2023: Certificate is not only what qualifies

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, recently stated the need to review the minimum educational requirements for intending officeholders. At the 52nd convocation ceremony of the University of Lagos, where he delivered the Convocation Lecture, he reflected on the imperative of updating what we require of our would-be leaders to meet contemporary standards. While most people would readily agree with him, such observation still needs some qualifying before it becomes mindlessly chorused by those seeking to distract with inanities this election season. Already, some supporters of a prospective presidential aspirant have been trying to dazzle with the resume of their candidate. As commendable as it is for a politician to have an impressive resume, it still does not say everything about their ability to govern prudently. Inspirational leadership takes more than just having gone to school.

Having a well-credentialed leader is crucial but to also make a fetish of educational degrees is to end up with a certificated moron. Nigeria has been serially let down by both its formally educated and non-formally educated leaders. Their education, or lack of it, has not entirely yielded satisfactory results for national well-being. So, as much as having well-educated leaders is desirable, that should only be the starting point of what it takes to be entrusted with leadership. In 2011, when Goodluck Jonathan was running for president, one of his biggest selling points was his PhD. It was understandable, considering Nigeria had never had a leader with that much formal education. By the time the same Jonathan faced re-election in 2015, that PhD had become an irritation. People had become so jaded with his supposedly advanced education that some claimed they would accept an opponent that wielded a mere NEPA bill. That is how educational qualifications can be both meaningful and meaningless.

Beyond certificates, we should seek leaders who have an eye on their legacy. By that, I do not mean a supposed leader who spends eight years picking their teeth only to start questioning if history would be fair to them when the sun starts setting on their administration. History cannot be fair to a leader who did not invest in history. This attitude of shunning the chance to make history in the prime days of one’s administration only to want history to be fair cuts across the spectrum of Nigerian leadership. Our leaders have the habit of twisting history by the neck to serve their purpose. After spending more of their time in office politicking than governing, they try to force the hand of history at the last minute. They attempt to guarantee a fair legacy simply by slapping their names on some tawdrily executed projects they hastily inaugurated right before their exits from public office.

A leader who has their legacy in mind, on the other hand, is consistently driven by a sense of purpose. That is why such leaders are not only inspiring but they also know to avoid distractions. Purposeful leaders have an understanding of history and culture, and they also carry a burden to ensure that what is best about us is not lost to a perennial haggle over bread-and-butter issues. Right from the moment they take the oath of office, such a person gets to the serious work of adding value to the nation’s raw assets. These are not people who invest in the gimmickry of labelling themselves as “servant leaders.” They are a breed whose body language demonstrates intensity and commitment, driven by the higher goals of leading the nation to the path of prosperity. By ensuring they put the constitutional and ethical safeguards in place, this hypothetical leader at least tries to ensure people do not derail from their purpose.

Such a leader must, of course, have an overarching philosophy that serves as the fulcrum of their administration. It is fundamental that they have a coherent set of ideas and ideals, the projections and programs on which their leadership must be based. Having that charter will keep the leader on the track, ensuring their cadre of bureaucrats are not running off in different directions and working against each other and the nation. Unfortunately, our crop of leaders tends to think that merely having a talakawa welfare agenda suffices for a leadership philosophy. That is why all they do while in office is assuage the section of the populace they patronisingly call “the masses.” There should be more than all of these. Having a conceptual framework that glaringly illuminates both the recurrent problems of the nation and its universe of potentials entails having an ability to think abstractly and execute plans concretely—qualities mere certificates cannot bestow on anyone.

The person who will be Nigeria’s leader must also be the person who understands industry. Beyond a class of leaders who, for instance, build a flyover bridge—not because they saw the need but because such concrete infrastructure cheaply passes them off as productive administrators—we need people who have the aptitude to generate wealth through industry. Nigeria urgently needs leaders who can do far better than merely perambulate from China to North America in search of loans to pay civil servants’ salaries. The country needs leadership that can think beyond oil revenue, not the simpleton whose standard riposte to observations of their failure is to ask people to “return to the land” as if they have been living on the sea. Thriving in the 21st century does not require all of us to till the earth with hoes and cutlasses just so we can prove ourselves. The right leaders for the nation must resourcefully take cognisance of the emerging opportunities this present age offers and key the people into the potentials, so they can build actual wealth.

One of the fallouts of the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime is that people have grown weary—and perhaps cynical—of demanding integrity from their leaders. In 2015, one of the promises the Buhari leadership held was that he would govern with integrity. The assertion turned out to be unfounded. While it is thus quite understandable that people no longer have any use for integrity, an ethical filter still remains a vital requirement for leadership. Particularly for a highly diverse country like Nigeria where multiple interests easily calcify into an unwieldy contestation for power and privileges, integrity stabilises a leader. It means they will consistently take steps that align with the overall purpose of the good of the nation, rather than minding every barking dog. A leader with integrity will be concerned with justice and equity, not restricted in their thinking by nepotism and clannishness. They will also be detribalised—a term Nigerians use when they mean someone demonstrates a cosmopolitan attitude towards ethnic groups outside their own.

Finally, there are also age and health factors. Both, of course, are not synonymous but we cannot deny the correlation. Recently, at a public event, former Borno Governor, Senator Kashim Shettima, excoriated those who thought that a presidential aspirant was unsuitable for the Office of the President due to advanced age and attendant senescence. Shettima said, “The mark of true leadership isn’t the ability to lift a bag of cement. It’s the mental effort to think rationally of solutions designed to redeem one’s people and territorial jurisdiction.” He is right that mental qualities supersede the physical, but the human mind is also not disembodied. Of what use will be a great mind in political power if the body in which it resides cannot withstand the great toll that a high-pressure office like the presidency puts on its occupant?

For someone who witnessed the shenanigans that attended the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s presidency, Shettima should know better than to make such underhanded arguments. Has he so quickly forgotten how Buhari abandoned the country to spend extended time in a London hospital? For how long should Nigeria continue to have leaders who cannot be present in both spirit and body because they did not have enough integrity to bypass leadership positions even when they knew their bodies could never stand up to the weight of the responsibility?


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