is in always falling back to transactional leadership when the moment demands for transformative or redefining leadership. Transformative or redefining leadership does not just change society. It first pushes society to a new level of cognition of social crisis and towards new objectives of development. We see this form of leadership in the successful East Asian countries that moved from underdeveloped to developed economies. When General Park became the leader of South Korea, the country had worse economic indicators, including per capita GDP than Ghana. They were coming from colonial rule by Japan. They had gloom and poverty written everywhere. But learning from the success of Japanese transformation, General Park and his colleagues pushed South Korea towards a new frontier of development.
Transformative and redefining leaders focus on development as transformation, not on maintaining the status quo. They shake up the system, not as reckless experimenters, or anarchists. Usually, transformative leaders have been somehow part of the past and they appreciate its limitations and the acute need to move away from it. The difference between them and other members of the establishment is that they embrace the urgency and necessity to move far away from the distressing status quo.
In the context of Nigeria’s present and pressing development challenges, what kind of leadership does it need? It is obvious that transactional leadership will achieve nothing. There is no development to conserve or consolidate. Even the unity of the country that we often say must be preserved is almost gone. We need to create a new unity that is based on a deep sense of justice and common identity.
Transactional leadership is easy and routine. Every society must be governed and there is an office to contest for and occupy. This makes transactional leadership very compelling. We just play politics as usual. There is no clear and compelling objective of governance than to oil the engine of government. This is the reason the current presidency, despite the big talk about visionary governance during the campaigns, has easily settled on business as usual; appointing cronies to big political offices and expanding the bureaucracy in the face of obvious fiscal bankruptcy and the urgent need for fiscal frugality. Nothing but ‘business as usual’ will explain why President Tinubu will budget N4.4b for cars for his office.
In the past, Nigeria missed moments of transformation and redefinition. The end of colonial rule was such a moment. The Nigerian pre-independence rulers had the opportunity to recreate the foundations of new Nigeria like the founding fathers of the United States of America, but they failed to do so. They assumed the positions that the British colonialists vacated without transforming the colonial institutions and practices. Ann and Bod Seidman, leading development scholars, show how those colonial institutions they left unreformed later undermined the dream of prosperity and freedom post-independence.
What Nigeria gets wrong, and the successful Asian country got right, is leadership. This is not about the intellectual or moral pedigree of individual Nigerian ruling elite. It is about the dynamics of leadership formation and its practices. In the 1960s, Nigerian regions had better leadership, and it showed in the superior economic performance. Those regions were governed by political parties that had strong development agenda which they used to recruit and orient leaders. This is political formation that impacted positively on leadership outcomes. Secondly, the formed leaders had centres of accountability in the party and its organic relationship with the people.
That form of leadership is gone. Now, political parties, in the words of Governor Wike, are vehicle to help you achieve your ambition, your ‘Emi lo kan’. No vehicle orients passengers. You board, and you exit at convenient points. This lack of a development agenda easily commits the government to business as usual. The essence of government is government. This is the problem Nigeria has. It needs a new form of leadership that will rise to the challenge of mobilizing the people for adaptive learning. It needs a leadership that properly diagnoses the crisis of development and offers a transformative pathway. This is what every country that has developed has done. It has pivoted under transformative leadership. Nigeria missed it in 1960 after independence. It missed it again in 1970 after the war. Will it miss it again?
Opportunity does not come only once. Nigeria has another opportunity to pivot to transformation and not business as usual. The man who is at the saddle has excelled in transactional leadership. He is a political genius in playing the political chessboard. Can he learn transformational leadership? Can he tear the ‘Lagos script’, and invest executive intelligence not in winning the power game, but in helping Nigeria become a different country? Can he imitate the successful Asian leaders, and not the African strongmen.
Sadly, Tinubu’s political instinct and orientation may rob Nigeria the opportunity to turn the current crisis into a new beginning of economic and social transformation. That is, if he insists on being Tinubu.