What does Nigeria need? Strong men, strong institutions or both?

With less than two weeks to the general elections, the main issue in Nigeria at the moment is the presidential debate or the refusal of the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan to participate in the debate organised by cable news station, NN24 last Friday.

There have been several comments on the debate especially with regard to the performance of the three presidential candidates- Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Shekarau and Nuhu Ribadu- who participated.

On the other hand, President Jonathan’s camp has put up a spirited defence on why he did not show up at Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, venue of the debate to square up with those who are trying so hard and are hoping to unseat him on April 9 when the presidential election holds.

We may all hit our heads against the wall over Jonathan’s refusal to honour the invitation. We may as well raise hairs and argue endlessly over who among the three candidates won the debate. There can never be a consensus on that because we all have our preferences, perspectives, perceptions, sentiments and interests.

In my view though, of all the things the three candidates said, one that struck was the contention by Buhari, the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) that what Nigeria – and by extension, Africa- needs is not just strong institutions but both strong individuals and strong institutions.

This is a modification of the Barrack Obama thesis espoused in July 2009 in Accra, Ghana, during the US president’s maiden visit to Africa. Obama had said that Africa did not need strongmen but strong institutions.

Addressing Ghana’s parliament, he said: “Across Africa, we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny and making change from the bottom up. We saw it in Kenya, where civil society and business came together to help stop post-election violence. We saw it in South Africa, where over three quarters of the country voted in the recent election — the fourth since the end of apartheid. We saw it in Zimbabwe, where the Election Support Network braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person’s vote is their sacred right.

“Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
To underscore how intellectually lazy and perceptively short-sighted we all have become, Obama’s thesis became the central explanation for all our woes and a cure-all for all the problems of governance and nation building that we have in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

All across Africa especially in Nigeria, in newsrooms and at seminars, workshops, conferences, and all such gatherings that bring together the middle class, the intellectuals, professionals, policy makers and technocrats, the echo was that with strong institutions, Nigeria’s governance problems will disappear overnight.

But at the presidential debate last Friday, Buhari asserted: “While in Ghana, Obama stated that what Nigeria needs is not strong individuals but strong institutions, but I state here that what Nigeria needs is both a strong leader and strong institutions.”

Buhari’s statement should not be dismissed as the statement of a politician seeking the people’s mandate but it should be analysed in the context of our contemporary realities.

The West has reached a level of development where infrastructure is taken for granted, where social amenities do not pose any challenge, where poverty is not endemic, where people can make decent living whether in or out of government. In such societies, institutions will have no problem working once the legal and institutional framework has been put in place.

Africa is different. Here only few people can make real money outside the government because government is the biggest spender. By way of employment, government is still the largest employer of labour and not a few people prefer civil service to work in the private sector because of the perception that there is better job security in government service than.

In addition, a senior position in government service at whatever level –local, state or federal- guarantees access to huge resources which can be dispensed as patronage.

Government and government agencies award contracts from which those in government or close to government profit enormously. In addition, because Nigeria, like many African countries depend on the exploitation and export of natural resources to survive, individuals close to government institutions and agencies in charge of suc resources depend on government patronage. That is why it is difficult to see a rich man in Nigeria who does not owe the source of his wealth to government or closeness to government. Unlike in America for instance where people make money in the private sector and seek public office just to render service, in much of Africa, people go into government purposely to make money. That is why most African countries including Nigeria have been described as rentier states.

To clean such a state, creating a strong institutional framework is as important as raising strongmen and women committed to the common good. No matter how strong an institution may be, if the human element is lacking, it won’t stand the test of time. In Nigeria there have been many agenicies that performed well under certain individuals but once those people left, those institutions became less effective. In this regard the late Olikoye Ransome-Kuti comes to mind. After he left as health minister, the fortunes of both primary health care and immunisation which he championed nosedived.

Dora Akunyili did excellently well as the boss of NAFDAC, Nigeria’s anti-narcotics agency such that across the world Nigeria became synonymous with the war against fake and substandard drugs. Since she left NAFDAC not much has been heard about what the agency is doing.

Therefore, in Nigeria the effort to build strong institutions must go on simultaneously with the task of identifying and developing credible and competent leaders that will build, develop and nurture those institutions. It is in this context that Buhari’s statement should be understood and appreciated.

Obama spoke from the mindset of one coming from a society where everything works; Nigeria is different. That is why World Bank and IMF prescriptions have done little to take Africa out of poverty. They recommend the same therapy for all economic maladies without taking note of peculiarities of countries and regions.

I believe the path to progress is the building of both strong individuals and strong institutions rather than just strong institutions alone.

More importantly, Nigeria is in dire need of a strong leader who will be courageous enough to confront entrenched interests that have kept the country hostage over the years. It is these entrenched interests that have ensured that after committing well over $16 billion into the electricity sector since 1999, all we see darkness. It is the same interests that have ensured that infrastructure does not work, that the country remains a giant with clay feet. Only a strong leader can do the job, that is what Nigeria urgently needs at this time.

Written by
Max Amuchie
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