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Published On: Tue, Mar 25th, 2014

Rethinking leadership and power

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By Taiwo Odukoya

The alignments and realignments currently going on within the Nigerian political space have dominated public discussions in recent times. The months leading to the 2015 election would be frenetic indeed. It will be characterized by endless meetings by politicians from all sides of the divide, rigorous horse-trading and negotiations, where money and influence would be engaged, where loyalties would be tested and stretched, and alliances forged and broken. But in all the back and forth that is bound to ensue, those who are putting themselves up for leadership must not forget one thing – it should be all about the people.

Any leadership worth its salt will have the welfare of the people as its priority. As Colin Powel aptly put it, “Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people.” This is all the more true for democratic environments like ours, where it is assumed that political leaders derive their mandate from the people. But going by our political history, which is there for all to see, our leaders have not always done a good job of running people-focused governments. What has largely obtained, on the contrary, are self-serving leaders pursuing parochial and largely personal interests.

The truth is, power is seductive as it is intoxicating. Those who seek it must therefore be sure of their motives and have a clear vision for office.

The principal objective for gaining power must be to serve the common good and nothing else. If after decades of having leaders people still have to scrape and beg to travel to India to attend to urgent medical needs and many still have to pay through their noses to put their wards in private secondary and tertiary institutions or fly them abroad to get some decent education, and 112 million people, out of a population of about 150 million, still grapple with poverty, then we must as a matter of urgent importance examine the reasons we are or want to be in power.

Any leader who is worth his/her onions will strive for greatness. And what will define this greatness? It is the willingness and ability to articulate and implement policies and build institutions that will not only serve the present need, but also those of future generations. Judging therefore by the age and functionality of our institutions and infrastructure, it becomes easy to say that the last time we had what seemed like great leadership was over 40 years ago or thereabout.

So it is not the striving for leadership or the acquisition of the same that matters; it is what we do with it.

A British soldier at an African refugee camp narrates the story of how a refugee girl’s demonstration of leadership turned his life around:

Her tiny face crumpled as it dawned on her that she would get no food that day. Even in the emaciated crowd, she was smaller and thinner than the rest, easily pushed aside as stronger ones shoved their way to the front.

The soldier had first spotted her under a scrawny tree as his aid convoy approached the refugee camp. But he’d forgotten her, focusing on the chaotic scene at hand. He and his comrades in arms were to protect the convoy from warlords and rioters. Sometimes aid-seekers became unruly. Desperation gave the starving strength.

After the crowd dispersed, she remained. Her haunting eyes met his. He remembered the banana he’d tossed in his back pack at breakfast. He pulled it out and walked over to offer it to her. She took it silently. He watched her make her way back to the tree, and only then perceived two little boys lying in its shade, too weak to get up. She peeled the banana, broke it in two, and gave a piece to each of them. Then she ate the peel. “It was the most moving illustration of servant leadership I have ever seen,” the soldier said. “She changed the course of my life. I resigned from my career to follow her example, serving with communities in need in Africa.”

We must, of necessity, move beyond the rhetoric of leadership to the actual demonstration of it. If we conceive of leadership and power as instruments through which we can better the lot of the people, then our land will flourish and posterity will never forget us. But if, on the contrary, our motive is to enrich and secure ourselves and our friends, then the land will groan under our leadership and history will not be kind to us. May the Lord give us the grace to choose the former. Nigeria has a great future.

Taiwo Odukoya can be reached on

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