Change Agent Reformer-Leader Nigeria Needs in 2023

Presidential candidates: Kwankwaso, Obi, Atiku and Tinubu.


By Tunji Olaopa

Muhammadu Buhari made a strong show of patriotic commitment when he announced clearly, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” That came as an additional signifier to the immense goodwill and personal capital of integrity that President Buhari brought on board an administration that was invested with lots of expectations from Nigerians. While the administration had done all it could, Nigeria does not seem to have achieved a development profile that would allow the incoming administration any respite from the legitimate demands of Nigerians. Insecurity and unbridled corruption at both the political and bureaucratic levels have complicated Nigeria’s development impasse.

The catchphrase “belong to everybody and nobody”, though not lived out in the lifetime of the present administration, is a fundamental one that speaks to a leader’s determination to govern no matter the impediments. That statement must necessarily be regarded as the first condition in an overall leadership temperament that solidifies a governance philosophy. The first condition of leadership that will succeed, especially in a country like Nigeria, going forward, is the determination to make a difference at all costs. That means so many things, the first of which is the refusal to give in to greed and the lure of primitive accumulation. Such a refusal could only come from the depth of a deeply patriotic conviction to give one’s best to a country one believes in.

The second imperative is the need for a vision. This visionary frame must have the capacity,, to roam over the national past to achieve a diagnosis of national errors and misdirection that had led to leadership and governance failures. Or, did Georg Santayana, the American philosopher, not say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? The past is when the rain first beat us, to quote Chinua Achebe. And it is from there we must begin to make sense of where we got it wrong. And then, two, the visionary frame must also take a critical note of Nigeria’s present political and economic configurations, especially within the ambit of regional and global political economy to make sense of Nigeria’s strength and weakness.

This visionary frame must be the precursor to the emergence of a governance philosophy of ideology that incorporates national goals with national consciousness in generating a “we-feeling” that constitutes the greatest underlying challenge of the national project in Nigeria. The national project requires the creation of a civic nationalism that derives from a developmental vision of the Nigerian government taking care of Nigerians. This is how Nigeria’s “commanding height” statist philosophy became the underlying ideological dynamic for pushing a development vision. However, such a vision must be squared with several ideological possibilities in contemporary governance, especially with the urgent need to critique the dominance of the Washington Consensus and the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism and its stranglehold on Africa’s economies.

At the core of civic nationalism is a sense of an active citizenship that is motivated by a politically obliged government to undermine all forms of religious, ethnic, personal and parochial biases and interests in the service of an overall commitment to the Nigerian nation. Citizenship is not achieved in a vacuum; it is the function of good government, and a democratic governance that puts the citizens first in terms of infrastructural development that makes life qualitatively different. The nation and its civic imperatives therefore take over the functions that the primordial ethnic enclaves of the people used to fulfil.Without this civic sense of belonging, the incoming administration will essentially fail to govern meaningfully.

In a sense therefore, the leadership that will emerge in 2023 must be perceived as a unifier. The incoming administration will be inheriting a deeply fractured country where the six geopolitical zones represent ethnic prejudices that seems to determine more a sense of ethnic entitlement than unity. It would seem that the fracturing issues that led the country to a tragic civil war are still very much with us. Nigeria is still as deeply divided as it was fifty-seven years ago when we took up arms over what Nigeria means for ethnic configurations. No leadership can ever hope to succeed with that level of divisiveness, unless it is determined to do something about it. Unless, that is, such a leadership is willing to be for everybody (a genuine Nigerian president) and for nobody (an ethnic figurehead).

The task of national development and national reconstruction must therefore be simultaneous. One cannot wait for the completion of the other. In fact, one requires the other in temporal proximity. The achievement of a Nigerian national consciousness of unity requires an urgent imperative of national value deconstruction and reorientation. One just needs a bird’s eye view of Nigeria’s current political dispensation to know how deeply seated the normlessness of the Nigeria value space is. Almost all the political contestants, at all levels, are embroiled in one allegation of moral turpitude or the other. Indeed, the perception of politics and politicians by Nigerians is way down the trajectory of possibilities. And so, if those contesting for some of the exalted posts in the land are very low in the perception of millions of Nigerians, does that not mean that those millions are already resigned to the usual political business of misrepresentation and political corruption in an electoral dynamic they have no control over?

Thus, the next administration cannot afford to toe the line of “business as usual”. Or else, Nigeria will keep unraveling out of joint. Building a better Nigeria must be constructed around the praxis of learning to live together without foregoing what makes us different from one another. The incoming administration must therefore ensure that it is not encumbered in any way that will compromise the political will to push forward series of political and administrative decisions that will initiate the reconstruction of Nigeria’s federal profile. Federalism is Nigeria’s best bet for learning to live and develop together. Only a truly developmental federalism has the capacity to give all ethnic nationalities, major and minor, a sense of belonging to a nation that cares about their ethnic autonomy, rather than being subject to a center that is always subject to ethnic and political capture. Changing the mind of Nigeria’s national constituents requires fundamental constitutional and structural reconstruction that signal the goodwill and determination of the administration’s willingness to push through mighty transformations. This goes beyond political rhetoric and sham manifestoes. Nigerians can no longer be fooled by those. A constitutional reordering of the place of the rule of law in Nigeria’s social and political order is a sine qua non for national progress.

Nigerians want to see a level playing field that allows them the full and rewarding exploration of their capabilities as humans. They also want to have equal access to all that could make their lives qualitatively better. This already imposes a public service reform imperative on the new administration. This is a demand for a meritocratic public service founded on a competency-based human resources function and an appointment and hiring metric properly gatekept and monitored in tune with performance agreement or contract to ensure performance that influence Nigeria’s productivity profile. The restructuring of the public sector must be oriented towards achieving two survivalist objectives: bring cost of governance to the barest minimum, and to offload people in order to create space for talents that will bring core skills to beef up public service organisational IQ and policy intelligence. The same goes for a revamping of the federal character principle that complements the restructuring of Nigeria’s federal dynamic. Playing by the federal character frame does not exclude a meritocratic consideration. Federal character does not imply pushing ethnic incompetence into critical posts and positions. Nigeria’s productivity revolution cannot be served when meritocracy suffers in Nigeria’s institutional dynamics. And the credibility profile of the new administration will immediately take a dive once this institutional imperative is allowed to slide into the usual political lack of vision for the future of the Nigerian state.

Institutional integrity and performance; indeed, the whole gamut of national development and the emergence of a governance philosophy and national consciousness, hang precariously around the capacity of the new administration to facilitate a solid policymaking dynamics around the business of government, as well as programme and project management praxis underpinned by corporate governance principles and practices that take the trajectory from policy design to implementation very seriously. There is an urgent need for the restoration of value-based institutional parameters, and performance management practices activated by performance measures that include incentives, rewards and sanctions.

Being the change agent for the transformation of the Nigerian state post-2023 is an endeavor that I suspect most aspirants for all these exalted positions might not be fully apprised of. Of course, there is always the fall back excuse of “things are actually beyond what we expected” or “the preceding government laid the foundation for our failure.” No one should take up this challenge if he or she is not prepared either for the true state of governance or for what the predecessor has done. And this is why reforming the Nigerian state is not only an urgent imperative; it is a sacred responsibility.

*Tunji Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is a Professor at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Plateau State.