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Personal interest: The bane of leadership

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Taiwo Odukoya

I recently stumbled on the text of a conversation between a Nigerian diplomat, Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, and Nelson Mandela back in 2007. He had waited for a long time to meet the foremost African freedom fighter and, finally, he had his day. It was not an official meeting; all he wanted was to pay his personal respects to this great son of Africa. But it was obvious the old man was still carrying about a great burden, particularly concerning Nigeria.

“You know,” he said, “I am not very happy with Nigeria. I have made that very clear on many occasions. Nigeria stood by us more than any nation, but you let yourselves down and Africa and the black race very badly. Your leaders have no respect for their people. They believe that their personal interests are the interests of the people. They take people’s resources and turn it into personal wealth. There is a level of poverty in Nigeria that should be unacceptable.”

Ironically, what Mandela said about Nigeria in 2007 is the story of virtually every African country, including today’s South Africa. It is the story of a people with great potential but whose collective power and influence have been contained by the rapaciousness or self-centredness of a few indifferent leaders. It is worrisome and saddening that the goodwill Nigeria enjoyed, particularly among African countries and the comity of nations generally in the not-too-distant past, has not in any way translated to tangible benefits for her people. On the contrary, those who looked up to her for leadership on the continent and everywhere else have been largely disappointed (according to Mandela). And it is all because those who are entrusted with power use it to oppress the masses, subjugating national interest to personal interests.

As the labour leader and activist Cesar Chavez once said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

The question now is: Can our country ever rise above the level of ‘great potential’ to anywhere near the actualisation of same? The story of the Japanese Prince, Shotoku Taishi, who issued Japan’s first constitution may provide some food for thought. In Article 1, he declared that wa (literally translated as harmony), the principle of subordinating individual interest to the good of the community, was to occupy a central place in Japan’s value system. Centuries after, following decades of internal conflict, natural disasters and the devastating effects of the Second World War, wa has remained the key moral principle of political and business leadership, suffusing family values and everyday life in Japan.

Individuals who deviate from the principle of wa to further personal aims are met with the open disapproval of family, superiors and colleagues. Japanese businesses, in keeping with the ideal, often give employees lifetime careers and rewards to groups rather than individuals, in furtherance of the principle of community. Historians and sociologists acknowledge the important role Japan’s prioritisation of community interest has played in giving it a place on the world stage. The truth is, we have so much inherent capacity to put Africa and the entire black race on the map of global achievements, but an entrenched value system that encourages fraud by the ruling class has made us a symbol of everything that is wrong with the black race. Every article we write and every issue we discuss points back to the same problem—the pursuit of personal and sectional interests above the common good.

Nigeria Has A Great Future!



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