Monday, October 4, 2010

Moving from the Brink to the BRI(N)C (Part 4-End)

On the third day which was also to be the last day, we opened up with the theme of “The Role for the Future Leaders”. Starting with a December 2009 speech by another former US Ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, titled, “The Nigeria State and U.S. Strategic Interests”, Lyman suggests that rather than continually emphasize Nigeria’s strategic importance, it would behoove us to consider elements that might eventually lead to Nigeria’s irrelevance on the international stage.

He questioned the importance of the oft-repeated assertion that one in five Africans is Nigerian. To quote Lyman, “What does it mean that one in five Africans is a Nigerian? It does not mean anything to a Namibian or a South African. It is a kind of conceit. What makes it important is what is happening to the people of Nigeria. Are their talents being tapped? Are they becoming an economic force? Is all that potential being used? And the answer is “Not really.”

Debate around Lyman’s speech was animated, with most acknowledging his assertions, while some though agreeing that Lyman touched on several truths that we Nigerians ourselves continually rehash, saw his definition of a country's "relevance" as largely being limited to such country's relevance to the US (and the West), which is naturally to be expected from someone who has spent most of his productive life promoting US interests.

A 2008 article by Dele Olojede on a trip he took across Nigeria on his return from the US after spending 21 years away from Nigeria epitomizes the decay in infrastructure that Nigeria suffers from, as evident in the bad roads, and an abandoned railway infrastructure.

The Seminar ended with participants pledging to undertake a group project that will have a meaningful impact on Nigeria's future. Some of the projects that resulted from the 3-day seminar include Standup Naija; a grassroots election education campaign using impactful videos to highlight the expectations of average Nigerians in each state of the federation.

I elected to join the SGB Network which is a programme where NLI Associates partner with Government’s entrepreneurship scheme (and other credible partners) to provide a network of skilled business professionals who offer technical services to entrepreneurs. This aligned with my oft-repeated belief that Africa's problems are not going to be solved by governments or large multinationals, rather the solutions are going to come from the new wave of young men and women, armed with a burning resolve, and enabled by global networks developed through ICT; these are the people I refer to as Afropreneurs.

I left Lagos, eager to leave the power blackouts behind, with more questions than answers, but I left with a renewed sense of hope, a new network of young and passionate Nigerians, with whom I had developed a strong bond over those long hours of discussions and debates.
Though most of the participants were products of Ivy-League colleges and mostly from the USA and the UK, we all shared the common traits of having made great impacts in our various fields, we had all touched lives in our different locales, and we all had a burning desire to do right by Nigeria; we had all become part of the NLI family, united by shared ideals of values-based leadership.

As I fought my way through Customs at the Muritala Airport , explaining why I would not dole out some naira notes to avoid them screening the food I was carrying back to Houston, and why I had more than five pieces of the local attire, I felt a renewed sense of commitment to continue the process of envisioning a positive future for Nigeria and to wonder if rather than moving towards the brink ,like Ambassador Campbell had predicted, we had laid the foundation that would move Nigeria to join the BRI(N)C countries (Brazil, Russia, India, Nigeria?, China).

As I finish writing this, it is almost midnight, October 1 in Nigeria, and my country of birth would be turning 50. I have decided to follow the advice of my friend, Tolu Ogunlesi, 2009 CNN Africa Journalist of the Year, and also a graduate of the Future Leaders class in commemorating the 50th anniversary. I will offer one minute of silence in memory of the great things that Nigeria could have become, followed by one minute of applause for what she has overcome.

Idris Ayodeji Bello, a Social ‘Afropreneur’ (social entrepreneur with an African focus) with extensive experience in agriculture, technology, project management, consumer goods marketing (Procter & Gamble), and energy (Chevron USA) resides in Houston, Texas, where he is a 2011 MBA Candidate at the Jones Business School, Rice University.

Moving from the Brink to the BRI(N)C (Part 3)

Session Two started the next day with an attempt at, "Defining the Good Society" through a discussion of Aristotle's 'Nicomathean Ethics and Rhetoric' and Dele Olojede’s “Ask Nothing of God”. Aristotle had listed several criteria for determining what makes a good society, and had focused on happiness as an end in itself. We then struggled to relate Nigerians being adjudged as being the “happiest people in the world” by a 2003 BBC study to the reality of a society where nothing worked.
Some of us also found it difficult to reconcile Aristotle’s conclusion of a life of intelligence being the happiest, and hence leading to a good society, with the Nigerian situation. With so many educated citizens with advanced degrees, there seemed to be a negative correlation between the amount of intelligence and the good of society.

No reading could have done better justice to the Nigerian story like Dele’s keynote address at the 2005 NLNG Awards in Lagos titled “Ask nothing of God”. With another dubious report also finding Nigerians as the most religious people in the world, it is no surprise that the blame for every action or inaction is put at the feet of God.

Ask a Nigerian leader if he will be contesting an election, and he will mention God’s name. Ask him if he truly looted the treasury as accused, and he will mention God’s name. Ask the Nigerian citizen why he does not pay taxes, and he will thank God. Ask him why the government has not performed as promised, and he will blame God.

So while some participants disagreed with taking God completely out of the picture in Nigeria (I told you we are a very religious people), we could all nod our heads to Dele’s assertion that “That the citizen in Nigeria today lives in relative freedom does not mean he knows what to do with it. In fact, one often gets the impression that many Nigerians would rather not be free, scared as they are of freedom’s responsibilities. They grumble and complain about the flagrant inequities and outright robbery that unfold daily in full view, and they shrug and hope for some divine intervention, and fail to act to shape their own destiny. I have been looking out of the window in hopes of catching sight of this divine intervention, but perhaps my sight is poor. There is no cavalry out there riding to our rescue, ladies and gentlemen. We must face the cold hard fact that the world owes us nothing, and those who are not prepared to function in it will fall farther behind and become slaves to other races of men. It is neither fair nor unfair; it is just the way it is. As the line goes in the Merchant of Venice, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano…”….The Americans have this wonderful preamble to their constitution, a statement of their ambitions as a nation. Its phrasing is elegant and soaring. It rallies the citizens around a common purpose. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” That’s right, a more perfect union, a recognition that the task of improvement is never concluded, that a society must constantly strive towards the goal of insuring the common good….….So as we speak of the challenge of leadership as a catalyst for transformation, so must we examine the nature of today’s Nigerian, whose deep and self-destructive cynicism, as we have seen, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to change. ….We may consider a slight alteration to the famous passage in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, and say, my fellow countrymen and women: Ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Community and Efficiency was the theme for the third session and we had as text, 'The Man and His Ideas', an expose on Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore with the poser ‘Can Singapore's Experience Be Relevant to Africa? ’ We also had two papers by Peter Drucker which were: 'A Century of Social Transformation-Emergence of Knowledge Society' and 'The Coming of Entrepreneurial Society'.

This session was indeed full of debates as we marveled at Singapore where one man made all the difference and wondered where our own Lee Kuan Yew would emerge from. While being cautioned by the small size and monolithic nature of Singapore as compared to Nigeria, we were still able to relate to his challenge to Africans which he made in 1993 thus “From Africa must come a new generation of leaders, committed to reform, and tapping the same spirit that brought freedom 30 years ago. Angered by the failures of corrupt and autocratic leaders, frustrated by economic policies that did not deliver, impatient to recover their lost civil rights, and worn out by wars, Africa’s people are striving for a fresh start.” Needless to say, 13 years later, Nigeria does not seem to have heard his call.

As we read Peter Drucker’s words that there will be no “poor countries”, there will only be “ignorant countries”, we proffered ideas on what it would take to move Nigeria from the agrarian society in which it seemed stuck, to the knowledge society in which “practically every task is being performed in and through an organization”. Drucker advocated innovation and not revolution as a means of societal transformation, and pushed for the adoption of continuous learning and relearning as the key to an entrepreneurial society.

From Drucker, the discourse moved to the issue of Liberty while reading ‘Leviathan’ by Thomas Hobbes. According to Hobbes, in the interaction of men and the consequent competition for power, three major causes of quarrel exist: competition, diffidence and glory. The first make men to invade for gain, the second for safety and the third for reputation. We attempted to explore the Nigerian situation from the political class to the workers in a bid to understand the motivations for our various inactions, and unearth the reasons why ours was a country that was at standstill in terms of development.

Hobbes described the Nigerian situation aptly while talking about a society without the rule of law: “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”. No that wasn’t the Hobbesian jungle, more like the Nigerian jungle!

We quickly moved on to Karl Popper’s 'The Paradoxes of Sovereignty', a critique of Plato‘s idea of trusting leadership unto the wisest. For Popper, as we could also observe in the Nigerian situation, you always have to assume the worst, and hope for the best when it comes to choosing leaders. Hence the focus should be on building the appropriate institutions and not solely on finding the ‘wisest people”.
Hence as Nigerians, rather than asking who should rule, more appropriately, we ought to be asking “how can we organize political institutions such that bad and incompetent rulers could be prevented from doing too much damage?”

Milton Friedman's “Capitalism and Freedom” provided the opportunity for us to discuss the role of government in Nigeria. How much government was too much government? Was government doing enough? Or was it doing too much in the wrong places? It was a paradox that while government seemed to be involved in everything in Nigeria, at the same time, there seemed to be an absence of government in every sphere of human life in the country.

It reminded me of a quote I had seen on Mark Hammond’s motorcycling blog, “It wasn’t just the highways and cities of Nigeria that didn’t make sense. The whole country was a knot of contradictions -- upside down and inside out, like the black and white negative of an old Kodak filmstrip. Nigeria is crisscrossed by more power lines than a Godzilla movie, yet electric service is sporadic across the nation. It is Africa’s largest oil-producing nation, yet fuel stations were often empty of gasoline and diesel and kerosene, or jammed with long queues of waiting vehicles.” Such was the paradox of the Nigerian situation.

As we moved on to 'Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade-Off' by Arthur Okun, we started discussing on the appropriate type of leadership desirable for Nigeria. Did we want a benevolent dictator or an uncaring democrat? Each participant had to mount the podium and explain what he thought was the most fitting trade off for the Nigerian society between equality, efficiency, and liberty. There were some funny comments that the average Nigerian needed efficiency and not liberty, because he wouldn’t know what to do with it.

While each of us came to different conclusions, we were able to vigorously debate the kind of leakages in government in Nigeria, and whether we could truly achieve market place efficiency without rule of law.

Our discussion of leadership would not have been complete without a review of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, and in no time the discussion had shifted to the styles of leadership by two of Nigerian’s past leaders; late General Sani Abacha , and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. While we all started off condemning Machiavellian tactics, the discussion finally got round to some people agreeing that sometimes, you need a little of Machiavelli to rule people in a place like Nigeria.

What do you do when your personal principles contradict with public expectations of you as a leader? George Orwell's story: ‘Shooting an Elephant’ was the opportunity to launch into a passionate discussion about this.

As a colonial officer in Burma, Orwell recalled a day when an elephant ran wild, entered the village and was wrecking havoc. Villagers had reported and Orwell, who was disliked as was any colonial officer, was called upon to intervene. Picking up his gun, he went to the scene and he was followed by a large crowd which kept increasing, awestruck by his gun which they expected him to use in killing the elephant that was actually tame.By the time he got to the animal, however, he realized there was no point in killing the elephant that had survived its attack of 'must', the temporary madness that made it to misbehave initially. But the crowd was restless and he could see their expectation: they wanted him to fire the animal and even when he really had no desire to do so, he eventually ended up shooting and killing the elephant to. This led us into a discussion of some actions we had taken, not out of personal conviction, but due to the expectations of our spouses, friends, communities, followers and ‘crowds’. Interestingly, some of the participants denied having ever had to shoot elephants, while some moralized that the elephants they shot had actually deserved to die anyway.

The lesson from Nelson Mandela's 'Long Walk to Freedom' which we moved through more quickly than I would have loved, was that while leaders like Mandela arrive on the scene (after years of sacrifice and risking their lives), we really did not need a Mandela in Nigeria for things to be right again.

In ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, we are quickly introduced to Omelas, a small city where everyone is happy and prosperous; and you wonder, what could be more perfect? But for the community to exist in this lala land, its members must accept the abominable suffering of a single child locked up in a basement. Most people succeed in averting their gaze from the suffering child, because they feel they are having a lot of fun living, and moralize away the child’s suffering. Very few are those who walk away, and even for those, one is not sure if it is due to a sense of moral integrity, a troublesome conscience, or simply an acceptance of cowardice.

We quickly drew similarities between Omelas and the suffering in the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria’s oil is found, and the attendant under-development of the area. We discussed about the Nigerian super-elite, who live luxuriously in the midst of poverty. There are stories about local government officials who meet monthly under a tree to ‘share’ the allocations meant for the local government while the town goes to waste. We quickly realize that while predictions like those of former Ambassador John Campbell sound too ominous and ill-willed, we might truly be dancing to the brink, unless we are able to quickly recognize that the task before us is to fix a failed state where the government does not work for a vast majority of the people.

If I could pick just one reading that truly resonated with me throughout the seminar, it would be Leo Tolstoy’s 'How Much Land Does Man Need?', the story of a poor but apparently contented farmer who due to a lack of core values was led into abandoning his peaceful existence and seeking lustfully after wealth through the acquisition of acres and acres of land beyond his wildest imagination.

Naturally, at the end of the story, the farmer’s obsession for wealth and lack of self discipline led him literally “six feet down”, and by the time he realized that he only really needed six feet of land, it was too late. While it was easier to relate the story to the unbridled quest for embezzling Nigeria’s wealth by both current and past leaders, it was even more rewarding for each one of us to inwardly ruminate over this story and realize that we would all at the end of our lives only need six feet of land, but then below the ground.

Day Two was rounded off with some poem readings by Dele Olojede which centered on the themes of leadership, man’s struggles on earth, and what type of legacies we all planned to leave behind.

Moving from the Brink to the BRI(N)C (Part 2)

I checked in at the Protea Oakwood Hotel in Lekki, the next morning, as our accommodation had been wholly sponsored by the First Bank of Nigeria. It was two people to a room, and I met Chude Jideonwo, an editor at Nigeria’s NEXT newspapers, and one of the organizers of the recent Enough-is-Enough rally in Lagos and Abuja, which had been organized to demand for more responsible leadership in the country.

Over lunch, we got introduced to the other participants and facilitators. We had for facilitator, Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former foreign editor for Newsday. The only African-born Pulitzer Prize winner, Dele had won the award for his coverage of the Rwandan genocide. Dele was assisted by Reuben Abati, chairman of the editorial board of Guardian Newspapers and winner of the Fletcher Challenge Commonwealth Prize for Opinion Writing in 2000.

The reception and welcome speeches over Thursday evening, the seminar kicked off with a viewing of the film, Ghandi, a 1982 biographical film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century. The film begins with Gandhi's assassination, and then the story flashes back 55 years to a life-changing event: in 1893, Gandhi is thrown off a South African train for being an Indian sitting in a first-class compartment despite having a ticket. Realizing the laws are biased against Indians, he then decides to start a non-violent protest campaign for the rights of all Indians in South Africa. After numerous arrests and unwelcome international attention, the government finally relents by recognizing rights for Indians, though not for the native blacks of South Africa.

What followed was an attempt to identify the pivotal points of Gandhi’s life and an attempt to focus on the qualities of leadership that were essential to his mission. As the participants rattled off quality after quality, Dele attempted to bring us closer home to Nigeria, and see if we could identify any parallel in the journey of Nigeria up to this point.

One of the most eye-opening points for me was when participants were asked to mention one person, dead or alive that they admired as a leader, and the quality that they admired in that person. Responses ranged from Mandela, to Malcolm X, to Obama, and Hilary Clinton. Out of the 33 participants, only two individuals mentioned a Nigerian name, and even at that, none of the names mentioned were those of our past or current rulers. Dele was quick to point this out and wonder why we were a nation that never seemed to put its best food forward. This was followed by contentious discussions about the similarities and differences between the India of Ghandi and the Nigeria that was ours.

After a short break, Session One, "Nigerian History and Status" commenced with popular constitution lawyer, Asue Ighodalo leading a discussion of Nigeria’s history prior to its conception, through its infancy, and up to the current moment. He attempted to identify the various points of inflexion in our journey where we could have made the right decision but often ended up on the wrong side of history. He then posed the question of whether the elections of 2011 would be another inflexion point and whether we were going to take the right turn at that point in time.

Another defining moment came when we were introduced to the October 1, 1960 independence speech delivered by Nigeria’s then Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. As a naturalized American citizen, I knew almost every word of the American ‘Declaration of Independence’, and yet this was the first time in my 30 years of existence that I had ever come across the text of the Nigerian ‘Declaration of Independence’, it seemed I was beginning to understand some of the roots of the Nigerian problem. I even wondered how many of our leaders, past and present, had ever seen this text.

Permit me to quote some memorable parts of that Independence speech delivered about fifty years to this day.

“This is a wonderful day, and it is all the more wonderful because we have awaited it with increasing impatience compelled to watch one country after another overtaking us on the road when we had so nearly reached our goal. But now we have acquired our rightful status and I feel sure that history will show that the building of our nation proceeded at the wisest pace: It has been thorough, and Nigeria now stands well built upon firm foundations.”

A couple of thoughts struck me at this point, as I wondered at the happiness with which it seemed our people had embraced independence, I wondered how firm the foundations had really been, such that only half a century later, it seemed as if the house was about to fall upon itself. But then I continued to read.

“Each step of our constitutional advance has been purposefully and peacefully planned with full and open consultation between representatives of all the various interests in Nigeria but in harmonious co-operation with the administering power which has today relinquished its authority.”

The above part went against the grain of the struggles in the Niger Delta and other parts of the country since independence for open consultation about the future of the nation, that I was beginning to wonder if the Prime Minister was talking about a different country. But then he continued.

“We are called upon immediately to show that our claims to responsible government are well-founded, and having been accepted as an independent state we must at once play an active part in maintaining the peace of the world and in preserving civilization. I promise you, we shall not fail for want of determination.”

Now in all my years of living in Nigeria, I had never witnessed a government that could lay claim to being responsible, or one that seemed to show any sign of determination (except to plunder).

Permit me to mention here also, that the speech in my view failed to properly establish a clear vision for the new nation that was being built and the terms upon which it was to exist.

Maryam Uwais, foremost constitution lawyer and female activist also led us through a brief review of the Nigeria Electoral Reform and Constitution, which like most noble initiatives had been mired in such controversy that it died in the legislative chambers as it sought to make the electoral playing field more level, a situation that most of the representatives obviously had no incentive to encourage.

Moving from the Brink to the BRI(N)C (Part 1)

May 25, 2010 found me on my way to Lagos enroute Paris aboard an Air France flight. It was going to be my first trip in four years, and my second in all the seven years I had spent outside of Nigeria. My last trip in 2006 had been a business trip to deliver some training at the Lagos office of the energy company that I worked for.

Those seven years outside the shores of Nigeria had seen me always thinking and talking about Nigeria, spending every morning digesting the contents of Nigerian newspapers online, and weekends with friends lamenting the decline of the giant of Africa into the abyss of irresponsible leadership and a state of anarchy where nothing worked.

Every news item that came out of Nigeria seemed to bring another gloomy event, and I had gotten close to giving up on Nigeria when I received an invite early this year from the Nigerian Leadership Initiative (NLI) to participate in the May 2010 Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI) Future Leaders residential seminar. The invite stated that “you have been invited to join 32 other highly motivated, high achieving successful young Nigerians from Nigeria and the Diaspora between the ages of 23-35 years who are believed to be uniquely qualified to influence the future development of the Nigerian society through values-based leadership. The 3-day seminar promises to provide an opportunity to sharpen your leadership skills and reflect on your role as a future Nigerian leader; as well as on the type of society you would like to see created in Nigeria. It will also, we hope, spur you to a commitment to action.”

As had become my attitude with all things Nigerian, I had learnt to take such promises with a pinch of salt. Every Nigerian leader in the past had promised heaven and earth, and had failed to deliver on their promises. Several programs had been spawned, with several visions, and they usually ended up as just talk shops.

Researching the program, I found that the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI) was established in January 2006 by Mr. Segun Aganga, an M.D at Goldman Sachs U.K (now Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Board of the Bretton-Woods Institutes, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)), while the founding Patron was Dr. Christopher Kolade CON, former Nigerian High Commissioner to the U.K and former Chief Executive, Executive Chairman and Chairman (non-executive) of Cadbury Nigeria Plc. On further research, the NLI prided itself as an international non-profit, non-partisan organization registered as a charity in Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It touted itself as a platform for credible, accomplished and uniquely patriotic Nigerians to develop and express values-based leadership skills with the aim of assuming a transformative role in the continuous development of Nigeria.

I was however especially drawn by its affiliation with the Aspen Global Leadership Network, which I was familiar with. I was also intrigued by its goal of blending the lines between citizenry and leadership to enhance engagement, moving Nigerians from “Thought to Action…Success to Significance“, so I had accepted the invite and decided to attend the seminar.

I arrived at the Muritala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, the afternoon of May 26, and if anything, it appeared to be in a worse shape than I remembered four years earlier. On exiting from the plane, we were assailed with a blast of hot air, and I was horrified to learn that the air-conditioning in the airport had been out for a while. As if that was not enough, the escalators were not in working condition, and every one of us regardless of their physical condition had to drag their hand luggage down the escalator-turned-stairs. I did not even bother to ask if there were working elevators.

After an hour of waiting for my checked luggage, I finally left the airport happy that my luggage had all arrived in obviously good condition, which I had been warned not to take for granted. My mother-in-law was outside to pick me up ,and after some demands from some of the airport staff for what I had ‘brought’ for them, even if it was only chocolate, to which I replied I only had chewing gum, which to my delight was declined, we were off in Lagos traffic.

I had planned to spend the first night in Lagos with my in-laws as my seminar was not starting till the next day at noon. My in-laws had a palatial house located in the Bariga side of Lagos State. On our way home, I was able to confirm the good news that I had heard over the past 3 years of the wonderful performance of Lagos’s young governor, Babatunde Raji Fasola, and it gave me some renewed hope that things could still work in Nigeria. However, as we drove closer home, the roads around the Palmgrove-Ladilak route seemed to have missed the attention of the governor. I am not sure if the road is a federal, state or local road (as that can mean a world of difference in terms of what road is repaired), but I do know the ride closer home was really painful.

On getting home, there was no electricity, despite the promise to declare an emergency in the power sector by successive Nigerian leaders, but trust my in-laws; they were not going to allow NEPA (the electricity authority) to ‘disgrace’ them in front of their American son-in-law. They already had two generators lined up, and filled up with diesel (which had been procured after spending several hours in line)to ensure I did not spend the night in darkness, and had already taken precautions to ensure that my peaceful sleep was not interrupted by mosquitoes eager for all the good things in my ‘Texan’ blood.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Goodluck Prayer

Our President, who art in Aso Rock

Goodluck be thy Name,

thy promotion come,

thine will be done,

in Lagos as it is in the Niger Delta.

Give us this day 24 hours power supply

And forgive us our expectations,

as we forgive you for your double promotion

Lead us not into Visionless 2020, but deliver us from PDP.

For thine is the Presidency,

the convoy, and the glory,

for now until Umoru returns (if ever). Amen.

Idris Bello- February 2010