When Chinua Achebe penned the prophetic political tract, The Trouble with Nigeria, in 1983, Nigeria’s second republic was brutally at an end when a coup cut short the civil rule that commenced in 1979. In that short book, Achebe laid his keen insight on what has ailed the nascent Nigerian state—just barely twenty-three years old: the problem of leadership. What even Achebe could not have known then is that sixty-three years on, and forty years after the book was written, Nigeria would still be battling with answering the leadership question. And we watch as other countries tackle their governance and national challenges and keep making enormous progress, from China to Rwanda, and from Germany to Botswana. When Lee Iacocca, in his bestselling 2007 book then ask, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? we know that is not just a rhetorical question. It is a universal question that resonates much more poignantly within the struggle to make Nigeria work better than it has been doing since independence. So far, Nigeria is still struggling to answer the leadership question—what a leader should make with the available human and material resources harnessed to make the lives of Nigerians worth living.
The struggle to understand what ails Nigeria is brilliantly captured, in equal breath, in Acemoglu and Robinson’s classic, Why Nations Fail (2012). And the answer is that they fail because they neglect the crucial dynamics of building institutions that transcend the selfishness of extraction and primitive accumulation. But then, institutions are not that easily built. And hence we return to the relationship between strong institutions and the strong man. The Rwandan example, like many other states, raises the possibility of an enlightened strong man committedly putting in place institutional dynamics and parameters that would outlast him, and without any iota of doubts about his patriotism. Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean strong man, also demonstrates how a strong man could facilitate the transformation of a state’s governance and developmental apparatuses for the benefits of the citizens. It is therefore beyond the pale of any doubt that a weak leader will be able to erect strong institutions, even within a democratic context.
And it remains axiomatic, when we eventually get a strong leader with the mind and the political will to jumpstart the institutional transformation, that the foremost structural move to make is reforming the public service institutions as the bedrock and most fundamental institutional bulwark for backstopping governance and developmental agenda of any government anywhere in the world. This is what history and the trajectories of political development anywhere teach us. To reform the state system is to give the government of the day a rather fair fighting chance of successfully initiating policy designs and implementation backed by the capability readiness of the public institutions efficiently functional in delivering public goods and services.
In this piece, I desire to situate President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s leadership profile within the context of the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) and the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. In past commentaries, I have not only called attention to what I called spheres of performance scattered across the continent, but also the unfairness of deploying global indices of governance performance and leadership dynamics that fail to take into consideration Africa’s unique political sociology that constrains African leaders from achieving their highest potentials in delivering the promises of democracy and development for their citizens. This is essentially what recommends the Mo Ibrahim governance and leadership initiatives as a homegrown project that factors into governance assessment what ails the continent and how the African leadership could be encouraged and instigated to get a move on leading.
The fundamental focus of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) locates governance and leadership at the center of the transformation of the continent. The MIF defines leadership as the “ability to make choices, assess and take risks, define and order priorities”, and the prize highlights exceptional role model by recognizing and celebrating African executive leaders “who, under challenging circumstances, have developed their countries and strengthened democracy and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, paving the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity.” And yet, the leadership deficit on the African continent keeps rearing its ugly head—increasing prevalence of coups, the terrible sit-tight syndrome, insecurity and under-performing democratic experiments. And this manifests in the unfortunate gaps the Mo Ibrahim Leadership Prize has witnessed over the year. Two awards were given in 2007 (Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique), and another one in 2008 to Botswana’s Festus Mogae. There was a two-year gap before Pedro de Verona Pires of Cape Verde for the prize in 2011. There was another two-year lull before the prize was awarded to Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia in 2014. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won it in 2017 and Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger won the 2020 edition.
In all, only seven African leaders have won the prize in its seventeen years of existence. For three consecutive years now, the prize has not been awarded. This dismal performance is further underscored by the key finding of the 2022 IIAG which warns about the possibility of losing the gains of the last decade, from 2012 to 2021 because of the increasing flattening of overall governance since 2019 and the unraveling dynamics of insecurity that are rolling back democratic possibilities on the continent. Those who have won the award have been chosen because of their transformational style of leadership. And unfortunately, no Nigerian political leader has won the prize. Of course, the operation of the prize award has been the subject of severe analysis on its modalities and decisions. The award to President Issoufou in 2020 raised a lot of outcries on how to correlate the former leader’s ambivalent governance credentials with the MIF’s commitment to governance and democracy. Indeed, others have argued that given that so many African leaders who deserved the prize have not received it, then there must be some other criteria at play in awarding the prize.
These ruminations around the MIF and the IIAG allow us to ask the critical question of how its ramifications can allow us interrogate how Nigeria, through the Tinubu administration can regain its governance possibilities in global and regional reckoning. Winning the leadership prize does not necessarily delineate the possible success of the administration, but the IIAG provides sufficient modality around which the success of the new administration could be fairly assessed. The IIAG is subsumed into four crucial categories for mapping good governance: safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. This is adequately with the vision and mission of the African Peer Review Mechanism.
If we take seriously the MIF definition of a leader as a political executive with the ability to make critical choices, assess and take risks, as well as define and order priorities, then we immediately see the coalition of several factors that can make the Tinubu administration a success. Coming from the recent sterling performance at the United Nation General Assembly (UNGA), where President Tinubu outline Nigeria’s foreign policy dynamics and spoke unprecedently to world leaders about the urgency of perceiving Africa, and Nigeria, not as beggars but global partners, it becomes increasingly clear that the administration is perceptively adapting and learning on the job. Such a far-reaching statement at such a critical global event must point back to a deeply structured governance articulation at home. And for me, it must pointedly signal the government’s intention and commitment to transforming the public service institutions that underscore any administration’s readiness to succeed through strengthening the capability readiness of these institutions that backstop government’s governance and policy architecture.
There is no doubt that the new administration is now fully in the clear about why the Tinubu administration is assiduously working round the clock to create a viable change space that will create a chain of leadership vision and connection across the critical policy spheres in Nigeria. That space could benefit from the key policy areas outlined by the MIF, with the addition of public service institutional reform. This is my passion, and that passion is founded on what has become an axiomatic administrative truth for me: once the public service system fails, everything else about governance fails. And that truth derives essentially from the known fact that the public service institutions, especially the MDAs, are the engine room for servicing the policy implementation and evaluation successes of any government. And even more so, it is the public service system that carries the weight of the critical policy and governance areas from security to rule of law, from human development to human rights, and from sustainable economic opportunity to democratic participation.
The type of leadership that the MFI leadership achievement prize gestures at is forged within the context of a deliberately designed and capacitated change space—made up of ministers, technocrats, officials, functionaries, nonstate actors and agencies—that the Tinubu administration is already facilitating. It is from within this space that the Nigerian governance narrative which the government has now embarked upon can be recrafted away from the usual and tired trajectories of benchmarking failures to instilling hope and success through a developmental agenda anchored solidly on the antecedent success of reforming those public service institutions that serve as the structural background for making the agenda work for Nigerians.
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu stands a very good chance of winning the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. But the fundamental criterion in this case is answering the leadership question, and transforming the Nigerian narrative from bad management to good governance. And four years have started counting to make good on that transformation.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa, Retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration