July 11, 2009 in Accra, Ghana with the teleprompters still vaguely visible in front of the parliamentary and national flags of Ghana, President Obama ventured to offer an advice to fellow African leaders. I could still feel his voice bellowing from the stand: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. That was Obama’s first visit to Africa as President of the United States. That was his overall perception of the problem in Africa. Obama, no doubt is full of stories about the wars, conflicts and the self-serving dictators that have ruled Africa straight after independence from equally exploitative colonial regimes. So at once his take on that matter appeared plausible. In recent times, as Nigeria grapples to deliver a credible election once more, Pat Utomi has also echoed the same sentiment. Of course no one would disagree; Africa does not need dictators, warlords or such like. Men who themselves override institutions and become laws to themselves and the rest of the ordinary folks like us. But I tell you we need strong men, strong leadership. Not one or two but we need millions of them. Every institution that becomes strong and well established must be built on strong individuals, professionals, ordinary folks who understand and are passionate about what they do in a good way and are willing to defend it, abide by rules, laid down policies and ethics. Why do I say that? Take a look at the current elections taking place across the country. It is not only dependent on Jega but also on the men and personnel in the polling booths. Of course the leaders must have the courage to prosecute, fire, terminate or remove people who break laws from within the organisation. And to do this they must be unimpeachable themselves.
Nigeria institutions are heavily centralised, too structurally flawed. The line managers and supervisors and the lay workers do not have much real responsibilities. If they understand what those responsibilities are, many do not work by it. For some reasons many workers cannot defend the ethics of their jobs or work by it. Take the President of the country, for instance. The President is too powerful. He controls the army, the police (including state police departments), all federal appointments and ministers etc. In a true presidential government, that of the United States on which the Nigerian system is modelled, the President could say “all the buck stops here at my office”. In Nigeria the buck does not stop at the President’s office, it starts there. In Nigeria nothing happens, I mean nothing, without the direct order of the President. And so it is easy to link political prosecutions to the government or to the ruling party. There is an alternate line of command in public institutions running along who-appointed-who line of authority and what interests are represented. Since I started this blog many people have written me asking who I am working for. Policies and protocols and responsibilities are discounted immediately by “godfathers” embedded in the institutions. Everyone seems to have them. It is doubtful if ever any appreciable percentage of government civil servants got their jobs simply by applying for it. How many customs officials, for example, got employed without links to a “Godfather”. Many public officers today are former civil servants and began their careers in one government establishment or the other. Graft and corruption, thus, easily thrive. When was the last time you heard that someone was fired from his job? Never, and this has nothing to do with any labour laws. But when was the last time you or someone you know were directly or indirectly imparted by an improper conduct (corruption or graft)? Why does no one ever get fired? Simple. They are all connected to some top official. The official is in turn connected to some minister. And the Minister is a hand picked confidante of the President. Did you ever hear of any whistle-blower in our public service? Not only do we not have whistle blowers we do not have a policy for whistle blower protection in the country.
The true professional employees are nothing but lame duck pen pushers with a lot of qualifications but with no real powers. Every decision would have to pass through the organisational hierarchy, directly or indirectly. Line workers are never held accountable for the character which they bring to the environment. Let’s relate this to the current political scenario in the country. If I wanted to organize a rally at the Dan Anyiam stadium in Owerri, for instance, who should I be talking to? The Governor of the state or the stadium management? If your answer is the stadium management it would be most likely that you are not a Nigerian or you have lost touch. A simple policy for venue management should go along this lines: the venue gets booked (may be online) and given to the first bidder (booking) that can or that meets all the terms and conditions of use within a fixed time; you may have to book in advance in certain periods (some venues are fully booked months ahead); the bidder may have to give a guarantee or pay a deposit; bidder must agree to cancellation terms; must agree to fair use terms; responsibility for physical arrangement of fixtures and fittings and their take down after events are part of the terms; security clearances from the state police and so on. The bidder may need assistance with professional event organisers for ticketing and crowd control. So in all likelihood the use of a venue should never involve the actual owners of the property even if the owner is the state government. As long as the bidder is not organising a prohibited event. But in Nigeria this is not how it is done. Notwithstanding policy for venue management the state governors are known to ride it over stadium management. Any responsible professional would resign if his bosses are riding him and over ruling him. That is the simple reason that our institutions are weak. The honourable thing to do is for the Manager to resign and sue at law for effective dismissal. But then many of them are already compromised. They are products of the “Godfather” who is now exacting his due. And we are left with a system that does not work. A system that propagates failure and internal rottenness and inefficiency. A system that, on paper, looks fantastic but cannot work. A system that cannot cleanse, heal or align or realign itself. Is this not why since 1995 we have organised hundreds of elections, spent billions in registering and re-registering voters and yet we have only marginally improved the credibility of the process. We know what is wrong but our involvements in the process makes everyone unwilling to correct the errors. Almost any true attempt to cleanse the system is a suicide mission in itself.
Last week, when the assembly elections got cancelled everyone ran to the President, then the governors to get a comment on what is happening. But that is not their mandate. The people who are responsible are the RECs, the Chairman and INEC. Or is it not Independent National Electoral Commission? All we hear now is accusations and counter-accusations. But what are the real facts? I will like to see some pictures of PDP or any party supporters conducting illegal acts. Some pictures, videos or some concrete evidence that is defensible. That is what we need not accusations. If the chairman (Jega) and his RECs are taking orders from PDP or from the Government we need to expose the pure facts in a manner that is defensible not accusations. As a REC or a line manager or a polling booth official, I must understand the responsibility that is mine. If my responsibility is to fill in the result sheet, I must follow the laid down guideline to fill it and submit it accordingly. I am commander-in-chief as far as that responsibility is concerned. Not even Jonathan himself can make me do otherwise. That is the kind of strong men we need and we need lots of them. We need to have procedures, policies and guidelines for running institutions and we need strongmen who will stick by those principles. And we need institutions to that can protect free thought and free thinkers in organisations; including whistle-blowers. Not just a lame duck grievance procedure that often returns privileged information back to the offenders. That is one reason violence continues to happen in the polity. We really need a couple of strongmen in higher places to drive down the change that we want. So I beg to disagree with Utomi and Obama. Nigeria needs strongmen. Strongmen, good and honest men; not dictators, lords, masters, or bloody coup plotters, tyrants and certainly not life presidents.