By Tunji Olaopa
A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service.
--Georges Pompidou (French President: 1911-1974)
Lee Iacocca, the corporate management guru, in his book Where have all leaders gone? raised a serious generational and seminal question of serious relevance to the concerns of this Seminar convened to interrogate the role of the twin-factors of leadership and value-based institutions in Nigeria’s quest for national transformation. The question calls for continuous interrogation and rethinking of our conception of the role of leadership in the task of steering a nation towards its manifest destiny.
Decisive national progress for any nation is a function of the availability of a critical mass of heroes and statesmen who are willing, as Pompidou stressed, to put themselves at the service of the nation. Yet, the question remains: where have all the heroes and statesmen gone? And where do we hope to nurture new ones for the task ahead? The logic can be extended a little further with the question: if ’leaders’ are so hard to find and Nigeria needs not just leaders but statesmen and heroes, how then do we get leaders in a critical mass sufficient to enhance the chance of breeding statesmen and, ultimately, heroes, who are incontestably willing, as Pompidou stressed, to put themselves truly at the service of the nation?
If this is a serious enough challenge, it then must be worth our effort to unravel associated sociological complexity alluded to by Claude Ake’s lamentation in the foreword to my biography of Ojetunji Aboyade, A Prophet is with Honour (1977), namely: “Nigeria defies definition. The country yearns for heroes acknowledge none and it devalues and derails those who could be. Nigeria has no standards and no heroes”. Following from this loaded indictment of our culture and reputation as a people, it is not strange that in colloquial terms of usage in Nigeria, a title like “statesman” is conferred as recognition for length of service to the nation and for service at some high levels. The task for us therefore is to attempt to re-conceptualize the term as a basis for its serious appreciation and, therefore, better application through conferment to celebrate those, who by dint of intelligence, wisdom, skill, political astuteness, charisma and personal example are called upon to stand at the forefront of the sacrificial effort to build the commonwealth and superintend the dispensation of values as public good. This becomes imperative at a seminar like this one where political scientists have taken on the task of vigorously debating the essence of leadership in the Nigerian predicament. This necessarily points to the need to extend the scope of intervention to the institutional level by also assessing the quality of available platforms for grooming potentials of which for me our party system readily come to mind.
For Aristotle, leadership is a function of character that brings forth consistent intentional actions geared towards the good of the state and its citizens. The urgency of the task, therefore, derives from the fact that the quality of organisation of a particular society is proportional to the quantity of the statesmen and their level of commitment to the national project.
At this point, we arrive at Pompidou’s pragmatic schema for differentiating between the politician and the statesman. There is no doubt that every politician would want to achieve the honorific status of statesmanship. Being a Mandela, a de Gaulle, an Nkrumah, a Vaclav Havel, a Carter, or a Gandhi is worthwhile. However, the move from being a politician to being a statesman is equally a moral move. Statesmanship is therefore beyond mere name-calling. A statesman, in other words, is a moral construct which defines the zenith of patriotism. Patriots are those who have an enduring but critical interest and reasonable faith in the possibility of the social contract underlying a nation; statesmen are those who are ready to dedicate their lives and being to making the contract work against all odds.
And the first condition of statesmanship is individual example and personal accountability.A statesman projects a vision that takes into consideration the cracks and fissures attending the task of nation building in a difficult country like Nigeria. And the difficulty is in terms of its demographics, administration, diversity, resources, and so on. Nation building began in 1960, and it is still progressing, fifty two years after independence. Statesmanship requires a stretch of vision that captures all these difficulties in a critical blueprint of processes, institutions, ethics and paradigms by which the people are committed to the task of a national synergy; of toil, sweat and faith that crank the wheel of development.
Thus, the commitment to statesmanship is a commitment to sacrifice that is visible and phenomenal. Mandela lost twenty-seven crucial part of his life to Apartheid South Africa; Gandhi left a thriving law career to battle the British Empire; Havel supervised a revolution in the Czech Republic.Yet, we really need more statesmen. Contemporary Nigeria needs to generate a critical mass of men and women, politicians and heroes who can throw themselves at the cause of the Nigerian project. John Kenneth Galbraith, the US economist, remarks that “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable”. Statesmen are moulded within the hot zone between the “disastrous” and the “unpalatable”; and only few politicians can thread that zone.
Nigeria’s democratic dispensation is a hard won triumph. Those who fought for its realisation did so not because of its honorific label but basically because it affords several opportunities for the fruition of the Nigerian Project. On the one hand, it allows for the fulfilment of the promises that leaders made, as trustees of the people’s will. However, on the other hand, democracy also affords Nigeria the yet seriously untapped capacity to raise leaders and statesmen that could be integrated into the democratic process of building a virile nation we can all be proud of.
For instance, the modern democratic system is essentially a party system which enables the election of leaders to the trustee position of representing the people’s desire and charting a course for progress. In other words, one of the positive characteristics of the party system in a democracy is that it enables the identification of a framework of leadership which can be counted upon to run with the national vision and face the onerous task of nation building. Parties in Nigeria have evolved over time and have been faced with difficulties of all sorts. This only goes to prove an insight that they are still works in progress. And as works in progress, they have the potential to be moulded in ways desirable for achieving the objectives of development in Nigeria. The success of democratic leadership training, of statesmanship, in Nigeria is proportional to the degree to which these parties are themselves reformed enough to carry the burden of democracy.
Reforming the political parties comes with the recognition that democracy’s ability to grow derives from the participants’ willingness to competitively expand its frontiers especially with regards to tapping its potentials for Nigeria’s national development. Reforming the political parties need to proceed on three levels: participation, representation and accountability. At the participation level, the parties are responding to essential dynamics of democracy itself applied internally to the operations of political parties. This has the advantage of creating a level playing field for everybody that aspires to leadership of any kind, party or national. Representation allows the parties to respond to the preferences of the people that brought about the necessity of parties in the first place. And, accountability set prospective leaders up for their litmus democratic test of holding political offices at whatever level.
The necessity of internal democracy for parties, signalled by the three reform elements, derives essentially from Robert Michel’s famous “iron law of oligarchy” which simply states that rule by the elites is an inevitable part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of any modern and complex organisation. Oligarchy is therefore inevitable even in a democracy. Yet, oligarchy possesses the tendency of breeding elites who may not have any genuine ethical reason to respond to the democratic impulse. Political parties in Nigeria must therefore strive to make a difference in terms of comparable practices all over the world.
But then, shouldn’t the first step towards such a democratic expansion of the internal dynamics of parties be the decentralisation of the party framework? First, this would require that political parties be registered at the grassroots where it can really begin its growth towards becoming truly national in scope and interest. Grassroots governance, that is, provides a critical test of the democratic intent of a party aspiring for national relevance. Former US President, Rutherford Hayes says at his inaugural: “He serves his party best who serves his country best”. This essentially means, for me, that a truly great party is one filled with people who are always eager to go on a national crusade to propagate the gospel of good governance. Serving the country is serving the people, starting at the grassroots.
The decentralisation of the political parties in itself is not enough to signal a culture of leadership grooming. It also requires two other necessary conditions. The first is a vanguard of civil society activism that is credible and patriotic. Such a civil society must be ready to go beyond the tradition of adversarial government-opposition dynamics that sees all that is wrong in government without any perspective as to how the wrongs can be transcended. Beyond this, the civil society also serves the purpose of breeding or putting forth veritable leaders who can assist in beating the national vision into shape through a joint effort at fashioning the mechanics of national greatness. The strength of civil society participation in national operation can be backstopped through the provision of essential theoretical and policy support by organisational agencies and think tanks for national and policy dialogues through the upgrading of our degraded but veritable institutions as NIPSS, NISER, NIIA, etc to the stature of their international equivalents reinforced with self-sustaining others, benchmarked against the likes of Brooking Institution, American Enterprise Institutes, Hoover Institute to name just a few.
The second necessary condition for leadership formation in Nigeria is a rich civics curriculum in schools geared towards the propagation of patriotism and the celebration of figures and heroes that could serve as the foundation of national mentoring. It is a sad fact of our educational decline that civics and social studies have disappeared from the school syllabi. They should be resurrected and reinvented as a matter of national necessity.
If we must know the direction in which a nation will go, then the right diagnosis is to check the attitudes of its politicians and statesmen. As someone once said, the history of every country begins in the heart of a man or woman. The stars will not reveal where Nigeria is headed in the twenty-first century (though we may get some inkling); what will is the dogged determination of those who have been entrusted with the mantle of leadership to pursue the democratic imperative of making Nigerians happy. It is only in this regard that such leaders can earn the trust of the people and the honour of being their statesmen.
Statesmanship is not an ascription; it is a pledge: to do or die!
• Dr. Olaopa is a Federal Permanent Secretary in Abuja