CVL 2012 Annual Lecture by Prof. Peter M. Lewis, Director, African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Delivered on February 7, 2012.
I would like to first extend my deep appreciation to Professor Pat Utomi for honoring me with the invitation to deliver this year’s lecture for the Centre for Values in Leadership. I have counted Pat Utomi as a friend for more years than we would like to acknowledge and I have always marveled at his intelligence, energy, insight, dedication and integrity. I continue to learn from his ideas and from his example. He personifies a special resource for Nigeria: an “age grade” of citizens with the vision, education, experience, and global perspective to move the country toward better governance, social equity, and economic dynamism. The Centre for Values in Leadership is a welcome project that offers us an occasion each year to reflect on the nature of leadership, the challenges of leadership in Nigeria, and the possibilities of leadership in Africa’s most populous state.
Nigeria’s Contradictory Paths
This past year has left many of us with a great sense of contradiction. Just twelve months ago, Nigerians and international friends looked expectantly toward elections that would be more transparent, competitive and fair. The administration promised electoral reform that was long overdue, backed by fresh leadership in the Independent National Electoral Commission, and a national mobilization to ensure acceptable polls. During the April election period, many people took encouragement from the orderly and open conduct of the voting. Domestic observers, the Nigerian media, and international observers commended the process, along with many average Nigerians, and a clear winner emerged.
Yet as we know, the elections were shadowed by some irregularities and considerable violence. Many presidential voters believed that their candidate had been unfairly defeated, and a number of state and local elections were marred by conflict. The new administration faced great challenges of managing regional tensions, securing public trust, and meeting long-standing aspirations for shared economic development.
Less than a year later, the nation is being severely tested by dilemmas of security and economic direction. The rapid escalation of the insurgency in Northern Nigeria, and the wave of social protest that answered the government’s initiative to remove the fuel subsidy, have incited widespread feelings of uncertainty and popular frustration. These are very different challenges, arising from distinctive agendas and social foundations. Boko Haram is a narrow, violent sectarian group. By contrast, the civic response to the fuel subsidy issue has been inclusive, peaceful and broadly popular. Still, the unsettling events of this season leave many Nigerians asking whether their government can keep them safe, whether politicians have the capacity to manage the economy, whether elites have the empathy or interest to reduce poverty and inequality, whether Nigeria’s diverse people will retain their general civility or succumb to violence.
The concerns of the moment reflect greater questions about where Nigeria is heading. Not long ago I had the opportunity to speak at a lecture series convened by the Abuja Investments Company. I sketched two visions of Nigeria that we often find in the media and in popular discussion. One vision is the “emerging Nigeria” that aims to be among the world’s largest 20 economies in the next decade. It is the Nigeria of 70 million cell phones, 40 million internet users, a strengthened banking system, initiatives in electrical power, a vibrant media and entertainment industry, reform governors in Lagos and elsewhere, a rising middle class, global presence and a seven percent economic growth rate. It is also a Nigeria of elections and competitive parties, rambunctious politics, a respected judiciary, and a federal arrangement that maintains a rough stability in a plural society.
The other image is more somber and sometimes even alarming. More than two-thirds of Nigeria’s people live below $1.25 per day. We have seen, in the reaction to fuel price rises, how many Nigerians are struggling daily for livelihood. Despite more than $600 billion in oil revenues since 1970, Nigeria still ranks among the lower fifth of countries in poverty and indicators of popular welfare. According to Global Financial Integrity, about $220 billion has been lost to the economy in illicit financial transactions in recent decades. This is about a third of total petroleum exports, or to picture it more vividly, an amount equivalent to all of Nigeria’s oil earnings in the 1980s and 1990s. Growth may be good today, but it is entirely dependent on the price of oil, which provides more than 90 percent of export revenue. Manufacturing contributes a smaller share of the Nigerian economy than at independence. The country produces a quarter of the electricity of Dubai, a state of 3 million people. In the political domain, the country has struggled with flawed elections and little accountability. A patronage-driven political system has enriched politicians and cronies, while delivering few dividends to ordinary citizens. Social tensions give rise to chronic violence, including two major insurgencies in the past decade.
Both of these snapshots capture a part of Nigeria’s contemporary realities, but they also suggest alternative paths for the future. We all know which path we would prefer: the path of participatory democracy, resilient economic growth, shared opportunity, popular welfare, social stability and human security. The question that has burdened Nigerians for half a century is how to get there.
The Dilemma of Collective Purpose
Nigeria’s dilemma has been reflected in problems of unity and purpose. For reasons that are well known, Nigeria’s diversity – more than 250 ethno-linguistic groups, diverse religious traditions, strong historical identities in several regions, and various economic spheres – has rendered the problem of national unity exceptionally difficult. Part of the problem is rooted in the colonial legacy, though much of it arises from political choices and tensions since independence. A string of governments, both civilian and military, has struggled for a formula that would provide for national accommodation and stability. All too often, rulers have opted for short-term bargains or settlements that would preserve peace, typically at the expense of a longer-term agenda of political or economic change.
The challenges of economic performance come down to basic political questions: How to focus the energies of elites and average citizens from across the country for common goals of development? How to induce Nigerians to forego the rents and favors that bring personal gain today, in order to invest for sustained growth? How to develop a sense of public purpose and accountability among public employees and elected officials? These questions have confronted many societies, including quite a number that have surmounted the problem. Many countries have transitioned in the course of generation from poverty, corruption and political disarray to more stable and prosperous trajectories. The stories of transition in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, or even Mauritius provide vivid illustrations of the possibilities for economic change.
Leadership has been a crucial factor in these global transitions. Nigeria’s travails today are not a marker of destiny. Chinua Achebe has famously posed the problem: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” More recently Nasir el-Rufai has stated the challenge exceptionally well: “Societies make progress when visionary leaders emerge to organize and direct collective actions for peaceful coexistence, with sensible rules, clear incentives and sanctions that enable individuals to realize their full potentials.” I come back to the term collective action: the effective common purpose of groups for shared ends. Not just an academic phrase, it captures the essence of Nigeria’s social dilemma: how to pursue collective action for development.
A Revealing Comparison: Nigeria and Indonesia
When thinking about Nigeria’s potential economic paths, we do well to consider the experience of others who have faced similar problems and choices. From the Nigerian perspective, the story of Indonesia offers a particularly interesting comparison. Consider the similarities: Indonesia, like Nigeria, is a populous country, with 230 million people, and a hub for its region. It is also very diverse, with at least 200 different ethnic and language groups spread across 7,000 inhabited islands, and several religions including a large Muslim majority. The country has large reserves of oil and gas, and in the 1970s it was nearly as productive as Nigeria, and just as reliant on petroleum revenues.
We can also note the historical parallels: Indonesia’s democratic regime at independence failed after several turbulent years. The middle of the 1960s saw a national crisis and a civil conflict that killed at least half a million people. The army stepped in, and an authoritarian regime lasted for 32 years. Indonesia rode the oil boom of the 1970s and the oil bust of the 1980s, with painful challenges of economic adjustment. In 1998, the authoritarian ruler was removed, and a transitional figure ushered in a democratic government. Since 1999, electoral civilian government has thrived.
Indonesia’s experience echoes the Nigerian story in so many ways. Nigeria’s size, diversity, and political regimes closely match Indonesia’s profile. The colonial legacy, the fall of the civilian First Republic, military rule, and the civil war continue the historical parallels. These critical events were followed by the boom & bust cycle in the oil economy, the demise of General Sani Abacha, and the transition to a civilian dispensation, just weeks apart from similar events in Indonesia. Yet, Indonesia and Nigeria have traveled very different paths despite these important comparisons. Indonesia has achieved a diversified and competitive economy, integrated into global markets, achieving high growth rates and dramatically lower poverty. Nigeria has experienced uneven growth, a petroleum monoculture, rising poverty during the past 30 years, and a marginal role outside of world energy markets.
Divergent Paths of Development
A few figures make the case: from 1965-2005 Indonesia grew at an average rate of 5.9 percent compared to 3.76 percent in Nigeria. More important for the people of each country, Indonesia’s per capita GDP increased vigorously by an average of 3.96 per cent, while Nigeria’s rate for the period was just 1.14 per cent. The results can be seen in this figure: starting off considerably poorer on average than Nigeria, Indonesia’s GDP per capita is more than double that of Nigeria today. In 1965, Nigeria had a per capita income of $336, compared with $195 in Indonesia. Nigerian incomes remained above those of Indonesia through most of the 1970s, but Indonesia grew steadily. By 1980, Indonesia drew even with Nigeria, and then steadily surpassed this country. By 2005, Indonesia’s average income (measured in constant dollars) was $983; this was more than double Nigeria’s, which stood at $454. Consider that the shift in relative wealth occurred within twenty years.
Indonesia’s changing structure of production is an important part of the story. In 1975, three-fourths of export revenues and nearly 60 percent of government revenue came from petroleum, compared with 90 percent of exports and four-fifths of revenue in Nigeria. By the early1990s, however, manufacturing shifted into the lead position as Indonesia’s export earner. The Southeast Asian nation substantially diversified and was no longer a “petro-state.” At that time, Indonesia also achieved self-sufficiency in rice, the staple food. Nigeria by contrast, still earned 94 percent of its exports revenues and 70 percent of government revenue from oil. The country had a growing food import bill, and manufactured less (5 percent of GDP) than in 1965 (6 percent of GDP).
Rapid growth in employment-generating areas of the economy provided the basis for reducing poverty in Indonesia. The government made a major, sustained commitment to agricultural development, raising incomes for millions of small farmers. Stable economic conditions also aided the growth of small and medium enterprises throughout the county. Along with foreign investment, these policies helped to foster widely-shared economic expansion.
Indonesia’s poverty rate was about 60 percent during the economic and political crisis of 1965, when inflation was 1000 percent, the economy was in free fall, and the government had to ration rice. By1980 poverty had diminished to about 38 percent, nearly identical to Nigeria. However by 1995 Indonesia’s poverty rate had dropped further to about 15 percent, compared with a shocking increase in poverty in Nigeria, to 70 percent. Naturally, most indicators of education, infant mortality, and life expectancy have followed the poverty trends, and there are substantial gaps today between the two countries.
How do we account for these different paths over forty years of development? In fact Indonesia is not unique: it illustrates a course of transformation seen in many Asian countries. An international project based in the Netherlands, Tracking Development, has traced the performance of African and Southeast Asian countries since independence. Although both regions are tropical, ex-colonial, ethnically diverse, and began with poor, agrarian economies, Southeast Asian countries have grown more quickly, restructured their economies and reduced poverty.
A key element is the emergence of a government – a state – that is genuinely committed and mobilized for development over a sustained period of time. Successful “developmental states” have maintained stable macroeconomic conditions, invested in infrastructure, supported the majority of agricultural producers, and provided effective public services, especially health and education. Investment in human capital, notably education for women and girls, is also a common factor in these countries. The engine of growth and poverty reduction in these countries has been export-oriented activities – in manufacturing, agriculture, and services. Looking across Asia, this is as true for China as for the city-state of Singapore. Finding advantages in the global economy is the path to prosperity.
Developmental states resolve crucial problems of collective action, aligning the incentives of elites, the energies of the population, and the mission of government toward common economic and social goals. The sources of developmental states are many, but history tells us that leaders have played decisive roles in these key transitions. In Asia, Lee Kwan Yew, Mohamed Mahatthir, Soeharto, and in Latin America, Fernando Henrique Cardoso or Ernesto Zedillo – democrats and dictators alike – each came to personify pivotal moments of reform and economic change.
Developmental Leadership in Nigeria: Opportunity and Pitfalls
What are the prospects for developmental leadership to emerge in Nigeria? Despite great need and potential opportunity, we quickly run into a number of pitfalls. In the past, expectations have centered excessively on the emergence of a Big Man – whether on horseback or in civilian dress – who can inspire, discipline, and guide the nation toward desired ends.
Surely we need to end the politics of the Big Man – and not least because women are excluded, along with most other average citizens. The men on horseback have not contributed to a resilient economy. The succession of military rulers from the 1960s degenerated into a regime of pure plunder by the 1990s, leaving Nigeria depleted and divided, lacking in the institutions, resources, or civic identities needed to pursue a developmental purpose. The persistence of “Big Men” in civilian politics is equally degenerative, as Professor Richard Joseph has emphasized in his analysis of “prebendalism” in Nigeria. Politicians maneuver for control over public resources in order to serve their personal agendas and those of their communities, usually through networks of patronage. The unruly pillage of the Second Republic drained the nation’s coffers and led to the collapse of the country’s democratic experiment.
But even the current dispensation, while more transparent and lasting, has produced a National Assembly with legal allowances of more than $1.5 million per member, and a series of scandals and inquiries over allocations for power, fuel, and other public goods. Nigerians who seek responsive government and economic advances are deeply frustrated with the general lack of accountability or public purpose.
Faced with these clear deficits of commitment and integrity, many people emphasize the essential values or orientations of national leaders as the key to change. We often hear about the importance of “performance-driven” leadership that demands effective results; “servant-leaders” who are driven by an inner calling and mindful of their obligations to fellow citizens; patriots who wish the greatness of their country; visionaries with a compelling drive for progress and change; or people possessed of unwavering moral courage, integrity, and discipline.
Of course I will not speak against any of these qualities. We should wish for leaders with vision, courage, drive, humility, unflinching standards and commitment to the public good. Sadly, individuals with all these qualities are in short supply, whether in Nigeria or any other country. As an American, I will credit many of our own leaders with some of these desirable qualities, but few with all of them. Even global paragons of our age such as Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, or the late Vaclav Havel, have had weaknesses that render their personal leadership less than complete.
Put more generally, democrats and revolutionaries may bring great changes, yet fail to see through the transition. Politicians may be visionary yet flawed in their personal lives. Compelling leaders can suffer lapses of integrity or judgment. Economic managers can fail to see the people before them. Leaders with an instinct for the people can be poor economists.
Five Aspects of Leadership for Development
The quest for transformative leadership should not give into cynicism, but it needs to be tempered by realism and mindful of the conditions that enable such leaders to emerge and succeed. Let me suggest a few elements of leadership that help us out of these diversions:
In order to get better leadership, improve the process of selecting leaders. It’s certainly true that some transformative leaders have emerged through luck or fortune. This was true in Indonesia, South Korea and Mexico. However, the ways in which leaders are selected often influence the leaders that emerge. When leaders are chosen through force, or emerge through narrow oligarchies, the openings for vision, competence or integrity can be small.
Nigeria’s senior political leaders have emerged through closed nominations and compromised elections, or through outright seizure of power. For decades, leaders have come to power facing deficits of legitimacy, dangerous challenges to their authority, or irresistible demands from the interests who helped their ascent. The path to power has limited the qualities of leadership.
The course away from this is not only a democratic regime, but also true internal party democracy, credible elections, and a viable political opposition. A more competitive and fair arena for political selection will allow new ideas to be vetted, personalities to be tested, and merits to appear during the nominations and campaigns. From our own experience in the United States, it is useful to keep in mind that President Barack Obama was a complete surprise, a candidate who would not have been imagined even three years earlier. Nigeria needs room for such surprises. In the course of debate and competition, there will also be opportunities to raise important issues and to present alternative programs to the public. This has the potential to raise the level of politics, and potentially to bring forward developmental leaders.
Effective developmental leaders delegate authority. In every case of developmental success around the world, political leaders have delegated authority to competent professionals within the government and administration. Technocrats, as they are often known, have policy expertise and economic knowledge, and they generally operate out of the political limelight. They have a focus on analyzing and prescribing the policies they expect to be optimal for economic performance. They can serve as an important counterweight to politicians (or generals) with more short-term or self-interested goals.
From Brazil to Mexico, Indonesia to Malaysia, this relationship of delegation to technocrats has been essential. Recognizing their own limitations, leaders hand over policy to capable senior advisors, and they provide political backing for seeing the policies through. Technocrats are often poor politicians, but necessary advisors in the direction of the economy.
Turning back to our example of Indonesia, a cohesive team of technocrats, known as the “Berkeley mafia” for their educational background, were instrumental for decades in guiding economic reform and repeatedly correcting policies when performance seemed off course. Effective developmental leadership means strong but limited authority, shared with professionals in government.
Developmental governments rest on effective institutions. Forward-looking leaders pay attention to building such institutions. If we are concerned about the qualities of leadership, why would we be concerned about impersonal institutions? They are integral to a process of strong and limited authority, and they are a key outlet for promoting a vision of development.
There is a paradox about strong institutions in governance: they constrain the arbitrary choices of leaders and limit the freedom of action. But effective institutions also dramatically expand the scope and power of government, giving leaders more tools and resources for implementing change. With higher tax revenues, economic policy credibility, a stable legal order, and reliable government services, leaders can pursue efforts to improve growth, competitiveness, and popular welfare. Institutions also reduce the types of petty decisions and favors that are so often passed up the chain to Nigerian leaders, consuming their time.
We generally understand the case for a broad rule of law, effective public functions, and a predictable regulatory setting for economic development. When investors and average citizens see stable prospects and the right incentives, they will engage in productive activity, keep their assets in the country, and foster rapid economic growth. In Indonesia, a few key institutions, including the Finance Ministry, Planning Agency, Central Bank, and agricultural logistics board, were sufficient to jump-start growth and build prosperity. The leadership understood the need to build stronger and more resilient institutions, despite limits on the executive. In Brazil, fair elections allowed for turnover in office and the emergence of a welfare-oriented government. Brazil has also benefitted from a large body of capable technocrats in key agencies and ministries, who could stabilize the general economy.
These examples of institution-building are less than perfect, and both countries struggle in many areas such as corruption, crime, and the rule of law. However, leaders have also been able to solve major challenges of economic performance and poverty reduction. Effective institution-building is a visionary part of developmental leadership.
Coalition-building is essential to development. Effective leaders build broader political coalitions as the basis for their authority and their programs. To be obvious, leadership requires followership. The servant-leader has a clear idea of who s/he is serving. The charismatic leader has an instinct for popular aspirations and needs. Technocratically-inclined leaders know how to develop a support base for their policies.
Developmental leaders commonly articulate a common vision of where they want the country to go, how different groups and sectors will benefit, and why the populace should commit their efforts to realize these shared goals. They can also present difficult policies and immediate hardships in ways that the public can understand.
Two particular sets of relationships are important in a developmental coalition: one is a connection to producers, the key entrepreneurs and investors who can spur economic expansion and diversification. By providing credible commitments to producers, including guarantees of stable policies and security of assets, leaders can help to bring forth the efforts of thousands, even millions of average citizens in the project of development. Especially in circumstances of uncertainty, and weak institutions, the efforts of leaders to instill confidence can help an economic takeoff. Credible commitments were central to the Indonesian story, as noted by Professor Erik Thorbecke of Cornell, and they have been evident in other settings as well.
The other essential factor is a link to broad popular sectors, including workers, professionals, the middle class, the urban poor, and rural society. President Soeharto of Indonesia came from a rural family, and constantly emphasized his origins. President Cardoso of Brazil won the confidence of business and the middle classes, while his successor President Lula da Silva had a deep connection to workers and the poor. Leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela constantly connected to their people in trips around the country and access in the capital.
An important question can be posed in Nigeria: What is the coalition around the government? Can we identify broad sectors or groups who identify with the leadership? Apart from casting a vote at election time, do citizens share allegiance or vision with key national leaders? A core problem, as I see it, is the dominant party system and the elite bargains structuring the political system, which create fewer pressures for building coalitions and winning support.
Effective developmental leaders build coalitions as a matter of political survival and in pursuit of their goals. A developmental path for Nigeria will depend on the ability of politicians, in power or on opposition, to build popular coalitions in support of a broad reform agenda.
Leadership from below is a neglected factor. One final reflection has occupied my thoughts in the past few weeks. When discussing developmental leadership, we usually look to the top, especially the head of state. However, leadership from across society can be equally important. Who are the strongest advocates of development in Nigeria today? The clearest voices for reform?
We have heard many compelling criticisms of governance, and ideas about how to mobilize the productive and creative potentials of Nigerians, from a variety of popular groups and associations. They include the Save Nigeria Group, the National Think Tank, the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, the trade unions and professional associations, and scores of independent groups advocating for transparency, less corruption, better policing, and public welfare. From this vibrant segment of Nigerian society, a number of influential leaders have addressed the problems of the nation and the possible paths forward. Leadership from below is indispensible in mobilizing popular sectors, and demanding change from elites.
In every case of developmental advance around the world, leaders were motivated by immediate or imminent challenges to their political survival and stability. The need to meet popular aspirations drove them to promote economic competitiveness and shared growth.
Nigerians can look to the considerable space for advocacy and organization, a vigorous open media, openings for peaceful dissent, and electoral opportunities, as avenues of leverage to press for effective governance. The potential leaders who can channel these efforts are partly represented here today. Other allies are not far from this hall, or distant in ideals and goals. Leaders can be found in many places outside the corridors of power.
To conclude: This is a time of unease for many Nigerians, and there are questions here and abroad about the direction the country may take. I have always been impressed with the sense of possibility for Nigerians, who possess immense talent, drive, and creativity. They have struggled to realize their collective potential. Yet the possibilities of organization and new leadership, as we have seen right here in Lagos State, point us to a better path. The Centre for Values in Leadership, and its founder Professor Pat Utomi, has been dedicated to finding that path for Nigeria. We know there are millions of Nigerians who share these aspirations. I hope these comparative reflections leave us with a sense of perspective and useful lessons, but also a sense of optimism and possibility about gaining the future.
 It is also important to note that Nigeria’s per capita income in 2005 was lower than in 1977, measured in constant 2000 dollars.