When Chinua Achebe penned the prophetic political tract, The Trouble with Nigeria, in 1983, he laid his keen insight on what ailed the nascent Nigerian state – just barely 23 years old: the problem of leadership. When Lee Iacocca, in his bestselling 2007 book asked, “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. 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 – in spite of the democratic minuses – without any iota of doubts about his patriotism. Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean strongman, also demonstrates how a strongman could facilitate the transformation of a state’s governance and developmental apparatuses for the benefits of the citizens.
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. 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 centre 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 recognising 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 won 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 17 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.
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 Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where President Tinubu outlined Nigeria’s foreign policy dynamics and spoke 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.
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, non-state 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 an inclusive developmental agenda focused on making it 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.
Olaopa is a retired federal permanent secretary and professor of public administration