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Leadership and the future of Nigeria

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Senator Abraham Adesanya was a symbol of authentic combination of loyalty to one’s ethnic group and loyalty to one’s country. He was at the same time an outstanding leader of Afenifere that sought to promote and protect the interest of the Yoruba and a nationalist leader of NADECO that sought to promote and protect democracy in his country, Nigeria. Inspired by the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he led a life of idealism in which service to the Yoruba and to Nigeria was an uncompromising credo.

Adesanya’s unflinching political activism was devoted to the promotion of democracy in Nigeria.  He was a political activist that dedicated his political career to the righting of wrongs without deference to any form of prejudice, be it personal, ethnic or religious.

I recall here that even without having met me in person, Senator Adesanya put up a stout defence of me in the Senate in 1983 when some members of the Senate Screening Committee sought, for clearly perfidious reasons, to mess me up during the ministerial confirmation hearing before my appointment by President Shehu Shagari as Nigeria’s Foreign Minister. The incident was illustrative of how, in an uncommon public friendliness, Senator Adesanya could proceed in the defence of truth and public interest.



I come now to the theme of this symposium, Leadership and the Future of Nigeria. I must first state that throughout this presentation, leadership implies good leadership in Nigeria and in other countries.

A leader must, in my view, possess to a good degree, inter alia, the following attributes:  the capacity to inspire and form affinity with the people that the leader is leading; the capacity to have and articulate a vision of where he/she plans to take the country concerned; the capacity to deliver electoral promises; and the capacity to identify with and be seen to be tackling the challenges facing the people he/she is leading. Hence, leadership is primarily about service, and servant leadership enables the building of trust with bonding and continuing inspiration of the people. A good leadership must be defined by discipline, resilience, perseverance, determination, unyielding devotion, and, above all, a strong political will to act without deference to sectionalism.

It is not always easy to find a convergence of all these attributes in a single individual. Nevertheless, I shall want to mention three examples of leaders whose performance in their countries had demonstrable achievements, especially in putting their countries on the global map and in some cases, lifting them from the nadir of developmental challenges. A common feature of their successful leadership is their capacity, during electoral campaigns and on assumption of office, to spell out in clear and unambiguous terms the goals and guiding principles that would define their tenure in office.

My first example is Prime Minister Muhammad Mahathir in Malaysia. At the time our country attained its independence in 1960, by virtually all economic and social indices—education and health, roads construction, agriculture, etc–, Nigeria was at par or even a notch above Malaya that subsequently became Malaysia in 1965. It is common knowledge that Malaysia now the world’s largest producer of palm produce obtained the seedlings for its palm plantations from Nigeria which was then the world’s largest source of palm produce. Today, Nigeria imports palm oil from Malaysia. And in the wider scale of development including industrial, agriculture, and human skills, Nigeria now ranks below Malaysia. All this was mainly due to the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir.

To recall an illustration of Mahathir’s dedication and resilience as a leader, in 1981 when as Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General I visited his office, he showed me a stand with aluminum panels on which the progress of projects being executed by the various ministries of his Government was periodically recorded. And when 11 years later he received me as Secretary-General in his same office, he showed me how he was still regularly monitoring the performance of the ministries but now using a computer on his desk.

My second example of good leadership is Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. When he assumed the presidency of his country in 1963, Tanzania had one of the highest rates of illiteracy in Africa, and the bulk of the population who lived in far-flung villages and towns were largely lacking in schools and medical facilities. Nyerere, inspiring his people and winning their trust with his clear articulation of his goals for their welfare and unity of the country, proceeded, initially with his socialist Ujamaa policy which he subsequently moderated by accepting a more liberal economic policy, to build a large number of schools, hospitals and health centres, and impressive transport facilities that included roads and the famous TanZam railway built with  assistance from China to serve Tanzania and provide access to the sea for its  land-locked neighbour, Zambia. Thus, in a relatively short period, the literacy rate and human skills development in Tanzania began to compare favourably with other African countries.



My third example of good leadership is Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson of Canada. Mike Pearson (as he was fondly called by his friends and colleagues) was the Prime Minister when in 1968 Canada faced a major political crisis of imminent disintegration. The country’s major French-speaking province of Quebec was on the verge of seceding from federal Canada. The then French President, Charles de Gaulle, had the previous year in a state visit to Canada, while addressing a huge audience in Quebec, said “Vive le Quebec, vive le Quebec libre” meaning, “Long live Quebec, long live independent Quebec”.

Prime Minister Pearson, himself English-speaking, was then approaching retirement and had to face the task of steering his political party in finding his successor. To the surprise of the long-standing senior members of his party, the Liberal Party, he jumped over the heads of such very senior party stalwarts as Paul Martin Snr and others to support a relatively junior French-speaking party member, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, from Quebec who had been in parliament for only about three years and with only about 18 months ministerial experience.

Pierre Trudeau’s prime-ministership arrested the secessionist movement in Quebec. Mike Pearson was able to achieve that because of the strength of his bonding with the citizens of Canada, and his wisdom in recognising the importance of inclusive policy in the governance of a pluralistic country that Canada, like Nigeria, is.

I will like to recall here that I had accompanied the first Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, who was a Canadian, on a visit to the leader of the Quebec secessionist movement, Mr Ronie Levesque, in the middle of that crisis and that Arnold Smith had not succeeded in persuading Levesque to give up his quest for an independent republic of Quebec.

Let me now speak about leadership and the future of our country, Nigeria. The core of my submission is that the present state of affairs in our country represents not only a clear case of national dysfunction, but also a bleak future with no assurance of the country’s continued existence as one political entity if the proposal that I shall proffer later in this presentation is not actively pursued in one form or the other by our governments and peoples.

There are facts about our country that I believe are incontestable to any objective observer. The first and overaching fact is that the very substantial revenue that Nigeria has earned from its crude oil exports over the years has had little or no impact on the lives and welfare of the vast majority of the population.

In education, Nigeria, in addition to having over 10 million children out of school,  has retrogressed to having only one university (University of Ibadan) ranked 601st among the top 800 world universities and 14th in Africa, ie lower than universities in Ghana and Uganda; in agriculture, it has retrogressed from being the world’s largest producer of palm produce and second largest producer of cocoa to being an importer of palm oil and minor producer of cocoa; it has retrogressed from having efficient railway transport from Lagos through the North-West to the South-East regions of the country to having haphazard rail lines that are now being sporadically rehabilitated and built; it has retrogressed from having first-rate hospitals such as the University Teaching Hospital in Ibadan which at one time attracted medical tourism from Saudi Arabia to now having such poor medical facilities that government officials and the citizens who can afford it are compelled to seek medical treatment abroad; and perhaps most worryingly, Nigeria has retrogressed from being a country where people lived with their property in relative safety to being a country where insurgents, kidnappers and lately marauding Fulani herdsmen are killing men, women and children in significant numbers on a daily basis.

In sum, our country, Nigeria, is currently drifting with decreasing respect for the sanctity of human life and as a result, has become number 13 in the Wikipedia list of the world’s fragile states.

In singling out absence of good leadership as one of the factors that have led to this unhappy state of affairs, I would like to quote one of the country’s literary icons, the late Prof Chinua Achebe, who wrote that:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership”.

But I must however hasten to say that we have had some flashes of relative good leadership in Nigeria, particularly in the immediate post-independence years during the First Republic. In the First Republic, we had the focused and service-oriented leadership of Sir Ahmadu Bello that saw such achievements as the groundnut pyramids and vast plantations of cotton in the Northern region; of Chief Obafemi Awolowo that brought to the Western Region free and universal education and the introduction of the first television service in sub-Saharan Africa; and the good leadership of Dr. Michael Okpara who achieved the world-scale production of palm produce and the burgeoning industrialisation of the Eastern Region.

Nigeria’s political and economic progress began its retrogression with the military intervention in the country’s governance in January 1966. For 33 years thereafter until May 1999, minus the relatively short period of the Second Republic (October 1979 to December 1983), the successive military regimes became responsible  for dismantling the foundations of the country’s political stability and economic progress.

First, they dismantled the country’s true federal structure which had been carefully negotiated and agreed as the basis for stability and progress by the nation’s founding fathers, and in its place introduced a series of constitutional arrangements that reflected the army command structure, thereby transforming the central government to the equivalent of the supreme military commander whose orders must be obeyed by all rank and file, in this case the federating units.

Second, they replaced the negotiated and democratic process of creating new federating units, as was done when the new Mid-West region was created in August 1963, with arbitrary creation of federating units by military fiat.

Thirdly, they imported and sustained the culture of impunity which is a natural concomitant of rule by force. As has been amply demonstrated, impunity not only vitiates the rule of law, it also facilitates corruption.

I must however add that the retardation of Nigeria’s progress cannot be blamed solely on the military. The civillians, some of whom have been involved in encouraging and supporting the various coups, and many of whom as politicians whose brand of politics has promoted corruption and divisiveness in the polity, have their fair share of responsibility for the current very worrying state of affairs in Nigeria.

Our country is currently beset by among others, the following worries: A totally enervating atmosphere of moral and ethical decadence; a debilitating rancorous politics that is partly exacerbated by lopsided federal appointments; increased divisiveness and lack of cohesion as the country slides deeper into ethno-religious and sectarian divisions; a limping weak mono-crop-economy in which values are hardly added;  loss of the country’s influence and standing abroad; and a growing insecurity of life and property with sickening daily reports of killings of human beings.




The question therefore is: How can we arrest this current drift towards a failed state and build the Nigeria of our dreams?

I want here to reiterate the view that I have been expressing since my return to Nigeria in 2000 namely, that based on the experience of other similarly pluralistic countries across the world, Nigeria will not achieve enduring political stability or realise its deserved development potential with its present non-conducive “federal” constitution.

I believe that restructuring Nigeria’s present governance architecture by returning to the provisions of its 1960 and 1963 constitutional arrangements will not only help the emergence of a leadership that will pave the way for a national rebirth, but will also put the country on a more assured path to political stability and faster socio- economic development.

Taking into account the historical and current developments, including especially the continuing outrageous killings in the North-Central zone of the country, I am proposing a restructuring of Nigeria into a true federation of eight federating units comprising the existing six geopolitical zones plus a restored old Mid-West Region and a newly created Middle Belt federating unit. The present mostly non-viable 36 states, many of which can no longer pay the salaries of their workers, should be retained in the new federating units but as development zones to be administered without their current costly executive and administrative institutions. It would be for each federating unit to decide if and when to create within it additional development zone(s) in response to any genuine cry of marginalisation.

In addition to considerably reducing the overall cost of recurrent expenditure which at present amounts to about 80 per cent of the national revenue, I believe that the new bigger and more viable federating units, with their regional police forces can better monitor and enforce the security of the citizens; with fiscal federalism can better plan and pursue at their own pace and on a more sustainable basis their economic, education and health facilities development; and also can more effectively check corruption and hold their administrations to greater accountability.

Such restructured governance architecture will facilitate overall national economic productivity and bring about the necessary shift away from the present virtually unitary structure which encourages the  36 states and federal capital territory (Abuja) to rely on a philosophy of “sharing the national cake”, and it will encourage the more viable federating units to focus on productivity and internally generated revenues.

Besides, I believe that the restructured federalism will rekindle among the citizenry a sense of nationalism and the spirit of unity in diversity. The more viable and fewer federating units will also discourage the “do or die” politics which in the competition for the all-powerful centre exacerbates the divisive tendencies within the country; and the centre  because of its reduced responsibilities and the consequent significantly reduced “national cake” to share will become less attractive to our power hungry politicians.

It was the true federal governance arrangement which during the First Republic  guaranteed such a balance of power between the centre and the regions that led Sir Ahmadu Bello to prefer remaining Premier of Northern region and sending his lieutenant, Sir Tafawa Balewa, to the centre as Prime Minister. Like his counterparts in the Eastern and Western regions, Dr. Michael Okpara and Chief Obafemi Awolowo respectively, the troika, later joined by Chief Denis Osadebey in the Mid-West region, gave meaningful leadership in their various regions and this cumulatively enabled Nigeria to have veritable influence and standing in the international arena during that period.

A restructured Nigeria would make it easier to do away with a political class that is mainly driven by self-centred concerns, and encourage the emergence of a class of leaders that are capable of inspiring and forming affinity with the people – leaders who, like our First Republic regional leaders, would be capable of delivering their electoral promises and meeting the needs of the people as well as articulating a vision of how to continue to sustainably meet those needs.

I would like to conclude by saying that while leadership is a critical factor in the life of Nigeria and indeed of every other nation, good leadership thrives best in a conducive political and governance structure. An example of a major national disaster was what happened to the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia because of a flawed governance structure. For failing to adopt a constitution that catered for the divisive tendencies that existed in the country, Yugoslavia disintegrated into seven independent countries after the death of Josip Broz Tito who by all national and international reckoning had been a charismatic and committed leader.

I therefore call on our Governments and lawmakers to heed the growing warning signs of potential national disaster by agreeing to adopt a restructured true federalism which I believe will provide the best basis for the realization of the Nigerian nation that we all desire, a stable, united and socio-economically fast developing country with a correspondingly accountable and citizen-empathetic leadership.

Finally, now that national elections are approaching in 2019, I would like to end by urging all intending voters to regard a firm unambiguous and time-specific commitment to the restructuring of Nigeria’s present governance architecture, as the pre-requisite for voting for any political party and its candidates.

I thank you all for your attention.

Chief Anyaoku CFR, CON, GCVO, a former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, delivered this paper at the 10th Memorial Anniversary Lecture of Senator Abraham A. Adesanya in Lagos on May 2, 2018.

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