Yet Another Badge of Shame

“Dear Segun, I hope this email finds you well. I’m a reporter working for (name of the international broadcast organisation withheld) and shall be coming to Nigeria next week to do some stories relating to economic and business issues in the country. I have been speaking to (name withheld) who has recommended we connect with you to talk about the oil industry in Nigeria, and particularly corruption…I am wondering therefore if it would be possible to meet up with you to record an interview, in English, while we are in the country. Do let me know if you are interested, and then we can discuss logistical arrangements.”

I got the foregoing mail early last month and I immediately responded the way I usually do to such solicitations which I receive all the time from foreign journalists coming to Nigeria. “Dear (name withheld), many thanks for the mail but as much as I look forward to seeing you when in Nigeria, I am not going to grant any interview for a number of reasons. One, I know there is more to Nigeria than corruption so I don’t want to feed into that stereotype. Two, I am also sure you will get many of our people who would happily oblige you (many Nigerians like to talk about corruption, and that includes those who are neck deep in it!)…”

Because my number was in the mail, the reporter in question called me from her country first to apologise that she was not trying to criminalise Nigerians and then to explain that she was coming to do many stories and corruption was just one of them. We ended the conversation on a convivial note and we agreed we could meet whenever she was in the country. Of course, she didn’t bother to see me when she eventually came just as I am sure she found many willing Nigerians, including public officials, who would have happily regaled her with tales about corruption in Nigeria!

That we have the challenge of corruption is not in doubt but it is not peculiar to our country. The real problem is that we have not evolved institutional measures to deal with it. However, what I find very irritating is the way most of our public officials romanticize the problem, especially when they are with foreigners. At almost any and every forum, if you ask a Nigerian public official what the main problem in his/her country is, the instant response would almost be: corruption. And they always have stories to tell since their fingers are usually pointed at others.

So, it came as no surprise when on Monday, that British Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron was caught on camera describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt countries”. In the footage showing him chatting in a group, Cameron told the British Queen, Elizabeth II: “We had a very successful cabinet meeting this morning to talk about our anti-corruption summit, we’ve got the Nigerians… actually we’ve got the leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain…Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.”

Not even the interjection by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby—that “this particular president is not corrupt”, can limit the impact of the damage done to our country by that snide remark which only reinforces the existing stereotype. But we have brought it upon ourselves by glamourising, rather than dealing with, corruption in its various manifestations. I will come back to this issue someday.

However, apparently embarrassed, Number 10 had to issue a statement which in itself speaks volume: “Both President Buhari of Nigeria and President Ghani of Afghanistan have acknowledged the scale of the corruption challenge they face in their countries. In a collection of essays on the fight against corruption to be published on the day of the Summit, President Ghani writes that Afghanistan is ‘one of the most corrupt countries on earth’ while President Buhari writes that that corruption became a ‘way of life’ in his country under ‘supposedly accountable democratic governments’. Both leaders have been invited to the Summit because they are driving the fight against corruption in their countries. The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with them as they do so. We cannot comment on a conversation between the PM and the Queen.”

The import of that defence by Cameron is that he was only quoting what the leaders of these two countries have themselves said which then goes to the heart of my thesis that as Nigeria’s number one salesman, President Buhari cannot continue to speak only about the criminally-minded people in our country without as much as a word about the honest Nigerians. That perhaps explains why when, early in February this year, the London Telegraph published a story with the headline, “Nigerians’ reputation for crime has made them unwelcome in Britain, says country’s president”, it immediately provoked outrage among many Nigerians who created the hashtag, “#NigeriansAreNotCriminals”.

In a piece I did on the issue published on 11th February titled “The ‘Prophet Elijah Complex’”, I reminded readers of my earlier warning that President Buhari cannot continue to project himself as the only honest man in Nigeria in my column, “The Wives Are Going on Recess”. I took the idea from the Biblical story in First Kings, Chapter 19 when Prophet Elijah thought he was the only person living right until God revealed to him that there were 7,000 other righteous people who equally refused to bow before the idols of the time.

I wrote: “I am not trying to diminish the challenge before President Buhari or the mess he met on the ground. But it is neither helping us as a nation nor advancing his own cause to continue to harp on the negatives in Nigeria without also speaking on the goodness of the vast majority of our people. The president has to find a way of balancing his rhetoric by remembering and applauding—whenever he must speak—the the vast majority of honest Nigerians, both at home and in the Diaspora, and many who had served honourably in various governments, and are making positive contributions not only to our country but to our world.”

Fortunately, President Buhari has another platform in London today to speak about our country and I hope he will not approach the issue with the usual predilection for self-righteousness. He must remind his audience that while, as a nation, we grapple with many challenges, including that of corruption, most of our country men and women are honest people who are being shortchanged by a few but powerful individuals. The president should also not miss the opportunity to speak about the many hard working Nigerian professionals—doctors, nurses, teachers, bankers and civil servants making valuable and unimpeachable contribution to British society.
A few bad apples (whether at home or abroad) cannot represent, and must not be allowed to taint, 180 million Nigerians.

Of Leicester, Ranieri and Nigeria
Just in case there are still some readers out there who don’t know what the above headline means, it is about the unbelievable achievement of Leicester City Football Club which was last Saturday crowned the English Premier League Champions. For a team that was not even in the Premiership two seasons ago, barely survived relegation last year, and was put at an odd of 5,000/1 by bookmakers, to now win the biggest prize in English football, it is almost akin to a miracle.

However, there was no miracle in the incredible story of Leicester because it is about the efforts put in over a long season and having the right leadership at the right time. And with what the football club has achieved, the first time in their 132-year old history, there are several lessons that we can all learn. At a time like this, some of those lessons will also serve our nation and those in charge of our affairs.

Let us begin from the manager, Claudio Ranieri. At 64, Ranieri’s career, spanning 28 years, has seen him manage such big clubs like Napoli, Fiorentina, Parma, Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan (Italy); Valencia and Atletico Madrid (Spain); Monaco (France) and Chelsea in England. Yet, he never won any league title with those big clubs in almost three decades of his managerial career. Interestingly, Ranieri’s last duty post was with the Greek National team where he was sacked within four months after some embarrassing results.

Therefore, when Ranieri’s name was announced 10 months ago as Leicester manager, many football pundits, including Gary Lineker, respected former English international, who once played for the club where he is still adored, criticised the choice. There were also predictions that Leicester’s performance and results under Ranieri would be so woeful as to necessitate his sack before the last Christmas. Not only did that not happen, Ranieri has today become one of the biggest names, and perhaps the most adored manager, in the game of football.

Meanwhile, Ranieri has said he doesn’t know the secret of his success at Leicester but we can look at his managerial career and hazard some guesses. One, he has obviously learnt from his own experience that you don’t continue to do the same things and expect different results, except you are a certain Mr. Arsene Wenger! At Chelsea, where he was sacked in May 2004, Ranieri’s constant squad rotations earned him the nickname “The Tinkerman.” At Leicester, he had a predictable line-up as he used practically the same players and the same formation for most of the matches.

In the early part of the season when he felt that Leicester’s defence was leaking too many goals, Ranieri promised the players that the next time the team kept a clean sheet he would take all of them out for pizza. The fulfillment of that promise became known as “the pizza moment” which became the turning point for Leicester. “It was my birthday, and Claudio remembered. You don’t find many managers who do that,” said a Leicester player. That is what inspirational leaders do. They encourage members of their team. They treat them specially. They absorb the pressure.

The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) can learn from Ranieri the value of managing expectations. At the beginning of the season, Ranieri made it clear the objective was to secure the 40 points that would ensure safety in the premiership. He was only being realistic, given the size of his club and the resources (human and material) available. Even when the team was winning matches at the initial stage of the competition, he refused to promise what he might not be able to deliver.

However, when Ranieri achieved that objective, he told the fans to continue dreaming, this time about a possible place in Europa League which a “top six” finish would ensure. When that became evident, Ranieri said the fans could also dream of a possible “top four” finish that would earn Leicester a UEFA Champions League qualification that now eludes many big teams. And finally, after crossing that hurdle, Ranieri said his team would bid for the title. By that time, winning had become such a habit for Leicester that the team had also become the darling of most neutral football followers across the globe.

What Leicester has taught us is that for a country or an organization to do well, it is not always about the resources, it can also be about a team where all the members are working together for a common goal. Indeed, anybody who followed the season would come to only one inescapable conclusion: Leicester is a classical example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Unlike other clubs where you have expensive stars, most of the Leicester players are those you would consider football “scraps”—rejects from premier league and cheap buys from some other less-prominent leagues.

Robert Huth, 31, was an integral part of Stoke Football Club until two seasons ago when he had a serious knee injury. By the time he recovered, Huth could no longer get into the Stoke first eleven so technically, he became surplus to requirement. In January last year, Huth went to Leicester on loan and after he helped them to avoid relegation last season, he joined on a permanent basis and not only was he solid in defence, he scored crucial title-defining goals against fellow contenders, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.

Riyahd Mahrez, who was once considered too smallish in frame to succeed as a footballer and was bought last year by Leicester for just £400,000 (less than one percent of the £49 million Manchester City paid for Raheem Sterling!) is now the PFA Footballer of the Year—the first African player to bag the honour. Believing he had no real prospect as a professional footballer, Jamie Vardy was dropped from the Sheffield Wednesday youth programme at 16 and had to play for non-league Stocksbridge Park Steels while working part-time as a medical technician. In 2012, Leicester paid £1 million for his services which he has repaid a thousand fold with the goals that have earned the club an unprecedented premiership title. In 2011, Jeffrey Schlupp spent three weeks on trial at Manchester United before he was also considered not good enough for the club and allowed to leave but is now an integral part of the team that has just won the premiership!

Looking at the Leicester players individually, it is amazing what the team has achieved. Mark Albrighton, who was also asked to go by his childhood club, Aston Villa (now relegated) two seasons ago but is now a champion with Leicester sums it up: “I think teamwork is the difference. Somehow you get brilliant individuals who can’t piece it together as a team. We are the opposite of that. Maybe it’s because so many of us in the dressing room have faced rejection at sometime in our careers.”

The lesson: It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed, nobody is condemned to be a failure. You just keep giving your best and one day, everything will fall in place. What that also teaches is that having the personnel with the right attitude, even if they don’t have the best credentials, is a critical success factor. With each of them playing for the team and working very hard on every match day, Leicester was difficult to defeat in the course of the season. “The guys in Leicester City, on their own, probably aren’t going to achieve this kind of success individually as they would together,” wrote football writer, Simon Hartley.

Finally, you have the Leicester fans who, in the words of Ranieri, kept dreaming. Without their support, it would have been practically impossible for the team to win the title. The same goes for every country. You need passionate leadership as well as a citizenry that would keep dreaming together. In years to come, several books will be written and movies will be made of the incredible success of Leicester for which, Ranieri, as the manager, takes the biggest credit. But the ultimate lesson really is that there is no limit to what a person, organization or country can achieve with the right leadership and everyone working towards a common goal.

Alao’s Inaugural Lecture
It was a delight for me and many old classmates at Ife, when Abiodun Alao, a Professor of African Studies at Kings College London, recently made history with his Inaugural Lecture, the first of its kind from a black African scholar in 187 years of the history of KCL. In the late eighties, Mr Alao, as he then was, taught us at the department of International Relations before he left for the United Kingdom to do his doctorate and then stayed back. For those who may be interested in reading the thought-provoking lecture titled, “Africa: A Voice to Be Heard, Not a Problem to be Solved”, I have placed it in my web portal, along with several new offerings.

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