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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Lamenting Nigeria’s fragility in leadership, governance

Mariam Lady Yunusa, Head of Partners and Inter Agency Coordination at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi, Kenya, looks at the implications of Nigeria being classified as a fragile state – as well as realities on ground



“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

On 27 June 2013, I received an email from my colleague Dan, alerting on the phenomenon of fragile states and how my organisation, the UN-Habitat, should position itself to respond to what is increasingly becoming a perverse situation. I opened the attachment first and quickly scanned through the three-page description of what ails the world’s weakest nations. Here is how fragile states were defined:

Fragile states are countries that face particularly extreme poverty and development challenges and are at high risk of further decline, or even failure. Typically, government and state structures lack the capacity to provide public safety and security, apply principles and practices of sound governance or promote economic growth that benefits all… All fragile states are different but features they all share are weak governance, failing public institutions, and instability or conflict, all of which contribute to dismal growth prospects…The regional and international spill over effects from these countries include violent conflict, instability, organized crime, forced migration, human trafficking, deteriorating public health, etc.

“Sad, very sad” I began to think, “in this day and age with so many advancements in medicine, technology, information, transport and culture that any country should be so defined”. I felt pity for the countries which were suffering from the “brokenness” or “fragility” so graphically described, until I read the cover email to the end where Dan had listed 48 countries that fell into the category of “fragile”. There it was, Nigeria was on the list! Then suddenly my pity turned into shock, fear, embarrassment, and then anger.

My anger showed when Mohammed, my young intern from University of Lagos, walked into the office and asked what the matter was. I gave him the email. He read it and gently placed it back on my desk with a shrug and a smile. The look in my eyes must have asked what was funny. He said, “Mummy, you are this upset because you have lived outside Nigeria for long. Things are bad at home o!”

Well, I may be living outside Nigeria for now, spared from the blackouts, the lead poisoning from generators everywhere, and jerry cans for water or fuel. But in my work at the United Nations, I am in close contact with home and I know enough to know that things could be better, only I didn’t ever think it could get this bad… for Nigeria to be categorised as a fragile state?


In a tailspin

I am still seething with anger as I write this piece. The disparity between Nigeria’s prospects and her current social, economic and political realities is befuddling. How did we descend from a vibrant productive country of the groundnut pyramids, cocoa bean bags, barrels of palm oil, bales of cotton, hides and skin, gold, tin and timber, to an importer of toothpicks? How did we descend from a country whose graduates were admitted into reputable universities abroad even ahead of their transcripts, to one where our first class products are subjected to catch up classes?

It’s this oil thing isn’t it? Elsewhere, in the hands of wise, careful and committed leaders, the ‘black gold’ has sustained enviable, sustainable socio-economic development of countries – with abounding opportunities for individual and corporate growth. But oil has hurt us, instead of blessing us. Our leaders today are caught in a frenzy of aggrandisement at all levels. The country is beset by chronic internal strife and unstable governments, corruption, poor human development and human rights records, and has become a hub for international crime. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians have become refugees in their own country. Looking in from outside, I have seen the rest of Africa go from deference to Nigeria in public forums to turning away faces with a sarcastic grin or outright contempt! Since the last decade especially, Nigeria has consistently been found wanting on virtually all key governance indicators. In 2012, the country ranked 153 out of 187 countries and territories on the human development index, putting it in the low human development category. Now, many countries in Africa have found oil within their borders and they point to Nigeria’s tragic story as example of how not to use their new found wealth from oil.

What is wrong with us? Everyone who has spoken on this topic invariably puts it down to “leadership”. Since the civil war, whether it is rule by the gun or by the ballot, Nigerians have not had decisive, value-driven and single minded leaders who could set the country on the path to sustainable growth and development. I grew up as a young patriotic girl whose country had done everything to establish her on a firm foundation of progress in a prosperous environment – personal, communal, public and national. But it would seem that I belong to a fast-disappearing generation which came of age at a time when honesty and the joy of a hard day’s work were in and of themselves the satisfaction and reward. Today, a spirit of greed and graft of unparalleled dimensions has taken over my country.

We are ruled by weak governments which have successively paved the way for abuse of power, nepotism, tribalism and favouritism for private gain by public officials, politicians and rulers. The masses of Nigeria are trapped in a vicious triangular struggle for food, shelter and clothing-for survival. Our youth do not have the strength of character to delay gratification as they watch their leaders loot away their common wealth. We are ruled by brigands. Masses across Africa are suffering under leaders let loose in an age of affluence and loss of the social values of caution, control and pedigree. But while other African leaders invest their loot in their economies, in which case it can be argued that such resources are not lost to their countries, Nigeria’s leaders stash their loot abroad where such resources are lost to the country in the event of the demise of the owners. The handsome incomes we have earned from oil have not benefitted us proportionately because a few of our leaders have taken much of the money to feed their insatiable appetite for power and control.

Nigeria is a veracious consumer of products that are imported from more organized economies. Why should Nigerians troop to Shoprite to buy daily supplies including beans? Are Nigerians too poor to put up their own supermarkets? Why should Nigeria be known to be the foremost Champagne importer in the world? Why do we break every rule within three months of its passing? We start but do not finish, we acquire but do not maintain, we design but do not implement, we initiate but do not sustain. My beloved country is in a tailspin.


So what to do?

All solutions in the books have been propounded be it Vision 2010 or 2020:20. We do not need any more programmes. What is urgently needed is exemplary leadership, good governance and efficient management of resources. Nigeria’s broken system must be straightened – those who do well, exceptionally well, must be rewarded and those who make a mess and hurt the larger polity punished. Both reward and punishment must be made public. Nigerian children need to see the thieving parents of their friends go to jail, so they can understand why their single mother who works so hard would not allow them to cut corners to forge ahead. We need to reconstruct our values and redeem the moral core of what makes us citizens of Nigeria. We need a leader who has the courage of a personal conviction which he/she is ready to champion and even sacrifice his/her life for.

The world celebrates Nelson Mandela as the greatest human being alive because of his personal example. Mandela rose above his own needs and wants to give South Africans, freedom and hope in their country as liberated citizens. Nigerian children born after the Biafra war do not have a clue what nationhood means. For them it is about what they can get for themselves by the shortest possible means. For the older generation, things have fallen apart because nationhood is held hostage by a self-seeking, uncommitted, privileged few. We need a servant leader, a self- sacrificing one who looks after the interest of the larger whole at all times.


Transformative Change

Something has to happen soon if we are not to go the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria because our young people are rudderless and they are angry.

In an exclusive interview granted to the July edition of the Africa Report, President Jonathan was quoted to have reeled off a string of plans for Nigeria: i) to stabilise our legendary unstable national power supply, ii) moving away from subsidised farming to farming for wealth creation, basically farming for export “to become a big man”! (My emphasis). Nigeria must resolve the energy question. It is said that the sector is hijacked by a cabal of generator importers. This is so simplistic. These characters are not ghosts, they are fellow Nigerians, and they live with us – the same words which were echoed to me by someone last month after innocent school children were gunned down and roasted in their sleep in a school in Yobe State. We have been parroting the attainment of 4000 megawatts of electricity as a major achievement while what we need is 40,000 megawatts. This would have been laughable if it wasn’t pathetic!

Nigeria must develop structures that work. Let’s stop personalising public offices and seek rather to institutionalise them, so that systems work regardless of who occupies the office. Strangers coming into Nigeria must know where to go and find what they need, without having to know an underhand operator. The workings of the system should be public knowledge. Americans say Nigeria is a key country in Sub-Saharan Africa, critical to the success of their policy interests, but President Obama has visited Africa twice, and on both visits, he skipped Nigeria. Responding to questions by the press on what guided his choice of countries to visit, he said “I wish to invest in strong institutions, not in strongmen” – this speaks volumes.


What sort of leader will get us there?

Nigeria is in need of a strong value-driven leader who adheres to the core moral principles of integrity, patriotism, dynamism, vision courage, responsibility, respect for the rule of law and prudent management of resources. Such a leader must be selfless and above all have respect for the dignity and rights of the human being. Nigeria’s reformist leader must be one with a high and strong emotional intelligence quotient, equipped to be his own master. We need a single minded person who believes in the strength of their own conviction. Our leaders must be energetic, young and dynamic – between 40 and 60 years old, well educated, well connected with other world leaders, and well-connected at home with young people, who channel the aspirations of youth and women’s groups into policy and sustainable programmes.

When El-Rufai came and put some sanity back into the planning of Abuja, he was maligned, and yes, being the maverick that he is, he may have done a few things out of line. But whoever said pulling out an ailing molar tooth was fun? We are so cleavaged as a society that every well-meaning leader who tries to do things right invariably gets vilified for not belonging to the right religion or tribe. We must set minimum qualifications for those who aspire to be leaders. Those without experience, known track records or pedigree must be compelled to attend leadership finishing schools. Leaders must have experience, exposure and knowledge to lead at the national level.

Fred Swaniker, the Founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy, says “this is Africa’s time”, and I concur. While in other countries, a generation of young leaders have formed themselves into a network of progressives ready to think out of the box and take up the challenge to clean up the down-trodden, sick and impoverished image of their countries, prejudicial killings and serial murders proceed as a daily matter of course in Nigeria, as members of the National Assembly busy themselves with passing laws that have little or no relevance to the development of the country.

Nigeria’s reformist leader must be one ready to lead by personal example which is the hallmark to transformative leadership. The leader Nigeria needs must know how to identify other leaders with the requisite skills to establish structures and systems around him that work. He or she that qualifies to rule Nigeria at the highest level must be acceptable across all divides and not be zoned. Zoning alienates the rest of Nigeria.


Talking of Solutions

Standard Chartered Bank’s Ebenezer Essoka identifies three priorities for Africa: i) Infrastructure, ii) Education and unemployment and iii) Regulatory environment. Rating infrastructure as top of the list, one couldn’t agree with him more, and when we talk Africa, read Nigeria because our country rates low on all 3 counts. Detailing from these three priorities, one could reel out many policy directions. But the state of our country is such that making such recommendations would amount to pouring water into a raffia basket – full of holes. When the foundation is destroyed, what can the righteous do?

There is not a strategic solution, approach or programme proposal that has not been propounded and they number in the thousands- recommendations of committees, task forces, commissions, review panels, etc. We are not short of solutions, what we lack is the will, courage and sincerity to pull together and pull our country out from the moral tailspin into which it has fast descended. We must stop the corruption, and do a turn around to heal our land. If we do not do it peacefully and concertedly, it will be done anyway, and I don’t want to think of what that alternative could be.

To firmly handle the toxic political goings-on at the National Assembly, in the States and with the insurgency, requires that President Jonathan be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove — two antithetical characteristics needed to survive and perform effectively as a leader in Nigeria. Nigerians are easy people to lead, except when they are difficult. They would be trusting of any leader who would not steal their money, but invest it to give them good schools, functioning hospitals, smooth roads, peace and security for them to earn their living and raise their families. Nigerians can tease their leaders to tears, but they would not lie about a good leader who means well for them. They desperately wish for honest leaders who will tell them the truth, who will rise and be counted at a time when the nation is threatened by a constellation of evil –leaders who will lead, not deal, with them.



I raised my children to believe in Nigeria. While their friends remained abroad to pursue quick money and escape the collapsing system back home, I prevailed on them to return to their beloved fatherland to contribute to rebuilding the country at its peak of brokenness (I thought things were bad enough then). Ten years later, I say with all sense of modesty that God has honoured that patriotic choice which was borne out of a dogged belief in the potentials of my country for the future of my children. But, today, they are at a crossroads as they struggle to raise their own children. The more outspoken of them asked me the other day “Mummy you raised us to respect Nigeria, to hope in Nigeria and to give to Nigeria, and those values have brought us this far. But now we are raising our children and we do not see your Nigeria. We see a different Nigeria which is poles apart from yours. What should we say to your grandchildren?” I looked at my son and sighed, and with a heavy heart, thought…“God dey”.


  1. This is the Mohammed mentioned in this beautiful piece!!! I got back from my internship in November 2013 and i was expecting this write up to go viral and discussed in national debates but i am not surprised at all…….Let’s get this out there till it reaches ASO ROCK!!! NIGERIA CAN AND WILL BE GREAT……..BUT UNLESS PEOPLE LIKE MLY VOICES ARE HEARD……..Be the Change you want to see, play your part – read, discuss and share!!! GOD BLESS NIGERIA!!!

  2. I give kudos to Mariam Lady Yunusa for her incisive article. My honest advice to her is to turn it into Monogragh and let it be circulated to all legislative houses in Nigeria both at the Federal and State levels. Nigeria numero uno problem is her government, which in the main, is peopled by the greedy lot, kleptomaniacs, unpatriotic, tribal jingoists, religious bigots and those who knew next- to-nothing about good governance.
    They should read the working mind of a patriotic Nigerian (MLY) about what is wrong with Nigeria and what she proffers as urgent solutions to salvage her from the abyss.
    Yacoob Abiodun
    City of Hayward,
    CA, USA.

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