Under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria is leading the charge in building Africa’s institutions of leadership and governance. The separations of power among the tiers of government – legislature, judiciary and the executive – have been entrenched more than ever…

Let’s consider the above statement as a hypothetical opening of a feature article in an international news platform such as the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, or even Ventures Africa reporting on the revitalization of Nigeria’s governance and leadership institutions. Let’s consider it as an article that puts a positive shine on the civil reconstruction process engendered by Nigeria’s new administration. This would be a really good story to read. Why does Africa need such a good story?

In his speech at the Ghanaian parliament on July 11, 2009, US President Barack Obama stated that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. Obama was clearly alluding to the collapse of state institutions and the over-reaching powers of the men who lead them. It is no secret that in most African countries, individuals wield more influence than institutions of the state. From Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to Yahya Jammeh’s The Gambia, it is a classic tale of Orwellian Animal Farm where all men are equal, but some are more equal (more powerful) than others. Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the Africa Leadership Network, aptly illustrated the powers wielded by African leaders: “You decide you want to print money. You call the central bank governor and you say, ‘Please double the money supply.’ He’ll say, ‘Okay, yes, sir, is there anything else I can do for you?’ This is the power that African leaders have”But democracy is not designed to work that way; just ask Barack Obama.

There are different roles for the different tiers of government – the judiciary, the legislature and the executive – and various roles for government affiliates and institutions. Sadly, in most African countries, even though these institutions exist, the men who lead them tower above them. The applicable rules of the system do not always apply to these ‘strong’ men. In turn, these leaders issue political favours to cronies and praise singers who carry out their biddings unquestionably. The corruption of the democratic and leadership institutions greases the wheel of patronage that drives the system.

How then do we build strong institutions?

Muhammadu Buhari, then presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change in the 2011 elections, proposed an answer. Buhari posited that what Africa needs are not just strong institutions, but also strong leaders to build said strong institutions. Many political analysts such as Dan Agbese, former editor in Chief of Newswatch, and Max Amuchie, member of the editorial board at BusinessDay, agreed that Buhari’s answer is a sensible modification to Obama’s thesis. A way to look at this is that the principles of modern democracy such as social justice, equality, rule of law, human rights and so on were championed at one point or another by men and women such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The institutions of democracy were built, and continue to develop, on a foundation enshrined by the principles championed by these leaders. This supports the view that strong leaders are needed to strengthen institutions.

If Buhari’s modification to Obama’s notion is apt – that Africa needs strong leaders to build strong institutions – then Mr. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s President-elect, should be held to his own postulation. One will have to wait to see how the new Nigerian leader will fare in this capacity. Unfortunately, Buhari’s record in office 32 years ago may not tell us much about what to expect since the man claims to be a converted democrat. According to him, he is not the same Buhari of 32 years ago. He often cites the collapse of the Soviet Union without the firing of a single bullet as the singular event that converted him to believe in multiparty democracy and its institutions. Buhari is known to have contested and lost the Nigeria’s election three different times in the last 12 years and, all those times, he sought redress in the courts – an institution of democratic governance.

The indication, however, that Buhari may be poised to strengthen the institutions of governance in his country did emerge during the interactive session he held last February with the business community in Lagos. When asked how he will address corruption in Nigeria if elected president, Buhari said that the courts will be allowed to freely decide on cases of corruption that are before it, “not because our courts are perfect, but there is nothing we can do with the part of the institutions – the judiciary, the legislature and the executive”.  His admission that the judiciary, as an autonomous institution, cannot be interfered with by him – as Nigeria’s president – is a positive step in strengthening the institutions of governance.  The implication of this is better understood given examples of events that happened during the reign of the current administration in Nigeria. These examples include the November 2014 police invasion of the federal parliament to forcefully remove the Speaker following his defection to the opposition party, the impeachment of a state’s parliament speaker by only one quarter of its members in contravention of the house’ rules and the removal of the Central Bank Governor by the President when the former complained of a missing $20 billion from crude oil revenue. These acts took place because supposedly strong men abused state institutions in furtherance of their personal political goals.

Africa needs not strong men as Barack Obama posited; but it needs strong institutions. It needs men and women to be strong leaders; leaders to build strong institutions for its societies. One can hope that the new Nigerian leader will be such a leader.

By Ayodeji Abiola

Ayodeji is a trained Engineer and a community engagement professional. Presently, he coordinates a series of community initiatives within the African communities in North America. He is an advocate of engineering for social good. Follow him on twitter: @dejiabiola

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