Nigeria, as everyone says, is full of talented people. Yet, according to comparative political scientists, this country comes close to being a failed state, because, as the definition of an effective state goes, it lacks the ability to “get things done”, to provide even basic services! Nigeria’s institutional and governance problems certainly belie the fact that it has such a rich talent-pool that the world is regularly tapping into. I triggered some Twitter discussion about this conundrum recently, following the elevation of another Nigerian to a top global position.
On 15 December last year, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) tweeted: “BREAKING: Secretary-General designate Antonio Guterres will be appointing Ms. @ Amina J Mohammed of #Nigeria as his Deputy Secretary General”. As President Buhari said, this is “a great honour to Nigeria”, and I tweeted my congratulations to Ms Mohammed. But I was also struck by the paradox. If Nigerians are so good that international organisations are seeking their services, why is it that we can’t run our own affairs? So, I tweeted: “Here is the puzzle. Individually, Nigerians are great; some of the best in the world. But collectively, can’t move the country forward. Sad!”
Several Nigerians liked and/or retweeted the tweet, or commented on it. “Puzzle indeed”, said Tolu Balogun, a Radio and TV host and producer! “You are correct Dr”, said another tweeter. For one, it was simply “Exactly”, for another, it was just “True Sir”. A few chose to offer their own explanations, which can be summarised as: “bad leadership”, “lack of unity”, “hypocrisy”. Someone felt Nigerians are “too individualistic to think as a group”. Another concurred: “we can’t act for the collective good”.
I was impressed that some Nigerians took an interest in this issue. The contrast between Nigeria’s talent-pool and the quality of its governance should, indeed, concern everyone. As Charles Hauss wrote in his book “Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges” (2014), “Nigeria’s problems cannot be attributed to a shortage of talented people”. Nigeria’s strong talent base is certainly evident from the international reputation of individual Nigerians.
In congratulating Amina Mohammed, the former Finance Minister, NgoziOkonjo-Iweala, herself a global icon, tweeted: “Let’s keep enhancing Nigeria’s international image. Every bit helps”. Of course, when citizens of any country hold important positions in world bodies, it strengthens its international relevance. And Nigerians are proving their mettle as key players in several international organisations.
For instance, at the UN, ever since Professor Adebayo Adedeji became the longest serving Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, from 1975 to 1991, Nigerians have occupied prominent positions in the organisation. Professor Ibrahim Gambari, who spoke recently at the London School of Economics on the UN and Africa, was almost a permanent face at the UN as Under-Secretary General (USG) and special adviser to UN Secretary Generals. Babatunde Osotimehin, former Minister of Health, is currently the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). And before her recent elevation, Amina Mohammed was special adviser to UN Secretary General on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Her sterling achievement in securing successful negotiations of the 17 SDGs, which she herself described as “a hard fight”, certainly bolstered her appointment as Deputy Secretary-General. While we’re on the UN, let’s mention the Commonwealth, where Nigeria’s Emeka Anyaoku held sway as Secretary General for ten years, and helped many countries achieve negotiated political settlements.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala significantly boosted Nigeria’s international image when she became Managing Director of the World Bank in 2007. When the post of the World Bank President became vacant in 2012, virtually all the major Western newspapers, including The Economist and the Financial Times, endorsed her for the role. Of course, although the best candidate, she didn’t get the job only because of a longstanding convention under which a European always becomes the Managing Director of the IMF and an American the President of the World Bank. But Nigerians have always done well at the World Bank. For instance, apart from Okonjo-Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili was a vice president there. Currently, Arunma Otehis Vice President and Treasurer, and Sandie Okoro, a highly respected lawyer, was recently appointed Senior Vice President and General Counsel. Thus, both the Treasurer and the Chief Counsel of the World Bank are Nigerians!
At the WTO, where I worked briefly myself, a Nigerian, Yonov Frederick Agah, is one of the Deputy Director-Generals. Agah got this role through hard work and competence. In 2011, when the WTO’s 8th ministerial conference (MC8) was widely predicted to fail, it was Agah, as chairman of the General Council, who brought together all the different groups and ensured the success of the conference. When I met him in Geneva in 2013, he told me how he saved the conference from collapse. It was thus not surprising that Roberto Azevedo, who became Director-General of WTO in 2013, picked Agah as one of his deputies. Another Nigerian, Chiedu Osakwe, is a linchpin at the WTO as director of the Accession Division, where he is helping many countries to navigate the difficult process of joining the WTO.
Coming to intra-African bodies, Akinwumi Adesina is the President of the African Development Bank. When he ran for the position in 2015, I wrote an article in this column eulogising and supporting him, and, of course, I was pleased when the AfDB’s shareholders, including the UK, elected him as president. The same year, Benedict Oramah became the President of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank). At the time, there were speculations that if Adesina was elected AfDB president, other African countries would not vote for Oramah as president of Afrexim bank because they wouldn’t want Nigeria to hold the two important posts. But Oramah’s qualities distinguished him, and he got the job!
Beyond the international diplomatic, political and economic fields, Nigerians are also making their marks globally in virtually all spheres of human endeavours: in business, the professions, academia, entertainment, music, literature, sports and even religion, where a Nigerian, Woyin Dorgu, was recently appointed as the next Bishop of Woolwich, the first black man to be made a bishop in 20 years. Of course, there is a very tiny minority involved in crimes, such as the so-called 419, but the vast majority of Nigerians are using their exceptional talents across the globe to make the world a better place.
However, while the world recognises the qualities of individual Nigerians, it is despondent about the quality of governance in the country. Whenever discussions about Nigeria take place in international forums, there is an air of melancholy, with a deep sense of regret that, despite the country’s great potential, it can’t get its act together. My heart sank a few years ago, when in a discussion at the WTO, it was suggested that Nigeria should reclassify itself as a least-developed country (LDC) because its institutions were too weak to enable it to function effectively as a developing country! So, that’s the great puzzle: a country so blessed with talented people but that can’t run its own affairs!
Of course, there are different explanations for the puzzle, as demonstrated by the reactions of some Nigerians to my tweet. Charles Hauss argues in “Comparative Politics” that “Nigeria’s problems rest with the behaviour of the people who fill key positions”. That’s surely true. Many in key positions have failed to further the general good. Many Nigerians would use their expertise to advance what is theirs, but take less care of what is common to everyone: public service. Lack of accountability also means that many talented people, or technocrats, don’t get things done in office, while the political culture or system doesn’t incentivise some really talented and well-meaning Nigerians to serve in public office.
But, let’s face it, there is one position that matters hugely: the president! The constitution concentrates virtually all the power to govern Nigeria in the hands of whoever holds that office. Indeed, throughout history, every successful nation has had a visionary and competent leader behind it; a leader who has the right vision for his nation and can build a consensus around it; a leader who can assemble the best team of highly talented people and lead them to deliver transformative change. I am talking about leaders like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Obafemi Awolowo in the old Western Nigeria.
Unfortunately, Nigeria hasn’t had national leaders with the right vision of where the country should be economically, politically and institutionally, and who can mobilise the country’s resources, including its talented people, to embark on the journeys that take it there! Yet, in a world where serious countries are attracting the best brains globally, a nation that fails to harness its own talents will lose them to others, and remain poor. As we’ve just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, that’s a key lesson that Nigeria must learn from His Parable of the Talents!
I wish everyone Happy and Prosperous New Year!