Heart of Arts

Leadership and Accountability

Toyin Falola

A lack of quality, people-oriented leadership has been the single most identified challenge to development in Nigeria. Over the years, since its independence from Britain in 1960, the quest for good (dedicated) leadership has seen Nigeria(ns) suffer through a series of upheavals—including several (sometimes brutal) military coups, a civil war, and decades of political suppression—and other developmental setbacks. Consequently, when, in 1999, the country was returned to democratic rule, which was celebrated as an ideal government model capable of delivering public goods to the masses, many were optimistic for a new dawn.

True to the hopes and aspirations of Nigerians, the first few years following the country’s return to democratic rule rekindled belief in the citizenry that leadership had, indeed, taken a turn for the better. Beyond the upward review of the national minimum wage, there were also substantial debt pardons and other economic indices, which signaled a positive start to a bright future. Such beliefs were to be further encouraged by the dedication displayed by government officials like the late Professor Dora Akunyili (as Director General, National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC)) and Mal. Nuhu Ribadu (as pioneer Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)), whose achievements contributed, in no little measure, to reassuring Nigerians that their interests were well looked after. This was an era when Nigerians witnessed, perhaps for the first time, the wealthy, powerful, and politically well-connected being subject to the superior arm of the law—as seen in the sanitization of Nigeria’s manufacture and importation industries, the sack of a federal minister, impeachment of three state governors, and the imprisonment of then Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, after a refund of £150 million under a plea bargain.

Unfortunately for Nigeria(ns), however, the apparent transformations/reforms that followed the country’s return to democracy were to be short-lived. One occasion which revealed perceptible cracks in Nigeria’s rejuvenated democratic project was the 2003 presidential elections, which was marred by allegations, both locally and internationally, of electoral malpractices in favour of the then-ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its leader, president Olusegun Obasanjo. This was followed by another controversial presidential election in 2007, which expelled all hopes that the 2003 incident would be an isolated one. This question mark, placed on the electoral integrity of Nigeria’s reemergent and rejuvenated democracy, became a critical step in her gradual descent into political impunity.

Upon assumption of office in 2007, then-president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, compelled by the brazenness of the electoral heist which aided his emergence, confirmed that the elections which brought him to office had “shortcomings,” to which he promised electoral reforms. But, as fate would have it, he did not live long enough to deliver on this promise. The task then fell to his vice president and successor, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who managed to deliver, in 2015, what is today considered Nigeria’s freest and fairest elections after the June 12, 1993, annulled votes. However, if President Jonathan’s ability to deliver “free, fair and credible” elections—so dubbed for his uncharacteristic (by African standards) readiness to concede defeat—in 2015 was construed by Nigerians as a watershed moment for leadership in the country, what transpired during President Muhammadu Buhari’s eight-year stint as president would make an absolute mockery of any such optimism. To many, his administration took Nigeria back many decades.

Under the leadership of former president Buhari, Nigeria perceptibly sank deeper into the murky waters of political highhandedness and impunity. His was a government which favoured propaganda over actual service—as evidenced by how busy the trio of the presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, media adviser Garba Shehu, and the information minister, Alh. Lai Mohammed, were while it lasted. Returning after many months abroad in medical tourism, Buhari initiated a lacklustre performance, which characterized most of his eight years in office. In fact, the only instances of administrative vigour were to be recorded in areas of self-preservation and perpetuation. To this end, the government became notorious for defying court orders. It also showed contempt for the rule of law both in Zaria (in 2015) and Lekki (in 2020), where the army was used to disperse protesters, leading to many casualties. In the economy, the administration, in connivance with a cowed/subservient senate, plunged Nigeria(ns) into devastating debt after having depleted the national reserves without any evidence of economic development. As a self-appointed petroleum minister, Buhari oversaw the investment of billions of dollars into the maintenance and refurbishment of Nigeria’s three refineries, which remained unproductive and cost the country trillions in fuel subsidies. To wrap it all up, the administration conducted an election (in 2023) which was rife with electoral violence and malpractice: vote buying, ballot snatching, result tempering, and voter intimidation.

As has been the unspoken/unwritten constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, especially since its democratic revival in 1999, exiting presidents are never held accountable by their successors, notwithstanding the extent of corruption and highhandedness observed during the former’s tenure. This political arrangement, which is even more assured when both exiting and incoming presidents belong to the same political party, however, does little in the way of protecting lieutenants who—perhaps having incurred the ire of some party heavyweight(s)—become scapegoats paraded by the nation’s anti-corruption/graft agencies to enhance the credibility image of the newly inaugurated governments. Hence, outside the occasional “political witch-hunting,” such publicly advertised trials have become the only sign of accountability in government in Nigeria. After all, as serving senator Adams Oshiomole, the former national chairman of the ruling party (APC), once declared during a presidential rally in 2019, “Once you join the APC, your sins are forgiven.”

However, if those entrusted with managing the affairs of Nigeria are so disposed to forgiving the catastrophic sins of their counterparts—who have enriched themselves at the expense of their fellow countrymen—in exchange for political support, the suffering citizenry has displayed no such magnanimous inclinations. In a social media video which went viral—catching the attention of Nigerian government officials—recently (February 17 2024), a pupil was captured in debate, denigrating Nigeria’s leadership, whom he described as a “bunch of thieves, gold-diggers, betrayers, hungry lions….” Even for one so small, his energic vituperations, which were rounded off by an invocation of thunder and doom on Nigerian “leaders,” raised different reactions, ranging from approval to disapproval and outsight condemnation. While the majority of Nigerians, angered and frustrated by the increasing and unending hardship in the country, viewed the young pupil as speaking their minds, a “moral” few emphasized the moral and ethical implications of such display. They faulted the child’s teachers for their “unprofessional” conduct while also suggesting that there were better avenues to convey grievances. On its part, the Niger State government, where the concerned school is domiciled, took great offence at the development and promised to discipline the teachers.

Once responding to a question on the prevalence of corruption in Nigeria, former vice-president Yemi Osinbajo alluded that corruption thrived in Nigeria not because there was something wrong with Nigerians but because there was an “absence of consequence.” This begs the question, ‘‘what is the consequence of corruption in Nigeria?’’ Corruption, the irrational desire to become wealthy at the expense of others, has been the major bane of leadership in Nigeria. In fact, if a book were to be written about government corruption in Nigeria today, the volumes would fill many rooms. Curiously, however, while some people have spent years in prison and even paid the ultimate price for corruption and other acts that contravene the law, others have thrived because of it. It has also been the experience that anytime the subject of the consequence of corruption for public office holders comes up; citizens have been required to consider the reputation/rank of the office of the offending party when demanding justice. But, speaking both ethically and morally, should anyone who abused an office they were entrusted with enjoy the respect and privilege it carries? Is this not how sacred cows are created?

As we speak, a controversy is brewing in the national assembly over an alleged budget padding to the tune of 3.7 trillion naira. Although such behaviour has, over time, been forced on Nigerians as the standard practice amongst her lawmakers, the amount of money allegedly involved in this case has elicited much outcry from the masses who are suffering the pains of the biting policies of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Nevertheless, more recent information, as contained in a PUNCH online publication dated 17 March 2024, shows embattled Sen Adbul Ningi settling for a lesser fifty-three-billion-naira figure as against his original 3.7 trillion-naira claim. Of this amount—not captured in the proposal submitted by President Tinubu— the paper, through its investigations, confirms that hundreds of millions have been earmarked for “vague” projects with equally “vague” locations. More so, other public investigations into the amounts earmarked for the construction of boreholes, streetlights and other constituency projects reveal that they have been grossly inflated, sometimes over a hundred per cent more than the actual costs for the best options. This, coming from a group that enjoys the best remuneration and welfare packages obtained anywhere in the world, is the worst example of stewardship that anyone can imagine.

In the face of such conduct, from a group whose concepts of ethics, values and morals apparently hold no meaning, is it any surprise that the citizenry entertains only disdain for their “leaders”? If all attempts at expressing a grievance, either through public protests or electoral decisions, have either been met with brutal force or systemic manipulations, what is the next recourse? Perhaps the Nigerian “leadership” should be thankful that the disgruntled masses appear to be satisfied with verbal options for expressing their dissatisfaction. They should consider using this period of grace, which is fast running out, to turn a new leaf instead of plotting ways to shortchange and vex the same people on whose backs they have reaped their many luxuries. In desperation, my people alter a curse-prayer: a fa yin si koto Olorun! Who is to lift this curse?


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