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President Ibrahim Babangida’s criteria for the Nigerian leader he would like to emerge post President Muhammadu Buhari should stimulate national debate on the leadership question. In his latest interview with Trust Tv (See Daily Trust of January 15) he suggested that the Nigerian president should be someone who is “…very conversant with the country, he communicates, he is a very good communicator. He should be able to communicate because a president should be able to walk into a group of people and talk to them on issues concerning Nigeria; not all the time but most of the time.”
And: “He must have somebody he knows in every part of the country. It is not a tall order.”
Maybe. Leadership is such a serious matter that his prescribed qualities in the next Nigerian president sound both cynical and cavalier. If you ask Nigerians to list the qualities they want to see in their president, some of the suggestions would borrow from those of the gods. They would want to see a superman in Aso Rock. Supermen exist in children’s make-believe. And the gods would not cede their qualities to men, however much we may desire them in our next leader.
His prescription reminds me of the question I once asked the former president in the course of an interview with Newswatch magazine:
Me: “Who is IBB?”
IBB: “An ordinary Nigerian trying to do extra-ordinary things for his country.”
I suppose that is why he chooses not to talk of godly or superman qualities. An ordinary Nigerian defines all Nigerians, including those who believe they were born with the right to rule and therefore, are not ordinary Nigerians. The next president will, like all others before him, be an ordinary Nigerian, not a god and not a superman; and certainly not omniscient.
I find it curious though that Babangida omitted something dear to him. his abiding love for ideas. I thought he would want the next president to be a man of ideas. Ideas drive and build nations and societies. In his time as president, he showed what ideas could do to remake a nation or move it from one point to another. I thought a man who could not generate or throw up ideas or mine other people’s ideas to the benefit of his country would infect his nation with the virus of Lilliputian intellectualism and inflict it with incompetent and/or indifferent leadership leading to the stunting of our collective mental and intellectual growth. Without ideas, the people perish.
Nature abhors a vacuum; Babangida abhors dull moments in governance. The people, led by their president, must constantly chew on fresh ideas in a genuine search for the ideals of human progress. I suspect that Babangida must have felt the current dull moments in the nation. He clearly wants to enliven the soul-destroying atmosphere by pushing for the leadership debate as an intellectual exercise in the hope that through it, the nation will take its badly flawed leadership recruitment process seriously. Politics, as someone said, is too serious, to be left to the politicians. But that is what we have done. We no longer believe that our politicians are merely lucky ordinary Nigerians. Some have turned themselves into extra-ordinary men doing ordinary, mediocre things for the country. The era of godfatherism has given us only poorly prepared godsons as leaders. Godfatherism is an infectious disease in our political system.
Talking about an ideal leader is rather slippery. There is really no such thing as an ideal leader. Ideal leadership is not prescriptive because each one of us has in his head his own definition of the ideal leader, depending on what part of the leadership elephant we may have touched. More importantly, each era throws up a leader a nation may or may not deserve. Nations crave good and competent leaders; they do not search for ideal leaders.
Secondly, circumstances make or unmake leaders. An indifferent, weak, or incompetent leader may rise up to the challenges of the moment and become a good, courageous, and competent leader. On the other hand, a leader who starts out well at the beginning may find himself overwhelmed by the challenges thrown across his path by fate and fail the critical test of leadership. Nothing really guarantees anything. But the man who receives the people’s thumbs up must, ab initio, be someone with demonstrable antecedents of open-mindedness, someone who opens his arms to and embraces the people, including, if it comes to that, even lepers.
Why does the former president rate the ability to communicate this highly in his kind of a leader for the country in 2023? Communication is key to mutual understanding, human interactions and human management. A leader who masters the art of communication bridges tongues and fault lines in a given nation. When a leader who communicates speaks to the people, he inspires them, lifts up their spirits, particularly when the times are hard, and, like the late President Ronald Reagan, make them see the sunshine despite the clear threat of dark clouds about to swallow up the sun. Such a leader feels free with the people and the people feel free him; hence he can “walk to a group of people and talk to them.” The people follow the leader who communicates with them, who talks to them, not one who talks down at them.
Let us drag in a cliché. Nigeria is a complex and diverse nation. All nations are but Nigeria is more than others with peculiarities absent in other complex and diverse nations. With 350 tribes and tongues, communication is often so impaired that we tend to disagree with one another because we fail to understand one another. Given the peculiarities of our individual tongues imposed on the English language, some of us speak English in the vernacular but expect our listeners to understand us. In a country such as ours encumbered by such a linguistic burden, a president who can communicate with the capacity to speak as if he is speaking in every tongue and to everyone, high and low, approaches the threshold of great leadership.
Babangida’s point about a man who knows and feels free in every part of the country is right on. A leader who is ignorant of his own country cannot lead his own country aright. He will only govern in ignorance and alienate himself from the people he purports to govern. Two administrative policies were put in place during the military regime to encourage Nigerians to open themselves to their country and the country to open itself to them. General Yakubu Gowon introduced the NYSC in 1973 to expose young Nigerians to the diversities of their country in terms of tribes, tongues, culture, and tradition. The corps has survived because it has done much and continues to do much more for the country to realise and benefit from its core policy thrust. Many a young Nigerian who served in the corps are less ignorant of the country today. The corps brought them together to forge lasting and even marital relationship. They can tap friends from many of the states and local government areas.
The 1979 constitution mid-wifed by the General Olusegun Obasanjo military regime, prescribed a process by which a Nigerian president, rather a tribal chieftain on the national throne, may emerge. It stipulates that a presidential candidate must receive the votes in two-thirds of the states to be elected a Nigerian president we have a right to claim is ours. The point of all this is that a man who knows the country is morally and emotionally equipped to manage our diversities to the satisfaction of the majority of the people. It is not an easy task for anyone to manage our diversities. But the alternative is not arrogance that only leads to marginalisation by reason of tribe, section, and religion. The constitution has enough clauses to help a Nigerian president do a fairly good job of managing our diversities. Only a president who feels he is wiser than the constitution can make a poor show of this.
In a diverse nation such ours, a leader cannot afford to be insular, to wrap himself in his wisdom, however wise he may think he is, and isolate himself on a small island peopled by sycophants who speak his own language and share his faith. Leadership insularity is anathema to democracy because it turns the government of the people instituted by the people into an insulated band of men and women who impose their will on the people at the expense of the people. What we need is an open and a fair political system to replace the current closed system in which a few privileged men assume the right to decide for the people, and often to their detriment. A new system of political leadership will pave the way for the emergence of our own Barack Obama and Macron. The era of geriatric leadership ended with the collapse of the USSR.