The change we need
WHAT is the change Nigerians voted for and how will we claim the promise? I got a glimpse recently from a great corporate statesman and distinguished elder citizen, Dr. Michael Omolayole. If there are a handful of people whose words have premium value in my ears, he is in top billing – the first Nigerian Chairman and chief executive of the Unilever subsidiary in Nigeria, and distinguished octogenarian. Earlier this week, he said to me: The change Nigerians want is not cosmetic or just at the federal level. Nigerians are tired of what Nigeria has become and they voted with their heart with a desire for real change at every level of government.
If this is what Nigerians want and voted for, then the politicians like myself, and the elected people in public life have a duty, a patriotic obligation to act in response to the wishes of the Nigerian people. This is the essence of democracy where power is truly domiciled with the people and failure to be sensitive to the will of the people should bear severe consequences.
What does this mean for how we currently order our steps in this season of transition? For me some clear imperatives of these include stepping down on the traditions of narcissism dominant in the era rejected by the people, in favour of one that aligns with a priority of the good of all, over excessive love of self, in manner that diminishes the common good; the preference for advance of the good of all in teamwork rather than pulling in directions that leave a house divided that cannot stand. This is without prejudice to the fact that a multiplicity of perspectives, and contention between the perspectives advance the cause of democracy, and value of a marketplace of ideas.
Another imperative of the way things should be ordered is need for the elite not only to set aside the dominant traits of the tragedy of the commons’ in public life, in favour of an attitude of building elite consensus. I have suggested that elite water down the self love so symptomatic of chasing power in our country, if the transition is to provide opportunity for coming generations to have better possibilities than our immediate past track record has delivered, even with generous income resulting from unprecedented, prolonged, period of very high oil prices.
Disavowing extreme self-love requires, for example, that we may sometimes step down personal ambition where it is evidently going to be disruptive of the goals of creating the new desirable order. The requirement here goes to all stakeholders, the ambitious and those irritated by the disruptive consequence of the ambitious. Altogether, not to err with caution and the spirit of forgiveness and understanding of the distractions of the push of self-love will not serve us well. The crisis in the National Assembly is a case in point.
It is democracy to have the right to pursue, democratically, positions open to all, yet to detract from the track of hierarchically sanctioned consensus, motivated by extreme self-love could poison the cause of the total change the people desire and demand. Such ambition, in going against the popular essence of desired change, can become undemocratic and condemnable. Still, premium need be placed on the cost of containing the disruptive effect of certain ambitions when energies that can be better channelled into transforming thrust get spent putting the disruptive in what is thought their due place. That cost could set back the hard work needed to get the Nigerian people the change they have voted for. Investing much gravitas into building the political savvy required to circumnavigate unsavory disruption is a necessary part of strengthening our democratic institutions.
When the Late Chief Sam Asabia, former Chief Executive of First Bank was Private Secretary to the Premier of the Western region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he had observed that some ministers were always sleeping at meetings. So, he approached the premier, asking when he would reshuffle the cabinet. A surprised Chief Awolowo asked why he thought a cabinet reshuffle was imminent. The Private Secretary meekly indicated there was a band of weak members of the cabinet who contributed so little. He was asked by Chief Awolowo who they were. After he named them, Chief Awolowo volunteered some laughter and told him those men slept at meetings because the night before he was up late with them making the decisions the rest of the cabinet was pretending to be making at the meeting.
Many times, the not so trusted break into the top team and the team becomes what I called “concentric circles of conspiracy’’ in the organic bulb that the top team can be, as the Asabia example shows. Not to be favoured in a top team should be no reason to disrupt a change people are yearning for. Restraining ambition here may even better advance future ambition. To be so short-sighted not to see that is tragic. Still the cost of split top organic bulb in terms of circles of conspiracy is so high, it justifies investing much resources in preventing entry into that top.
The change people want is so important that we need to learn new lessons about leadership, management and values that shape human progress. At the leadership level it involves a strong vision of a just and egalitarian society with opportunities for all, the rule of law and celebrating merit, yet being compassionate enough that none is left behind. In that leadership dynamic, setting the tone of culture that changes the attitude of that which belongs to all belongs to none, will have to be a key goal. The tragedy of the commons, metaphor for the commons grazing field being grazed with no one committed to regressing the field until it is barren and the cattle all starve, whereas the private field is continually regrassed because of the consequence of not so doing for the herdsman whose daily bread depended on it. The tragedy of the commons writ large in contemporary Nigerian culture needs to be replaced by a philosophy of Ubuntu (I am because we are) expressing the point that the self-interest is best advanced with the advance of the common good of all.
This mindset of the tragedy of the commons extended in a zero sum game mindset which is the enemy of a win-win, abundance mentality, has been truly the key to understanding our problems, characteristic of the old order which needs to change.
I have found that leadership, though very important, is not enough. Implementation failure is largely a matter of management. Rigour, discipline and judicious application of resources to goals and monitoring outcomes with clear consequence management capabilities are where we have often fallen flat.
The Nigerian people want to see these things change at the Centre, states, and local government levels with the attendant rise in the quality of life of all. This is what they are owed and what democracy must deliver in this time of change.
•Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for values in Leadership.