Fundamental Leadership Challenge in Nigeria

By Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum

My attention was drawn to social media commentary by Mr. Peter Oparah disquieting that “what is APC Governors Forum waiting for to sack this cheap hatchet called Lukman they call their DG? He has disgraced them enough.” What did Lukman do, which Mr. Oparah believed the Governors should sack him? In simple terms, he has expressed opinion about what is going on in the party, All Progressives Congress (APC), which ordinarily he should just perhaps keep quiet and wait for instructions from the Governors. Should that be the case, his opinion could be interpreted to mean insubordination. And if it is not, it means that he is acting based on the instruction of some Governors who are allegedly sponsoring the crisis in APC.

Two issues immediately come to my mind. The first is Ms. Chimamanda Adichie’s caution around the danger of single story, which “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one become the only story.” The main issue to many is that some leaders of APC, including some Governors, want to remove Comrade Adams Oshiomhole from his position as National Chairman of APC on account of ambitions for 2023. The narrative is that Comrade Oshiomhole is a threat to the ambition of this group of leaders because he has taken steps to entrench discipline and ensure supremacy of the party. Zamfara, Rivers, Ogun, Imo, among others were cited to demonstrated how he was able to clip the powers of some party leaders, including Governors.

The second is, if Lukman is sacked, and the Governors “using him”, to use the words of Comrade Oshiomhole, are defeated, what does that really mean for the party? One possibility is that all those opposed to Comrade Oshiomhole will be silenced. We could even stretch it to mean that anybody in the party who is identified as part of the opposition to Comrade Oshiomhole could be pushed out of the party. The case of Mr. Godwin Obaseki’s aspiration to contest for the 2020 Edo State Governorship election might as well be a preview to the pushing of all those opposed to Comrade Oshiomhole from the party.

The second case constitute the fundamental problem of leadership in Nigeria and is so entrenched that it is basically believed to be the norm. It is the source of intolerance in our politics. Unfortunately, we engage it so defensively based on arguments for or against remote factors that may have catalyse specific instances of intolerance. The fundamental issues around how our leaders should conduct themselves to be able to carry everybody along is always conveniently missed. Yet, given the diverse nature of Nigerian society, we do need our leaders to be able to carry all sections of our nation. How can our leaders carry all sections of Nigeria when in truth our belief encourages them to be parochial, or as Ms. Adichie highlights, operate with the mentality of a single story and all its danger?

Perhaps, as Nigerians, we take our leaders for granted. In which case, we really relate with our leaders based on a strategy of pulling them down to the level of followers. This will suggest that we (Nigerians) have problems with our leaders because we are the problems. How can we resolve that? May be the starting point is to clarify for ourselves what should be the attributes of an ideal leaders? I find Warren Bennis submission as presented in his 1989 book On Becoming a Leader very stimulating. According to him, leaders are “innovators. They do things other people have not done or dare not do. They do things in advance of other people. They make new things. They make old things new. Having learned from the past, they live in the present, with one eye on the future. And each leader puts it all together in different way. To do that, leaders must be right-brain and left-brain, thinkers. They must be intuitive, conceptual, synthesising, and artistic.”

Any objective mind would decipher that no one person can have all these attributes. It just simply means, for any person to qualify as leader, the person must be able to have access to diverse, and often conflicting perspectives. It basically means having combination of people in a team who have different perspectives – conformists (old), reformists (new), capitalists (right-brain), socialists (left-brain) and in the context of Nigeria, Christians, Muslims, etc. This could be further stretched to ability to have old, young, women, men and diverse ethnic background. Ingrained in these identities should be constellations of varied ideas and perspectives being brought together to confront each other through debates and engagements. In the end, out of all the debates, the leader will have to take decisions, which could be approached in so many ways depending on the leader’s preferences that could be simple choice of one of the perspectives or combinations of perspectives. That way, the leader can ‘live in the present, with one eye on the future’ as well as ‘right-brain and left-brain’.

Partly because we take leadership for granted, expectations are reduced to the need for people working with leaders to always demonstrate agreement. Once that is the case, leaders limit themselves to recruiting sycophants to work with them. As a result, political debate is reduced to propaganda and politics is debased to warfare, political contests become struggle for conquests and subjugation of opponents. What is very clear is that our political leaders need help to break away from the current operative framework that incapacitate leaders and makes them less tolerant. How can we expect any politician to win election for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, when the approach is to build a wall against some people simply because they hold positions that are opposed to what he/she holds? Rather that engage in debate based on trying to understand problems, the disposition is simply to rigidly rationalise a point of view. This then complicate the problem to the extent that conflict may even ensue based on disagreements about the point of view and not the nuisance created by the problem.

Given that kind of situation, it will be impossible to produce political leaders that meet all the attributes required of a leader as outlined by Warren Bennis and perhaps most leadership scholars. As citizens, we are intolerant of one another. Consequently, we end up producing political leaders that project such high intolerance. We end up with leaders who operate and governed with the single-story mentality. In other words, our politics is reduced to a single story and all citizens are required to adopt the single-story line. We just have to mainstream the discussion of what should be the attributes of the type of leader we want in Nigeria as part our political conversation. The context of such a conversation should be to outline the type of leaders we want. Against such background, if those of who are critical of leadership style of Comrade Oshiomhole are being accused of 2023 agenda, to avoid the single-story narrative, we should be able to provide the other side to the story by highlighting the quality of leaders we need in Nigeria. For instance, what will be the quality of President we want in 2023 who should succeed President Buhari.

As Nigerians, we have the constitutional right to freely express ourselves, and by extension, also have expectations that should guide who get elected. Does that explain the leadership crisis in APC and to what extent does that confirm or otherwise the allegations that those who are against Comrade Oshiomhole are doing it for 2023? Assuming that is the case, who were those who supported the emergence of Comrade Oshiomhole as National Chairman of APC in the first place? Let those who are currently defending Comrade Oshiomhole’s infractions honestly state where they stand in May/June 2018 on the choice of whether Comrade Oshiomhole should be elected as APC National Chairman. Without expecting too much, especially in an environment where politics tends to blight honesty, it is predictable that those with conscience may be able to admit truth even if it is just in their private moments.

Beyond circumstances around the emergence of Comrade Oshiomhole, how do we explain some handling of issues under his (Comrade Oshiomhole) leadership. To be specific, no one is questioning the knowledge and competence of Comrade Oshiomhole to lead the party. If anything, it was in recognition of his knowledge and competence that made many to agitate for his emergence as National Chairman. And once he (Comrade Oshiomhole) accepted to run, he outlined some of his vision. This was contained in his speech of May 10, 2018 when he declared to contest for the position of National Chairman.

Just as an illustration, it will be useful to recall one aspect of his vision statement, which commits him; “To promote internal party democracy, we will ensure that all organs of the party regularly meet, as stipulated by the party’s Constitution. For instance, article 25 of the APC’s Constitution provides that National Convention of the party shall be held once in two years; National Executive Committee (NEC) every quarter and National Working Committee (NWC) once every month.” What did we experience since his emergence as National Chairman in June 2018?

The party’s NEC, which should have met every three months was unable to meet for about fifteen months between August 2018 and November 2019. In between, the positions of Deputy National Chairman (South) and National Secretary, among others, became vacant. To fill those vacancies, a minimum of zonal consensus was required, which should be ratified by NEC. Instead, it was only in March 2020 when the court granted an injunction against Comrade Oshiomhole that the National Working Committee (NWC) announced “appointments” into these vacant positions. This led to more disagreements based on the question of whether the NWC has powers to make those appointments or not.

Inability to manage disagreements and resolve conflicts bordering on leadership disputes is at the centre of the crisis in APC. Unfortunately, these are not the issues being debated. What is being debate is about the personalities in the conflict and who is supporting who. It is not about the details of the disagreements. We may succeed to come to agreement about who should occupy the positions, but will that prevent a situation whereby organs of the party will not meet such that vacancies will emerge and proper processes of refilling the vacancies will not be followed?

Partly, to blackmail those of criticising Comrade Oshiomhole, all those alleged to have been opposed to him are being accused of nursing or supporting ambition for 2023. False as it is, to avoid falling into the pit being dug to produce intolerant leaders, party leaders and members should not be defensive about their positions. They should be able to ask, since Comrade Oshiomhole is a threat to the ambition of those opposed to him, it means that there is someone he supports. Who is that person and what does that person represent? Is Comrade Oshiomhole’s leadership attributes representative of the orientation of the person Comrade Oshiomhole is supporting?

We must not allow the debate to be reduced to a simple strategy to conquer and subjugate opponents. The danger here is not that Comrade Oshiomhole may succeed in defeating his opponents, but that if it is part of the strategy to promote a particular person to emerge as President Buhari’s successor in 2023, for instance, based on Comrade Oshiomhole’s style of leadership, it then means that there is very high possibility that such a post President Buhari successor will be closer, if not worse than, President Obasanjo’s model of garrison leadership. Is that the type of President we want?

People defending Comrade Oshiomhole may not necessarily be conscious of this reality. They may even dispute it. The most important thing however is to begin to open up the debate so that it is not just about for or against Comrade Oshiomhole. It should be about what type of leader we want, what he/she should represent and how to ensure that as a nation we succeed in getting the type of leader we want. Two clear arguments can be highlighted. First is that opening the debate about the type of leader Nigerians want can’t be achieved based on narrow support for personalities. The second is that unless we are able to take steps to rebuild the APC, whether with Comrade Oshiomhole as National Chairman or with anyone else, as it is constituted today, APC is incapable of producing the type of leader that can guarantee permanent departure from the garrison-type leadership we experienced under former President Obasanjo.

To be able to actively push the debate to cover the type of leaders Nigerians want, we need to be steadfast and prevent a situation where people are weakened on accounts of blackmail strategies. It is very easy to deploy such blackmail strategies against individuals based on loose campaigns for sacking employees as submitted by Mr. Oparah based on assumed contractual expectations required. In order to achieve that, the recourse is to make the employers (Progressive Governors) feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. Beyond that, there could be other sophisticated blackmail strategies, which could be employed against the employers (Governors and leadership of the PGF). This could include some stray issues that may not be political but purely issues linked to the employers (Governors) based on their past experiences. Some of these issues could have been long settled but on accounts of strategies to damage them on account of perspectives they hold or even leadership prospects, they re-opened. Rather than build leaders, we end up with situations where people with leadership potentials are destroyed. Is that the kind of politics we want to model our APC to promote?

Therefore, directly responding to Mr Oparah, the simple argument is that holding the position of Director General (DG) of PGF should not be the reason for engagement on issues affecting the APC. Doing so will only confirm that citizens are the problem of our democracy. So long as we are not able to critically engage our leaders, we will be unable to strengthen them to address critical challenges facing our country. The task of DG of PGF is separate from the responsibility of being a member of APC. The most important thing is that being member of APC should compel one to work for strengthening the party, which every leader of the party including our Governors should prioritise. This is no easy task especially given all the terrible political culture and practices that APC emerged with a commitment to end.

The reality is that as members of APC, we should expect to have different opinions and perspectives on how to build the party. Disagreements and contestation is the hallmark of politics. It is the capacity to accommodate different divergent opinions that will enable our leaders to ‘live in the present, with one eye on the future’ as well as ‘right-brain and left-brain’ at the same time. Unfortunately many of our leaders are intolerant, which produce all the avoidable crisis facing us. This is where the framework adopted by the Progressive Governors is different. As it is today, individually Progressive Governors may disagree in terms of what should be done. They respect their individual positions, conflitual as it could be. But it doesn’t stop them from coming together to debate and eventually agree based on majority position. They are very tolerant of each other. And to that extent they recognise and respect the freedom of their employees in the PGF Secretariat and by extension members of the party to freely express themselves.

It may be difficult for many, especially those who believe that political relations should be about uncritical support to leaders, to understand how Progressive Governors manage to allow their employee to express himself freely. It should however be the ambition of every well-meaning Nigerian that eventually Nigerian politics should mature to adopt that operative framework. This is necessary if PGF is to serve as the kind of political think tank which it is established to attain and through that support Governors and party leaders with critical but informed political perspectives.

In other words Progressive Governors are certainly ahead of most political leaders in the country in terms of issues of broadmindedness and tolerance for being able to put in place the framework that created the PGF. But many politicians, including party members and leaders, who may want to hold Nigerian politics down based on politics of sycophancy may not understand and may get jealous about why anyone with the status of being an employee should enjoy freedom of expression different from those perceived to be that of his/her employer.

We need to recognise and appreciate that, in APC, sycophancy has weakened the capacity of our leaders to convene meetings of organs. It is easier to hold general elections in Nigeria today than for APC to hold NEC meetings. APC National Conventions would appear to only take place when the tenure of leaders expires after four year, notwithstanding the fact that APC constitution also makes provision for mid-term convention after two years. We are supposed to have Board of Trustees and seven years after the emergence of APC, it is yet to be inaugurated. In truth, one can argue that part of the functions of APC leaders, especially members of NWC is to undermine the APC constitution and be able to mobilise APC members and other Nigerians to defend such actions. Somehow, these issues are being ignored in the whole assessments of problems of the party.

Yet, when party leaders are criticised for these infractions, it is being translated to mean agenda for 2023. Rather than therefore allow distractions based on highlighting issues of contractual relationship that have no bearing on the challenges, the focus should be on problems of intolerance, which is the source of the leadership crisis in APC. In terms of how it manifests in APC, it is two-fold. The first is, what is it that should be done to ensure that the APC is able to democratise itself and based on its democratic credentials produce the kind of leaders Nigerians are looking for? The second issue is, how can we support APC leaders to re-orient themselves in the direction of democratising the party to produce the kind of leaders Nigerians want?

The first border on the details of the current leadership crisis in APC. The second is really about challenging our leaders to be much more tolerant and honestly engage the issues. It is not about scheming to dominate. If it is about scheming, then no need to expect internal democracy in our parties and we should be ready to accept all the crude practices of manipulating and producing fictitious membership register just ahead of party primary. In fact, parties don’t need members. Leaders should exercise the prerogative to assemble members based on capacity to accumulate/procure followership. Once we encourage our leaders to be intolerant, we should just be ready for every known democratic requirement to be undermined.

In short, the problem of intolerance, is the fundamental leadership challenge in Nigerian politics. Given all the leadership problems of APC at the moment and against the overriding consideration of producing the type of tolerant leaders who should ‘live in the present, with one eye on the future’ as well as ‘right-brain and left-brain’, through democratic process, the first requirement is for APC to ensure that all organs of the party are made functional and they accommodate as all shades of opinions of members. Leaders of the party who preside over those organs should be challenged to develop skills to facilitate debate and build consensus out of those debates. That way we can aspire to be able to produce a leader who can build on President Buhari’s liberal candour of allowing the party to exercise its independence without engendering leadership crisis. Anything short of that, we should be prepared to produce authoritarian leaders who will always interpret disagreement as subversion. We must not allow platforms provided by APC organs to be reduced to centres for legitimising single story!

This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum