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The Leadership Crisis In Nigerian Politics, By Chinua Achebe

There is a story about Bernard Shaw arriving at the New York harbour, and being immediately surrounded by journalists as he stepped off the ship. But before even the quickest of them could open his mouth, the celebrated playwright stopped them cold as he fired off: ‘Don’t ask me what you should do to be saved; the last time I was here I told you and you haven’t done it!’

I feel very much the same way about what is happening in Nigeria. We know what we should do, yet we refuse to do it. Instead we have been “blowing grammar” all over the country as if our problem stems from insufficient argument. So I have turned down or simply ignored all previous invitations to join the talking. My little book The Trouble with Nigeria published twenty seven years ago on the eve of Shagari’s second term opens with these words: The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.

There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigeria character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water 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 is the hallmark of true leadership… So the question of leadership was and is, pre-eminent, in my view, among Nigeria’s numerous problems.

The little book does go on to identify other perennial issues such as tribalism, corruption, indiscipline, social injustice, preference for mediocrity over excellence, etcetera. But my thesis is that without good leadership, none of the other problems stands a chance of being tackled, let alone solved.

Now the twin criticisms of my stand which I find sufficiently interesting to want to answer are:1) The charge that my view of the Nigerian predicament is elitist, because it emphasizes the role of a crop of leaders rather than of the broad masses; and 2) That my diagnosis identifies individuals rather than an economic and political system as the source of the Nigerian problem. I do recognize, of course, that there are broadly three components to the equation for national development: system(s), leader(s), and followers.

In an ideal world each would mesh nicely and efficiently with the others. But quite clearly, we are not in such a world; not even on the road to it. We seem, in fact, to be going in the opposite direction towards a world of bad system, bad leadership, and bad followership. The question then is how do we redirect our steps in a hurry? In other words, where do we begin and have the best chance of success? Does the answer lie in changing the Nigerian system; changing the Nigerian leadership style, or in changing the hearts of one hundred and forty million Nigerians?

SYSTEMS Proponents of the supremacy of systems would argue that unless you have the right political-economic arrangement, no good leader can emerge or survive, and certainly no good followership can develop. I am no stranger to the allure of this argument, and I admit it can be engaging, especially when it is presented by first-rate minds. I remember listening to C.L.R. James (author of The Black Jacobians) make a case for systems, at a memorable lecture at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s.

James was an eloquent and erudite Marxist thinker, and he was putting forward the startling argument that during the Great Depression, America had a choice of following either of two eminent citizens — F.D. Roosevelt or Paul Robeson. Roosevelt, he said, had proposed to ‘tinker’ with the traumatized American Capitalist system, while Robeson, a more brilliant person by far, stood for scrapping the system altogether. Of course, America followed Roosevelt and cast Robeson on the rubbish heap. And the result, said C.L.R. James, was Watergate, a scandal that was deeply exercising America at the time of his lecture.

And then in typical hyperbole, C.L.R. told his spell bound audience that even if Jesus Christ and his disciples were to descend and take over the running of the American White House they could not prevent Watergate! What C.L. R. James was saying, in effect, was not only that the American Capitalist System was unviable, but that systems were all that mattered. And that is plainly doctrinaire, and, incidentally, a strange, modern re-incarnation of good old Fatalism.

Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes of social reconstruction and his re-structuring of American financial institutions, especially the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) may not, today, be called the revolutions some people thought at the time; but anybody who would dismiss them as mere ‘tinkering’ would have to be a very committed adversary indeed! And he would have to demonstrate not merely through intellectual abstractions, but by pointing to an actual system in practice somewhere, which can show better results and no scandals of one form or another.

In my view, the basic problem with efforts to bestow pre-eminence on systems is, however, their inability to explain how an abstract concept can bring itself into being, autonomously. Would the system drop from the sky and operate itself? Would Tanzania have chosen the socialist path if not for Nyerere? And next door, would Kenya have gone Capitalist had Oginga Odinga rather than Kenyatta been leader? When people speak glibly about the right system, they forget that they are talking about political arrangements brought into being either evolutionally or revolutionally in other places and times by leaders of those times and places or their forerunners.

It would not have occurred to Lenin or Castro (to use just two examples) to dismiss the leadership factor in thinking systems out and converting abstract social models into actual institutions. These are inescapable roles of intellectual and political leaderships. Of course, one can argue that all the thinking that needs to be done in this matter has already been done elsewhere by other people, and that we, the late comers, do not need to re-invent the wheel, as it were.

But that is a dangerous kind of orthodoxy, more appropriate to religious fanatics than scientific minds. I do not believe that someone, somewhere and some time, has already wrapped up all the thinking the world will ever need, and that our responsibility today is merely to follow some shepherd like a flock of sheep. FOLLOWERSHIP We need not spend too long on the argument for pre-eminence of followers. It is enough to say that no known human enterprise has flourished on the basis of the following leading the leaders.

The cliché that people get the leader they deserve is a useful exaggeration – useful, because it reminds the general populace of the need for vigilance in selecting their leaders (where they have a chance to do so), and for keeping them under constant surveillance. But to go beyond that and suggest, as one has often heard people do in this country, that when a leader misleads or fails to offer any leadership, at all, it is because Nigerians are unpatriotic and impossible to govern; or that when a leader accepts a bribe he is no more to blame than the man who offers it – is completely to misunderstand the meaning of leadership.

Leadership as a Sacred Trust Leadership is a sacred trust like the priesthood in civilized, humane religions. No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly because it demands qualities of mind and discipline of body and will far beyond the needs of the ordinary citizen. Any who offers himself or herself or is offered to society for leadership must be aware of the unusually high demands of the role and should, if in any doubt whatsoever, firmly refuse the prompting. Sometimes, one hears apologists of poor leadership ask critics if they would do better if they were in the shoes of the leader.

It is a particularly silly question; the answer to which is that the critic is not in or running for the leader’s shoes, and therefore how he might walk in them does not arise. An editorial writer can surely condemn a pilot who crashes an airplane through carelessness or incompetence, or a doctor who kills his patient by negligent administration of drugs without having to show that he can pilot a plane or write prescriptions himself.

The elite factor in Leadership The elite factor is an indispensable element of leadership. And leadership itself is indispensable to any association of human beings desirous of achieving whatever goals it sets for itself. When such an association is engaged in a difficult undertaking or is in pursuit of a risky objective such as nation-building, the need for competent leadership becomes particularly urgent. It is like having the captain who takes control over those “who go down to the sea in ships” or up into the clouds in airplanes.

Even a nation already firmly established will, in times of emergency, allow unprecedented powers to its leader, no matter how deeply its democratic instincts may run in normal times. During the Great Depression, the fiercely independent-minded industrial/business complex in America virtually handed its affairs over to President Roosevelt. When we speak of leadership, we are thinking of political leadership. This is to be expected, because under normal circumstances political institutions provide the overarching structure of human society.

But there are other kinds of leadership operating under the political super structure: military, industrial, artistic, religious; etcetera. Each of these sub-groups evolves its own peculiar rules and chain of command from the top through a more or less restricted core of middle managers down to the mass of followers. This model can, of course, be described as elitist. Unfortunately, elitist has become a dirty word in contemporary usage.

It was inevitable and, indeed, desirable that with the spread of democratic principles in the world, elite systems inherited from mankind’s immemorial past should be subjected, like any other received values and practices, to critical scrutiny and re-appraisal. But in a world in which easy sloganeering so quickly puts the critical faculty to flight, what has happened to the word elite is a good example of how a once useful word can become manipulated to a point where it no longer facilitates thought, but even inhibits it.

But, perhaps, the cloud under which the word has come is not entirely underserved. A word is more likely to become abused when the concept it represents becomes corrupted. I should like to examine, briefly, the uses and abuses of the elite system using the example of a national army. An army is, of course, one of those branches of human organization where the need for clear, unambiguous, leadership exists. The line of command is both necessary and rigid. Even the armies of Peoples Democracies have not succeeded in obliterating the line between the commander and the commanded.

How, in addition to the inescapable fact of hierarchy in their organization, have most modern armies advised special, elite corps of troops whose job is to move in and smash particularly difficult obstacles and move out again, leaving the regular forces to carry on routine military activities? Members of such an elite corps are rated much higher than regular soldiers, and are given all kinds of special favours and prerequisites to compensate them for the dangers they face.

But supposing an army was to create a military elite corps which is recruited not on the highest and toughest standards of soldiering, but because they were the children of generals and brigadiers? It would have created a corrupt elite corps pampered with special favours without having the ability of storm troopers. So the real point about an elite is not whether it is necessary or not, but whether it is genuine or counterfeit. And this boils down to how it is recruited; this will be true of any elite system.

An elite corps of scientists is indispensable to the modern state; but if its recruitment is from the brothers-in-law of professors rather than from young scientists of the greatest talent, it would be worse than useless, because it would not only fail to produce scientific results itself, but actually inhibit such a result from other quarters. A counterfeit elite, in other words, inflicts double jeopardy on the society. The challenge of Leadership: Recruitment So the real problem posed by leadership is that of recruitment. Political philosophers from Socrates and Plato to the present time have wrestled with it.

Every human society including our own traditional and contemporary societies has also battled with it. How do we secure the services of a good leader? A magazine columnist who does not share my views on this matter had a picture of me with my chin resting on my hand and a caption below saying “Achebe waiting for the Messiah.” Most unfair, of course! But even so, waiting for a messiah is better than waiting for GODOT, and may not be as far-fetched or ludicrous as the columnist may imagine.

For we have no fail-safe prescription for bringing the great leader into being. No people or systems have had a monopoly in this. Great leaders have emerged in diverse places from every conceivable system: feudal, democratic, revolutionary, military, etc. Kemal, Ataturk, Chaka, Elizabeth the first, Lenin, Mao, Lincoln, Nkrumah. Does it mean then that, like the iroko tree, the great leader will grow where he will, and that the rest of us should just sit, put our hand under our chin, and wait? No! If we cannot compel greatness in our leaders, we can at least demand basic competence. We can insist on good, educated, leaders while we pray for great ones.

Even divine leaders have needed precursors to make straight their way! In traditional monarchical systems such as we would today dismiss as anachronistic, there were elite groups called king makers whose business was to keep an eye on all the eligible princes, and choose the best when the time came. These king makers were specially qualified by tradition and by knowledge of the history of the kingdom, and no less by being themselves ineligible for selection so that they could be seen to be reasonably disinterested.

Those of us who often doubt that we could learn anything from our traditional systems and usages should compare the scrupulousness of the king maker arrangement with the lack of it in our elections! Be that as it may, the universities and other elite centers with deep knowledge of national and world issues can play a role somewhat analogous to that undertaken by king makers of the past, not in selecting the king themselves, but by spreading, in advance, general enlightenment and a desire for excellence in the entire constituency of the nation, including those who will aspire to national leadership.

The Nigerian University We must admit that the Nigerian university has not acquitted itself too brilliantly, in this regard, in the past. The university man who has sallied forth into national politics has had a dismal record. No one can point to any shining achievement in national politics which the nation can recognize as the peculiar contribution of university men. Rather, quite a few of them have been splashed in typical accusations of abuse of office and other forms of corruption. Those that have remained in the ivory tower have hardly fared better. Many have cheapened themselves and eroded their prestige by trotting up and down between the campus and the waiting rooms of the powerful, shamelessly vying for attention and running one another down for the entertainment of the politician.

For this and other reasons, the University has deservedly lost its luster, its mystique; and squandered the credibility which it had in such abundance at the time of Nigeria’s independence. Who then is to champion that pursuit of excellence on which the university ideal is founded, and which no people can neglect without paying a horrendous price in stagnation and decay? The Nigerian university has so far shown little faith in its own mission. Is it any wonder that nobody else does? It is interesting that only two individuals (one ceremonially) who have ruled Nigeria since independence, which was won more than 50 years ago, has been a university graduate.

Does it say anything about our national preoccupations and values? Look around us, and compare our record in this regard with that of our neighbours, even in Africa. I do not suggest that the university is the only fountain of enlightenment and excellence. Far be it from me! But not to have had more than two university men or women in 50 years, our traditional people would have sought the offices of Afa divination to explain that! In the early years of the 21st century, we must take a hard look at ourselves and ask why the intellectual leadership which the Nigerian nation deserves to get from the university has not been forth coming. It is imperative that the Nigerian university work, so as to produce that salt of excellence which the nation relies on it to drop into the boiling pot of Nigerian leadership.

This essay, taken from Chinua Achebe’s book The Education of a British Protected Child, 2009 Knopf Publishers, USA, Penguin, UKIt is a re-worked version of The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics, written September 23, 1986

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