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‘Failure to bridge gap between rich and poor could be precursor to chaos’


Professor Anya Oko Anya

Prof. Anya Oko Anya is a renowned professor of Biology and currently the President of the Nigerian Prize for Leadership (NPL). He is a Chartered Biologist, Fellow and past Vice President of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Fellow of the Institute of Biology of the United Kingdom, Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society and former president, Union of African Biologists. Anya is the pioneer Director-General, Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG). In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO and IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, he shares his thoughts on the state of leadership in the country and how Nigeria can restrategise to groom better leaders for the future.

The Nigerian Prize for leadership that you are putting together with a few other eminent Nigerians, what is it all about, what do you intent to achieve?
I don’t think anybody is in doubt that Nigeria has for a long time disappointed many of its citizens and admirers round the world. But when you anaylse our history and every other thing, it is clear that where we have failed is in leadership. We have not always taken enough trouble to ascertain how best to teach and groom leaders. We have not even bothered about how best to institute our selection process. We have not even identified the values that are important in our society and therefore how do you approach your younger generation for them to imbibe those values? Because, if they are to become leaders, they are the ones that will give practical demonstration of what those values are. Instead, we have all kinds of thugs, cowboys and the rest of it that come and go. The worst part, of course, is that those who under normal circumstances will be natural leaders by preparation and attitude, have now become the ones standing on the sideline watching and even getting frightened to get involved because it has become so rough and at times violent. It can’t go on like that, so you have to start finding solutions.

You have to start first by underlining and bringing to attention what the values of the society are, because it is those values that allow you to decide what can be done and what cannot be done. In every society, there are things that are unthinkable; if you do them, you know immediately what the consequence will be.


Secondly, in any society, you have people who served and who have experience. They have seen the good and the bad; they have made mistakes and they now know what the mistakes are. Towards the end of their lives, which is where some of us are now, they have nothing more at stake. They can speak to anybody and can say anything and there is nothing you can do to them. They have enough experience to be able to tell society where they got it wrong, and they have the capacity to institute a mentoring programme, because in any society you must have role models. So, they become the role models that people can point to.

But the most important burden that is imposed on you when you get to that stage is the fact that you must produce a successor generation, because as they say, if you succeed without a successor, you haven’t succeeded. So, we must groom a new leadership, remind them what the values of the society are and what the vision is; because part of the problem now is that we are confused about what kind of country we want.

Some of us were involved in Vision 2010. In fact, I chaired the committee that wrote the report. Because of my involvement in Vision 2010, the people who did Vision 2020 consulted me and even co-opted me into one of the committees. So, I have seen where the hopes have been; I have also seen how they have been betrayed. So, that is the second leg – the mentoring programme.

You need now to start telling the younger leaders who have shown potential, ‘look, this far you don’t go beyond that because in the past, these are the consequences that befell people who went beyond that.’ So, you have to re-cultivate a sense of what is proper and right and what happens if you do well. You have to set out what the rewards can be if you do well and what the punishment can be if you fail to do well.

In every society, there must be incentives for good performance and when you are not fit to be rewarded, there ought to be sanctions. Where we are now, it is difficult to say where you can draw the line. This 2020 has told you the kind of billions people talk about. And I ask myself, do they really know what a billion can do? If you know what a billion can do in a society, you know that you don’t need that much to do the goods that need to be done. But that is a story for another day.

What are these values that have been lost and how do you intend to cultivate them through the Nigerian Prize for Leadership?
We will award a prize every year and whoever wins, everybody will see that the person is outstanding; not only in terms of ideas, but also in terms of competence and morality. So, you are as it were bringing to the attention of younger people new symbols for national pride, national measurement and so on. That is one. But they now constitute the kind of people that the younger generation should be emulating. But that is the final part of it. The real challenging part is to identify promising leaders, who are still there and to start guiding them and we are doing that.


Your submission here is that the problems of the country are rooted in leadership. Where did rain start beating us?
If we must be honest, we will start from the beginning; the seeds of failure were embedded in our history. I will approach it at two levels. We had a period when we came in contact with the white man; we got to the point where what he came to buy from us were not goods but our brothers, sons and daughters. So, you ask yourself, what kind of human beings were selling their brothers and sisters? Obviously, they were leaders of the society at that time, but what kind of leaders will do that? So, the slave trade thrived.
Then colonialism came. Colonialism also succeeded because there were Nigerian leaders, who were prepared to work with the colonialists. That phase passed.

Then we have gotten to the period we are in; we are in this present independent state. But when the leaders that emerged came on the scene, they inherited everything that the British gave as the structure of the society, including the values. They were so anxious that we become independent that they didn’t ask the basic questions that needed to be asked. We have come all the way together as a people; we have had relationships but each tribe was on their own. Now that we are involved in a common endeavour to build a nation, what kind of nation do we want? That is where we should have started. If we knew or agreed on the kind of nation we want, everybody will be committed to it because it has arisen out of a consensus; nobody will be looking at the other with suspicion.

Secondly, we did not interrogate what indeed the British were leaving for us. We accepted all of it, including the GRAs. We were proud that we were the leaders of our people when we were excluded from the people that we were supposed to be leading. We lived apart in GRAs, so, where do you develop that interaction that gives the aura of leadership, that gives commitment of the ordinary people to their leader, because they see their leader doing the things they want him to do. At the end of the day, the people you are leading are the important people, not you. So, we missed it there. We were now leading without even knowing the kind of country we wanted and without finding from our people what their needs were. So, how do you expect to have a successful nation when you don’t even have a clear picture of what you are building?

So what is the way forward?
That is where we are now. What it means is that Zik, Sardauna, Awolowo and Balewa did fantastic jobs in the circumstances of the time; they were the ones who liberated us from colonialism. They did not found Nigeria; those who will found Nigeria are still to come because those are the ones who will build it.

How do we prepare the way for these future builders of Nigeria?
History teaches that transforming a society is possible and it has been done. But it is usually done, not just by the run- of-mill leader, it has always been done by exceptional people – more intelligent, patriotic, determined than the average and with a spirit of compassion and passion for change. We found it in Mandela in South Africa, Gandhi in India, Atoturk in Turkey and you can go down the line. So, it’s not impossible; it has been done.


The other thing is that the period when it happens can be as short as 10 years; China proved that. The change we are seeing now in China took precisely 11 years. Yes, things are happening all the time, but those are the building blocks being put in place. There are usually contentions over it, but slowly, the change is coming and then a man comes who has a vision and knows what he is doing. That’s where we are now in Nigeria. Somebody will have to emerge.

The way it is now, it may have to be a group of people to start with, that will say, ‘enough is enough; we won’t go that way again.’ People will not be clapping for them or necessarily agree with them, because however bad a system is, when you want to change it, you will be opposed. Do you know why? It is because there will always be people, who are benefiting from that bad situation; they will fight you. Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world, but there are people who think the country has never been better than it is now, because the bad situation is giving them opportunities they did not have before.

You keep heaping the blame on the leadership of the country, what about the followers who don’t seem to hearken to whatever the government is saying?
It is not quite true that they care less; that will be a misreading of history. That is why values are important. What has happened is that we have gotten a generation of leaders, who have abused our values; the things that are not supposed to be done, they have been doing them and getting away with them. So, the ordinary man has gotten to the point that he no longer knows what to believe. What his father told him is no longer what holds before his eyes.

Some people say that the worst enemy of the poor is the poor. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it nevertheless has something to say to us. When a man has been brutalised to the point where he no longer has any hope for the future, when you come to tell him that this is the way to go, he will look at you; he has been betrayed before. What is the difference between you and the person who betrayed him yesterday? So, he is likely to keep you in view and take whatever he is seeing now. It is when you come, which is what we have not done, to start telling them what can be done and what should be done, and they actually see you doing it to your disadvantage, that they will begin to believe you.

Leadership must always involve sacrifice. If you are not willing to sacrifice for leadership, then don’t try; just mind your business and go when your God calls you back. But if you are going to lead, you must be prepared to sacrifice; you must be prepared to be misunderstood, but you have enough confidence in the path you are going that you keep on it. After sometime, you will get some disciples. As you recruit disciples, some will come with even more commitment and passion than you have. But they are prepared to defer to you as a leader. And you will start seeing a change.

Looking at the present crop of leaders at the helm of affairs in the country, do you see these qualities in them?
Buhari is the president. So as they say, all buck stops on his table. If things are well, we will be clapping for him; if not, he must take responsibility. I saw him where he gave his comments on the last Eid-el-Kabir and he was still talking about what he inherited. He has been in charge for five years. So, what the people before him did are no longer really relevant to deciding what is going on now. So, he finds it difficult to accept responsibility and a leader must accept responsibility for good, for bad and so on. But having recognised and accepted responsibility for what is not right, he must be prepared to make amends. But do you think he wants to make amends for anything?


From the three times that he has been visible at the national level, there is always somebody beside him, holding his hands and getting him to do things. When he was head of state, it was Tunde Idiagbon; when he was chairman of PTF, it was the Managing Director of the Afri Projects Consortium, Ahmad Salihijo. They were the one, who were the single consultant that ran everything. At the end of the day, we saw what the PTF did. A report later showed that more than 70 per cent of all that was done during that period was done was in the North. He has come again this time around. It has not been too obvious that he is in charge and we keep on hearing about a cabal and so on, which means that once more he has outsourced his authority to some people. If he has not, then he should have replied those who are saying that a cabal runs the place. And when he came, he spent the first three years saying what was wrong in Jonathan’s government. Surely, after three years, you would have corrected whatever was wrong. After five years, we should see your own hands.

What do you think the President should be doing for the next three years he will still be in charge?
You know he has a problem that I do not think can be solved in two years. Let me explain, a leader is not a leader unless there are people who follow you, and people who follow you do so because they trust you. In the case of our current leader, there is what I may call a trust deficit. There are things he will do meaning well for the country, but nobody will believe him. Do you know why?

When Lam Adesina was governor of Oyo State, Buhari as the patron of Miyetti Allah went to Adesina to ask why he was oppressing his people. If he is the patron of Miyetti Allah and the group is responsible for the things they have been responsible for in Nigeria, he would have come out and distanced himself clearly from them. He has not done that. So, there are people who cannot trust him sufficiently to say, ‘can I help’. That is one.

Also, if you remember, in Jonathan’s time, there was a time he made a speech where he said something that implied that if you are fighting Boko Haram, you are fighting the North. This is a group that is killing northerners and you say that those who want to fight them are fighting against the North. Which North? There are a few more examples of things he said in the past that until he makes a clear demarcation that the past is the past, his ability to mobilise everybody would be limited and that is where we are.

When he made his first appointments in 2015, out of 32, I think 27 went to the North. And then he buttressed it with the statement he made in the U.S. saying that those who gave him 95 per cent of the votes will get all the goodies. But when you become the president of Nigeria, you are president of everybody including those who hate you. They are still citizens. The challenge of leadership is for you to now say, ‘how do I bring these people to my side’. It is for you to judge whether he has made that effort.


So, when people say the South-South and Southeast are against him, I don’t see it as true. They are not against him, but are reacting to things he has done. Take for instance, the leadership of the security agencies. In the entire history of Nigeria, if anybody told you that a time would come when everyone of them is northerner you won’t believe it, because no Nigerian leader will think that way. And that is why they are failing because the people they have excluded are probably the people that have that little extra that if they add, the story will be different. So, when you exclude people you also exclude yourself. What I am saying is that in two years, if there is a change in his attitude, a lot can be achieved. But I don’t see that change coming soon.

There is an ongoing discourse now on whether or not Buhari’s successor should be determined by zoning or competence. How would you weigh in on the issue?
Nigerians amuse me. The way you define your priorities at any given time is always the way to sidetrack what the current problem on the table is. He has just done barely one year in his second term. But within three months of his returning to power people were already talking about 2023. Does it make sense?

A man came and gave you his manifesto of what he is going to do. He has done the ones he could do but there those he couldn’t do. At the end, have you evaluated what he did in his first four years? If you did, what is the advise you are giving him in this new four years that you people say you have given him. You would have thought that is the priority. But people are talking about 2023. It is as if once it comes to Buhari, people are prepared to suspend their thinking. That is not human.

When you now want me to get involved in whether it is competence or zoning that should determine his successor, when did the leaders of the North start thinking about competence? I have many friends in the North that are among the best in the world, but those are not the ones the northerners use for its leadership. But they are there. I don’t like chasing shadows; let’s solve the problems we have on the table. The correct solution of the problems on the table will determine what should come next.


In any case, given the COVID-19 pandemic and all that is happening in the world, do we know what will happen in the next three years? Can anybody, including Buhari, say for certain what he thinks will happen in the next three years? Thank God that Nigeria is a religious country; so we know there is a God. Do we know what God has planned for Nigeria in the next three years? We don’t! So, we should be looking at where are country is today. We are at war.

What should be Nigeria’s focus post COVID-19?
If anybody tells you that he knows what the post COVID-19 economy will look like, that person is not deceiving you; he I deceiving himself. It cannot be anything but guesswork for now. But there are two good things you can say. First is that science has developed what we call uncertainty principle, which means that it is possible to plan even in times of uncertainty. Out of that, what you do is scenario building – assume the worst, assume the way it is and assume the best. When you build scenarios of how things can pan out, which is what we can do now, you will find that when things start settling, one or two things may happen that will be an indication of which scenario is playing out. So, you now go back to your scenarios and say, ‘I had predicted that this might happen’ and start interrogating that scenario a bit more closely and put numbers to it. That is when you are starting to plan. That is what we can do now.

But there is a major problem we have now in Nigeria. The gap between the rich and the poor is now so wide that it is not going to be easy to bridge it.

That is actually what ought to be the preoccupation of our president now. Unless you start finding how to bridge it and start action on it, doing nothing could be the precursor to chaos. And if you watch this country, you will find that in many ways, it is only God that is keeping us because we are already in the midst of chaos.


In this article:
Anya Oko AnyaNESG
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