On ethics and leadership in Africa (II) By Mohammed Haruna

Mohd Haruna new pix 600General Ibrahim Babangida’s SAP which has since become entrenched as the country’s unofficial directive principles of state policy – the management of our political-economy since the return of civilian rule in 1999 with its ideology of deregulation, privatization, liberalization, retrenchment of the public sector, removal of subsidies, etc, is SAP in all but name – may have unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians but by the time he left office in August 1993 it had failed to deliver the goods.
To make matter worse, General Sani Abacha, his minister of defence whom he had left behind in the interim government he set up under Chief Ernest Sonekan following his inexplicable annulment of the presidential election of June 12 which was widely adjudged as free and fair, overthrew Sonekan in November 1993 and brought the military fully back into power once again. Ironically, Babangida had said he had left Abacha behind to reign in the soldiers and give Sonekan’s administration some teeth.
For the next five years Abacha ruled the country with an iron-fist and headed what arguably became the most venal administration since independence – until President Olusegun Obasanjo came along in May 1999.
When Abacha seized power in November 1993, he promised to be “brief” but, instructively, refused to be drawn on how brief. Five years later he seemed to have eliminated, compromised or neutralized all opposition to what became his obvious agenda of transforming himself from a military dictator into an “elected” civilian president.
In June 1998 he died a sudden and mysterious death. He was quickly succeeded by his Chief of Defence Staff, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. Abubakar promised a quick transition to civilian rule and kept his word; in May 1999 he handed over to General Obasanjo who had been released from a life sentence for his alleged involvement in a coup attempt against Abacha after which he was “persuaded” to become the presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), the largest of the three parties registered by the Abubakar regime. He handily won the election.
As a critic of every administration since 1979 when he handed over power to President Shehu Shagari following his succession of General Murtala Muhammed who was assassinated in February 1976, Nigerians came to expect much from a civilianised President Obasanjo.
Eight years and a failed attempt to extend his tenure beyond the two term limit later, Obasanjo dashed those expectations. Worse, he seemed to have surpassed those he had criticized in the venality his administration engaged in, as has been exposed by several National Assembly investigations of many of his policies and decisions.
In those eight years his regime collected far more revenues, mostly oil, than all the regimes before his second coming combined. Yet the country’s decayed infrastructure – roads, electricity, schools, water, etc – over which he excoriated previous regimes, got worse. Meanwhile, a few Nigerians, including himself, had become stupendously rich.
To appreciate the size of the gap between Obasanjo’s rhetoric and his deeds one needs only examine why the “African Renaissance” the great Nelson Mandela predicted in 1994 following the collapse of Apartheid in his native South Africa has failed to take off nearly twenty years hence.
To give this “African Renaissance” a concrete form, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s second black president after Mandela, along with Obasanjo, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarrak, and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, initiated a New Partnership for African Development in 2001 which was supposed to engage Europe and America in a partnership that would jump-start Africa’s economic development.
On its part, the rich world was to increase its aid to Africa and open up its borders for a more equitable trade with the continent. In return Africa was to eschew its dictatorial past and become more market-oriented.
One of the things Africa did to prove its goodwill was to establish a Peer Review Mechanism in 2001 through which Africa leaders would subject each other to peer pressure to fight corruption and waste and tyranny on the continent. Obasanjo was a key figure in setting up the mechanism.
Another thing the continent did in the same year was replace the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which had degenerated into a mutual back-slapping talking shop, into African Union (AU) with a mandate to intervene in the affairs of its member states anytime the need arose. This was a critical break from OAU’s hitherto sacrosanct principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states by outsiders – a principle which allowed African leaders to treat their countries as private chattels. Again Obasanjo was a key player in this transformation.
However, while he preached all these virtues abroad back home the man practised the opposite. For example, he set up various institutions to fight corruption and waste, but corruption only thrived because he used the institutions in a selective way to fight his perceived enemies, especially anyone who opposed his agenda of self-entrenchment, while simultaneously rewarding his supporters whatever their misdeeds.
Again, while he preached democracy abroad, he eliminated internal democracy in his own party and tried to neutralize the opposition parties by planting fifth columnists in the ranks of their leadership to undermine their viability. Nationwide he installed what one of the many PDP party chairmen he whimsically hired and fired called “garrison democracy,” a democracy where dissent was regarded as treason.
Tragically Obasanjo was merely typical of the continental leaders in their attitude of preaching virtues abroad but mostly practicing vices at home.
With such an attitude it is not surprising that Africa has remained the most backward region in the world. Obviously, if it to have any hope of catching up with the rest of the world its leaders must learn to practice what they preach.
Of course this is easier said than done. For one thing, even though ethics, at least some, may be universal, they are open to interpretations. One man’s loyalty, for example, may be another’s disloyalty. Second, ethics may sometimes be in conflict with one another and one may have to choose one over another. Third, all too often we view leadership too narrowly through political prism as the man on top, whereas each one of us, as both the Qur’an and the Bible say, is a shepherd and we will have to account for our responsibilities in whatever role we play in society and at whatever level.
All this notwithstanding, we simply have to make choices. And the mark of leadership is the ability to choose well in the most difficult times based on what is in the greatest interest of the greatest number.
Personally given a choice among the many virtues leaders should posses, I will pick five as the most important. These are honesty, transparency, equity, justice and fairness, not necessarily in that order.
In politics and economics, I will definitely put equity on top because inequity wastes talent and undermines social cohesion which in turn easily leads to, among other vices, the violent crimes and ethnic and religious conflicts that have bedevilled society every where on the continent.
Inequity is when our “elected” leaders spend more money on their creature comforts than on the necessities of life in a country, like Nigeria, where more than half the population live on less than a dollar a day. Inequity, in a more concrete way, is when, for example, senior officials of a ministry spend over 2.7 billion Naira in one year globe-trotting and the minister feels absolutely no remorse when confronted by the legislators that exercise oversight over his ministry. Instead, the minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, in charge of foreign affairs, would counter the legislators’ criticism by arguing that “Diplomacy is all about visibility”.
In short, unless Africa’s leaders eschew the vices of corruption, tyranny, waste, etc, and imbibe the virtues of honesty, transparency, equity, fairness, justice, etc, Africa will continue to remain the proverbial “dark continent,” literally as well as figuratively.

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