In Praise Of Strong Leadership —By Chido Onumah


The preceding week was one of long speeches. From the pre-independence lectures, to the goodwill messages, and down to the president’s Independence Day speech, our rulers had reason to comment on the country’s socio-political crises.

The president set the tone with his speech at the Ecumenical Centre a week before the independence anniversary when he said he would not behave like an Army General or the Biblical Pharaoh to solve the nation’s problems, many of which need urgent attention. I am with the president on this. The last thing Nigerians need now is to be reminded of the era of army generals who oversaw the despoliation of the country.

A few days later, at the anniversary lecture at the auditorium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the president again spoke about his unwillingness to play a general, even when it is evident Nigeria is at war. He went a step further by asserting that “strong institutions and not strong leaders can make Nigeria great”. “I believe that for us to get to where we want to be, as a nation we have to build strong institutions and when we build them, they will drive the process,” the president said.

It is difficult to fault the president on this claim, except that strong institutions do not build themselves. The president has said a lot about what he is not. I am sure Nigerians are interested in knowing who he is and the kind of president he wants to be and how he is going to build enduring institutions without being strong and firm. I shall return to this.

“Nigeria remains unbreakable”, was how The Guardian reported President of the Senate, Senator David Mark’s anniversary message. Through his chief press secretary, Mr. Mark “urged Nigerians not to despair because there will be light at the end of the tunnel”. Haven’t we heard this “light at the end of the tunnel” tale before? Regrettably, while our leaders see light at the end of their tunnel, the ordinary Nigerian has to contend with darkness and disaster.

The Nigerian state has offered people like Mr. David Mark the best of opportunities in his almost three decades in government, so he can afford to ask millions of unemployed and impoverished Nigerians not to despair – their time will come. An army general, governor of Niger State, (at 36), Minister of Communications, senator since 1999, Senate President since 2007, and the prospect of running for president in 2015 looming large, very few people have had it so good like Mr. Mark in Nigeria.

Not to be outdone, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, “urged Nigerians to reverse the trend of continuous lamentations over the nation’s state of affairs and begin the process of rebuilding it”. In a statement by the Chairman of the House Media and Public Affairs Committee, the Speaker noted that “The spectre of lamentations which have been our lot should stop and the process of rebuilding must begin in earnest, starting with a passionate appeal to all those who feel aggrieved to shun violence and other acts capable of promoting disunity”.

For Mr. Aminu Tambuwal, there is no need for Nigerians to lament the poverty, anarchy, or conspicuous consumption of the political elite, particularly their “elected representatives”. They must continue to work hard because the survival of the country rests on them. Nigeria is an oil producing country with three refineries. It doesn’t matter that the basic means of cooking for the ordinary Nigerian – kerosene – has become one of the most expensive commodities in the country, we must continue to smile and hope for the best. Nigeria can’t afford an aggrieved populace, not when the members of the National Assembly are enjoying jumbo salaries and other perks of office that are the envy of “advanced democracies”.

It is worrisome that twelve years after the return to democracy and billions of dollars accruing to the Nigerian state, there is nothing to show for it. Perhaps, it is time for our so-called leaders to stop focussing on things they have no power over and start delivering the dividends of democracy.

What do we make of a president who says he doesn’t need to be a strong leader to build strong institutions other than to say that history does not support his assertion? It is needless to embark on a historical excursion on why the president is wrong on this point. Of course, we can’t overemphasise the need for strong institutions. Public institutions and infrastructure in Nigeria — schools, electricity, hospitals, roads, airports, have all but collapsed. The majority of Nigerians run their own little state. To survive, you literally have to provide your own security, electricity, water, education, and healthcare.

Kayode Komolafe writing in Thisday of September 28, 2011, noted that “10.1 million children are not even in the race for basic education in this country.” Interestingly, he was quoting statistics from 2008. How can any nation survive when its greatest resource is subjected to this kind of abuse? Nigeria has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. Our universities do not measure up to international standards; our industries hardly produce anything!

When we consider the forgoing, we can appreciate the need for strong institutions. But at the risk of sounding repetitious, let me reiterate that strong institutions do not build themselves. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with our institutions (whether it is the police, civil service, or universities) just as it can be said that there is nothing wrong with Nigerians. Our problem is simply lack of patriotic and selfless leadership. You can’t build a credible and formidable police force, for example, when the Inspector General of Police behaves like a bank manager. You will be aghast to see the condition of the police colleges where our policemen are trained. You can’t train someone under that condition and expect a different result. You can’t build a strong civil service when ministers are mired in corruption.

The president topped the week of speeches with his Independence Day address. It was one of the hollowest addresses by a Nigerian president. “Together, we shall work for a Nigeria in which democracy and the rule of law are sacrosanct. A country where corruption and its attendant vices, are banished. A country where human life is sacred and respected, and where the rights of the individual are protected,” the president said.

We all know that human life is not sacred and respected in Nigeria and the situation has gotten worse in the last one year. The less said about fighting corruption the better. According to the president, “A nation is sustained by its institutions and systems. I have taken strong measures to improve on governance. It is in this regard, that I signed into law, the Freedom of Information Act.” To back up his statement, a few days after his speech, the president ordered ministries, departments, and agencies to implement the Freedom of Information Act, (FoIA) to accelerate the campaign against corruption.

These are wonderful intentions and I am sure President Jonathan expects to be taken seriously. On this note, it is important that the president leads by example. There is a three month-old request pending at the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for information about the asset declaration of the president. He must feel scandalised about this matter.

The president can be forgiven since he is not a student of history, but when we talk about a strong leader, it can simply be one with strong character and moral authority.

• Onumah, Coordinator, African Centre for Media & Information Literacy, Abuja. May be reached at [email protected]