There is something of a surprise that someone who guards his image as carefully as Prof Attahiru Jega would choose to set national leadership criterion that does out rightly favour the incumbent although it does not attack the incumbent directly either. But calling for competent rather than a strong leadership for Nigeria as Jega has just done at the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, (NBA) can only mean that what exists does not fall in that category or there would have been no need to stress the distinction. That could be risky under a regime armed with a rule book in which national security can overwrite the law. Is it possible that things are so bad that certain persons cannot help speaking up? Not quite two weeks ago, the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, (SCDDD) asserted that “if the path of development through democracy is to be guaranteed, recent developments in the polity purported dangers that all men of goodwill must strive to avert”. It shredded the perception that a centre run by the former foreign affairs minister of President Buhari would afford to close its eyes to the indicators. It would appear the gloves are coming off. Of course, that could be a wrong reading of the whole thing.
But what might a competent leader or president mean as to be distinct from the strong leader? The competent leader concept is certainly a much newer one than the strong leader that has been well argued and even fought for. There is still no better source of the wisdom in this regard than former Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, whose standpoint is that achieving development and democracy simultaneously is not possible because the process of transferring agricultural surplus to get the industries off the ground can be so involving and delicate for the country. So the state, preferably guided by the strong leader, must be at the battlefront of production, marketing and perhaps consumption or industrialisation would suffer in the hands of saboteurs. For Yew who is late now, democracy at this point in a nation’s life is a luxury because democracy tends to be a game of musical chairs – who should sit here, why?, for how long; who should sit there, why and for how long. In a particular interview with The Economist, Yew cited democracy as the reasons why The Philippines and India had not developed as much as Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and China, the late comer in the game. This is the classic argument for the strong state/strong leader or, if you want to follow standard Political Science lexicon, the developmental state.
In the case of East Asia, democracy was rejected for the additional reason that it is the anti-thesis of Asian values. Africa followed that direction substantially. In fact, almost all the first generation African leaders, even in Nigeria, accepted and operationalised the developmental state credo. That is how Nigeria got anything at all from Independence. The tragedy in the case of Africa came from the dynamics of the Cold War which aborted the promise in Developmental Statism as one set of ill-prepared soldiers overthrew one post-independence leader one after the other. How far this explains the difference between the developmental state in East Asia and Africa remains a debate since coups did not stop the advance of the developmental state in East Asia. So, very much unlike Africa, East Asia was fully prepared to engage with globalisation in the aftermath of the Cold War. Africa was totally unprepared. It neither had the quality of education required for that nor the infrastructure and certainly not the institutions, the productivity or the political leadership.
The continent has remained lost in rising poverty, de-industrialisation and collapse of infrastructure, aggravated by the ideological blindness of the political leadership. Everywhere across the continent, there is violence, chaos and a sense of loss. The confusion ensuing from this situation has centralised a new focus on leadership types. There are those such as Barack Obama for whom the answer is strong institutions. There are others such as President Buhari who argue for strong leaders through whom the West got the strong institutions in the first case. Now, Prof Jega is departing from all of that and saying that neither strong institutions themselves nor the strong leader would do. For him, it is the competent leader.
But, when is a leader competent and how might the nation know a competent leader when it sees one? Rationalists would say a simple background check can reveal a competent fellow. But does the past repeat itself? The past does not and over-reliance on background check can lead to a dud cheque of leadership.
Is it possible Jega feared being accused of making a case for himself by not pushing his argument further to say that if Nigeria wishes to get out of the developmental mess it finds itself, then it must take seriously the case of fishing out and voting for an ideologue. He might have been sensitive to such mischievous reading at a time when there are, indeed, very few credible activists or ideologues as most of them who went into government between 1985 and today came out morally and ideologically compromised. That might explain why Jega is not recommending the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) approach to leadership recruitment to Nigeria. That is the approach of a thorough going search party to fish out what someone has called a quality individual, right or left wing, who can win the type of elections that define democracy in Nigeria today. Otherwise, everyone knows now how nearly impossible it would be to re-invent leadership in Nigeria today through this freewheeling democracy. And if any leader in the present degree of simply unspeakable rottenness can be competent.