Reflections on Values and the Building of a Successor Generation in Nigeria
Being the paper presented by His Excellency Dr. Kayode FAYEMI, Governor, Ekiti State, Nigeria
At the 1st Interdisciplinary Lecture of the School Postgraduate Studies, Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I like to begin by saying thank you to all here present at the Ekiti State University, a growing citadel of knowledge worthy of Ekiti, Ilè Iyì, Ilè Èye. For having me to deliver the first in the series of inter-disciplinary lectures of the Graduate School of this academy I thank the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Aina; the Dean of the Post-Graduate School, Professor Eddie Olanipekun; the Chairman of this occasion, Professor ‘Ladipo Adamolekun; distinguished faculty and principal staff; students, and other fellow travellers in the infinitely exciting journey in enquiry and learning. I feel a natural kinship with the academia for several reasons. Not only do I consider it my primary constituency from which I have received so much nurture or training. In my present assignment in the public service, I am only on a temporary ‘leave of absence’ from academia. But above all, there is no discounting the value of academic pursuits, or of the academic orientation in this period and time that we are in, which is referred to in some quarters as the Age of Knowledge.
The university is equally a universe drawing in the best and keenest of minds that have come from far and wide to create a platform of solutions for understanding and engaging the nature of our reality and the world in which we live. It is a universe of possibilities, relentlessly re-shaping and extending what we know and are capable of knowing, while offering renewed insights. As the First Servant in and son of this State, and no less a Nigerian as many of you are, I have come to share some of my thoughts on how we can advance the cause of our democracy in this great country, Nigeria, and create the basis for consolidating and perpetuating many of the unprecedented freedoms that we are currently enjoying in Ekiti State and across Nigeria. This brings me to the theme at hand.
The first sentence in The Trouble with Nigeria, the well-remarked book by the novelist and grand story-teller Professor Chinua Achebe, goes as follows:
The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically 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 [and] to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.
Professor Achebe’s observation about the condition of our society continues to resonate three decades after he issued his damning critique of Nigerian elites. It continues to resonate so insistently, in fact, that the notion of an overarching leadership failure as the root of our society’s ills has almost become something of a cliché – a staple sound bite issued by everyone including political leaders ourselves. It has become, at once, an explanatory tool as well as an excuse. But the theme of leadership failure is one that we must continue to investigate beyond its superficial deployment as a critique of bad politicians.
At the time that Achebe was writing in 1983, Nigeria was undergoing her second democratic experiment. In fact, the second republic was actually terminated by a military intervention at the end of that year. As military regimes were wont to do throughout our history, the new military regime cited the corruption and incompetence of the civilian politicians for bringing the country to the brink of collapse. They argued that given the foibles of the political class, the military intervention was a patriotic necessity to avert the country’s descent into anarchy. The irony is that this intervention inaugurated a fifteen-year spell of military dictatorship which turned out to be far more ruinous than the truncated era of civilian rule.
By the early 1990s, there was a growing consensus that the nation had to be saved from the erstwhile saviours – the military – and that the new saviour had to be democracy. Nigeria had come full circle. Today, however, there is a sense that the promise of 1999 has dissipated and that the political luminaries of the present dispensation have not been particularly attentive to the lessons of our history. This feeling of disillusionment is nothing new; it was in the air in 1983 as well. Thus, it seems that in the course of our quest for good leadership which has seen us test various models – stern authoritarians, benevolent smiling dictators, tyrannical totalitarians and civilian politicians – we have come up empty. If, after thirty years, we are still citing bad leadership as the root of all or most of our problems, we should now be interrogating the cultural and institutional forces, both subliminal and overt, which conspire to ensure that our society constantly throws up bad leaders.
This is especially expedient against the backdrop of two reasons. First, there is the urgent need to address apparent loss of faith in Nigeria and her prospects by the younger generation even as we approach the centenary of the creation of Nigeria. Already, signs of failure are evident in the planning of the Federal Government’s celebrations for this landmark in our collective history, at a time we ought to soberly reflect and take affirmative action, geared towards ensuring successor generations effectively redefine the ‘Nigerian dream’ in the context of contemporary realities and believe in same – against all odds. Second, there is the need to look into our society’s model of incubating new leaders. If we are to stand a chance of national rebirth, we must of necessity ensure that the old brigade described by Prof. Wole Soyinka as the ‘wasted generation’, which requisitely has to act as nursing mother to the emerging generation, does not contaminate them with the same tendencies and thus prime them to failure.
These cross-generational imperatives require amongst other things, robust engagements such as this. My contributions are by no means intended to be exhaustive. Rather, I offer them as a preliminary investment in a conversation that must continue long after we have left this place. For the struggle to better our living arrangements, to actualize the good society on our shores and to enhance the quality of leadership is always an ongoing endeavour. It never ends. Every generation, as Frantz Fanon once said, must discover its mission or betray it. In order not to betray its mission, every generation must inherit the quest for and expand the frontiers of achievement, enriching the store of wisdom by which society and its leadership constantly reinvents itself. This is the very essence of the idea of a progressive society.
It is against this background that I, once again, thank the Dean of the Postgraduate School as well as the leadership of the Ekiti State University for granting me your hallowed rostrum to share my thoughts with you. This is especially important because I am neither a youth nor an old man. Some say I am a ‘senior youth’ and I am glad to accept the ‘status’. I also note, however, that Nigeria is one country where an individual in his sixties would come out furious because he thought he had just been cheated in the contest for the post of national youth leader of a political party! If a sixty-year old is a youth, when does adulthood begin in Nigeria? I have no answer to that; nor am I sure we should be bothered about it now. Suffice it to say that I am very excited to be here today and I look forward to an interactive engagement.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
There are three trends that I believe are relevant to the crisis of leadership in our country –corruption and the decline of moral values; the conceptual debasement of leadership itself; and the inability and unwillingness of leaders to reproduce themselves
Corruption and the Decline of Moral Values
We cannot separate the theme of leadership failure from the general plague of corruption assailing our society. Indeed, one might argue that both of them are mutually reinforcing. As leadership continues to fail, that is, as we fail to produce in adequate number exemplars of capable leadership, society’s descent into moral anarchy also accelerates. And as the degeneracy of the society hastens, leadership in every dimension of public life begins to bear the stamp of decadence.
There are many perspectives from which one may attack the problem of corruption but for our purposes today, it will suffice to zero in on one, namely, the monetization of values and the growing inability to perceive and articulate one’s life goals in non-material terms. It is almost impossible now for us to define life’s meaning in terms that have nothing to do with the bottom line. Young Nigerians have been socialized in such a way that they have no conception of non-material achievement. We have created a culture that serenades the wealthy and esteems the “big man”, but not the studious. We esteem riches but not intellect except possibly when it is deployed solely in service of the raw pursuit of wealth. It is evident in our schools where the studious types are labeled “effikos” and treated as nerds, freaks and outcasts for fulfilling the demands of scholarship and pursuing enlightenment, while those who skip classes and cheat their way through exams are exalted as the trendy people. But this is, in a sense, a reflection of the larger society, where wealth has been apotheosized and material acquisition is defined as the sole purpose of life.
In our monetized society, it is believed that to be heard, to be reckoned with, you need to have lots of money, and the more of it you have, the louder your voice. This has several implications. The monetization of values means that young people whatever their promise and their potential believe that they have to join the rat race for material gain. Everything in their
social and moral environments urges them to join the generation of hustlers emerging from our institutions and do whatever is necessary to become wealthy. Increasingly, the chief moral calculation in our society is not rooted in the question of what is ethical but in what is possible – NOW!
Consequently, youth are not being encouraged to pursue their dreams and their passions, to imagine alternate realities or to break new grounds and define success in their own terms, which are all hallmarks of leadership. Rather, they are conditioned to follow the herd. Our institutions actually suffocate the spark of idealism which animates progressive leadership and enables societies continuously renew themselves. By the time the next generation arrives in positions of power and privilege, their capacities for progressive imagination, creativity, innovation, empathy and compassion are so depleted that they cannot but simply follow beaten paths and rehash the errors of the past. This might explain why little seems to have changed in Nigeria for thirty years.
Perhaps the best way to frame this situation is to ask the question: Where will the next generation of activists, law enforcement professionals and teachers emerge from? These professions are all critical in the nurturing of a free progressive society. Yet, they are the least esteemed because they command meager financial reward; and while an argument has to be made for paying teachers and policemen adequately, there is also something to be said for the fact that the tasks that forge civilizations are more often than not undertaken by volunteer spirits; that is to say, by those for whom the promise of material riches is not the cardinal consideration. Leadership is born in unremarkable places – the classroom, the police station, the community organizer’s neighbourhood, etc. But where are those who will answer the call of leadership by following their passions into these places?
The Debasement of Leadership
In a society that esteems opulence and exalts the big man, it is no surprise that the very concept of leadership has been debased. This is apparent when we survey the signs and symbols of power in our land: the pomp and pageantry, the long motorcades, the sirens, the circus-like atmospherics surrounding political leadership, the retinue of idle ‘aides’ and the inevitable flock of hangers-on, praise-singers and sycophants, the palatial state houses and residences. Some of these idiosyncrasies which surround leadership in Nigeria derive from the legacy of colonialism and military dictatorship. In those forms of government, leadership was always imposed from the top and was therefore an alien imposition on society and an intrusion on our peace. The semiotics of power tended to be loud, garish, oppressive and violent. This has become installed as part of our leadership culture and has carried over into our democracy.
A corollary point is the association of leadership with wealth and therefore the disastrous association of public office with affluence. Consequently, many Nigerians simply see public office as a means of self-enrichment and upward mobility. Leadership becomes not a means of service but a means of getting richer than everyone else. The ghastly scale of public theft follows naturally as a logical result of this outlook.
Leadership is not a position or a title or an office, but a function. It is influence rooted in a core of convictions and beliefs that define the very act and manner of leading. Positions, titles and offices merely serve as vehicles for expressing leadership. Merely occupying a position and having a title does not make one a leader in the truest sense of the term. Perhaps the best evidence of how tenuous our working definitions of leadership are is how so many public figures slip into irrelevance once they leave public office. This indicates that these “leaders” derived their relevance and significance from holding office rather than from any personal attributes of competence, character, intellect or even charisma. For as long as they hold office, such figures can command public attention because of the visibility of their positions. However, once out of office and shorn of its pomp and prestige, they simply recede into oblivion because they possess no residual moral influence and authentic voices of their own.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Mallam Aminu Kano are excellent examples of politicians who possessed an intrinsic moral authority that transcended their brief stints in public office. Nelson Mandela’s moral influence was evident as an operative of the African National Congress and as a political prisoner, long before he became South Africa’s president. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, both iconic figures in the African-American civil rights struggle, never held public office. Dr. King now has a national day set aside in the United States to commemorate his life and work.
An office or a position does not confer moral authority so much as it presumes it. Moral authority is a personal property that one takes into an office and leaves with at the end of his tenure. That so many of our public figures – ex-ministers, ex-governors, ex-senators, ex-representatives – sink out of sight or hearing once they have left office, and have nothing to contribute to their communities in a post-official capacity, suggests that we are producing far more ‘office-holders’ than leaders.
The Inability or Unwillingness of Leaders to Reproduce Themselves
The dominant cultural and institutional models of leadership are typically defined by the exercise of raw power. They operate a paradigm based on the projection of fear and the exploitation of others. This is largely a legacy of our recent experience of military authoritarianism. For more than three decades of our national history, leadership was cast in the image of jack-booted soldiers wielding whips, guns and swagger-sticks, and decreeing their will for the nation into being. They underwrote their leadership by projecting fear, intimidating the public and threatening violence rather than by winning hearts and minds. This authoritarian paradigm has become a template for leadership in virtually all our institutions.
The cult of the Big Man is characterized by massive insecure egos to which sycophants must continuously swear fealty and pay obeisance. In many of our organizations and bureaucracies, this paradigm has effectively created personality cults in which fawning loyalty rather than competence dictates the allocation of reward. The cult of the Big Man sustains illiberal environments in which divergent thinking, innovation and initiative are punished while servile group-think is rewarded. In such organizations, members who are desirous of prolonging their careers tend to blend in rather than stand out, thereby crippling their leadership potentials. These organizations are virtually run as personal fiefdoms and cease to function whenever the main authority figure is absent or, as it is expressed in local parlance, ‘Oga is not around.’
Herein lies one of the characteristics of dysfunctional organizations – leadership is seen as being vested in a single authority figure rather than as a function diffused among several empowered actors. Because of their overwhelming personalization of power and the centralization of authority, leaders in this mould who also tend to be psychologically insecure are simply unable or unwilling to mentor and empower their subordinates. Under these circumstances, young potential leaders are not being prepared to undertake greater responsibility. Indeed, their executive impulses are stifled. The only kind of personalities that rise in these settings are those who are equally insecure and egotistical, having become adept at the dark art of survival in repressive official environments, and will upon their assumption of authority also reprise the authoritarian styles of their predecessors.
Not only do these individuals arrive into positions of authority unprepared for the demands of authentic leadership, thereby emerging as ‘accidental leaders’; they invariably perpetuate the cycle of mediocrity and dysfunction afflicting our institutions. This dynamic explains why the story of leadership in our country has stayed essentially the same for decades. Leadership reproduces after its own kind. The tragedy on our shores is that bad leadership has been far more prolific in reproducing itself.
Constructing a New Culture of Leadership
We need to rescue the concept of leadership itself from the cheapening it has undergone. True leadership is something quite distinct from holding an office or a position. We will enhance the quality of leadership on our shores if we dissociate it from the acquisition of titles and positions. True leadership is influence. It is driven by core convictions, values and ideas. In a profound sense, leadership is living out one’s values and ideas. It is the sheer power of personal example that projects influence. For the next generation of leaders, it is essential that we recognize that one does not need a political office or title to become an exemplar of higher values.
We also need to redefine elitism. Traditionally, the term ‘elite’ referred to those who are enlightened. Over the course of the past decades, the monetization of our values has yielded an association of elitism with wealth. We perceive elites to be those who are simply wealthy. The first generation nationalists such as Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Hezekiah Davies, Aminu Kano and Adegoke Adelabu among others were men of thought as well as men of action. They wrote books, pamphlets and articles. They popularised their ideas aggressively. They thought deeply about their society and disseminated their musings.
For instance, while campaigning for the presidency in 1979, Awolowo said, “Look at the books which I have written, the lectures which I have given, and the many speeches and statements which I have made. You will find that there is no problem confronting or about to confront Nigeria to which I have not given thought and for which I have not proffered intelligent and reasoned solutions.” It was no idle boast. Awolowo was the most prolific of the founding fathers. It seems almost absurd to us today for a politician to advertize his intellect as one of his qualifications for high office.
There is a distinction between this commitment to ideas and debate as part of the armoury of leadership and what obtains now. Unlike their precursors, too many of our political elites do not esteem ideas enough and this has devalued both the quality of leadership and public discourse. We have to restore the moorings of elitism in a commitment to ideas and intellectual acuity. The next generation of elites has to be distinguished not by wealth or their possession of trinkets but by the quality of their thoughts and ideas.
We also must absolutely begin to mentor young people. The litmus test for our success as leaders is not how many people we are leading but how many people we are transforming into leaders. In other words, how many people are we empowering to realize their own potential as leaders? Each generation of leaders must stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before them. We have a responsibility to boost the next generation up on our shoulders. Whatever our successes as individual leaders, they are incomplete until we have prepared the grounds for succession. This is how positive leadership cultures are perpetuated. Too many promising movements and organizations have died out with their charismatic founders because they failed to mentor the next generation to carry the baton of leadership into new frontiers.
Consider Singapore. Many of us are familiar with the tale of how the sterling leadership of Lee Kwan Yew steered the small island from a pacific backwater to a first-world city-state and one of the best run nations in the world. But Singapore’s success story also owes much to rigorous succession planning in which leadership has been taken up by a corps of younger leaders that were initiated into the governing party in 1980. They now constitute the second generation of leaders charged with consolidating the success story of Singapore.
In a similar vein, Nelson Mandela’s iconic status as a pivotal figure in the odyssey of South African liberation is unimpeachable. But Mandela belongs to a very distinguished cast of leaders that included freedom fighters like Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. And these heroic freedom fighters were themselves the second generation of the struggle ordained by the founders of the African National Congress. They were heirs to Albert Luthuli, John Dube, Sol Plaatje and other heroic patriots. Together these patriots forged a political tradition of such resilience that it altered the course of South Africa’s history. As James Freeman Clark said, “A politician thinks of the next election, a statesman, of the next generation.” Leadership is a continuum and for our leadership to truly stand the test of time it must be driven by a trans-generational perspective. We must build up those who will take our exertions for a better society to higher levels.
We have also to demystify leadership and begin to define it less as a task reserved for a select group of highly gifted individuals but as something each of us is called to accomplish in various ways and in diverse sectors of public life. This entails a shift away from the idea of the ‘leader as messiah’ – the notion that all it takes to transform our society is the miraculous emergence of one extraordinarily endowed leader. We simply cannot afford to reduce leadership to holding political office. Despite the generally dreary outlook, there are a few young people that are leading effectively and exerting positive influence in various domains of society. I would like to pay tribute to these rising stars because I believe that our country calls for a critical mass of such actively-engaged citizens if the quality of leadership is to improve. I however have to refrain from mentioning particular names so I don’t risk leaving anyone out considering many of these young change agents are my personal friends whom I am privileged to play the role of a mentor in their lives. In fact, I have a number of such young activists serving in various capacities in my administration.
These leading lights represent an army of do-gooders, public interest advocates, activists, artistes, public intellectuals e.t.c., that are all in varying ways engaged in shaping the future and creating islands of progress. Our challenge is to multiply the numbers of such people. In order to do so, we should move from a leadership culture of fear and intimidation to one based on mutual respect, civility, empathy and compassion. We have to create an environment in which initiative; independent-mindedness; non-conformism and creative thinking are encouraged and rewarded, not punished. Ultimately, the greatest validation of our leadership is how many leaders we have nurtured.
The Successor Generation
The place of the youth in the quest for national renewal and a new ethos of transformative leadership is especially pertinent given the demographic realities of today. Increasingly, our world is growing younger. Young people make up almost a fifth of the global population. With almost half of the current global population under the age of 25, there is no doubt that we are living in a very youthful world. This has implications for the nature and pace of social change.
Throughout history, leaders have understood and sought to harness the power of youth to regenerate their societies. Adolf Hitler certainly understood the socio-political potential of young people. Following his rise to power in Germany in 1932, one of his first actions was the outlawing of all youth groups, especially the religious ones. In their stead, he established the Hitler Youth and the German League of Young Girls. These organizations became sites of intensive indoctrination, with the young members being taught to venerate Hitler and serve him without question. The boys were taught that laying down their lives for Fatherland and Fuhrer was the highest and noblest act of virtue. The girls were taught that it was their patriotic duty to obey the Fuhrer and to bear the children that would consolidate the rise of the Nazi Third Reich. German youths were taught that they were the master race and it was their destiny to dominate the world.
A significant proportion of this generation of Germans committed horrible atrocities in the name of their Fuhrer. Indeed, so total was the Nazi indoctrination of this generation that it was a detachment of Hitler Youth who died in the final battle for Berlin in 1945. It is not an overstatement to assert that the rise of the Nazi Third Reich was essentially due to Hitler’s skilful manipulation of the youth. By imbuing a generation with a sense of historic mission, moral purpose and a confidence in their own abilities, Hitler embarked upon his project of world domination. Even though he was ultimately defeated, his deployment of German youth to serve his cause holds valuable lessons for us.
To being with, no one should ever underestimate the potential of our youth to serve as catalysts of social change. Youth are viable agents of social renewal because of the natural gifts and aptitudes they possess, namely, an idealism that is as yet unsullied by life’s heartbreaks and defeats. This idealism is an invaluable resource for achieving the impossible and for doing great things otherwise barricaded by the cynicism and jadedness of the old. They approach tasks with a boundless energy and zeal and seem incapable of exhaustion in the service of whatever cause they passionately believe in. Also, because they lack the prejudices of older people, they approach many things with a clean slate and an innocence that permits fresh perspectives where a cynicism borne of experience might otherwise paralyze the will to change.
But with these remarkable advantages come certain dangers. The fiery idealism of youth carries the temptation of hubris; this often leads many to ignore the counsel of their elders to their own detriment. As a result, the youths not only become incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past; they become prone to repeating them. This is an especial danger for Nigerian youth. Having written off their elders as scoundrels for leaving them a legacy of ruin and corruption, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that there is nothing to learn from past generations. But this would be a terrible error. There is always much to learn from those who have gone before us even if only to discover ways of avoiding the mistakes of the past. As George Santayana said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Many of the chronic dysfunctions of our society are rooted in a gross failure to appropriate the lessons of our history. If yours is to be the generation that breaks the cycle of underperformance, then you will have to be the most astute historians our nation has ever seen.
Youthful idealism also carries the danger of naiveté. Without the valuable armament of experience, a new generation can succumb to challenges that have waylaid their forebears. Their great zeal and energy unregulated by knowledge and understanding can lead to imprudence. This is why leadership must be anchored to learning. Great leaders are invariably great and quick learners. The ability to fashion a positive future depends on how well we are learning from the past and the present – the vast spectrum of human and societal experience that is available to us. Consequently, the other invaluable trait of good leadership is humility. Life and history are rife with teachable moments – episodes that have valuable lessons to aid the quest for progress. Humility enables us to stay attuned to the truths offered by these teachable moments.
Young people, it is clear, hold the key to society’s future. Historically, their ambitions, goals and aspirations for peace, security, development and human rights are often in accord with those of society as a whole. Therefore, the creation of ‘Naija’ by our youth, who constitute about 70 percent of the total population, as classical escapism from the responsibility of re-building Nigeria is in my view a passing fad till the rest of the society is ready for real change. How are we showing the youth generation that we are ready for change and preparing this critical mass of young people to take responsibility for a future that beckons with great promise?
Our youth have been imbued with a sense of social, political and economic insecurity by the older generation and many of them have been indoctrinated as foot soldiers in the vain, selfish and often violent pursuits of political elites at the polling booths and beyond. Sadly, their allegiance to the same old guard that has retarded our nation’s progress raises questions about the possibilities of a transformative dynamic emerging on our shores. Young Nigerians have been alienated from politics and public life having been constantly fed the canard that politics is a game for the old and gray. In many ways, this sustains an apathy and cynicism among the young that distances them emotionally from social engagement.
However, the view that young people are too young – or too naïve – to understand politics cannot stand up to scrutiny in the light of our own history. The role of the youth in the history of political leadership in Nigeria predates independence. Many of the founding fathers of modern day Nigeria – the likes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, etc were at the forefront of Nigeria’s independence struggle in their youth. One cannot forget to mention that it was Pa Anthony Enahoro’s motion for self-governance as a young parliamentarian at age 27 which paved the way for Nigeria’s independence in 1960. In fact, Pa Enahoro started early in the journalistic profession and had become a newspaper editor at the age of 21. It was on that platform that he launched his political career, participated in many of the constitutional conferences in London, held ministerial appointments in the old Western Region and under the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon, served as federal commissioner (minister) of Information and Labour e.t.c.
The youthfulness of Nigeria’s military rulers is even more striking. Many of the military leaders of Nigeria assumed power between their late twenties and late thirties. It is therefore simply inaccurate to portray politics as an indulgence of the old rather than a task for the young. Yours truly never felt an iota of inferiority during my days as a leading activist in exile while still in my twenties and early thirties, working closely and visibly with veteran human rights and democracy activists. In those days, there was never any question of age, but of competence, reliability and discretion.
I am aware that building a successor generation is not happenstance; the processes are not accidental. They are very conscious and political, too. As such, there is the need for clarity in the definition of the vision and mission of our times, and a clear plan of action to realise our goals. This is what brings about the purpose of leadership which a successor generation is built to achieve. Also, I do not believe that the current discrepancies being experienced in our democracy in Nigeria can be resolved through a binary opposition that pits the young against elders in politics, but by locating the social construction of youth as part of adulthood and recognising the salience of deliberate, organic and planned succession within that context.
While those of us in positions of leadership currently have to channel the paths of taking our states and this country to the next level, it is a successor generation that will be tasked with leading us to the Promised Land. This holds true even when we realise that a state-formation is almost always in process and incapable of being a completed entity – which is the compelling reason for preparing the next generation for the challenges and responsibilities ahead. In this regard, the youth – the real youth, not the sixty-something – will need to be given adequate exposure and knowledge to withstand the rigours of leadership and put them in good stead vis-à-vis their counterparts from other parts of the world who are better equipped with social and psychological infrastructure for effective leadership.
Mr. Chairman, please permit me to itemise some of the values of that must be inculcated in members of a successor generation. In order to be taken as serious and committed, the members must embrace – and be seen to embrace democratic principles. This requires that they be prepared to respect and abide by the judgement of their fellows as well as followers; to share a vision of ethical regeneration that is crucial to the long-term development of the country; to have the capacity for development-oriented leadership and discourage self-serving situations; and to formulate alternative strategies and mechanisms for taking advantage of indigenous and modern leadership styles as a way of securing better governance. The values equally comprise the capacity to engage with the older generation in a way that is not antagonistic but encourages the transfer of essential skills; to be driven by an attitude of public-spiritedness; and to know when to quit and not sit-tight in office, etc.
While striving to build a successor generation in the political sphere, the youth must not be seen to refrain or shy away from the political process. Both avoidance and outright repudiation of public life are but reflections of the cynicism associated with politics, and of the false notion that politics is essentially a dirty game. The youth must not stand on the fence in the guise of being activists either. For when all is said and done, the lines between being an activist and throwing one’s hat in the political ring are tenuous. They speak to a false dichotomy of sorts in our present context. The point must be made that a relationship of continuity exists between leadership and power. From my own experience, if the younger generation is not political, or if it stands aloof or away from the political process, there can be no public service. The state also runs the risk of being blown hither and tither by illegitimacy, decay and atrophy.
The point, Mr. Chairman, is that planlessness begets failure. Any country that fails to plan for succession plans to fail the leadership test – and much more. The evidence is not far-fetched. In Nigeria the travails and collapse of public institutions, such as the University system, after two decades of authoritarian rule had resulted in the desertion of the public domain by those who could have become leaders, and could have set about their tasks with commitment and integrity. This has left the coast clear for those who could muster the resources to capture public office. Given the pervasive ill-preparedness and integrity deficiency among these people, it is no surprise Nigeria is where it is at the moment.
My experiences are no less relevant here. Over the years I have joined hands with friends and colleagues on both sides of the age bracket, from direct anti-establishment confrontation at the barricades as a young Student’s Union activist and a pro-democracy subaltern operating through civic engagement with political actors and public officials to my current partisan political involvement. In all these one lesson has stood clear and still stands clear. By carefully planned formal and informal leadership development schemes, we can build a pool of young Nigerians who are committed to social transformation and would work for genuine change.
My conclusion, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, is that the debate over whether young people should or should not engage in politics is redundant. It is also superficial. As important as the formal institutions of governance and electioneering are, they constitute just one dimension of the way of life that democracy is. The workings of a democracy are dictated by numerous actors and interests in a vast cosmos of social and political engagement. When we broadly define the currents of public life as simply the handiwork of a chosen caste such as ‘politicians,’ or as the work of ‘civil society activists’, we strip the public domain of the spontaneity and deeper meanings that make it dynamic yet nuanced. We drape functions that are really civic tasks in the garb of a false and exclusive elitism.
In the same vein, when we depict politics as though it is overly rational and mechanistic, something like a mathematical process, we overestimate the ability of politicians to redress the inequities of society. In my view, the issue of leadership transcends the familiar categories of activism and politics. It rests instead on how well we promote a culture of social engagement driven by citizen participation in our democracy. In this sense, leadership is not what happens when one gifted individual is running things decently in a government bureaucracy. Rather, it is how we describe what happens when multitudes step forward as citizens to take responsibility for their land and thus become a transformative critical mass. Leadership is many individuals fully assuming civic responsibility.
This is why I have chosen to dwell on the nurturing of leaders and citizens. It is also why I have argued that we must begin to regard leadership and citizenship as being contingent because without direct citizen participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will continue to decline. It is for this reason that I strongly believe that political leaders – be they politicians or young activists – should worry because their ability to lead effectively is being seriously undermined by the desertion of average citizens from the public space, deepening the crisis of legitimacy that plagues the state. Yet, this lack of legitimacy cuts both ways. When we, the people, withdraw our trust in leaders or discountenance politicians, we make our democratic institutions less effective and risk making ourselves ungovernable.
In my view, our young people should stop agonizing about the problems of the Nigerian State which will not disappear in a hurry. They should begin to organize in a manner that places citizens as drivers of change in our quest to restore values-driven leadership and a future of hope and possibilities for our people. In our quest for a transformative leadership ethos, activists, social entrepreneurs and progressive politicians must reject the false dichotomy between activism and politics which essentially positions both endeavours in an adversarial relationship. While a creative tension exists in a democracy between the public and the state, it is important to understand that these tensions do not suggest a fundamental antipathy between public activism or active citizenship and politics. Both elements should operate in tandem to enrich the society. Activists who promote an antagonism of politics and politicians are therefore doing activism and society as a whole a disservice. Indeed, they risk translating activism into nihilism.
Faced with conditions of economic uncertainty and social insecurity, most Nigerians are wont to connect their dire personal circumstances to political misrule and state decay. The popular reaction to this connection is often a call to arms for radical change or revolution rather than the more exacting quest to reconstitute the state on the pivot of democratic governance to serve the interests of the broader citizenry. Young people are often quick to agitate for a Nigerian version of the Arab Spring as a cure for bad governance. Many imagine such a spring or revolution as no more than an eruption of anarchy to dislodge the formal institutions of government. Those who entertain such dreams should note that anarchy is not a key to transformation and holds only the possibility of self-destruction for society. The continuing instability of the countries where the Arab Spring has taken place indicates that there are no magic cures in the quest for a better society. The heedless uprooting of state institutions in the fruitless pursuit of Utopia leads only to anomie.
This is not to repudiate idealism, or the sound basis of single-minded activism. There is certainly a place for single-issue campaigns like the ‘Occupy Nigeria’, the Anti- Fuel Subsidy Removal movement and the ‘Enough-is-Enough’ campaign. Indeed, we need more of such campaigns to create a sustained emphasis on pressing issues and also serve as a vehicle of youth activism and engagement. The problem though is that such popular campaigns tend to suffer from exaggerated expectations. Activists are sometimes prone to overestimating the sort of political outcomes that can be obtained from the streets. The very impressive turn out for the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protests of early 2012 proved that young Nigerians are not as docile as some cynical politicians and pundits persist in suggesting. For one tumultuous week, youth made their voices heard and caused the political leadership to take note of their objections to a contentious policy. Ultimately, the end of the week-long protests also demonstrated the limits of street activism.
As leaders, we must recognize that transformation requires shrewd mixes of ways and means. The street is but one theatre of activism and engagement. There is a place for more sustained advocacy in fora where emissaries of civil society and government can meet and exchange ideas. There is also the necessary place of politics whereby running for office becomes vital because the only antidote to bad policy is good policy – and good people have to be in positions where they can promote good policies. Sometimes those positions will require that we man barricades on the streets. At other times, we shall need to make representations in the inner sanctums of state power. There are times that it will require both. The important thing is that we are where we have to be and at the appropriate time. Leadership, in this sense, is not about a post but about positioning and finding one’s purpose and mission in life.
In order to discover and realize our leadership potential, we first have to find the spaces and environments in which we are best suited to succeed. You may be a journalist, an educator, a law enforcement agent, a lawyer, a medical practitioner, or a small-scale farmer. Whatever is your calling, the essence of leadership is the same. It is to find where your natural gifts and aptitudes will thrive, and then act for the common good once that place has been found. All great leadership is driven by the search for the common good – the quest for something that transcends self or personal gain. Wherever you are, if you live with the conviction that it is within your power to make a difference, you will find that you have begun to lead. It is time for us to seize the day and begin to build the future of our dreams – a future that will make our children and their children’s children proud to call us their ancestors and themselves Nigerians.
I thank you for listening.