Nigeria: Good Leadership or Vigilant Followership? By Aminu Ali

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Our decades of search for good leaders have not yielded positive results. Worse still, we are enmeshed in nostalgia: we feel that each leader is worse than his predecessor. Put in another way, each “bad leader” is better than his successor! Today, Nigerians are more worried that even leaders who came to power on integrity and change mantras have failed to demonstrate basic decency and genuine commitment to change the way things are being done. The circumstances surrounding their emergence as leaders do not challenge them to be more responsive to the need of the electorates. As a result, Nigerians are increasingly becoming apathetic about the country’s politics.

We seem to always attribute our political and socio-economic crises to bad leadership and we strongly believe that only good leaders could address the rot in our polity. Unfortunately, the leaders we get have always betrayed the confidence we reposed in them. Our experiences since the last four decades call for a rethink in our quest for good leadership. Who are these “good leaders” we have been searching for? Do such “good leaders” exist in our midst? If they do, why are we unable to recruit them? Is it not high time to shift our focus from searching for “good leaders” to building vigilant and politically conscious followers, who are capable of holding their leaders to account?

In my opinion, the only difference between good and bad leadership is vigilant followership.”Good leaders” are driven not by altruism, but by the strength of their subjects’ culture of civic engagement. When leaders are being routinely policed by conscientious followers who are capable of holding them accountable for their actions and inactions, they tend to be responsive to their yearnings and aspirations. In the absence of vigilant followership and given the intoxicating tendency of power, the inherent selfishness and wickedness in humans manifest in our leaders. That is – when we find ourselves in leadership positions, being humans, unless our propensity to transgress is put in check, the intoxicating character of power always exposes the monster in us.

In countries where good governance thrive, there exist functional institutions that check the excesses of political office holders and such institutions are protected against abuse by vigilant citizenry. Therefore, in those countries, electorates do not limit their political participation to voting alone, rather they keep track of governance processes. In Nigeria, people turn out in millions to vote every four years, but they care less to demand accountability from their leaders. They are less concerned about what happens in-between two election cycles. The truth is that holding regular elections is not a sufficient condition for producing good leaders. In Nigeria, it is obvious that election is just a quadrennial ritual that offers our ruling elites the opportunity to renew their political representation. As I argued elsewhere, “we naively assume that by alternating between the ruling class parties, we will one day have a crop of leaders who, out of sheer altruism, could get us out of our woes. Or, maybe, we interminably await Providential intervention to salvage us from the yoke of our rulers.”

In what follows, I present a typology of Nigerian electorates/followers. It may not be exhaustive, but at least it gives us a rough picture of some of their fundamental characteristics:

Complacent: This consists of toiling masses who are unperturbed by the monumental crises wrecking our country. They lack capacity to appreciate the extent of our national crises and foresee the impending troubles. Consequently, they remain detached or consenting spectators, to use C. Wright Mills neologism. In other words, they do not see themselves as critical stakeholders in Nigerian project. Therefore, rather than being vigilant or participate in civic arena, they just acquiesce.

Despondents: Those who are disenchanted with rot and decay in our polity but feel helpless. In other words, they are aware of the troubles confronting Nigeria and appreciate the extent of leadership degeneration in the country, but feel the situation is irreversible. Therefore, they perpetually languish in despair. Despondents believe that our leadership crisis is here to stay except we get Divine intervention. Accordingly, they do not feel compelled to act to extricate themselves from their leaders’ bondage. More so, they lack skills and courage to demand accountability from the leaders. Therefore, their despondency stems from their helplessness: they believe that making leaders responsive to their needs and holding them to account are beyond them.

Collaborators: This category of Nigerians can be further subdivided into two. The first includes those who are victims of the injustice inflicted by our ruling elites, yet they ardently support them. Either because of primordial considerations or gullibility, they have reduced themselves to their oppressors’ minions.

The second includes the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. They always attempt to rationalize or justify the sleaze of our leaders and, in so doing, often mislead those in the first sub-category. They are passionate defenders of our leaders’ infractions and peddlers of pro-regime’s propaganda. They leverage the gullibility of those in the first sub-category to garner support for anti-people regimes and their policies. They often do so for pecuniary motive or gain.

Both sub-categories are found across ruling class parties. One common feature of people in this category is that their loyalty is to politicians/parties, not the country. In other words, they erroneously treat the former as one and the same thing with the latter.

Futilitarians: These, like despondents, are aware of, and disturbed by, the leadership crisis in the country and its attendant consequences on their lives. Moreover, they were at one time involved in struggles for good governance. But at some point they felt their struggles were futile! Consequently, they have abandoned the struggles. The despondency of Nigerians in this category, therefore, stems from their futilitarian character.

Progressives: Those in this category are vigilant Nigerians, who have skills and courage to demand accountability from their leaders – but they make little impact due to their numerical weakness. They are found among civil rights activists, unionists, journalists, academics, etc. They are true patriots and doggedly fight against subversion of the rule of law and democratic norms. However, the absence of a strong organic connection between them that may usher in the formation of a formidable coalition for an organized/popular resistance limits the impact of their struggles.

My humble submission is that what we need in order to make a headway in our quest for a better country is to cease being complacent and despondent. This, by extension, means that we must be vigilant followers. The few progressives should take on the task of recruiting more Nigerians into the last category and to redeem the traditional platforms for organizing popular resistance (organized labour, students’ movement, civil rights organizations, professional associations) from labour aristocrats, opportunists and unprincipled unionists. Falana observes that popular struggles by a coalition of these unions in the 1980s to 90s had resulted in a number of concessions, such as increased funding to education (through Universal Basic Education and Education Trust Fund Acts); improved welfare for Nigerian workers (Minimum Wage Act, Pension Reform Act, Employee Compensation Act, National Health Insurance Act); and transition from military regime to civil rule. All these and many other concessions were extorted under “bad leadership” (military junta). But the decline of progressive activism has culminated in the wanton abuse and perversion of the fruits of those struggles.

We must shift our focus from search for good leadership to building vigilant followership. With vigilant followers, bad leaders can be turned to good ones and vice-versa. I am now an advocate of vigilant followership as a necessary and sufficient condition for good leadership. Finally, I hope this piece will generate more conversations and concrete actions among Nigerian progressives and leftists.

Aminu Ali wrote from the Department of Sociology, Bayero University, Kano. He can be reached via email:


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