In the most cited line from his 1983 book, The Trouble With Nigeria, Chinua Achebe, raconteur, novelist, and thinker, declared that Nigeria’s problem is the leadership which, unable to rise to the true challenges of national development, cannot provide inspiring examples to followers. Achebe’s assertion was in line with the thinking of most researchers of that era. In the last few years, however, some scholars have come to think that Africa’s problem is actually societal rather than just leadership. In a scintillating 2008 academic article, Larry Diamond of Stanford University, one of the leading lights on democracy research, argued that followers of African leaders do not disapprove of the sacrilege committed by their leaders but rather support it out of primordial solidarity; some benefit directly from the system.
Still, the primacy of leadership anywhere in inspiring the confidence of the people, in setting a development agenda, and in defining a moral climate for the larger society based on a regime of sanctions and rewards cannot be overlooked. Africans generally, however, have a fundamentally flawed view of leadership, whether in the private or the public sector. They see leadership from the royalty prism, equating with it bigmanism and all manner of ostentation. Our leaders are expected by society to wear fancy, flowing clothes with big caps and expensive bangles and trinkets, and move in long and expensive motorcades, with large contingents of praise singers, as well as security and protocol officers—all at public expense!
That’s why we are delighted to see something different coming from Akwa Ibom State. The new governor, Umo Eno, flies Ibom Air, rather than use the existing state government-owned private jet. This is in contrast to the practice of most of his contemporaries who consider it infra dig to travel by commercial planes, even when the Singaporean prime minister travels always by commercial flights, to say nothing about Scandinavian leaders who frequently fly budget airlines or use the economy class in overseas trips.
In his famous memoir, From the Third World to First: The Story of Singapore Since 1965, Lee Kuan Yew, arguably the most important transformative leader since the Second World War, expresses shock that African rulers attended the 1980 Commonwealth Summit in Ottawa, Canada, with their presidential jets. To exacerbate matters, they were asking for aid for their countries from such foreign leaders as the United Kingdom prime minister who arrived by commercial airlines. African rulers appropriate more and more for themselves even when the resources of their countries are depleting fast.
Leaders who are so callously selfish are referred to in modern social science theory as operating the self-protective leadership style, a term coined in 2004 when 97 social scientists from 62 cultures led by (the late) Robert House of Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania produced a path-breaking book on the effects of cultural values on leadership styles across the world. In his excellent book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Some Don’t, Jim Collins, formerly a Standford Business School professor, shows that American organisations which indulged in this practice in the 1980s performed suboptimally—some actually crumbled. Any wonder why Nigeria and the rest of Africa are in a development morass?
I was pleasantly surprised to watch on television Governor Umo hold the umbrella while speaking to people when it was drizzling. The umbrella could have been handed over to his aide de camp (ADC), orderly, or any of the numerous security and protocol officers that every Nigerian governor has. But he was making a point: leadership is about service, and not lording it over your people. The leader has to serve, and not to be served (Matthew 20: 28). Servant leadership is now a buzzword, but in Africa, it is observed more in the breach. Servant leadership is about humility; it is taken straight from the New Testament where Jesus Christ chose to wash the feet of his apostles instead of the other way (See John 3: 1-5).
If only Africans knew that the most successful leaders are frequently the simplest and the humblest, former Delta State governor James Ibori would not have chosen the jawbreaking but meaningless sobriquet of Odidigborigbo of Africa. Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo would not have elected to be known as the Redeemer of his people. Nor would Idi Amin of Uganda, a barely literate person, have announced himself the head of the political science department at Makerere University, in addition to making himself a field marshall. Bola Tinubu would not have allowed about 100 blackened SUVs to accompany him from Lagos Aiport to his residence in Ikoyi, a distance of only 28 kilometres, at a time of extreme economic difficulties. Nigerians will always miss Donald Duke, Lateef Jakande, and Babatunde Fashola in public office.
He may not have coined the term, but Steve Jobs, co-founder and chairman of Apple Incorporated, one of the most admired and storied firms in recent decades, popularised the idea that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. In his absorbing book entitled The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation, Jay Elliot, the human resource and operations team lead at Apple, reveals how Jobs wanted an atmosphere at Apple where any of the 100,000 staff members worldwide could approach him in the office without going through the secretary!
Jobs was so obsessed with simplicity that iPad, which he invented, could be operated within minutes by an illiterate Colombian teenager who had never touched a computer, as reported in Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ critical biographer who is a history professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, after working as editor in chief of Time magazine and serving as president of the Aspen Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC. The simplicity of Apple products is a chief reason why Apple has hypnotised the world. Simplicity (and humility) is not just a personal virtue but also a critical management and leadership requirement.
Governor Eno says he is on a mission to demystify leadership. It is a noble enterprise. But he doesn’t need uniformed security around him. He needs to learn from Anambra State Governor Chukwuma Soludo. There are no security officers in uniform around foreign leaders who are, of course, far better protected than African rulers. All the same, signals from Akwa Ibom State so far are encouraging.
At the recent development conference in Uyo, Eno chose the best from different parts of Nigeria, regardless of their political, sectional, or religious affiliations, to participate in it. Bart Nnaji from Enugu State, a globally renowned engineering professor and chairman of the Geometric Power group whose only one-year tenure as the Minister of Power remains Nigeria’s gold standard, chaired the breakout session on power and is now assisting the state with an electricity development roadmap.
There is still hope for Nigeria.
Adinuba, the immediate past Commissioner for Information & Public Enlightenment in Anambra State, is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting, Lagos.