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Nigerian leadership problems can be traced to society's inequality

Nigerian leadership has a record of failure and the roots can be traced to Nigerian society, where echoes of slavery linger, guest blogger Jeremy Weate argues.

By Jeremy WeateGuest blogger / October 5, 2010

In this May 29, 2007 file photo, Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua, right, stands with Nigeria's former President Olusegun Obasanjo, left, and Nigeria's vice President Goodluck Jonathan, center, after they were sworn in at Abuja, Nigeria.

George Osodi/AP

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Abuja, Nigeria

The failure of leadership in Nigeria is so all pervasive and endemic it begs further analysis. Why do Nigerian leaders fail their constituents or members so consistently, in politics, in commerce and elsewhere? Why does almost every young hopeful end up being such a tawdry disappointment? It cannot simply be on account of a repetitious failure of personality, or a renewed shortfall of moral fibre. An individualistic explanation cannot suffice. But why then is leadership in Nigeria such a seemingly insurmountable challenge?

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Of the main routes into the seemingly impenetrable forest in search of the clearing of truth, one opportune path we might take is an examination of the master-slave relationship that is alive and well in Nigeria.

Lordship and bondage is the hidden seam running through all strata of Nigerian society. Of course, in the North, slavery has never entirely faded away; historically, the ‘abolition’ of the Saharan slave trade came much later (the early 20th century in certain areas) than in the Bights of Benin and Biafra. There were no British patrols of the Sahara equivalent to the ships that captured slaves setting out on the Middle Passage and dumped their cargo to fend for themselves in Sierra Leone. Indeed, some emirates still have what might considered as slaves who live in the palace compound – an echo of the formalized and seemingly ineradicable inter-generational slavery among the hausa in the Niger Republic, where at least 8 percent of the population are slaves.

Outside of the North, slavery often takes a more concealed form. To a foreigner, it can be distressing and embarrassing to glimpse. The quickest way to witness it is by observing how domestic staff (maids, househelps, drivers etc.) are treated by their employers. Apart from salaries, which, even when they are paid on time, guarantee a life of poverty, the verbal abuse can be so intense, it becomes a form of physical and psychological abuse. Sometimes, those who help run the house are treated as untouchables. They must eat from different plates, use separate cutlery and drink from separate glasses. I have met house helps who are allotted one day’s holiday a year. I have witnessed meguards being kicked and beaten. It is reminiscent of the treatment of Philipinos domestic staff in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

It seems to me that this state of affairs is often regarded as the natural order of things: some are born to own and control a household; others are born to clean it up in perpetuity. The pampered children of the elite are brought up with a sense that there are lesser humans among them. Other children are brought up with little sense of a destiny beyond the bondage of a life Sisyphus would recognise: the forever undone task of keeping the compound starched and clean.

It is this entrenched view of how a society should run itself that ruins many organisations in Nigeria. Those made to feel like underdogs will do their best to subvert the system and ensure it never quite works. How can those treated like house helps give their best? The battle at the higher levels to come out on top is intense. As soon as one edges one pay- grade above one’s peers, the licence to disparage and abuse is granted. In corporate Lagos, it is, of course, theajebutters, with their often hastily acquired British (or sometimes American) accents, who return home to become the new overlords and overladies of Ikoyi.

There is little chance in this culture for models of inspirational participatory leadership to emerge. The oga who rolls up his or her shirtsleeves to ensure the work gets done is laughed at. Those on the shop floor unconsciously require a leader who plays to the feudal baron role as expected – a sort of organisational Stockholm syndrome. This is how a society based on patronage and obsequiousness reproduces itself from generation to generation.

Until the "problem of leadership" is unpacked, and trite formulations are discarded in favour of unflinchingly honest analysis, it’s hard to see how highly efficient and productive value-enhancing organisations can flourish in Nigeria; it’s also hard to imagine that Nigeria will get the political leadership it so badly needs. The way those who work for us are treated is the form that leadership takes.

Jeremy Weate blogs at Casava Republic and Naijablog.

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