7 Ways To Fix Nigeria’s Leadership Crisis


“Leadership is not about a title or about a designation. It’s about impact, influence, and inspiration.”

– Robin S. Sharma

Author of “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”

The Coronavirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the world as we knew it. By the time this is all over and, hopefully, treatment and vaccine developed, economies will lie prostrate, globalization will be in retreat, and governments may rise and fall. Leadership and its responses have been tested from Beijing to Rome, from Seoul to Washington DC, and from Abuja to Pretoria. Well beyond the roving virus, Nigeria has long been afflicted with its own, pre-COVID ailment: a scarcity of leadership combined with a preponderance of toxic politics that has left us a broken country. The economy has long been anemic. Poverty reigns. Sectarian agendas, distrust and conflict, promoted by individuals in positions of authority, have prevented our country from becoming a nation with any unity of purpose. Boko Haram has waged war on us, undefeated, for the past decade.

How will we select our leaders in the post-COVID world, seeing how we have for decades failed to invest in our health system? Nigerians are so poor they refuse to stay at home to protect their health because absence from their daily hustle is equal to death from hunger. No electricity. No running water to wash our hands. And in many parts of the country, “social distance” is a strange joke. The physical and communal warmth in our cultures will brook no interference from COVID. Some imams and pastors, steeped in conspiracy theories, remain completely obliviousness to public health and science by insisting on holding worship congregations.

Leadership determines the progress or failure of nations. It is a sacred responsibility. We have a choice to seek its real emergence in the Nigerian polity in a proactive manner, or to wallow in short-term thinking and activity, going around in circles and ever remaining an “under-developmental” state. Here are seven ways we can fix our leadership crisis.

First, we need to be clear in our minds about what leadership really means, what we should have but don’t. Leadership is the ability to inspire, motivate, and mobilize a unit of human beings – family, organization, institution, state or country – to make steady and measurable progress. This ability is strongly linked with vision. To inspire and mobilize, the leader must have a clear destination in mind. Where are we coming from? Where are we going? Where do we need to get to, and how do we get there? What values, ambitions and strategies to attain those ambitions will drive this journey?

Without this worldview, a strategic ambition placed in the context of domestic and external realities, a country like ours can exist, alright. We have plodded along for a while now, “surviving”, frequently on the edge of the precipice but (so far) always pulling back from the brink. But this pattern won’t take the 100 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty anywhere near prosperity. Instead, we should be thriving. This is the difference between becoming the “black China”, on the one hand, and the strategic war-game scenarios in Western intelligence agencies that “an implosion of a country of 200 million people will unleash a flood of refugees”, on its region and the world. In one scenario, we take our destiny in our hands and create the future we want. In another, we are a problem that the world’s strategic thinkers worry about.

Leadership also calls for an ability to manage risk. As a summary of Dr. Ben Carson’s book “Take the Risk” puts it: “No risk, pay the cost; know risk, reap the reward”. Choices have to be made, and all choices have consequences. Sound, informed, strategic choices lead to progress. The complacent worship of the familiar, the gods of small things like crude-oil dependency, the pursuit of ethnic and religious hegemony in a plural and secular state, lead only to poverty and conflict.

Second, we must now make our politics a real leadership selection process. It is increasingly obvious that the current contradictions of the Nigerian state cannot be sustained for much longer. Something will have to give. Who has the vision, the capacity and the competence to lead Nigeria into the 21st Century as a modern, prosperous and stable nation? This is the central issue we must address, as our politicians joust for power in 2023.

Third, Nigeria’s next political leadership should emerge through a process of negotiated consensus, and then placed into an electoral process in all or the leading political parties. This is what happened in 1999. It is not ideal, but the times call for it. Our politics has become so broken in the past decade that, left to itself, and with “democratic” outcomes determined mainly by financial inducement, it is unlikely to produce the leader Nigeria needs now. Realistically, this negotiation needs to take place within and across the political parties, ethnic blocks, civil society, traditional rulers, elder statemen including our former presidents, youth, and gender. While, for now, the APC and the PDP are the dominant parties, we cannot write off the possible emergence of a strong third force combining “new breed” with disaffected members of the old order.

Fourth, the role of equity and justice in nation-building must be frontally addressed. It’s possible to do so without compromising the emergence of competent leadership. The unique political positioning of the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria since the civil war 50 years ago, and the need to achieve true national reconciliation from that trauma, is an important factor in the future of Nigeria. Candidates from the major ethnic groups – Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani — and a Niger Delta minority, have been voted into office by every part of Nigeria, the Igbo Southeast included. But Nigeria has yet to elect an Igbo as its president.

Beyond the sad reality of its ethnic geo-politics, what Nigeria needs most is good, competent leadership. That possibility abounds in every part of our country, including the Southeast. But, given Nigeria’s quest for nationhood and the country’s already frayed existence, the opportunity exists to kill two birds with one stone. Even more fundamental is the imperative of a new constitution that returns Nigeria to a true federal structure. Without a constitutional restructuring of Nigeria, the country has no future, as economic progress and political stability will remain elusive. Our next national political leadership selection must squarely address these related issues of national equity and constitutional reform.

Fifth, fixing Nigeria’s leadership crisis requires that the middle class, intellectuals and youth consciously engage in politics. Ideas rule the world – at least in the parts of it that are making real progress. Our independence struggle and post-independence politics were led by intellectuals and professionals from the middle class. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello wrote tomes to express their ideas. Today, philistines and “mumullectuals” have largely replaced thinking people as leaders. If we are to secure the future of our children, Nigeria’s middle class must reclaim its surrendered space and retire from its self-inflicted political apathy. That future is threatened by weak economic management and a return to debt slavery. Our youth should take its future in their own hands. They should (a) join political parties and engage in structural politics, as opposed to just activism or an ineffectual obsession with social media; (b) register to vote and vote in elections, regardless of distractions and obstacles; and (c) run for office where they have the relevant qualifications and experience.

Sixth, electoral reform is job number one in Nigeria today. Without it, we have a democracy in name only, a hollow ritual. The recommended negotiated consensus towards new political leadership in 2023 must include extensive reform of our electoral laws and institutions before the end of 2020.

Finally, reading is essential for leaders, because leadership can be learned from reading and from training. I recall my interview on CNN Television on this subject some years ago. The program “Reading for Leading”, anchored by the inimitable Richard Quest, interviewed global business and economic leaders on how reading made them better leaders. As Admiral James Stavridis (rtd), former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and until recently Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University writes in “The Leader’s Bookshelf,” his book on leadership, reading is essential for good leadership because it helps us evaluate ourselves (“what would I have done in that situation?”), allows us to think deeply about who our heroes and role models are, sharpens our written communication skills, and improves our leadership skills.

We have excellent leadership in the Nigerian private sector, but we need much more of that leadership caliber in the public sector in order to create the enabling environment for mass wealth creation. Nigerian corporations train their staff in leadership to a far greater extent than the public sector. The Central Bank of Nigeria in my time was a major exception. We invested heavily in leadership and other training for the staff and management, and I hope it has remained so. My leadership vision was shaped in the reserve bank by such rich executive education programs in leadership as Harvard Business School’s “Making Corporate Boards More Effective,” Harvard Kennedy School’s “Leading Economic Growth,” and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania’s “Global Strategic Leadership.”

Leadership training should be more institutionalized in the civil service. Rare for an African country, Ethiopia has a civil service university. Political parties should have their officials and candidates trained in leadership at home and abroad. In early 2019, I concluded consultations on my planned presidential run with a visit to my old boss at the United Nations, the late former secretary-general Kofi Annan. When I mentioned this matter of leadership training and preparedness for aspiring or serving political leaders as we chatted in his office in Geneva, the sage diplomat smiled. With a twinkle in his eye, he gave me advice: “Don’t call it ‘leadership training,’ Kingsley.” “African politicians don’t believe they have anything to learn from anyone. What you do is to invite them to a ‘leadership conference.’ Wisdom. Three gbosas to “leadership conferences!”

•Kingsley Moghalu, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a presidential candidate in 2019, is the Convener of To Build a Nation (TBAN), a non-partisan citizen’s movement for electoral and constitutional reform.

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