16th February, 2015
By C. Don Adinuba
Students of management and leadership across the world must be surprised at the criticism against the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate in the 2015 general election, Muhammadu Buhari, by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that the leading opposition candidate shared leadership when he was Nigeria’s military head of state from 1983 to 1985 and chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF) from 1994 to 1999. Admittedly, Buhari’s deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, was in those days perceived to be so powerful that the military regime was known in the popular media as the Buhari-Idiagbon regime. Almost all major government policies and decisions were announced by Idiagbon, who was the Chief of Staff at the Supreme Headquarters.
The world must be intrigued by the criticism against Buhari because contemporary leadership scholars, researchers and practitioners are agreed that the notion that leadership is about one man bestriding the stage like a colossus is old fashioned and discredited. The notion is known as the messiah syndrome, according to Peter Guy Northouse, author of the famous book, Leadership: Theory and Practice. In place of the one-man hero idea of leadership which is referred to as personality and trait leadership, scholars now canvass what is called distributed or shared leadership. It seeks to bring on board as many people as possible. You can call it democracy in action.
This form of leadership is in line with the current thinking by development experts around the world that the best policies and practices which drive development are the inclusive ones. In 2012, Daron Acemoglu, a distinguished social science professor at MIT, and James Robinson, an eminent scholar at Harvard, published a book entitled Why Nations Fail which brilliantly demonstrates that nations and societies which include as many people as possible in their political and economic processes develop fast while those which exclude their people from deep involvement in their social and economic affairs lag behind. The authors go back in history to support their thesis with arresting examples drawn from polities in various regions of the world and blend them with contemporary examples . The buzz expression right now in the World Bank and development institutions throughout the world is inclusive growth and development.
I have in a recent essay shown that Buhari has a reputation of empowering subordinates, stating that this is a good leadership practice. I cited the instance of Tam David-West, his minister of petroleum resources, who had on occasion stated that Buhari never for once interfered with his work by asking him to employ a particular individual or promote another or assign any a person to certain responsibilities or even to consider a firm for a contract award. He trusted his ministers and other aides, and so gave them a free hand to discharge their responsibilities. Interestingly, researchers in management science, especially those involved in human resource development, now make a strong case for what is called employee empowerment. This is a concept which supports granting employees a free hand to do their work but also assigning higher responsibilities to them, which will see them develop and grow in their career paths. Nigeria is essentially a traditional society, so a number of even professionals and intellectuals are still very conservative, if not out of touch with modern ideas and practice. This is why some of them are in this day and age still critical of Buhari’s shared leadership style, instead of praising it for being superior to some other leadership styles. These are elements still enamoured of the big man concept, the very leadership disease which has paralysed Africa for several decades. Rather than make our leaders feel that they are truly the servants of the people, these elements make them feel like lords and conquerors of their own people. Hence, a state governor is not referred to as just a governor but “His Excellency, the “Executive Governor”. The same goes for the local government chairmen who are widely known as “executive chairmen”! Thus, our practice of the presidential constitution, which ordinarily seeks to make top public officers effective leaders, has ended up in Nigeria creating strong men but no strong institutions. Our traditional culture, as though to exacerbate the situation, venerates strong men.
Still, the dangers of the strong man or messiah syndrome have not always been lost on our people. Joe Garba, as Nigeria’s foreign minister and a member of the Supreme Military Council in the 1970s, had cause to remind the citizens that leadership “is not a one-man show”. This was against the backdrop of growing criticism that the Federal Government had become less dynamic since the assassination of the head of state, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976. Godwin Alabi-Isama, the 2nd in command to Benjamin Adekunle, General Officer Commanding the dreaded 3rd Marine Commando Division of the Nigerian Army during the civil war of 1967-70, in 2013 published The Tragedy of Victory, a rich account of his combat experience in which he highlights the risks associated with the personality leadership style.
He writes: “The whole country was singing Adekunle’s praise, as if there was no other officer in the military…The whole country was happy and even musicians sang his praise every day, and his name was on everybody’s lips, including schoolchildren. He was the hero of the Biafran war. None of us ever spoke with the press, and nobody had ever heard of any of us other than Adekunle. He had also made so many enemies among his other divisional commanders”. No psychologist would be surprised to learn that Adekunle would soon become narcissistic. He even plotted the gratuitous assassination of his two closest and most outstanding commanders, Alani Akinrinade and Alabi-Isama. By seeking to paint him as an ineffective leader because he empowered competent subordinates and practised shared leadership as military head of state at a time distributed leadership had not become a popular concept, especially on a continent notorious for absolute dictatorship, the PDP and its operatives have unwittingly portrayed Buhari as a man ahead of his generation. Students, researchers and authors will find Buhari a rewarding study in leadership even in a military regime. He does provide useful management and leadership lessons.
•Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.