Reflections on visionary leadership

Obafemi Awolowo


The fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is steering the ship of state in troubled waters makes it imperative for him to have stronger will power to wither the storm. If he fails to assert himself he remains a puppet in the hands of stronger political forces. He would be manipulated throughout his tenure. The Buhari administration is billed for eight years. Already five years have gone remaining about three years. What can Buhari do within this remaining period?

Since independence in 1960, many visionary, patriotic and capable Nigerians have desired to be president but failed to realise the dream. When the ban on party politics was lifted in 1978 after the crisis of the civil war and the military interregnum, some of the founding fathers of modern Nigeria ventured into politics aiming to preside over the affairs of the country as president. I recall such iconic figures like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), Malam Aminu Kano of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), and Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), among others.

These men came in full force to secure the mandate to lead the country but never succeeded. They made a second attempt in 1993 but still failed to make it. All these men had a vision of what the Nigerian “nation” ought to be and how to realise it. They believed in something concrete and wanted to use their beliefs and convictions to build a solid framework upon which Nigeria could develop and occupy its rightful position in the comity of nations.

The legendary Chief Obafemi Awolowo, first indigenous premier of the defunct Western Region of Nigeria was a visionary leader, perhaps the greatest of them all that the country ever had. Throughout his lifetime, he believed that “the state should channel Nigeria’s resources into education and state-led infrastructure development” as the only way the country could emerge from the yoke of poverty and underdevelopment.

To demonstrate his commitment to his unchanging pragmatic philosophy, he introduced free primary education in the then Western Region irrespective of the controversies and costs involved. He also pursued unmatched infrastructural development in the region. His legacy in the South-West zone of the country is amply evident as that section of the country remains far ahead of the other regions in literacy and infrastructure development. In states like Ondo and Ekiti, there is a professor in virtually every family. That foundation was laid through Chief Awolowo’s vision. No other region in the country has attained that level of education.

Awo, as he was popularly called didn’t stop there. He had the desire to extend what he was implementing in the Western Region nationwide. The zeal was burning in him to create a modern Nigeria that is a leader using the abundant human and natural resources the country is endowed with. To achieve that, he desired passionately to lead the country as president. He contested the presidential elections in 1979 and 1983 under his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) but lost to Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

Awo was credited to having craved to rule the country even for 24-hours, as that was all he needed to transform the country. Though, he didn’t say how he would have achieved that in 24 hours, as that was figurative, I strongly believe that Awo could have transformed the country overnight, probably, by establishing institutional structures and pulling down others that would make it possible for Nigeria to pursue a mandatory free education policy and at the same time implement a vibrant infrastructural development. No country has developed without passing through the unavoidable path of mass education and infrastructural development. The two are the foundation of development in the developed world.

Thus, Awo advocated for free education at all levels throughout his political life. After losing the election in 1979, he ensured that his free education policy was introduced in all the UPN controlled states to demonstrate that it is possible to replicate same throughout the federation. Whenever I reflect on Awo’s vision vis-à-vis the fact that all the countries that have developed achieved it through mandatory education policy and aggressive infrastructural development, I lament the failure of Awo to lead the country; for Nigeria would have gained from his overarching development vision. I strongly believe that Awo would have led this country to the club of Asian Tigers such as Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. Most of those countries were actually behind Nigeria in the 1960s but have transformed ten times more than what Nigeria is today.

Today, Awo is remembered by Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike as the best president Nigeria never had. It is visionary leaders like Awo and his contemporaries that would have developed this country at the time other countries were developing. The transformation that took place within the sphere of the Asian Tigers occurred largely within three decades from the 60s to the 80s. But that was the period when Nigeria was in turmoil and held under the clutches of military dictatorship. That opportunity has been lost forever. The era of visionary leadership seems to have vanished from Nigeria’s political enterprise.

Since 1999 when the present political dispensation began, there is a new political culture that produces visionless leaders. Unlike in 1979 and 1983 when men with vision sought to rule the country to propagate their pragmatic agenda for national development, today’s politics is characterised by godfathers and imposition of leaders who are devoid of acumen and vision. The result is that people get into leadership position without having the slightest idea of what to do. They occupy the seat while waiting for people to tell them what to do. For instance, the setting up of committees to review what is on ground and prepare a plan clearly shows that the leader has nothing to offer. The politics that goes with such committees frustrates whatever the intention might be. A visionary leader knows clearly what he is out to accomplish. If anything, he might set up action committees to implement different aspects of his vision.

What would have happened, for instance, if Chief Obafemi Awolowo had become the president of Nigeria? I don’t think that he would have started by setting up any committee to tell him what to do. With a clear vision on free education at all levels, there would probably have been committees in the states to implement the programme. Since the country is financially buoyant, all that would be required was to ensure that all the loopholes for corruption were plugged. Once that was achieved, the multi billions that are being stolen by politicians and their cohorts would have been chanelled into purposeful educational development at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and infrastructure development. There would have been no rot in all these sectors as we have them today.

Having lost all the great opportunities in the past, Nigeria is today facing hard times. From whatever angle one views it; the country is in dire straits. There are mounting social, political and economic challenges confronting the country. With such dire situation, President Buhari is like a captain of a drifting ship. It is akin to an emergency situation. When a ship is adrift at sea, you don’t go about setting up committee to decide how to salvage it. There is no time for that. When a ship is adrift, whatever needs to be salvaged is salvaged promptly while the others are thrown overboard.

There are many issues that need urgent attention in the country. Buhari should try to solve one or two before the whistle blows. The most urgent thing that should be addressed within this short time is electoral reform. If there is a solid law that governs the conduct of elections in the country, then we would have taken one step forward in the right direction. But without such a law in place, forget about future general elections. They won’t be better than what we have seen since 1999. A good electoral process will throw up capable and visionary leaders that would steer the ship of state in the right direction. That is the truth of the matter.

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