There are takeaway governance lessons for the world, in particular the Nigerian political leadership in the flourish of executive energy with which the new American President, Joe Biden, has tackled his assignment so far. Only a week and two days old in office, Biden through a sheaf of Executive Orders conveying focused policy decisions, cabinet appointments, and political gestures flashing a new direction Biden is fast closing the page on former president Donald Trump’s baleful legacy. Yes, these are early days and definitive judgments are obviously premature, but the new president has packed so much into a few days that hardly any one is in doubt that he came to office prepared to govern and to turn things around.
By contrast, our leaders spend time celebrating their election triumphs, set up transition committees which gulp down a lot of time and money as well as make cabinet appointments which arrive several months, sometimes over a year into their tenure. As this columnist had occasion to point out, several governors and other elected leaders had little or nothing to show for their first 100days after the elections of February- March 2019.
Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, had famously written that the problem with Nigeria is leadership. Very true, but leadership failure as I have often maintained is a global pandemic though its effects, and repercussions differ widely from clime to clime, depending on the vitality of institutional and civic shock absorbers as well as safety nets for remedying its widespread occurrence. The Trump misadventure which as British journalist, and author, Patrick Cockburn, aptly put it, brought the United States to the very brink of becoming an illiberal democracy, is a case in point. Whoever thought it would ever come to that, in God’s own country.
Look at Boris Johnson’s England, where hardly anyone pretends that there is a competent prime minister in place. Was it not only a few months back that Guardian (London) columnist, Andy Beckett, wrote scathingly that “the list of Boris Johnson’s failures- over coronavirus and in just about any other policy area- gets longer every week. Ministers are objects of mockery and contempt”. Consider too, that Johnson became Prime Minister just after the lacklustre tenure of Theresa May, suggesting that there is a stretch on that Island of visionless leadership. Across the English Channel, the French are not doing any better. Emmanuel Macron who holds the record of becoming France’s youngest president at 39 has had his approval rating eroded from 66% when he was elected in May 2017 to a dismal 45% earlier this month.
Recall that Macron’s predecessor, under whom he served, Francois Hollande, was not exactly a capable president either meaning that, like the British, the French have experienced a run of incompetent leadership. These facts are brought up to put in context the phenomenon of incompetent and mediocre leadership which afflicts not just Nigeria, though its Nigerian occurrence, is particularly severe, but many countries around the globe, including developed democracies.
Against this backdrop, Biden’s effort to turn the tide not just in his country but also globally is significant. Nigerian leaders should strive to learn not from the distressing examples, but from the edifying ones such as the new American president. For example, is it not revealing that Biden had decided on and announced key cabinet appointments not after taking the oath of office but while he was president-elect? Is that not what preparedness for high office means?
Take into account too, that in order to properly address the COVID-19 pandemic which is perhaps today, America’s number one problem, Biden had prepared a 200-page document, entitled, “National Strategy For The COVID-19 Response And Pandemic Preparedness”. It was based on this meticulous planning that he announced that in his first 100days, he would deliver 100 million vaccines to embattled citizens. The issue here is not whether, as some have pointed out, the benchmark is not audacious enough, given the magnitude of the problem, but that the president had thought through the issues and came up with tenable answers even before he assumed office.
Part of the failures of leadership and governance in Nigeria, is that our leaders worry about winning elections and come to office engaging in guessing games about what to do with the power they have got. Too often and in just about every policy area, there is this hang of unpreparedness and casualness about policy decisions. That was not always the case for we once had leaders like Aminu Kano, Obafemi Awolowo, and Nnamdi Azikwe, who came to office not just with policy agenda but also with messages they had come to deliver to the people. Leadership diminution is a particular feature of the Fourth Republic and appears to be getting worse by the day as our presidents are getting more and more anonymous because they have replaced policymaking with policy committees on a myriad of subjects waiting for attention. These days, unlike in Biden’s America, and our own better days, we hardly now know what our president really thinks about issues.
On too many governance departments, there is terrifying silence. Recently, in the context of the ongoing cascading insecurity in South-West Nigeria, a professor of strategic studies stated in a video that has gone viral that when professionals and business people were murdered callously in the Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State, nothing was heard from the federal, state, or local governments. Only after the Sunday Igboho occurrence erupted did the government suddenly come alive to outlaw his activities and to slate him for arrest.
In other words, convenient amnesia and sleep walking have almost become the character of our government, especially at the national level. If we are serious about reinventing governance, then elected leaders must borrow a page from Biden’s playbook of hitting the ground running by getting to work, not months after they have been elected but while they were waiting to take office.
Obviously, the remarkable tempo of governance in the United States is partly the product of a determination to renew the promise of democracy blighted by the scourge of the Trump dictatorship, partly an outcome of the Rooseveltian legacy of signalling policy turnaround in the first 100 days and partly the election of a personality with a sense of history. It is not clear for how long Nigerians will continue to wallow in the current unhappy and unsatisfactory character of governance, riding on a riot of campaign promises that goes unfulfilled. The presidency, it must be emphasized, is the preeminent institution of government, holding awesome powers to unleash, delay or abort meaningful change. Nigerians can no longer afford to hand that institution over to any one without conscious forethought of how that power will be used.
Biden could have spent time lamenting how woeful the Trump era was, sketching out how he will not be able to do anything because Trump had messed up the country. We can no longer tolerate a situation in which elected leaders come to office to blame past leaders instead of revealing how they hope to make a difference. This is the time to make change not just a slogan but a real event.
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