Blame the Leaders — or the Followers?



At my brother-in-law’s traditional wedding in Lagos last month, I was waylaid by a band of praise-singing drummers. You know them: they shower you with sugary boot-licking songs designed to pull the wallet out of your pocket to disperse a confetti of naira notes on them. I normally avoid these professional flatterers. One of the them looked at me and concluded that I needed an extra tonic to bring out my wallet. He started hailing me as “senator”. A pall of sadness descended on me. The Nigerian society has been so traumatised by the political elite that being like them is now a life aspiration. After all, they live in the most beautiful mansions and drive the best cars.

In my article last week, “The Conspiracy to Destroy Nigeria”, I blamed the “predatory” political elite for the underdevelopment of Nigeria because their key motivation is personal comfort and not development. I distinguished them from the “developmental” elite who — while not being saints or averse to personal benefits — are primarily motivated by a “vision of society” in terms of human, economic and political development. Nigeria remains in a perpetual state of underdevelopment, I argued, because it is the predatory elite that have hijacked government for decades. I proposed that the developmental elite should “hijack” power to develop Nigeria.

However, I have been challenged by the suggestion that the people themselves — the ordinary Nigerians — should be blamed for our misery. George Orwell, the legendary English writer and journalist, once said: “A people that elect corrupt politicians, impostors, thieves and traitors are not victims but accomplices.” It is the opinion of many that since Nigerians collect rice and vegetable oil to vote leaders into office, they have only themselves to blame. It is also said that when the ordinary people celebrate filthy wealth and justify corruption, then they encourage predation. In sum, people get the leaders they deserve. Period. Now this is a very interesting argument.

I have listened to politicians complain that their constituents always bombard them with requests to pay school fees, hospital bills and rents. Constituents make all kinds of demands for “welfare”. Where do they think all the money is coming from? It is the contention of many politicians that the people push them into accumulating wealth with their loads of daily requests. They say people expect public officers to steal, hoping to lick the “trickle down”. And if you go into public office and fail to distribute the “goodies”, the people will not vote for you the next time. So the people are clearly the architects of their misfortune. Right?

This is a great debate that will not end soon. It is certainly not a subject to be discussed in a 1500-word article such as this, but I will put in my shift within the limitations. I think this leader-and-follower argument is like the classic chicken-and-egg case: which came first? The “chicken” question would be difficult to answer if you are an evolutionist — because of the complicated processes of natural selection, mutation, speciation and such like. If you are a creationist, however, it is not a difficult question to answer — God created the mother, and the mother gave birth to the child. So God created the chicken, the chicken laid the egg and there you have it.

On that note, I would argue that leadership comes first. Leadership shapes followership. The dog should be wagging the tail, not the tail wagging the dog. I will make three arguments in this regard and then close my case for today. One, it is true that voters collect rice and cooking oil to “mortgage” their conscience at election times, but we are talking about impoverished people who are still dealing with existential needs — what to eat, where to sleep and what to wear. If someone is hungry, the person who gives him food becomes his god. Politicians understand very well that keeping the people eternally indigent is a strong weapon of controlling their minds.

Conversely, in advanced societies where hunger has been conquered, politicians can’t buy the votes. No matter how poor you are in the UK, for instance, you will eat. At least 99% of the population don’t go to bed hungry. Politicians, therefore, cannot entice voters with ice cream. When I went to the village to bury my grandmother in September and I saw the poverty on the faces of the people, I asked myself: how would these guys not collect rice to vote? They looked so battered. Until we conquer hunger, voters will continue to be vulnerable to gastro-centric inducements. And you know what? It is the responsibility of leaders to crush hunger. The chicken comes first.

Two, politicians complain about being bombarded with monetary and material requests by their constituents. This encourages predation in public office, they say. A very good argument. Nevertheless, why are British voters not bombarding their MPs with similar requests? I will tell you why: quality education is free up to secondary school, while university undergraduates can take student loans; healthcare is free; and there is free or subsidised council housing for the homeless and less privileged. No constituent can go to the MP and tell stories about school fees. And It is leadership that will implement these welfare policies. Again, the chicken comes first.

Three, the brazen display of influence and opulence by politicians and public officers has so damaged the value system that people have come to see them as demigods and role models. The astonishing transformation to millionaires and billionaires within a few months of being in office does something sinister to the brains of the ordinary people. Public office is the sweetest thing in Nigeria. People think getting there is the highest height any human being can aspire to. Ants are naturally attracted to sugar. You can, therefore, understand the mentality of the drummers who think calling me a “senator” would be rewarded with naira rain!
In Nigeria, many people who failed in business go into politics and become billionaires. The people are not blind. They can see everything. If it were the other way — people make money in business and then go into public office to serve — the orientation of Nigerians will also be slightly different. If politicians live modest lives, or sacrifice their comfort to serve, people will also see it. And when you are dealing with an impoverished and disoriented people, it would be unfair to blame them for mortgaging their conscience and voting in the interest of their stomachs. You cannot pour sugar on the floor and turn round to blame the ants for invading your privacy.

When we blame the abjectly poor voters for their choices, we seem to assume that they are intellectually alert, politically sophisticated and economically independent to make the right decisions. More so, we ignore the fact of betrayal — that the politicians campaign with promises to better people’s lives and end up doing something else when they are elected. Imagine that a voter listens to two candidates, and decides, with or without any inducement, that one is better than the other. He votes for the “better candidate” who eventually wins. But many “better candidates” end up as predators in public office. This betrayal factor damages the psyche.

In closing my case today, I admit that the political culture shapes both leaders and followers. But leaders and followers also shape the culture. In fact, humans shape culture and then culture begins to shape humans. We were not always like this. Our choices used to be driven by values. Something snapped along the line and reshaped our values and now we operate a cash-and-carry voting culture. The “transaction” political culture works thus: ‘You need my vote to become a billionaire? Well, pay me in advance — I may never see you again!’ People have become so cynical to the extent that they see all politicians as the same: they are all out to cheat us.

The developmental elite, the ones I’ve been campaigning for, are victims of this cynicism. They too have to pay the “transaction cost” if they want to get political power. The cost is very high because the field is very competitive, with the predatory elite ready to die in their bid for office. The “good guys” cannot really compete, except they have godfathers, and this comes with its own price. The vicious circle is complete then! Of course, the people are not completely blameless — I will readily admit that. Why is it that public officers who try to be different are disdained and described as hypocrites, “aka gum” and fools by the people? Do you blame the leadership for that too?

Nevertheless, I would argue that when people’s psyche has been disoriented and their values twisted for generations, they are bound to begin to see what is wrong as right and what is right as wrong. We need a new vision of society, a new kind of politics, shared by both leaders and followers. Leaders and followers have to be on the same page if Nigeria is ever going to graduate from underdevelopment. The real challenge today is: how can the voters and the politicians sing from the same hymn sheet in the national interest? One thing for sure: we need a complete reorientation. And this is best achieved through leadership by example. The chicken. Again.

I once watched a Yoruba movie in which a blind man was being robbed of his alms by his “helper”. He cursed the chap with a simple prayer: if you take advantage of my disability to cheat me, may you also suffer my affliction. That was the first thing that came to my mind when I read allegations that officials were drugging and raping internally displaced persons in their camps. The officials are not satisfied with stealing supplies meant for IDPs. This is a country where almost everybody claims to be religious, starting and ending every sentence with “God”. Yet wickedness and sadism are at the very centre of our hearts. What a country of godless people! Devils.

One and a half years into President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure, I’m asking myself, again and again, the engagement strategy of his government. The APC controls both chambers of the national assembly — and the simplest benefit should be that the ruling party can push its agenda through with little resistance. How much consultation did Buhari do before presenting his $30bn loan request to the lawmakers? The way the senate threw out the request without even debating it is an indication that things are falling apart. Even if the request would not be approved, at least it should be debated. I hope we are not heading for a lockdown. Worrying.

Talking about peace building, I have had heated arguments with people over the renewed militancy in the Niger Delta. Some hardliners, who are not averse to slicing the nose to spite the face, say the military should bomb the Niger Delta even if it would bring our oil production to zero. I don’t think President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was out of his mind when he chose the path of positive engagement in 2007, which eventually took oil production back to above 2 million barrels per day. It would appear the hardliners are losing and President Buhari has chosen the option of jaw-jaw. There is time for war and time for peace. Tactical.

Empires rise and fall. If American voters decide on Tuesday that their next president should be Donald Trump, it may be a sign of the times. It may just signal the beginning of the end of the American empire. I can imagine President Trump barring Muslims from entering the US, building a wall with Mexico and forcing the Mexicans to pay for it, and then aligning with Russian President Vladimir Putin. We’ve had the Akkadian Empire, Roman Empire and British Empire — and like most things that have a beginning, there must be an end someday. The American empire won’t last forever. It is not as if Hillary Clinton is a fantastic option. But Trump? Ghastly.