Plugging the Leadership Gap - Options for Nigeria


Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai

Twitter: @elrufai

Skype: nelrufai


Being a paper presented at the Patriots for New Nigeria Initiative (PNNI), Abuja State of the Nation Roundtable

Let me first thank you for inviting me to speak to your group on the eternal question of the leadership challenges facing Nigeria. Based on my antecedents and recent political leanings, it is quite courageous of you to ask me to speak on this subject. I care deeply about my country and hold no other passport. This country gave me a decent education, equal opportunity to realize my potentials, and public service credentials. I need nothing more from the nation but obliged repay through enduring patriotism. And mine is loyalty to the nation and not its rulers. I do not care about the emotions, expectations and insecurities of its leaders. So I promise to be frank in expressing my views and look forward to a robust interaction with your membership.

The Crisis of Leadership

Societies make progress when visionary leaders emerge to organize and direct collective actions for peaceful coexistence, with sensible rules, clear incentives and sanctions that enable individuals realize their full potentials. The Nigerian nation first elected its leaders at both national and regional levels in 1960. Around that period, Malaysia, Singapore Botswana and Indonesia had their first set of elected post-colonial leaders going into offices as well. The Japanese had elected the first LDP government five years earlier in the aftermath of the American Occupation. Forty years later, these five nations in Asia and Africa have enjoyed democratic continuity, protection of freedoms and basic rights, rapid economic development and improvement in the quality of life for its citizens. Nigeria has not. What went wrong?

A little over five years into Nigeria's Independence and First Republic, a group of young, misguided and naive military officers wiped out nearly all of the nation's political leadership. The bulk of those murdered on January 15, 1966 were leaders from regions and ethnic groups other than those where the coup plotters hailed from. This coincidence or design, by the military laid the foundations for Nigeria's unfortunate political, economic and social trajectory for the ensuing forty plus years.  And Nigeria's story is typical of most of Africa such that by 2004, five years into our nation's fourth republic, the leading African politics professor at the Harvard Kennedy School published a scathing summary of the leadership failure in Africa in an article published in "Foreign Affairs"[1]:

"Africa has long been saddled with poor, even malevolent, leadership: predatory kleptocrats, military-installed autocrats, economic illiterates, and puffed-up posturers. By far the most egregious examples come from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe -- countries that have been run into the ground despite their abundant natural resources. But these cases are by no means unrepresentative: by some measures, 90 percent of sub-Saharan African nations have experienced despotic rule in the last three decades.

In what is an accurate description of these despotic and progressively appalling ‘leaders’ that foisted themselves on Africa usually through military coups or rigged elections, Rothberg continued:

“Such leaders use power as an end in itself, rather than for the public good; they are indifferent to the progress of their citizens (although anxious to receive their adulation); they are un-swayed by reason and employ poisonous social or racial ideologies; and they are hypocrites, always shifting blame for their countries' distress."

Rotberg went further describing the consequences of this continent-wide failure of leadership as these leaders replaced the colonialists without doing more – but did everything to destroy the bases for economic growth, social equity and fairness in the nations they ruled and ruined:

"Under the stewardship of these leaders, infrastructure in many African countries has fallen into disrepair, currencies have depreciated, and real prices have inflated dramatically, while job availability, health care, education standards, and life expectancy have declined. Ordinary life has become beleaguered: general security has deteriorated, crime and corruption have increased, much-needed public funds have flowed into hidden bank accounts, and officially sanctioned ethnic discrimination -- sometimes resulting in civil war -- has become prevalent"

Where Are We Now?

Ayn Rand (died 1982) is one of my favourite philosophers. Her two books The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) are among my top ten all-time favorites. I have read and re-read each of these books and continue to appreciate her deep insights about society and human dynamics. She wrote in Atlas Shrugged that:


When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion


When you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing


When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors.


When you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them against you


When you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice - you may know that your society is doomed

Does this sound familiar? It does because in many ways, it describes Nigeria in a near perfect way.

How Did We Get Here?

I am of the view that we got to where we currently are because, at the advent of this republic, our best and brightest took a rational decision to forsake politics and public service. Our best graduates have long began to join the private sector instead of public service and academia where they belonged, in response to the distorted incentive structure of our politics, economics and society.

The outcome of these years of value-distortion in Nigeria today is the abdication of political space by the best and decent people, which has created a political culture that throws up the worst people in politics, governance and public service. This in turn has entrenched the culture of violence and brinksmanship in politics which those that dare to grab power at all costs actually win. Politics is therefore generally not for decent people, but ex-soldiers, the shameless and criminal civilians of zero pedigree. The most decent therefore chose a quiet life in the academia, escape to join the Diaspora or the refuge of the private sector. This situation poses several electoral challenges:

(1)    Votes do not matter. The politicians, INEC, the Police and the SSS determine who is declared winner immaterial of the results declared at the polling booth, collation centers and the relevant constituencies. Once a contestant is declared winner, the losing party must prove irregularities against the will of an incumbent, INEC and the security agencies. This distortion of incentives rewards criminal conduct and favors the violent, the Godfathers and the officials.


(2)     Issues are of secondary importance. Politicians typically whip up sentiments, encourage divisions and suspicions along ethnic, religious and sectional lines to secure support or acquiescence of the populace to justify wrongful grab of power. Issues, ideologies and social contracts post-election never come to the picture. Politicians typically promise nothing except what the voter can obtain as cash-in-advance from them before the election.


(3)    Parties are nothing but franchises. Politics is a profession in Nigeria, and members of political parties expect the party to feed, clothe and pay them. They do not expect to pay membership dues and make financial contributions for the running of the party. At each level – ward, local government, state, zone and national headquarters, party officials and members expect some wealthy benefactor to take care of them. Often, that benefactor is the elected official nearest to them, or the candidate wishing to get elected. This leads not only to corruption in public service but a dependency syndrome that further alienates decent people from politics.


(4)    Electoral Data and Soft Infrastructure almost non-existent. The virtual absence of reliable demographic data, transparent voters’ register, and previous election results on which to plan for electoral contests compounds other challenges. The common democratic practice of polling issues and candidates is almost unknown in Nigeria. The recent N60 billion effort by INEC to produce a biometric-based voters' register has turned out to be a deceptive farce. There is no such register that can be used to detect and expose electoral fraud like multiple thumb-printing.  The former CJN Katsina-Alu and President Jonathan ignored a subsisting court order to remove PCA Salami to cover up the non-existence of such a register.


(5)    There are no sanctions for electoral misconduct. No Nigerian has ever been prosecuted or convicted for any electoral offence in our history. This has created in-built and systemic incentives for maximum levels of electoral misconduct. The fact that with the exception of the June 12, 1993 annulment  (and this was unfortunately made sectional by the subsequent mismanagement of the candidate’s handlers post-annulment then), Nigerians and the international community have been unwilling to openly protest seriously defective elections. This trend has convinced political godfathers and their gladiators that what matters first is to win – at all costs – and you will get away with a lot of benefits and virtually no sanctions.

What Kind of Leaders Do We Need?

The 21st Century is one of wide dissemination of knowledge, technologies and disruptions of political and economic life as we know it. Economic and political power is shifting from West to East on the one hand, and from the developed to the developing nations on the other. Increasingly, the globalization of news, entertainment, social media and education is leveling the playing field and creating communities of similar-minded people and an emergent virtual culture. This is one of the most difficult periods to be a public leader - too much transparency, instantaneous news, bloggers and Internet activists across borders and so on.

The situation in Nigeria is no different.  Here I will just quote the words of Lawrence W. Reed when he read an eulogy in memoriam of Joseph P. Overton, which I think applies to Nigeria more than anywhere else:

The world needs more men who do not have a price at which they can be bought; who do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; who have their priorities straight and in proper order; whose handshake is an ironclad contract; who are not afraid of taking risks to advance what is right; and who are honest in small matters as they are in large ones.

The world needs more men whose ambitions are big enough to include others; who know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; who do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; who still have friends they made twenty years ago; who put principle and consistency above politics or personal advancement; and who are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion.

The world needs more men who do not forsake what is right just to get consensus because it makes them look good; who know how important it is to lead by example, not by barking orders; who would not have you do something they would not do themselves; who work to turn even the most adverse circumstances into opportunities to learn and improve; and who love even those who have done some injustice or unfairness to them.

The world, in other words, needs more true leaders.

So does Nigeria. And we do not have too many of them to plug the existing leadership gap. It is not easy to restore hope once lost, but transformational leadership for Nigeria can begin the long process. From my modest experience spanning some 9 years in public service, I am persuaded that almost any human can behave well when the example of a visionary, disciplined and goal oriented leader exists – a transformational leader. And conversely almost anyone however competent or well-meaning can be a failure under an unfocused, corrupt and immoral leader – a transactional leader. It all boils down to quality of leadership. As Nigerian proverb goes, ‘fish starts to get rotten from the head’. So if the top of the pyramid is good, the bottom will also more likely to be good.

This principle is called the law of the Lid. A people can never grow beyond the level of their leader and if you have a leader who is not fully developed mentally, spiritually and emotionally, such a leader will be a lid on the people much like a lid over as pot and the country will not progress beyond his ability to govern. A recent example is the Yar’Adua-Jonathan presidency who have been unable to grow beyond their immediate ethnic circle, a spiritual addiction to marabouts and limited development vision. Nigeria has become the worse for it, losing our foreign reserves from $57 billion in 2007, wiping out the over $23 billion excess crude account, and raising our national debt to its pre-2005 level - with nothing to show for it ,and putting on hold all investment decisions in electricity, rail transportation and petroleum refining for three years.

It also boils down to the fact that human beings are by nature strategic and just like a thermometer they will adjust their behavior to suit the leadership and their environment. So to change their behavior we have to change the quality and style of our nation’s leadership, and put in place a clear regime of rewards (for merit and good behavior) and sanctions (for poor performance and misconduct). There is simply no other way to develop a well-ordered, rules-driven and progressive society. The symptoms of Nigeria’s problems are many but the cure is just one thing. The cure is good leadership by example which gives the people vision, hope and exemplary behavior with which to model themselves and their institutions after.

What Nigeria needs to do is to study history and learn from our past. Nigeria must begin to make progress at good governance, human progress,  justice and enthroning a disciplined leadership that drives the delayed gratification without which there cannot be any long term growth. We must avoid persons seeking to lead us but have no profession, business employing people or any known source of income to justify their apparent riches, opulence and high standards of living.

We need a paradigm shift in leadership identification, nurturing and selection - something new, something different, throwing up Nigerians with the knowledge, skills and proven record of performance and integrity in public affairs to transform our nation. It is my humble view that we should scrutinize all those that offer themselves for leadership bearing in mind at least the following parameters:

(1)    Education,  Experience and Pedigree are Necessary but not Sufficient

Even though our first University graduate president and his doctoral successor have so far disappointed all except their families, cheerleaders and close friends, we must not write off educational attainment as a necessary indicator of leadership effectiveness. Experience that is relevance to governance –in managing resources, in administering large, complex organizations, and mobilizing our nation’s diversity into inclusive strength and focus also matter. The schools a prospective leader attended, the alumni network he can tap on demand, his elders, family and friends that can look him in the eye and say “do not let us down because you represent us” all contribute to the pressure needed to make a leader perform with integrity. When these are absent as we have seen in recent times with some of our rulers, the results can be fatal to the leader and the nation!

(2)    Look for Team Players not Lone Rangers

The burden of governance in a diverse, ‘post-conflict’ nation like Nigeria requires more than one good person, however intelligent, competent and well-meaning. A strong, competent and cohesive team, not a single “strongman” is needed to transform a nation not in one or two election cycles but several. Only a team with clear succession planning can implement a long term vision that transforms nations. It takes a generation to move any country from Third World to First like Japan (LDP, 50 years), Malaysia (Mahathir and UMNO  - 25 years) Singapore (Lee Kwan Yew, 33 years, Botswana (Seretse Khama and BPP, 35 years)  and China (Deng Xiao Ping, CCP, 32 years and counting), and only a dedicated team sharing a common vision across parties and platforms can do it. Beware of one-person parties and always look beyond the person and at the circle around the Presidential or Gubernatorial candidate. Team maketh the Leader.

(3)    Bold, Courageous Leaders with Clear Vision

Transformational leaders are bold and courageous. The transformational leader envisions and sees what appears impossible to others, and persuades the followers that it is not only possible but attainable, outlining practical steps to realize the vision. His intellectual curiosity, persuasive skills and inspirational qualities galvanize followers to perform at unexpected levels, thus achieving what once seemed impossible.

Imagine meeting the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum 30 years ago and he outlined his vision for converting his desert city wasteland of 100,000 fishermen and women into a modern city with over 50,000 three to seven star hotel rooms, an airport that would  transit 20 million passengers in 2008 and would house global icons -  the largest man-made aquarium, the  tallest building on the planet and the biggest artificial island in the world, you would probably laugh and tag him unrealistic at best, or insane at worst – but Al-Maktoum persuaded his followers to believe and achieve this vision in less than a generation. That is the power of visionary leadership   –  bold, courageous but realistic and realizable.

(4)    Persuasive Democrats in Words, Actions and Practices

It is one thing for aspiring leaders to talk repeatedly about democracy (but as a general once remarked in the White House – “we are here to protect democracy, not to practice it”), than to act and practice it. We should scrutinize our leaders’ words, actions and practices to ensure that there are no disconnects between all three.

Many of those in political office today are pretentious democrats who neither believe in democracy nor capable of practicing it in governance. They are by nature capricious and exercise power for private accumulation, not for general welfare, service and public good. They therefore have no regard for independent thought, merit and performance elevating blind loyalty to persons in power as more important than allegiance to the Constitution. Such leaders have displayed utter disregard to any person’s ability to deliver on national assignments but their narrow and short-sighted world view of wealth without work.

(5)    Public Service Skills and Performance

Public service experience particularly at Federal level is in my view essential for future effective public leadership at that level. Similarly, any person aspiring to leadership at state or local government level ought to show some understanding of, experience in and exposure to, that level of governance. Private sector success helps but is not a conclusive indicator of public sector performance. And in any case, there is a huge difference between the skill sets of politics and governance because often persons that get a government elected are not the best persons to help it govern. In public leadership, education, relevant experience, skills and record of performance are the best indicators of future transformational leadership.

(6)    Strong, Dedicated Advisers and Inner Circle

There is a Nigerian proverb which translated is “there is no wicked ruler without wicked advisers” and this is eternally true.  An effective leader usually has a team of advisers that are ideally brighter, more experienced and exposed than him. A self-confident leader identifies his personal skills and experience gap and chooses staff to furnish what is missing. A leader however brilliant that is surrounded by an inner circle of insecure, incompetent and mediocre people often comes to grief.

A leader, whose family is unable to keep away from affairs of state, and thereby fail to keep him grounded to the realities of leadership, often goes astray. There are too many examples in our recent history for Nigerians not to appreciate the destructive impact of a clueless and greedy inner circle of family and advisers!

(7)    Bridge Builders Across Regions and Religions

Nigeria’s diversity, history and recent experiences require leaders that build bridges across our genders, ethnic groups, regions and religions. No one should aspire to national leadership unless by expressions, actions and practices has shown this capacity not to discriminate, but to unite, integrate and include every Nigerian of whatever background  in his inner circle comfortably. Careful scrutiny of the track record of any prospective leader in his past public and private lives would show how diversely he had recruited his staff, picked his advisers and made decisions on location of projects and programs. This principle can be applied to aspirants even seeking office at state and local government levels in a careful and discerning manner.

(8)    Recognition for the Imbalance in our Federalism

Nigeria’s federal structure exists only in the official name of our nation. Years of maladministration by the military with their tendency towards centralization has created an imbalance in our federalism. This is crying for correction which can only begin if recognized by our prospective leaders. We must raise this debate on federal imbalance to put on hold the senseless quest for the creation of more states, demand the  legislation of state and Federal crimes and cause the amendment of our Constitution to enable States and Local Government establish police forces to address our disparate internal security needs. We must encourage inter-state competition by devolving more powers and responsibilities to lower tiers of government and reducing the scope and scale of Federal intervention in the daily lives of our citizens.

How Do We Plug the Leadership Gap?

Nigeria has developed a political culture that is toxic. Years of military rule and its arbitrariness, disregard for merit, emphasis on expediency, stifling of debate, minimum transparency, zero accountability and corruption have been followed by more than 12 years of largely malevolent and under-achieving PDP rule. Apart from the period between 2003 and 2007 when concrete economic foundations were laid for building the Nigerian nation, these wasted years under PDP rule have given both democracy and politics very bad names. And in that period, 50 million Nigerians were added to our population!

PDP will never give up power willingly. The reality is that no one, even decent people, gives up power willingly. And the ones in charge today are not only "not good", they are bold, shameless and venal. They are entrenched, and have recruited an army of similarly venal youths to succeed them, and others as foot-soldiers to attack, malign, and even kill any decent person, for them. As rational-economic-strategic persons, they have correctly calculated that the electoral system - designed to enable multiple human handling of results  will work in their favour. They have no conscience so know that they can buy Youth Corp members, INEC officials and security agents to write favorable election results for them. When the results are challenged in election tribunals, they also know that they have the political and economic clout to intimidate witnesses, threaten the honest (ask PCA Salami!) and bribe judges to throw out petitions based on technicalities rather than pursuit of real electoral justice. And they think they can get away with it, because they have largely done so for 12 years. By their conduct and impunity, they are pushing everyone to a tight corner. With this attitude of those in power, I do hope we all survive till the next election.

Nigeria has really few choices. We either ensure that the 2015 elections present no opportunity for human intervention and alteration of results, or we will never have decent leaders in this country. And without good leadership, the clear consequences are sustained under-development and state failure. Clean and credible elections are the only link between the citizens and those governing them. When officials owe their positions not to real votes and elections, but to Godfathers, riggers, INEC, security agencies and judges, they have no incentive to perform in office, or do any more than please their real 'electors'.

Good governance now will delay the kind of street protests and violence that we have witnessed recently in other countries, and even in parts of Nigeria in April. President Jonathan lost a unique opportunity to run for the presidency in a manner that would have united the country and healed the divisions wrought by his predecessor. It is not too late to make amends and be an inclusive leader. Today by his decisions and actions in office, he is widely seen as nothing more than an Ijaw irredentist unwilling to see the whole country as his constituency. It is therefore quite unlikely that we will see improved governance in the short term.

If the current trajectory of insecurity, hopelessness and movement towards state failure and anarchy continue, this democracy will collapse. How and when this will happen is a matter for conjecture, and only God Knows these for certain. But the signs are both clear and ominous. And perhaps that will not be a bad thing. It will afford the country the opportunity to amend the Constitution to make our nation a true federation, renew its democratic culture, punish the politicians and judges that contributed to the state of affairs, attract a new crop of people into politics and public service, and hopefully change our governance culture for the better.

Conclusion – Our Fate to Succeed or Our Destiny to Fail?

The foregoing views on leadership are derived from my limited experience and detached observation and therefore neither exhaustive nor silver bullets. As in everything in human affairs, there will be exceptional persons that may not meet all the requirements listed above and still turn out to be effective leaders. However, assuming that will be relying on chance – those ‘divine interventions’ that Nigerians pray and wait for instead of taking our destiny in our hands. I am a firm believer of the saying that “fate is what God gives you, and destiny is what you do with it.”

It is time for Nigerians to stop passing the buck to God, or waste energy on the needless blaming of everyone other than ourselves or those we like. God has given Nigeria the human and natural resources to be successful  -  conquer poverty and provide the basic needs of our people. We either chose our leaders or tolerated them when foisted on us via military coups or civilian “elections”. God has given us the wherewithal to scrutinize them, protest their imposition and resist their rule of ruin, and we have not done that on a national scale ever – so far. By failing to stand up, we abdicated our destinies to the shameless criminals that permeate our political space and the public service. Our elites have chosen to be selfish and lacking in the enlightened self-interest of collaborating to create a functioning society if not a good one.

Our fate is the endowment that God gave us. It cannot be our destiny to continue to have bad leaders. It is time to say ‘enough is enough’ and choose right – promoting public interest, enlightened self-interest even, rather than the primitive accumulation and resultant social inequalities that would destroy everything and everyone.

As the world moves firmly into the digital age, electing Blackberry users, - young people like Obama and Cameron in their 40s and the likes of Sarkozy in their 50s - communicating with friends and constituents via Twitter and Facebook, we must firmly reject those that want Nigeria to remain in the 20th century – and move forward to restore dignity and hope in our young generation. They must see a country that can work in their lifetimes - where electricity is stable, crimes are solved and criminals brought to justice, and capability and hard work are the primary tools for success in life.

Failing to do that within the next decade will lead to the total failure of Nigerian state as we will not be able to handle the influx of 4 million hopeless and angry 18 year olds added every year during the period to our army of under-educated and under-employed. And in this avoidable scenario, none of our great grand-children will be opportune to see a Nigeria celebrating its century of Independence, and that will be a sad testimony to us all, those born just before or around the end of colonization.

Thank you for listening. God Bless.


[1] Robert I. Rotberg (2004): Strengthening African Leadership, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004, New York, Council on Foreign Relations. See, accessed on March 23, 2010.