Muhammadu Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), ran and won the presidential election on the mantra of “change”. That slogan appealed to the majority of Nigerian voters because it suggested the possibility of a tectonic shift away from underwhelming leadership and a political culture steeped in corruption. It also suggested economic rebirth in which fundamentals such as employment, inclusive growth that addresses the roots of poverty, and industrialization are seen as more important than an emphasis on GDP growth rates. Finally it suggested a more decisive approach to the fundamental question of national security in the wake of the terrorist group Boko Haram’s war against the Nigerian state. Let’s be clear: the prospect of change appealed because it was embodied largely by Buhari the person, the individual whose antecedents and value system are well established in the minds of Nigerians, and not necessarily by his political platform. Change, then, must begin by the institutionalization in governance, politics and economic management, of the qualities and value systems with which most voters associated Buhari.
Beyond the immediate challenges the incoming administration will face, “change” must mean a change in the fundamentals, the faulty foundations upon which the edifice of the Nigerian polity and economy have been constructed. The key to that change lies in addressing the all-important question of leadership, forging and communicating a vision of transformation and summoning the discipline to implement that vision. This is the task before President Muhammadu Buhari.
There is an exaggerated emphasis on elections and the electoral process, but elections will only bring progress if citizens are empowered to select as their leaders candidates with a proven aptitude or capacity for leadership. If votes do not count for any reason, then citizens are disenfranchised – a not infrequent occurrence in Nigerian elections since our independence in 1960. If the votes count but the wrong persons are elected for the wrong reasons, it is also a lost opportunity. In other words votes get wasted, reifying a process which produces no real substance. This is why democracy and its rituals do not necessarily create prosperity. Only the exercise of true leadership and accountability in a democratic setting can make democracy an avenue for change.
Leadership requires a combination of character, capacity and experience. Experience in this sense is not about how long a politician or public servant, wedded to the AGIP (Any Government in Power) principle of employment and livelihood, has sat in public office or perambulated the corridors of power. Rather, it is, or ought to be, a function of the track record of performance with prior opportunities to serve in any other of many possible endeavors.
Capacity in this context means ability to deliver concrete, transformational progress in the face of the monumental challenges that confront Nigeria as a country seeking to build its nationhood and take its rightful place in the global economy on the basis of the level of prosperity it has been able to offer its citizens. It means the ability to execute good and effective governance.
The prerequisite for this is a clear understanding of public policy as the framework for governance. What is public policy? Why does it matter? What are its dynamics, and how can these dynamics and public policy choices be framed, presented and managed in the Nigerian context? What is the role of culture in all this, and is culture as a context for governance, dynamic and malleable or immutable? These are all questions, which the process of grappling with indicates whether or not a political leader has the capacity to govern.
Then we have the questions of character, which is a very big factor in leadership. For one, character largely determines whether a person in a leadership position can exercise real leadership. At its core, real leadership means the ability to frame a vision of the future and mobilize countries or organizations to achieve it in a clear timeframe. The question of character also influences the leadership style. These two dimensions of character in leadership should matter greatly to the Nigerian public, for it is said that a person cannot give what he or she does not have, no matter how much you may expect it of him or her. The tendency in Nigerian governance to put political expediency at the heart of decision-making rather than basing decisions on sound public policy choices or rallying followers to some larger vision, points to a character problem in leadership. The problem with putting “politics” at the heart of every decision in governance is that it is a short-sighted approach that ultimately backfires because this approach will never produce real transformational outcomes. Real leaders look at their potential historical legacy and only manage the present towards that future.
It is this capacity for real leadership, or the absence of it, that determines whether any society, Nigeria inclusive, can make real progress. It is what will equip and enable Nigeria’s government under Muhammadu Buhari to face – and hopefully surmount – the short and medium term challenges of Nigeria’s present economic condition manifested in the current fiscal crisis. It is what will enable the new President to cut the cost of governance, tackle corruption, alleviate unemployment, ensure security, and mitigate electricity infrastructure shortages. It is what will lay the foundation for addressing longer term challenges such as a fundamental economic transformation to an industrial manufacturing economy, the political economy of fiscal federalism and the structure of the Nigerian federation, and bridging the divide created by the intrusion – or, perhaps, the introduction – of religion into public life in what should be a secular state.
Make no mistake, change is not that all of these problems will be solved in four years. That is impossible, unrealistic expectations notwithstanding. Change will occur if Buhari lays the right foundations and future governments deepen his achievements.