Nigeria’s Renewed Optimism and the Role of Catalytic Leadership

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Here is the summary: before the 28th of March 2015, Nigerians could be classified as an unhappy and distressed group of people. This was not just a passing wave of depression; the national mood had been continually dampened by wave after wave of Boko Haram attack in the north and the growing suspicion that the deadly group could strike somewhere else in the country. Nigeria was equally tense because of the failure of the federal government and military to re-capture the over 200 kidnapped girls from Chibok in April 2014, the recent sharp decline in the value of the national currency, the evident ineptitude of the Goodluck Jonathan led-government, and the sudden postponement of national elections by six weeks apparently to ‘fight Boko Haram’.

However, since the 28th of March, life has returned to Nigeria; everyone seems optimistic about the country’s future and the national mood can be best described as boisterous. The obvious reason for the quick turnaround is the crumble of the much-talked-about power of incumbency and the emergence of an opposition party candidate as president. Goodluck Jonathan’s defeat in the presidential elections and the ascendance to power of Muhammadu Buhari has been vaunted on every global medium as previously unthinkable in Nigeria, and indeed it is; but there is an undertone to Nigeria’s transformation that has not been trumpeted as much as it could be – the importance of catalytic leadership. Nigeria is not a changed country because a new president was sworn-in on the 29th of May, it is a new country because catalysts in positions of authority demonstrated exceptional leadership in the days leading up to and succeeding the 28th of March, 2015.


The first of the catalysts is the incoming president of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari. A self-confessed converted democrat whose reputation for discipline and integrity were insufficient to earn him national recognition and success at the ballot at three previous attempts suddenly ascended to the level of messiah. Much can be said about the political machinations that resulted in his emergence, but there is much more to be said about the man. Unlike his opposite number, he exuded calm and tact throughout the campaign process, always looked assured and presidential, campaigned solely on ideas, employed a youthful team of media experts, and chose a class act (Professor Yemi Osinbajo) as his running mate. Unlike Namadi Sambo (Jonathan’s running mate), Osinbajo hit the ground running and connected easily with the common man. His credentials stood him out, but his demeanour elevated him even further; it was as though the people by themselves had chosen him. Even more dignified was the fact that the Buhari campaign team hardly ever engaged in any form of negative campaign, which was the trademark of the Jonathan campaign team championed by Messrs Femi Fani-Kayode, Ayo Fayose and Doyin Okupe; they seized every opportunity to rubbish the personality of General Buhari and to predict all manners of mishap if he ever became president. On the flip side, there was no hint of desperation from the Buhari camp, and this singular trait endeared him even more to the people; from interviews on Al Jazeera and CNN to a world class speech delivered at Chatham House, London, he looked and spoke like the incoming Nigerian president, and now he is.

Another Nigerian whose serene character calmed a tense nation is the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega. His task was never an easy one and it was made much more difficult by the endless allegations of electoral fraud all over the country. Nearly everyone expected that the will of the people will be subverted, especially when the long-confirmed election dates were shifted. Many assumed that this was a ploy by the ruling government to adjust conditions in its favour, while others guessed that it was an opportunity to force Jega to proceed on extended leave. In the end, Jega successfully marshalled a team of over 170,000 people across the nation to implement the use of electronic card readers for the first time in Nigeria’s history which went a long way in easing the fears of citizens about the outcome of the elections. Even when complaints begun to filter in from all over the country about under-age voting and electoral violence, Jega never appeared flustered or overwhelmed by the job; rather he took responsibility for the onerous process of data collation. He was extremely meticulous in verifying numbers and cross-checking results, and even took the time to school an unruly party chieftain about the intricacies of decorum in public settings. If he wasn’t already a national hero, Jega was crowned on the 31st of March, 2015. He was the definition of calm under pressure.

Screenshot_2014-12-14-17-06-40Finally, perhaps the most significant catalytic leader in Nigeria these past few weeks is the outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan. Suffice to say that he was way in over his head with the job of a lifetime, he was verbally assaulted and insulted for the better part of six years by an insatiable population demanding good governance. He was often deficient in tact throughout his presidency, but it can be argued that his greatest act as president was performed the night of March 31, 2015 when he placed a congratulatory call to his opponent before the last votes were counted. Such statesmanly actions have been so rare in Nigerian politics that even members of his political party criticized him for conceding so cheaply. By requesting a meeting to begin discussing transition plans before his opponent had been officially declared winner, Jonathan singlehandedly forestalled the shedding of innocent blood, endless court cases and utter chaos in his country. He has been deified in several sections of the country, and while that might be a stretch too far, he definitely should be commended for preserving the best of Nigeria’s democracy and laying the standard for his peers across the continent.

Nigeria has come a very long way as a democratic entity in 16 short years, and the promise of democracy is only just beginning to yield its first bud. It is very imperative to congratulate the entire nation for an uncommon outcome, but also to specifically congratulate the youth for their invaluable role in the process through social media mobilization and their full involvement. Lastly, the de facto leader of the opposition party, Bola Tinubu must be applauded for defining a credible opposition party and strategizing endlessly to break the chokehold of the Peoples’ Democratic Party on the national life of Nigerians. This is a new season of catalytic change, and may the ripple effects of these elections long live in Nigeria and help in transforming the African continent.


This article was first published on Applause Africa

Change? From Where?

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It is the season for change! Passions boil over in Nigeria particularly regarding the upcoming presidential elections. It is the season for promises; candidates dust off their worn-out manifesto books and recant the same assurances as before – jobs for youth, unending power supply, boost for the agricultural sector, reduced reliance on oil, improved road infrastructure and bla bla. One could almost recite a politician’s words before they are said. In this age of enlightenment, the ‘smarter’ politicians have taken their strategies much further than posters and radio jingles; they have begun to speak the language of the people – distributing loaves of bread, bags of rice, and gallons of kerosene. A country which promises so much always finds a mysterious way to deliver so little.


Every four years since 1999, Nigerians have been blessed with the privilege of anticipation; there is almost a certain assurance that the coming four years will be more blissful than the past, and with this hope, citizens trudge to polling booths, form (often) orderly queues, banter endlessly with strangers in line, and then perform their civic duty, finally beaming with pride. They do this in the hope that their votes have some value, or in spite of the awareness that they are simply public evidence for the electoral machinations that take place behind closed doors. “It is better to do something than nothing”, they say. If there’s anything Nigerians have in abundance, it is a combination of endurance and hope.

As Nigerians prepare to cast their ballots in less than a week, there appear to be two weird options – a vote for an undesirable past, or an unfortunate present. Nigeria’s present is shameful and distasteful, to say the least. I believe that President Goodluck Jonathan was an accidental president and six years have done very little to help him get to grips with the task, or to step up to it. I am not foolhardy enough to assume that it is a smooth job and that all parameters of governance are within his control, but as a citizen, I am far from impressed with the results of his government. His media voltrons may trumpet his achievements in agriculture as loud as they please, but it is really difficult to bandage a stinky wound. One is forced to believe that the few successes of his administration have occurred in spite of his leadership, rather than because of it. Even if he were a really smart president with the right vision for the country, he perpetually fails to inspire any confidence in the citizenry, and history has often proven that perception is reality. Not many honest Nigerians are proud to mention Goodluck Jonathan as the best man to lead Nigeria through the series of crises that currently cripple the nation; worse still, the entire world can’t get enough jokes out of our president.


With our unfortunate present being sub-optimal, the alternative doesn’t immediately look desirable. General Muhammadu Buhari has strangely become the messiah of the country at the fourth time of asking for a democratic mandate, 32 years after he scuttled a democratic government through a military coup. Oh yes, he was a relatively young high-ranking soldier who ‘rescued’ the country from the throes of an ineffective civilian, and ruled with a tough disciplined hand. Oh yes, he should not be held solely accountable for what happened 30 years ago; he has changed!

Oh yes, he has the reputation of an incorruptible straightforward man, but is he really messiah? What happened in 2003, 2007 and 2011? Why was Buhari’s candidature the subject of derision even four years ago, when everyone told him to give up on his inordinate ambition and enjoy retirement? How come at the age of 74, he has suddenly emerged as the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria since mobile phones? It is often said by his campaigners that he will bring his military experience to bear in the fight against Boko Haram, but I cringe at the thought that there is not much evidence of the role he has played in the past eight years as an ex-military leader from northern Nigeria to quell this insurgency. If truly he understands their language, what help has he offered to the current administration to fight these brutish animals?


Inevitably, these elections will be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is most unfortunate that in elections such as this, citizens do not choose their candidates; they are constrained to choose among the decided candidates. Neither Buhari nor Jonathan readily appeals to my senses, but one must emerge. I believe that several million Nigerians will vote for Buhari, not because they are fully convinced of his credentials, but because they can’t imagine voting for Jonathan. I also believe that several million Nigerians will vote for Jonathan, not because they believe in his capacity to govern with wisdom, but out of sentiments and fear of returning to the past.

And so, in all these, from where cometh the change which we so desperately desire?

Day of the African Child

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On this day, June 16, 38 years ago, about 20,000 students from across schools in Soweto, South Africa took to the streets to protest the injustice in the South African education system. These protests were in concert with the nationwide outrage against the oppressive Apartheid regime. As those children stared down bullets and police batons, they demanded for an education that was true to the history of the country and progressive in preparing them for the future. Their cause was honest and commendable, but the outcome of their demand was brutal. At least 176 of them (and possibly up to 700) were killed and several thousands injured by the same regime that criminalized their ambitions.

In the years that followed, Apartheid was defeated; June 16 was memorialized as National Youth Day in South Africa; and the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) honoured the dead freedom fighters by declaring the day as Day of the African Child. South Africa’s education system has improved slightly, but there is still general discontent with the direction of education in the country.

d21f145245e4a5dafa_ovm6i2dl9Across the continent, the story extends far beyond discontent – Africa faces a full-blown war against education launched by extremists, militants, primitive cultural practices and lack of social infrastructure to drive large-scale change. A World at School, a global education advocacy organization estimates that 22% of school-aged children in Africa are currently out of school; that amounts to over 30 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost half of whom live in conflict-affected countries. Nigeria, the country with the highest population of out-of-school children in the world (10.5 million), has fought a long-standing war with extremist terrorists Boko Haram who have bombed schools, kidnapped hundreds of school children and created general unrest in the north of the country. Half of school-aged children in South Sudan (1.3 million) are out of school, with one of the least investments in education of any country in the world. 58% of primary school aged children are out of school in Somalia, and continuous unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo has kept 2.4 million children out of school there.


As African economies continue to impress global watchers through progressive GDP rates, there is a desperate need for African countries to secure their futures by investing massively in creating equitable access to education for millions of unschooled children across the continent. For the children who are fortunate enough to be in school, the fear of death and destruction hangs ominously over them as schools have become easy targets for misguided militants. There is also an urgent need to ensure that the education delivered across the continent meets global quality standards and stays relevant for the growing demands of the 21st century. There is so much to be done, but this Day of the African Child reminds us of the power of youth to change the course of any nation. Indeed, the future of Africa rests with the children of today and the youth of tomorrow.

Faith Abiodun is a Global Youth Ambassador for A World at School –