Chief Chris Asoluka, former president of Aka Ikenga, a socio-cultural organization of Ndigbo is an interviewer’s delight. It was inspiring listening to his intellectual depth and exposure on that cold rainy morning in his home at Lekki, Lagos. Tracking him and convincing him for this interview was difficult but it eventually was worth the effort as he literally dissected the nation, exposing reasons for successive failure of the leadership in the country.
What does leadership mean to you especially in the light of state of affairs in the country?
I think the central theme of leadership has to do with people, improving their condition, solving their problems, planning for the future and the approach to be adopted in order to move from point A to B. And that has to do with carrying people along, defining precisely what their needs are. This is because if you give a solution that is not needed, then it is not a solution. A leader should be able to see that situation the average person cannot see.
You have a solution package, a hunch about how to resolve issues which the average person may not see. Every leader must have a vision and if you do not have that, there is no need pretending to be one. But it does not really mean that you must be in an exalted office to be a leader. Leadership is developing a solution kit that would take people to the next level and resolve issues that would appear intractable. Leadership must also entail courage and commitment. And above all, you must exemplify and communicate it by your action and deeds.
This is because, the leadership problem arises when a leader professes one thing and does another thing. It creates a gap and with that you see that the followership would be less committed if they think that the leader is not doing what he is saying. So, without being academic about it, leadership within the context of Nigeria or South East means identifying the next level, that better place where the people would like to go; how do you carry them to that point, how do you release all the energies for the purpose of achieving a goal. In terms of leadership in Nigeria, the average Nigerian would want an opportunity to express himself to get to whatever level God has given him.
A leader sometimes should be bold enough to look at some of the destabilizing and debilitating factors and remove it. Sometimes, leadership may mean doing something unusual. Some people would talk about transformational leadership. In the end, to tie this story, leadership means development of Nigeria, development of human capacity, development of infrastructure and giving the average Nigerian a good life.
That is the promise of the independence and this is the promise of the 21st century so that an average Nigerian can stand tall, compete and have less urge to move to other countries. These are some of the leadership challenges we have in Nigeria or even the South East-the need to be free, to be secured, to move freely and to optimize and maximize whatever talent God has given you. To me, this is the greatest challenge of leadership.
Why has there been successive failure of leadership in Nigeria and most of the African countries comparatively to the developed societies? This is a very tough question because your question is empirically validated. Most developing countries would post some disturbing records as Bob Marley would say that in the midst of water, the fool is thirsty. How come that in the midst of resources, the average developing country is still fumbling as it were. This fact has been noted and whether you like it or not, the trinity in development called culture, politics and economics, are so related, like three-in-one. You do not know which comes first.
Culture is just the way you perceive a group, define its values, essence and future. The components of culture would be the way you express yourself-the language, the way you dress, your habits and attitudes. These are important aspects which the new state or a developing country must grapple with because you have to stay for a longer period to have these things coalesce into what you may call widely accepted common ground. And in Nigeria, the cultural issue is still a problem.
How do you define your aspiration and our inability to resolve our primordial proclivity to yield to a newer larger Nigerian State? That is on the Nigerian scene. On the sub-national scenes like the South East which should by and large have the same traits, you say what about that but we would join the other issues because no state or national state is an island. These things are inter-related. You look at the issue of politics! Politics is a question of contestation of power to determine what is to be done, how it is to be done, when it is to be done or some people would say it is the authoritative allocation of values within a system meaning someone is in charge.
To reduce to the barest minimum, the issue of politics has to do with power. Then economics has to do with welfare. People must eat, must be sheltered, there must be education, health and infrastructure and so on. How are these things tied? It is the management of these that would transform the developing state. You do not need to be a Samuel Huntington who wrote that very remarkable book, “Culture Matters” to know that perhaps the way you look at the future determines the way you produce and the way you produce determines your priorities and your priorities determine what preference you have for someone who will be in charge when in power.
You see the linkage! And the person in power determines what value the people or the society would have over time. So, in the linkage, some people would say politics could affect culture habit in a cumulative way. And culture would affect economics over the work habit, attitude to work, expectations and things like that. And economics would always affect your preference over who should be in charge. So, this linkage is an important one.
Nigeria was amalgamated in 1914, the North and South which perhaps started from Lagos Colony around 1860, and then Southern protectorate around 1904 with Lagos in 1906. In 1914, you now had the amalgamation of North and South which yielded to what you now call Nigeria. By 1960, the colonial masters ceded power to nationals and we called that independence. In the eyes of men, it is very long but in the life of a nation, it is relatively new.
So, you may have that contestation over whose value should prevail and in the struggle, the other issues also join. When you talk about history and journalism, you know that crack that journalism is history in a hurry and people are always in a hurry because you are not on your island given the current news media, you cannot stay in Nigeria and observe people living in America in a way and say you are not affected.
So, the comparison becomes harsher. In fact, it was Alexander Krasnikov, the Russian economist who did a study about the difficulty of newly industrializing states. It is not only that they would grapple with the elements within their own local but they are being exposed to competition with the stronger guys. It is like when you are five in a football or boxing tournament with a guy who is 20 or 30 with all the disadvantages.
That is not just the issue as the issue is that the rules have been set by the big boys so that you are not just playing from a disadvantaged position, the rules of the game are determined by that guy who has advantage. So, in terms of competition, you are always at the receiving end. An Asian scholar would argue as Friedrich List did that why is it that the developed countries are in the habit of kicking away the ladder, and the rules that made them prosper are not the rules they expect the newer states to use. They expect the newer states to play according to their rules.
That is difficult and it is a catch; if you do not do it that way, you suffer some level of ostracisation and you cannot do it. Then it reverses to culture because when you look at the states that have done it, you see that they work on their culture and their culture is important because we have observed that culture affects economics directly. How do you define the Germans? Hard working, straight to the point; they do not waste time and they achieve results.
This is the 20 and 21st century perception of the Germans. How do you perceive the South Koreans?
Hardworking, innovative, austere and very productive people. Have they always been so? No. I will shock you. The 19th century Germans were regarded as lazy people and who were in fact, easy to engage and oppress. It took a kind of re-orientation for them to be challenged to say we no longer want to be defined in that light.
The South Koreans by 1963 took a similar decision; just like Singapore in 1965 decided that ‘we have to do something for ourselves. That was their challenge and they took it. You are mentioning the Igbos; have they always been like this? No. In the 20s and 30s, the Igbos were largely those who left the East, the hinterland, in quest of opportunities and when they came to Lagos, they were clerks, domestic cooks and that kind of thing. And it took the generation of Nnamdi Azikiwe and his colleagues from 1939/1940 to 1965 to cause the cultural transformation in the philosophy of collective help in order to seek education.
This is because as a leader, they identified that education was the most useful transformational vehicle they needed. They sold their collective palm produce, collective land and trained the most promising youths within the communities. This was with the view that if those young people came back, they would become assets and on whose shoulders other younger ones could climb. In trading, they used apprenticeship to form a guild. One comes to trade in motor parts and some other younger ones from the same village would come to learn the trade and by the time they ‘graduate’, they would establish their own shops. There was a cultural revolution and it determined their economics.
They discovered that hey, to survive in a foreign place, you must not be wasteful. Like if you go to America or in Britain, whether it was snowing or not, you must wake up, otherwise, if you cannot pay your bill, you would end up on the streets, in the cold. It was so with some of those early Igbo settlers who developed that attitude of hard work because they must survive. What we are saying is that the average Third world country is having a definitional crisis.
The last point I have to make is recall that sometimes, it is self-induced. Kwame Nkrumah in 1955 before Ghana’s independence in 1957, CPP was promising Ghanaians-seek ye first the political kingdom and every other thing would be added unto you. It was not just in Ghana; it was everywhere. So, the average African felt that upon attainment of political independence, the good life automatically would come even without hard work and that was a cultural deficit and that was not the way it would go. Ling Qua Yu, you saw how the vision of one man transformed a seemingly laid-back society called Singapore over time.
We have to do something about our attitude to so many things-work, relationship and even expectation. We are always in a mad hurry. It is true that we have been disappointed over a long time so that the average Nigerian is not sure what the leader would give and that led from skepticism to cynicism. This is because we have been failed over a time. But the issue now is, can you move too far with a mindset of cynicism? The frontline agenda should be our attitude in everything. Both the old and young, something has to be done.
How do you look at the effect of greed on the concept of leadership in Nigeria?
Somebody said that no economy can sustain a bunch of greedy people because you cannot attend to everybody’s greed. Greed is like a virus but it is symptomatic of insecurity. This is because the system does not have any prospect of being productive and the opportunities you have, you had better take advantage of it; provide for your today, tomorrow, your children, grandchildren and so on. Before we knew it, it had become a game of monopoly.
The kind of money you hear being stolen in Nigeria is mind-boggling. It defies rationality. If you say that greed is just because someone is trying to provide for his today’s needs, it becomes bizarre. But the truth is that contentment does not mean having so much but being ok with the little you have. In Nigeria, it has become a craze that we do not talk about millions any more, you do not even talk about billions for the big boys, you go into trillions. This mad obsession to provide for today, tomorrow and next is share insecurity.
The more developed an economy, the less meaningful the amount of money you have. But the less developed an economy, the more significant money would play in making you escape poverty. By the way, you need to have every person transform to a state or local government by providing most of these things-security, electricity and so on. But it is not an excuse, it is just attitudinal and it can be unlearned. It is also very critical when the enforcement mechanism is weak and it is weak when you have low level of institutionalization. People do not know what they should do and institutions do not do what they are supposed to do. They all wait to be prompted.
In the light of your analysis on the concept of leadership, what do you think is the future of Nigeria with regards to resources and the challenges of leadership confronting the nation? Nigeria is a very blessed country in terms of resources but resources do not really matter a lot in the theory of development. It could help. But the more progressive countries today are not the ones that have so much resources.
Japan is number one user of steel but it does not have any iron ore; it imports. Switzerland has almost nothing but it lives on intellectual property. It depends on how you use knowledge. We are now in a knowledge-driven economy. Resources could help to give you the start, competitive edge or in the classical economics, you call it comparative advantage. Now, we talk about competitive advantage which is knowledge and the knowledge is the know-how and how you can put all these together and get to the next level.
Nigeria is very blessed and in terms of resources, the resource base is very huge. In terms of the quality of human beings, Nigerians are about the most resourceful group of people you can see. I am not talking because I am a Nigerian. In my limited exposure, when you get out of this country, whether you are in Europe, America or even in China, for any of these guys who are a little informed, immediately you are a black and there is a measure of confidence, there are two possibilities. You are either a Nigerian or a black American.
And you see, the oil boom also has helped Nigeria and this is a surprise. People say oil boom has become oil doom, yes in terms of the abuses of the oil boom, in terms of neglect to vital things, the absence of infrastructure or things to show for the kind of money that has passed through Nigerian states. You cannot find sufficient evidence that Nigeria received so much and people say oil boom has become oil doom in its wake leaving us with a lot of vices-armed robbery, kidnapping, corruption etc. But there is also a positive twist.
The oil boom exposed Nigerians. They know the good life and they are ready to work for the good life and this readiness given opportunity, would surely make Nigeria about the fastest growing economy in the world if the environment is made right. Go to any other African country, the average guy there does not even know what it means sleeping in an air-conditioned room. But the average Nigerian whether he is in Ikoyi or Ajengule wants to sleep in a room with AC, wants to ride a good car. So, it is the absence of the legitimate means to acquire these things that would create the illegitimate route for people in a hurry to acquire these things. People are in a hurry to give themselves the good life. And that is one advantage we pray our leaders should harness.
This is because this country is ready to explode. Nigerians work in order to have the good life. Just like in America, the credit system created the ability for you to consume future income so long as you are ready to work to satisfy that flow upon which for instance you have been given a car or house. Do you think Americans are rich? If you see a guy and you hear he is earning $100,000, even after taxation, if he gets about $70,000, you think it is a lot of money? No, it is not. This is because he has consumed far more than that in the next two or three years but the system is so stable that it enables him to pay in advance in order to release the productive capacity of the various sectors. Let us not go into developmental theory.
That is what we call the new deal brought about by Theodore Roosevelt after the depression of 1929. He needed to encourage public works and spending and the derivative of that was the credit system. So, the Nigerian system is ripe because the average Nigerian is desirous to have the good life. Let the mindset be changed to work for the good life to create the opportunity for him to have access to work in order to give himself the good life. And I think essentially that is what Nigerians need. Nigerians do not want to be beggars. They want to be fishermen. You know the difference. Give me this or that; no, that is not how to develop a state.
Go to America; you would be surprised that the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats today in spite of their history is one that says, look, give people opportunity to be on their own. Encourage them and do not task them too much. States, you do not have too much business in running business. The other says no, social democrats, all hands are not equal and there is a responsibility to provide for the needy. But the two gets enormous support because the average American mindset is hey! Give me the opportunity; I would fly. I think that Nigerians are getting to that stage. Every Nigerian seems to say give me the opportunity, I would fly and that is the challenge for leaders.
But how soon do you think this opportunity would come?
I wish I were a prophet. I cannot specifically tell you one or two years. But Nigeria can surprise the whole world even within the mid-term frame. If the mindset and culture are corrected and the infrastructure is developed, Nigeria would surprise the world.
The growth rate of seven per cent would be a child’s play given the quality dexterity, the industry, expectation and the good life the average Nigerian wants. Open up the legitimate ways and tighten sanctions against the illegitimate ways. It is a law of nature. They would divert to the legitimate ways. You would be impressed that when you move out, even the so-called uneducated Nigerians, if you move to Surulere, Mushin etc and you see that the woman grinding pepper does that religiously. The vulcanizer in spite of nothing, is having a living. Why don’t we take advantage of that?
In all of this, what is the nation’s future?
It is very bright but we have teething problems that would question a lot of things. But it has to do with the first thing I told you. It is your mindset. What do you want? In terms of defining Nigeria, we look at the present, we are not very happy and it throws up a lot of opinions. Of course, there must be conversation. This is because nobody has got the correct answers. But we should not become a little bit cynical.