By Lande Omo Oba
A little over 50 days to next year’s general election, I am unable to resist the conclusion that Nigeria’s return to greatness can only be assured if we are deliberate about our plans for tomorrow. To be fair, like any other nation, we have an abundance of talented and brilliant people. So, it is difficult to understand why we have not yet made the progress that a nation like ours should have made. Why is Nigeria still under-developed?
Now, the typical response from most respondents to this question would be to say that corruption has caused our stunted growth. Well, more and more, I am beginning to think that corruption, in itself, is not the cause; but more the effect of a more fundamental problem. After all, there is corruption everywhere. Even in bigger and more developed countries, we hear of corrupt practices on very large scales. Yet, these countries have not ceased to thrive and grow.
It is for this latter reason that I am inclined to believe that our problem might be more a human capital development and management one. Simply put, we have a people problem. Now, the problem is not that we don’t have brilliant, problem-solving and intelligent Nigerians. But rather it may well be the case that we have too many accidental politicians and accidental leaders in the public space. Looking at other economies, one would see that ever so often leaders occupying critical positions and heading critical agencies are often career public servants or politicians who have risen from the grassroots. Consequently, these persons are prepared and experienced enough to navigate their way through the complexities that obtain in the civil service.
In contrast, in our space, we tend to elevate people to positions of authority and appoint them into policy-making functions on the basis of personal relationships and party affiliations. This is why we see outstanding and seasoned professionals and corporate gurus go into government and fail abysmally. How does this happen? Well, in my opinion, nothing prepared these technocratic types for survival in a poorly-managed and badly-incentivised public space. To be successful in the public sector, it is not enough to be a politician or even to have good intentions or to be performance-driven.
Back in time, we were fortunate with the likes of Awolowo, Zik, and Balewa, who had been groomed and prepared by the cut-and-thrust of the anti-colonial movement to take over the different mantles of leadership that they stepped into after independence. We inherited strong institutions and found strong individuals — with sound judgment, intellectual capacity, principles and values — to man them. Today we have too many political chancers and Johnny-come-lately leaders running for public offices and hoping to manage weak institutions. They will be required to lead a public sector that is low on morale and filled with staff whose personal goals long diverged from the public one. In fact, one may go ahead and say that our civil service stopped being attractive to our brightest talent by the mid-1970s and that we have continued to force a certain type into that space ever since.
Because of these considerations, I am not particularly keen on the “not too young to run” bus. This isn’t the same as disagreeing with our economy’s need for fresh blood and younger leaders. However, as far as I am concerned, the problems that inexperienced politicians or public office holders would have to contend with are so deep and enormous. Against this backdrop, we are likely to realise very painfully, and quickly too, that talk is cheap with this narrow focus on “youth” as an organising criterion. I won’t be voting for these new comers at the presidential level no matter how much sense they make. As far as I can see, they need structures, which they don’t have. They also need experience, which they are not patient to get. Instead, it is time to pay attention to succession planning in our public space. We must be more deliberate about raising and grooming the next generation of leaders. We cannot do this without paying attention to educational reforms.
Without paying attention to the education sector, we cannot resuscitate, transform or change anything about this country. We need to start preparing the ground for leaders and we must start from our primary schools. Whilst this is going on we need to build a school of governance and leadership in the hope that we will be able to address foundational issues where they exist. I have seen this model work in corporate Nigeria. Where we have taken middle managers through life-changing and thought-provoking leadership programmes. I have seen paradigms shift and changes in behaviour on the back of this.
Assuming we appoint the most competent of persons, we ought to introduce a process or platform for grooming and testing these persons before sending them off to take up public office. They must be well prepared for leadership in the public service. They also need to be supported and protected. And we can achieve this in many ways, one of which is by building a critical mass around concentric potential leadership cadres.
We need a pool of many though. We need numbers. Then we need to distribute them to various sectors and equip them. Support them to make this change. Growing up, I was regaled with tales of a bunch of super-permanent secretaries who made things happen in the public sector. We need to recreate this army of qualified personnel.
The central challenge facing Nigeria in its quest for development, I believe, is to create a body of people who think differently. The number must also be large enough to influence and change the space around them.
‘Lande Omo Oba is a lawyer