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On ethics and leadership in Africa (I)

It had invited me to speak as guest of honour on the topic of leadership. The notice was short but I accepted the invitation because…

It had invited me to speak as guest of honour on the topic of leadership. The notice was short but I accepted the invitation because it provided me an opportunity to present a paper I had prepared on the topic two years ago for another occasion but which I never published. After re-reading it I thought it was even more relevant today than it was two years ago, considering the shameful spectacle of squabbling governors over the simple election of the chair of their forum alone with which they have been entertaining the public since last year.
In the end I could not present the paper in person because the publishers suddenly shifted the venue from Abuja to Kano. However my friend and professional colleague, Ujudud Sheriff, who was spending the week in Kano, his home state, accepted my request to stand in for me. The following is the first part of the paper:
What is Ethics? One definition by the ENCARTA CONCISE ENGLISH DICTIONARY is that it is “the system of moral principles governing the appropriate conduct for an individual or group”. Another dictionary, WEBSTER’S NEW TWENTIETH CENTURY DICTIONARY, defines it as “the system or code of morals of a particular philosopher, religion, group, profession, etc.”
Ethics, in other words, is simply a set of rules about the dos and don’ts, virtues or vices, in a society. By universal consent, behaviours or actions like honesty, patience, loyalty, modesty, equity, justice, faith, etc, are virtues. Among vices are of course the opposite of all these.
Probably the most concise articulation of these universal virtues are those famous Biblical Ten Commandments to mankind never to do certain things i.e. that Man should not  kill, steal or lie, etc.
Obviously any society in which vices outweigh virtues will not make progress.  Instead it will degenerate and eventually collapse. This is pretty much obvious in the rise and fall of empires since Adam and Eve. Historically empires have collapsed more from internal decay than from external attack.
Every society has custodians of its virtues. These, by definition, are its leaders. ENCARTA defines a leader variously as “somebody whom people follow” and as “somebody in charge of others”. WEBSTER defines a leader simply as “a person or thing that leads”.
People acquire leadership status by virtue of their knowledge, experience, wealth or sheer personality or a combination of these. They may become leaders through the ballot box or the barrel of the gun.            
Logically any society that has a preponderance of good leaders would prosper and that which does not, won’t.
     Africa, it would seem, has had a preponderance of bad leaders at least since a little after the departure in the ‘60s of the Europeans that had colonized it for about a century. As Africa celebrated 50 years of its independence from colonial rule this year it remained the poorest region in the world and falling even further behind all the other regions.
     According to Martin Meredith, a British journalist who has written extensively on Africa, in his 2005 book The State of Africa, the continent’s average per capita income is one-third lower than that of the world’s second poorest region, South Asia. The per capital incomes of most of its countries, he says, has halved from those of 1980, or in some cases, from those of 1960. Half of its nearly 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Its entire economic output is about $420 billion, which is 1.3% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, “less than (that of) a country like Mexico,” which itself is among the poorest in the world.
     Africa, continues Meredith, is the only region where school enrolment and life expectancy are falling.
     The most glaring contrast in the development trajectory of Africa and Asia can be seen in the post-colonial histories of Nigeria, the continent’s most promising at independence, and Singapore, a tiny island state, which started out as part of Malaysia.
     With a population of at least 150 million, Nigeria is the most populous on the continent and the 10th largest in the world. It produces about 2 million barrels of oil a day, making it the fourth biggest producer in OPEC. Its arable land is one of the largest on the continent and it is also well-endowed with solid minerals that are in great demand world-wide.
By contrast, Singapore has a population of 5 million and has no mineral resources. Its only natural endowment is its deep seaport. Fifty years ago Singapore, as part of Malaysia, was poorer than Nigeria. Its prospects looked bleak as it was forced to leave Malaysia due to ethnic and religious differences with the mainland.
Today, Nigeria, with a Human Development Index of 46.6, according to a recent The Economist Pocket World in Figures, remains among the poorest in the world. In sharp contrast, Singapore, with an HDI of 90.2, has moved from its status as a poor Third World country to the rich First.
The difference, it seems, has been in the leadership of the two countries. No one has put this better than Chinua Achebe, Africa’s finest novelist and essayist.
“The trouble with Nigeria,” he said in a pamphlet of the same title he wrote over 27 years ago, “is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership”.
In a lecture to the Nigerian chapter of Oxbridge Club he delivered at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs on March 17, 1989, former military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, arguably Nigeria’s most influential leader since independence, seemed to agree completely with Achebe.
At the time of his lecture he was already four years in office out of a tenure that eventually lasted eight years. In those eight years he changed the face of Nigeria’s political-economy, for better or worse, more than any leader before him or after.
 “I venture to suggest”, he said in the Oxbridge lecture, one of his most controversial, “that it is the nature of the competition among us, the so-called elite… which have been at the root of our national problem.”
“Who are the elite in our national context?”, he asked rhetorically and quickly answered himself. These, he said, are “a few of us, numbering a few thousands out of a population of more than 100 million (who) find ourselves in positions of leadership and influence in the professions and academic, the armed forces, the bureaucracy, industry, agriculture and commerce, in the media houses, in the courts and councils of our traditional and political associates,”
 “You will perhaps agree,” he said, “that the worst attitude of the Nigerian elite over the last three decades or more have included factionalism, disruptive competition, extreme greed and selfishness, indolence and abandonment of the pursuit of excellence.” These vices, he said, also included indecisiveness and inconsistency in policy making occasioned by self-interest.
Having diagnosed the crisis of leadership he said the country was suffering from, he proceeded to offer a solution which he said was indeed THE only solution.
The Structural Adjustment Programme his administration had introduced in 1987, he said, was “the only possible answer” which should be embraced in all its ramifications by anyone who considered himself a patriot.  It had its pains, he admitted, but its liberalization and the deregulation of the economy unleashed the spirit of enterprise among Nigerians. The “good results” of SAP, he predicted, should be evident “from the middle of the next decade onwards,” i.e. 1995.
Four years after Babangida’s prediction, The Economist published a survey on Nigeria entitled “Anybody seen a giant?” The survey, in the magazine’s edition of August 21, 1993, entered a verdict that contradicted Babangida’s prediction.
“Nigerians” said, the survey’s author, Sophie Pedder, “are forever being told, and forever telling visitors, that they are the giants of Africa. If Africa is ever going to produce a South Korea, they say, it will happen in Nigeria. Yet each time the country has the chance to turn itself into a prosperous model for still poor Africa, it blows it.”  Babangida, the author concluded in not so many words, was yet another disappointment. And whoever succeeds him from August 27 1993, she said, was unlikely to be any different.