Still on the Leadership Problem with Nigeria

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By Reuben Abati

Uma O. Eleazu, Nigeria As I see it: Reflections on the Challenge of Leadership (Lagos: Green and Cherished Ltd., 2020, 400 pp.)

The challenge of leadership in Nigeria has been a subject of repeated fascination for scholars, observers and the Nigerian citizenry. How can a country so blessed with human and natural resources fail so woefully in translating its assets into great achievement for the benefit of its own people? Why is Nigeria the way it is: a country that is now associated with poverty, insecurity, corruption and a despondent and frustrated citizenry? What happened to this same country that was once described as “the giant of Africa? How did the giant become a cripple? What should our leaders have done that they failed to do? There is a consensus in this regard that the “problem with Nigeria is leadership” as Professor Chinua Achebe put it. In Nigeria As I see It: Reflections on the Challenge of Leadership – an impressive 400-page book written by Dr. Uma O. Eleazu, now made available to the public on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the dynamics of this problem is further analysed and interrogated. Dr Eleazu’s thesis can be simply summarized in two words: “Leadership matters”. He argues that “..without leaders with integrity and understanding of human nature, Nigeria cannot make it as a nation”. He echoes the same view once expressed by Professor Wole Soyinka that his generation belongs to a “wasted generation”. Dr. Eleazu should know. He has been actively involved in Nigeria’s development process for more than six decades.

He was a polling officer in the 1954 general elections. In 1955, he joined the Federal Civil Service. In 1976, he was appointed the head of the National Policy Development Centre – a Federal Government Think Tank which focussed on policy research, policy analysis, and policy review and offered ideas to enrich public administration and service delivery. The NPDC would later transform into the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, where Dr. Eleazu served as pioneer Director of Research. He has also been involved in the private sector as Spokesman for the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). He was also a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee that produced the 1979 Constitution, and later the Constitutional Debate Co-ordinating Committee set up by the Abdusalami Abubakar administration which led to the 1999 Constitution. From 1990-1992, Dr Eleazu served as Chairman, Board of Directors, Pipelines and Products Marketing Company (PPMC). Essentially a scholar and a teacher, Dr. Eleazu has written over the years on the Nigerian experience and issues in public administration. But perhaps his latest book, Nigeria As I See It: Reflections on the Challenge of Leadership may well be considered his most authoritative contribution so far. He writes with scholarly rigour, but also as a practical man of experience, a direct participant in many areas of national life, who looks back at 90 and asks: what went wrong?

The book is dedicated to his children and “and to all Nigerians born after 1960.” In a total of 15 Chapters, and accompanying commentaries and appendices, he takes us on a historical journey from the pre-colonial period to the present. He combines scholarly analysis, with personal narratives and brings the book to a close with reflections about the future of Nigeria. It is a gripping account of the failure of Nigeria.

The British who created an artificial union in 1900, that would later become Nigeria in 1914 were interested in their own economic agenda, not necessarily to provide leadership for the conquered colonies. They introduced a separatist development policy which affected the country’s future development and the politics of integration. I am often uncomfortable with the tendency to blame the British for Nigeria’s problems: the tendency to blame “the outsider” usually comes across as an excuse for the failure of the post-colonial leaders to provide good leadership. But in this book, Dr. Eleazu provides more than enough evidence to establish Britain’s contribution to the underdevelopment of Nigeria, from the problematic 1952/53 census, to the opportunistic romance between the British and Northern leaders, and the role of the British during the Nigerian civil war, driven by their selfish interest in Nigeria’s crude oil resources. In addition to his own analysis, the author provides in Appendix I, an eye-opening piece titled “Who Killed Biafra? by Stanley Diamond (pp. 335 -358).

But of course, Dr. Eleazu does not blame the British for all that is wrong with Nigerian leadership. Even before independence, beginning with thee 1951 Ibadan Conference, it was already clear that the leaders of a future independent Nigeria had different ideas about the kind of country they wanted either with regard to the nature of the Federation, or national integration. Nigerians have always talked about democracy, but it is a different kind of democracy that we run: a democracy that is driven by selfish interests, ethnicity, religion, personality clashes, corruption and the worship of money. Leaders transform societies, but Nigeria’s problem has been the emergence over the years of transactional leaders, who would manipulate any situation for their own purposes. In the process, they fail to do the right thing at the right time, and with such laissez faire attitude to governance, they create crisis and chaos. They violate the social contract. They prioritise nepotism, mediocrity and opportunism. The people are short-changed and over the years, from one administration after another, the people have learnt not to trust their leaders. After experiencing failure and the greed of the leadership, the average Nigerian has been socialized to have low expectations. The real tragedy is that Nigerians have learnt to accept the “abnormal” as normal.

Dr. Eleazu focusses on specific and instructive moments in Nigerian history to trace the roots of the problem. These include constitutional changes and the emergence of political parties in the First Republic, the performance of the political elite during the Action Group Crisis 1961/62; the Census Crisis of 1962/63, the 1964 Federal elections, the demonization of Igbos, the 1965 Western Regional Elections, the role played by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Sardauna – Ahmadu Bello, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa and other political actors of the period, and the eventual blow-out that resulted in the January 15 coup and the counter-coup of July 1966. Was the January 15, 1966 coup an Igbo coup? Was it a coup of five Majors? What happened at Aburi?

Throughout the book, Dr. Eleazu takes on many assumptions about certain episodes in Nigerian history and provides hard evidence to debunk certain misconceptions. He is convinced that the course of Nigerian history could have been different if the new political elite that took over power from the colonialists had been more nationalistic, and committed to the goal of creating a united nation. Many readers will find his account of military incursion into Nigerian politics and the emergence of “a class of politicians in army uniform” particularly engaging, but even more so, his analysis of the civil war, and how a military/bureaucratic complex conspired to impose a regime of kleptocracy that underdeveloped Nigeria. There are many high points in the book, but perhaps most memorable would be the author’s careful profiling and assessment of every Nigerian leader, from 1960 to 2020. Chapter 10 is specially devoted to President Buhari under the title: “Buhari’s Second Coming: A Political Retrogression?” He thinks it is. In Chapter 12, he assesses how every leader since 1960 has performed in terms of what should be a social contract with the Nigerian people, but which sadly is non-existent.

Dr. Eleazu is blunt, fearless and attentive to details. He says it as he sees it. I guess it is perfectly safe for a 90-year old author to characterize Nigerian leaders, in very strong language, as corrupt, mediocre and incompetent. A former leader is said to be a benevolent despot. Another is accused of being an Islamic Jihadist. Others are described as looters of the treasury, election riggers and promoters of institutionalized criminality. In Africa, it is part of the prerogative of old age to tell the younger generation blunt truths. Dr. Eleazu does precisely that. He may attract not a little controversy though.

The author pays particular attention to how corruption has ruined the moral fabric of the Nigerian society at all levels. He also examines elite conspiracy and the amorality of Nigerian politics. He provides amusing personal narratives in this regard. As a member of a Federal Government delegation to Europe in 1975, he was given an ESTACODE that was the equivalent of his salary for six months as an Assistant Professor in the United States. The trip to Europe was for two weeks only! When he returned to the country, he thought it was best to give proper account and return the balance to the government. The government official to whom he reported told him to go and put the money in his bank account and “wait for the next instruction which never came”! (p. 184). As Chairman of the Board of the PPMC, some members of the Board approached him to discuss how they could use their position to make some money for themselves. He refused. They went ahead anyway, and accused him of not being “a good team player”. The graft and inefficiency in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector started long ago. But the author’s most shocking reference was when he decided to go into politics and run as a Presidential candidate on the platform of the Social Democratic Party in 1991. His manifesto: “Why I want to serve Nigeria as President” is included in the book as Appendix 3 (pp. 381 – 389). He discovered to his chagrin that nobody was interested in his lofty ideas about how to move Nigeria forward. Nigerian politics is driven by money and rituals, godfathers and money bags, and oligarchs. He resolved he would only play by the rules. He was not ready to genuflect to any Godfather. He was not prepared to bribe any voter; instead he sold his credentials to the people. Well one day, someone in the crowd asked him: “is it your credential that my wife will take to market?” That was in 1991. Twenty-nine years later, the situation remains the same in Nigerian politics. In fact, it is worse.

Nonetheless, the author may have begun the book on a note of frustration, he ends it on an optimistic note. He believes that a Nigerian rebirth is possible. His dream is that someday Nigeria will produce leaders who have a sense of direction, and get Nigeria “out of the present quagmire.” He says he knows a number of young Nigerians: “they are better educated, more versatile in experience, blessed with youthful energy, and most importantly, they have the privilege of drawing invaluable lessons from where my generation stumbled. They can make Project Nigeria a success; and it is on them that I now anchor my dreams.” (p. 334). What do we say to that? That new generation Dr. Eleazu dreams about can only emerge if Nigeria addresses the many limitations that make it impossible for institutions to work, and for good men to thrive. He offers a number of suggestions in Chapter 11, but will anyone listen? In any case, Nigerian leaders do not read books.

Dr. Eleazu’s Nigeria As I see It: Reflections on the Challenge of Leadership should be read by everyone who is interested in the Nigerian story, and the need for change and progress. The book is judgemental but it is detailed, well-written, and educative, as the author teaches theory, history, and practice. And whereas the book may appear short on recommendations, the author provides much food for thought that should further enrich the conversation about how to save Nigeria. This book should be compulsory reading for scholars, students, and the general public and particularly young Nigerians who have been denied the opportunity to know the history of their country by policy makers who treat history and ideas as irrelevant.