In Search of Nigeria’s Next-Generation Leaders: Challenges of Ethics and Good Governance

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SUNDAY DISCOURSE

The challenges of good governance, ethics, and accountability in Nigerian leadership can make or break the future of Africa’s most populous nation if specific issues are not resolved as a matter of urgency, Bayo Akinloye reports

The #EndSARS movement was considered a manifestation of the divisions and frustration with established governance structures. Against this backdrop, on January 14, 2021, a select group of Nigerian civil society leaders had a roundtable discussion convened by Africa Practice, in partnership with Leadership and Values Initiative (LEVI) of the World Economic Forum Africa Regional Strategy Group, to examine the intricacies of inclusion, technology, and gender representation.

In the 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), Nigeria scored only 45.5 percent (average across all governance indicators) and ranked 34th out of 54 countries. The country did not fare any better on the 2020 Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index. Its governance was placed within the ‘weak spectrum;’ economic transformation within the ‘very limited spectrum,’ and political transformation within the ‘highly defective spectrum.’

Inclusion and Youth Representation
In the 21st century, no conversation about governance and leadership can occur without acknowledging the concept of inclusion. While inclusion in Nigeria is not as elaborated as it is in more established democracies, calls for more robust youth and gender participation have increased throughout the African continent, especially Nigeria.
More than 50 percent of Nigeria’s 200 million citizens are under 30. Nigeria’s bulging youth population remains heavily underrepresented in governance circles. So far, all Nigeria’s civilian leaders have been older than 50. A combination of structural and systematic exclusionary practices are to blame, experts say. Godfatherism and the weaponisation of wealth are commonly meted out by political elites when recruiting youths.

Samson Itodo, the founder of Yiaga Africa and convener of Not Too Young to Run, explained, “This defective recruitment approach should lead to a re-evaluation of how we recruit our leaders – within and beyond the political system.”
Itodo’s observation underscores Nigeria’s current system of recruitment into politics, which is not known as meritocratic. Because of this, many well-intentioned and capable youths are exempted from decision-making. With no seat at the table, 2.2 percent of House of Assembly seats belong to people between the ages of 25 and 30. At the same time, 11.7 percent of House of Representative seats belong to people between 30 and 40.

Of youths polled by the African Union’s Office of the Youth Envoy, 95.8 percent said they would like to run or serve in public office if given the right opportunities and access. The panel cautioned that more robust youth representation is not a solution, due to what can be described as the absence of a servant-leadership culture. Harsh economic realities and the allure of political wealth have led many young people to view public office first and foremost, as their ticket out of poverty – a culture that successive generations have cultivated.

To resolve this, Teju Abisoye, the Executive Secretary of Lagos State Employment Trust Fund, (LSETF), said, “We must inspire our youths with the right examples, showing and teaching them the reality of exactly what it takes to hold public office. The onus must be on society to reframe its political priorities, and to refocus our expectations and perception of public service, to overcome prevailing and pejorative views.”

Seeking Balance in Gender Representation
On the subject of inclusion, the importance of gender representation was highlighted by the discussants. Recognising that Nigeria’s patriarchy has deep roots is an essential first step towards addressing female under-representation in the nation’s governance systems, the panel concluded.
Only four percent of legislators in the National Assembly are women, and women hold only 16.3 percent of ministerial positions at the federal level. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced patriarchal tendencies. The combination of school closures and economic hardship has conspired to lead many families to marry off their daughters for economic gain, one panellist noted.

More generally, the pandemic has led to a “re-domestication of women and a regression in the progress” achieved since the #MeToo movement’s advent. Consequently, the urgency Nigerians attach to challenging bias and stereotypical representations that perpetuate harmful gender norms is now “more acute than ever.” It is believed that fast-tracking women in sectors with an outsized impact on society — like a public office — should assume a greater priority.

The fact that Nigeria remains characterised by patriarchy and hierarchical leadership, with older men occupying senior roles, underscores and exacerbates the gender challenge. Dr. Fatima Akilu, the Neem Foundation founder, noted regarding the drive for “true” change, “It is imperative that we confront the culture of gatekeeping, as research has shown that once women are allowed into positions of authority, they perform very well.”
It is thought that taking a bottom-to-top approach can contribute to tearing down societal gates put up against women, including both cultural and religious instruments of subjugation.

Meanwhile, it was agreed that traditional pathways into politics and public administration work best for men because they were designed that way, consciously or unconsciously. Thus, the panel encouraged new pathways that will open more entry points for women must be created. The panellists believe that more women should be inspired to occupy public office roles; for this to happen, women must see themselves in the examples they are shown.
Therefore, it is imperative that women from all backgrounds are attracted and promoted to politics and public administration.

At the same time, identity politics continues to undermine Nigeria’s electoral democracy, restricting all candidates’ viability, irrespective of gender or ethnicity. Itodo emphasised this point, saying, “Representation goes beyond fulfilling a democratic ideal. When we speak about representation, we must ask ourselves the question, for what? It is essential that women, young people or persons with disabilities, when included in governance systems, are actually empowered to make decisions that can lift people out of poverty.”
The bottom line: equality can’t wait, and no one in a position to act should wait either. The “onus rests with male leaders,” who are in the majority.

Weaponisation or Democratisation of Technology?
Technology is a valuable tool for enhancing governance and accountability. It is believed that inclusiveness can be strengthened by democratising internet access and leveraging technology to open up more civic engagement channels. Technology can reduce entry barriers for persons who might otherwise be excluded from participatory democracy and policy debate.

In some cases, the intersection between technology and governance extends beyond formal channels such as e-governance to social media and text messaging. Although social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and more recently, Clubhouse, are popular platforms for political discourse, there’s growing evidence that ‘lower-tech’ messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Signal are exploited as safe spaces for dialogue and debate.

‘Gbenga Sesan, the CEO of Paradigm Initiative, made a case for embracing these as tools for inclusion. He explained, “As we look to technology as a tool for civic engagement and participation, it’s important that we don’t focus only on the most expensive and the best looking, but instead, we consider the efficacy of the platform.”
Technology can both democratise debate and improve policy advocacy. A wide spectrum of platforms should be harnessed, in the panel’s view. Otherwise, Nigerians run the risk of perpetuating ‘the echo chamber effect’ – a term used to reflect conformity of opinions resulting from social media fragmentation.

Technological exclusion and the unconscious dismissal of different manifestations of technology were cited by Akilu as a cause for concern and are most prolific in areas where insecurity proliferates. Akilu explained further, “Harnessing technology as a tool of inclusion mitigates the prevalence of insecurity.”
The Neem Foundation, which provides trauma services in IDP camps across Nigeria, has leveraged technology in areas where security and government presence is limited. The foundation provided trauma services to up to 7,000 people by leveraging mobile penetration and access.

While the federal government employs social media as a public communication tool, it remains a reluctant adopter, the panel observed. Social media can be both a destabilising force and a powerful tool for enhancing governance and accountability. The disputed elections in the United States of America and social media platforms’ weaponisation by some nefarious groups are a case in point.

The decision by certain technology firms to de-platform then-President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, drew attention to some of the moral challenges associated with regulating social media. Their decisions were met with criticisms from leading democrats in Europe, including Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Finding the right balance is a challenge for all regulators, and the federal government would be wise to consult extensively to identify the right path for Nigeria, the panellists added.
The panel also considered the emergence of the Social Media Bill in Nigeria. In this case, the panel believed that the government’s response was characterised as less motivated by the need to standardise norms and more about exercising control.

Sesan highlighted this, saying, “While disinformation and misinformation are genuine concerns, one of the solutions to combating the problem is proactive disclosure by the government.”
He cited the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as a great example of the government’s ability to leverage social media to combat fake news. In that sense, technology can contribute to good governance and accountability by providing a channel for publicising commitments and statements and keeping people and institutions accountable for them.

Harnessing Public-Private Partnerships
One other point on the table was that more consultation and collaboration with the private sector could serve society well. Partnerships are the foundation on which progress is built. Diversity in ideas, resources, networks, and expertise creates better and more robust results.

Also, they reduce waste and can overcome infrastructure gaps. They can be a valuable mechanism for ensuring continuity and accountability in delivering government policies and services. What’s more, they can put in place some checks and balances and greater levels of accountability given the shared decision-making and shared resource allocation processes as evidenced by the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF).

Civil Society Organisations’ Role
Additionally, civil society organisations have a vital role in advancing accountability in service delivery as initiatives like BudgIT, which has afforded the public visibility on government expenditure, have shown. Such tools equip citizens with the information they need to hold leaders accountable.
Akilu underscored the crucial role that a coordinated response from civil society actors can achieve. She noted that “when civil society comes together in a more united front, we have more strength and more capacity to influence.”

Civil Service and Good Governance
That good governance cannot exist without strong ethics and professionalism in the civil service, was a view shared on the panel. Abisoye asserted, “The efficacy of the Nigerian civil service rests in the hands of capable and qualified workers.”

The cumbersome administrative practices that proliferate across the civil service, it was argued, resulted from unqualified administrators, or a lack of commitment to reform.
Consequently, according to the panel, the most simple and basic processes continue to be challenging, stating that all areas of professional service are being disrupted and must adapt. Nigeria’s civil service should be no exception. Through its Learning Management Service and Key Performance Indicators (and the provision of training and individual performance evaluation), Lagos State provides a benchmark.
The panellists concluded that the country must equip its public administrators with the confidence to adapt to change and embrace technology. Those who refuse to could be assumed to be purveyors and perpetrators of bad governance and corruption.

Wrap-ups
Laying out the context for this conversation, Buchi Ajufo, Director at Africa Practice, identified that good governance remains a critical challenge for Nigeria; as finding the right formula to address Nigerians’ many concerns and aspirations, has thus far been impossible for the leaders.
She also drew attention to the fact that in pursuit of good leadership, Nigerians focus on individuals and their personalities rather than on the systems and institutions that breed good leadership.

Despite the democratic gains in governance since the 1990s, the absence of widespread value-based leadership, according to the panellists, continues to impede the wealth creation needed to tackle poverty and underdevelopment, while consolidating economic growth. This absence of good leadership and strong institutions also contributes to the insecurity threatening to destabilise the nation.

The panel believed that inclusive governance – the full and effective participation of all sections of society – provides the surest mechanism for improving policy-making and accountability. To realise its vast potential as a nation, the panellists recommended that Nigeria must strive to ensure that historically marginalised groups, such as women and youths, are better represented in the nation’s governance structures, while also seeking to cultivate values-based and ethical leadership at all levels of society.

Another point raised was that values-based and ethical leadership requires intentional action from those in government and concerned stakeholders. To have good representatives at the helm of affairs, the panellists said people must elect good leaders. To elect good leaders, they said Nigerians must have the necessary information and tools to make informed choices.

It was emphasised that Nigerians must take responsibility for their role in calling for accountability from their leaders and recognising the power they have to motivate for change. Elected officials and other public servants, must perform their responsibilities with empathy and professionalism, said the panel.
Jackie Chimhanzi, CEO of the African Leadership Institute, stated, “Servant leadership is the essence of good leadership, it should never be about yourself, it should be about the people you serve.”