Leadership In A Crisis/

In his book, “From Third World to First, The Singapore Story,” former Singapore leader Lee Kwan Yew (LKY) revealed how his country’s development miracle, including the forging of a nation out of a disparate assemblage of immigrants, was accomplished in one generation.  

It is a big book, nearly 700 pages long.  But is a riveting, word by word account of how it was done, and how it can be done. 

How?  A leadership of character and a sense of mission. 

Among his many experiences of his years as Prime Minister, LKY, who died in 2015, writes candidly about his country’s relationship with international bodies, such as the Commonwealth, of which Singapore became the 22nd member in 1965.

In January 1966, he found himself in Lagos, at a meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers called by Nigerian leader Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Those who know Nigerian history will immediately recognize that date.  LKY arrived at the Lagos airport with several other Commonwealth leaders on the same flight, he said, noting of their trip to the Federal Palace Hotel that the Nigerian capital looked like a city under siege. 

Of the banquet the night before the meeting, LKY sat opposite Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, and wrote impressions and one particular remark it is impossible to forget. 

“He was going to retire soon, [Okotie-Eboh] said.  He had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory.  As finance minister, he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes. [Singapore Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam] and I were incredulous.  Chief Festus had a good appetite that showed in his rotund figure, elegantly camouflaged in colourful Nigerian robes with gold ornamentation and a splendid cap.  I went to bed that night that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.”

That was in 1966.  A different set of people playing to a different set of rules.

Only days later, Nigeria suffered its first military coup.  “Three days after we arrived in Accra, we were told by our hosts that there had been a bloody coup in Lagos.  Prime Minister Abubakar had been assassinated and so had Chief Festus.”

Gone was a finance minister who did not mind bragging to foreign leaders he didn’t know personally that he had established a tax on imported shoes in order to benefit his private business!

Of the coup, LKY noted that it had been led by “an Ibo army major from eastern Nigeria” who said “he wanted to get rid of rotten and corrupt ministers and political parties…”

A different set of people playing to a different set of rules.  Rotten and corrupt ministers and political parties. 

Fifty-four years later, sadly, nothing has changed.  The military came, went and then came again until it had merged into the political establishment.  Frontline figures of the military landscape have become the leading lights in the elongation of Nigeria’s journey to nowhere. 

Think about it: it may look like a lifetime ago, but it is earlier this month I was reflecting on Nigeria’s leadership vacuum, lamenting President Muhammadu Buhari’s nonchalance, and affirming that a country without a leader has no future. 

“Leadership is when the leader can define what a problem and what is being done about it, including adjustments to policy,” I wrote.  “For Buhari, power was the objective, and is the end.  Even after five years, he cannot demonstrate his grasp of, or response to any Nigerian challenge.”

At that time, on March 1, the coronavirus challenge had not challenged Nigeria.  In the past three weeks, however, it has become the most important health and economic issue since Nigeria became an independent country.

Internationally, coronavirus was declared a pandemic, following which country after country went into full-scale battle mode as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a major crisis ahead.

In other words, the moment arrived for Buhari to shine, by asserting himself with imagination, energy and commitment. 

But the Nigerian leader, famous for bragging before the 2015 election about how he would “lead from the front,” immediately went into hiding. 

He said not a word to his country, unless you count his spokesman on March 1 urging “caution.”

Several African leaders took command, announcing aggressive and restrictive measures against the pandemic, including barring large public gatherings, limiting air travel, closing schools and shutting borders. 

On March 12, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana addressed his country for the first time, although Ghana had no confirmed case at that time, and announced the first set of measures against the pandemic.

Three days later, he addressed the country again, by which time six confirmations had been made, and announced additional measures.   

Uganda for its part, banned religious gatherings and weddings, although it had yet to record a single coronavirus case.  

Sadly, Buhari said not a word despite Nigeria’s vast population and an economy that was already taking a hammering: the naira steadily depreciating and the oil market in distress. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Akufo-Addo had appointed an expert: Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, a former WHO Deputy Director-General, to head his government’s Coronavirus Response Programme; to the same position, Buhari appointed Boss Mustapha, the secretary to the government. 

One of the reasons that true leaders step forward in moments such as this is to limit panic, but also to focus and energize the national response.  A leader gives face and voice to national efforts, which no other official or citizen can do. 

Last Wednesday, WHO specifically warned African countries to prepare for the worst-case scenario, Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus calling on Africa to ‘wake up,’ as he emphasized that the spread of the virus accelerates after a certain point.

Still, Buhari said nothing. But Nigeria is not just another country.  Nigeria has a vast population of over 170 million.  Her economy is fragile.  Her towns and cities are overcrowded.  Her infrastructure is poor.  Her medical services— particularly in the area of emergency response—are almost non-existent, and her police is an affront to the notion of policing. 

It is also important to remember that despite the current border closure, Nigeria is a principal player in West Africa, her citizens prominent in every country. 

In other words, Nigeria is a country that cannot afford the kind of prospects that coronavirus threatens.  With no leadership and no preparation, this disease that can wipe out half of Nigeria’s urban population in one year. 

The good news is that it is impossible for this to be business as usual.  Under normal circumstances, Nigeria’s privileged would be heading out of the country, and Buhari himself would escape to his favorite city, London. 

What the coronavirus menace really means is that at this moment, Nigerians, high and low, rich and poor, are caged in the same zoo. 

And because of a different set of people playing to a different set of rules and rotten and corrupt leaders and political parties, and problems that have therefore cross-multiplied for 60 years, we may now pay a very heavy price. 

Still, it is not too late for Buhari to step forward and save his country…personally.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].