Personal Reflections & Lessons on Nigerian Leaders since 1960 (Part 1)


What do we learn when we peer into Nigeria’s leadership since 1960? Is it something hollow that we find too little or are the lessons broad that we fasten to it, lest we make the same errors. We have had 13 Heads of State & Executive Presidents. In this piece, I excluded Zik and accepted the 1965 colonial verdict that Tafawa Balewa was the man truly in charge. I will also exclude the Chief Ernest Shonekan and second coming of Muhammadu Buhari, a spectacle that we are yet to finish.

I tried to see these men (sadly no women yet) fit into some kind of same categories. Like a “reincarnation” went on among Shehu Shagari, Goodluck Jonathan and Aguiyi-Ironsi. One can almost fit first-term Obasanjo and Abdusalam Abubakar into the same jacket. It was very hard to place Sani Abacha into same theme with others, so let us accord him his own category. Let us run it down in what I call the 14 laws of leadership.

  1. Tafawa Balewa: Self- Awareness

How many times was Tafawa Balewa told that there was a coup in the offing? The Special Intelligence Branch of the Police (now partly DSS) kept passing the intel and a few people stuffed notes in his pocket and raised tone a little higher that the “boys” were priming for the “H’ hour. It was never to be. Akintola flew to see Sardauna on January 14, 1966 to tell him the same tale but it also did not cause an alarm. History told us the flamboyant life of the Minister of Finance, Okotie-Eboh, the 10% raise on public contracts and corruption springing up but also showed us in contrast the spartan life of Balewa, relaxing among his kin in rural Bauchi. Akintola was losing popularity in the West but the Federal Government kept piling their interests on by not allowing him to test his true popularity. When it blew up, it was not that the signs were not scattered across edges, it was just lack of “self awareness” to fix the jigsaw.

2. Aguiyi-Ironsi: Decisiveness

Aguiyi-Ironsi inherited a major crisis, the kind that makes you scream title of Chief Moses Majekodunmi autobiography — “My Lord, What a Morning”. He realized that he is in the charge of complex puzzle of the Nigerian state, padded with thick ethnic layers. The “young majors” just had to go, to set a lesson on those who shoot lead to stuff lives, no matter the reason. Despite, being also marked by the majors and having escaped mysteriously, he kept delaying the decisions on January 15, 1966, leaving it to a military tribunal that kept prevaricating. Till, the center could not longer hold and the men he trusted, took his own life. Maybe poor decisions for a learning leader is not the end, it is lack of one to fully face our fears that could be the ruin.

3. Gowon: Control

The path to leadership must be well tended lest you sit on the throne but actually a just placeholder. The path to the leadership of Yakubu Gowon was not a linear one, it came out of compromise. The men who went on a killing field littered with the blood of their colleagues still won’t see his supremacy. That’s why despite accepting not to divide the regions, he listened to another counsel and went ahead with it, the last straw that pushed Ojukwu into war. Men under him obeyed their own orders. Murtala Mohammed even went beyond caution, losing soldiers on the warfront in the epic Onitsha crossing with Joe Achuzie, despite contrary orders. Such disregard and not staying on his word to walk away and entrench civilian government, quietly ebbed his legitimacy till “them boys again” found a rallying point and took him down in a flawless attempt. Just imagine your ADC, Brigade of Guards, Head of Military Police and senior Ministers are all plotting against you. It is almost a done deal. Kudos on the long prolonged ‘police action” that kept the Union together at great cost but aftermath of peace, Jack Gowon was brought to his knees. He was never fully in “full” control.

4. Retribution: Murtala Muhammed

Mark Silloun’s book is the best account of the July 1966 coup that I ever read and it detailed the actions of Nigeria’s “hero”, who was highly involved in the coup, a wild response to the 1966 military takeover. It was a daring account that seeded the scenarios for Nigeria’s civil war. It was on this pedestal that Gowon’s leadership was negotiated. Add the inglorious Asaba Massacre and the insubordination at warfront, you end up a stormy crucible of a fearless unrestrained soldier — Murtala Mohammed. When death came calling in its cruel form, in a traffic junction in the same hail of fire, it was truly back to the beginning of a boisterous life. Murtala working to change his person in leadership into an iconic leader but it was too late. The seeds they planted, bloomed into poisonous brew, sadly, he had to drink it.

5. Restraint: General Olusegun Obasanjo

With the exception T.Y Danjuma, possibly, he is the luckiest man in Nigeria’s history. In my view, he was not a soldier’s soldier but his paths were woven for the big moments. Announcing the end to a civil war was a major point in history. However, terribly shaken at the loss of his boss, he accepted it was time to end the cycle of military coup games. In the heat of the moment, a lot of leaders can make a lot of promises but truly letting go of power is actually no mean feat. This was the period that Africa experienced a long list of dictators and mean men. Infact, as we would see in Abdusalam Abubakar and Olusegun Obasanjo, it was good way to ease into statesmanship, allowing generations to discount even cardinal sins. As leaders, restrain to walk away and accept a higher dimension of grail is always good but evidence littering Africa in those times was in contrary, it was never so easy.

6. Shehu Shagari: Responsibility

Economically, the era of Shagari was a very turbulent one. Oil prices were never on a steady rise and Nigeria’s military had ballooned it recurrent costs to meet new oil windfalls. Non-oil revenues were gradually dwindling and oil production due to indigenization policy of the government of yore was crumbling investment in the oil industry. Despite states owing salaries and economic crisis raging, it did not stop corruption marching on. Shagari, a very spartan man, did not take the responsibility to check his party members. With the dust of 1983 elections rife in rigging and malpractices still raging, the aloofness of Shehu Shagari when crisis was biting allowed different persons to personalize the Nigerian treasury. He might not own castles nor drench himself in gold but when you are the leader, the rot and the glory, start and fall on you. Lead, not from the back, from the front.

To be continued tomorrow

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