Ethnicity and the Leadership Question by Nkannebe Raymond

At one point in time in the socio-political voyage of a community of people, the responsibility of producing leaders to spearhead the activities of the general community for a constitutional duration agreed by the people, is thrown at a particular section of the general community. Given such a situation, it is expected that certain individuals within that class who may have nursed ambition for the elective/selective offices to express interest to contest and if the system permits, they may even flag off campaign programmes to sell their selves to the general population and the voting-mass on whom it behoves to make choices based on the antecedents of the contenders socially, academically and otherwise depending on the chief focus of the society in question.

It is not expected that ethnic or sectarian sentiments whatsoever should characterise the process, why because leadership of the entire community is in issue and any error made in the election/selection process must be endured for as long as that era lasts. It is expected that the general good would naturally take precedent over any form of sentiment that may be imputed to bungle the entire process.

Having said the foregoing, it is quite unfortunate that the benchmark of electoral process which I have painted above, only finds expression in a sane society where both the leaders and the led are well in the knowing of the concept of leadership and would stop at nothing to ensure that its tenets are not torpedoed by any reason whatsoever.

In our own dispensation, the reverse is almost entirely the case. Quite uncannily, we appear to be so much skilled at turning logic on its head and doing things the other way round. The least we could do, is to see leadership through the prism of what a contender would do if elected into office. Hell no! That cannot bother or rob us of the pleasures of our night sleep. We are more concerned with lazy variables such as where a particular contender is from geographically or whether crouching and bowing his forehead to the ground severally is the modus of his prayer and thanksgiving to God, or whether he goes to the church traditionally every sunday against the key component of leadership namely: Accountability of the contender. The consequences? The decrepit nature of our institutions and the whole apparatus of government in all public and increasingly private institutions.

We are not limiting the scope of leadership here to mainstream government, the scope for emphasis purposes have been widened as much as possible to include all spheres of human organisation or community of men where leadership is needed however trifle. From the leadership of a town union, to that of a pressure group. From that of a university community, to that of a Faculty within the university. From the leadership of a Faculty to that of a department and down to the community of students within the campus, in that order.

last week tuesday, after weeks of consultation within my self and with close confidants, I unofficially declared to contest for the president of the umbrella body of all Law students in the University of Maiduguri. An office open to any level 400 student of the Faculty, with clean academic record and character; criterions which yours truly have satisfactorily met. Against the backdrop of my qualification and buoyed by the entreaties of friends within and without the faculty, I came to the humble decision to run for the office.

Though yet to make any formal declaration before the class or entire faculty for fear not to put the cart before the horse, I had proceeded to consulting with many friends and even perceived enemies individually to intimate them on my intention to throw my hat into the ring in the battle of who succeeds the incumbent Law Student Association (LAWSA)President who any moment will be going for the mandatory one year program at the Nigerian Law school preparatory to being a recognised Barrister and Solicitor to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

It was in the course of that duty among friends last tuesday, that the event that gave birth to the issue under review was fertilised. Sitting in a restaurant with some of my colleagues who already were in the knowing of my intention to run that hot tuesday afternoon, another colleague whom I think holds me in high esteem, by name Abdallah, a Moslem of the fulani stock I guess had walked in. After the usual exchange of dry pleasantries in Hausa, I immediately told him of my intention to joining the race for the LAWSA president. And before you could shut the windows, the bombshell came. You could as well guess. “Raymond,” he began, speaking in Hausa. “You ought to have known that, that office is not for you. The ‘Federal Character’ principle is at play in the affairs of our faculty. You re from the East, and you are not even a Moslem. That office, is for a moslem, and not just that, but also, one from the Fulani stock. Is it not so clear to you, that that has been the practice over the years? Why not opt for the Vice President or Secretary General of the Body? Those are the office I feel you may be successful at”. Those were his exact words. Not that it came as a surprise given that I am one familiar with the political dynamics of the faculty.

It was the ‘honesty’ or rather, his non-hypocritical stance that struck me. He could as well, have given me his support by the lips and yet move on to say what he had said to me at my back the next minute. And so there was no point for me to be offended. While we laughed over it, we rushed over our meal of fried rice and salad and the usual bottle of coke that accompanies it, and a friend of ours who had just returned back to school,out of the benevolence of his heart, oversaw the bills while we went our separate ways to continue the business of the day. There was no way I could sleep that night without giving more thought to Abdallah’s piercing words and hence why we have decided to dedicate today’s column to it. The title of the piece is therefore, not an accident. Onu’Kwube!

It is quite unfortunate that in the 21st century, many people of my generation have found it a herculean task to bury the word ‘tribe’ which have proved not to be a permanent friend as while it is used this minute to favour one, it is used almost immediately after to cause pain elsewhere. It should be more disheartening in this case for it to have come from a young man whom despite acting in good faith would become a practising Lawyer and whom many will naturally perceive as an idol and a barometer for what is right and wrong judging from his academic antecedents and choice of distinguished profession. If at this stage, such a man’s mindset is punctuated with ethno-religious sentiments in a the race to the leadership of a community of no more than nine hundred students, one wonders what the scale would be when he and many people of his ilk register into the larger community of men? What ideals will they propagate? And which one would they stand against? Will they help to fester the cult of mediocrity for some bogus ethnic sentiments or would they see that its flames are extinguished however the embers continue to burn? In deed, that is the question. Post mortem apologies to william Shakespeare.

Writing on Tribalism in his seminal work-The Trouble With Nigeria, the Late literary colossus, Chinua Achebe said, “Nothing in Nigeria’s political history captures her problem of National integration more graphically than the chequered fortune of the word Tribe in her vocabulary. Tribe has been accepted at one time as a friend, rejected as an enemy at another, and finally smuggled in through the back-door as an accomplice….”. Those words of the great wordsmith some 4 decades ago has continued to run its course even to this day. While Abdallah my have acted in good faith, I had expected him to disqualify me summarily in his court on the merits of my case as an impartial ‘judge’ with variables such as a questionable character and academic impropriety, but he chose to travel the same course of disrepute which Alhaji Obafemi Awolowo sailed in 1951 by stealing the leadership of western Nigeria from Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in broad day light on the floor of the western house of Assembly and sending the great Zik of Africa scampering back to the Niger whence he came, because he wasn’t a Yoruba thereby killing the Pan Nigerian dream whereby a Northerner could be the Mayor of Enugu and an easterner aspire to be a premier in the North. A dream which to this day, has remained a stuff for history classes.

I would like us to come back to the leadership question. What is leadership? Let me spare us a comprehensive academic definition. For the purpose of this piece, our working definition should be that Leadership is the ability for a legitimately elected/selected individual to direct the activities of the general population in accordance with the dictates of the constitution which they have given themselves. If we accept that as a working definition, the question that begs answer now becomes: what nexus is there, between tribe or creed and leadership? And Why does the two variables dictate the chance of leadership in this part of the world?

As far as I’m concerned, the origin of an individual, should not be a ground for assuming the leadership of any secular group. If there must be a grande criterion, it should border on character of the individual and not his tribe. For while character has bearing on how a leader will lead, tribe has none. An individual cannot change his tribe, neither is he responsible for same-it is the assignment of fate/providence. But on the other hand, one can change their character over time to suit an office which they hope to occupy. Little wonder then, why in more civilised societies, the creed/ethnicity of a person seeking an elective office barely affect his chances but rather his track record of achievements in previous assignments becomes the determinant. Such, appear to have eluded the most part of Africa.

While you ponder on these thoughts, fast-forward your mind to the Abdullahi or Rotimi in a Federal University in the Eastern part of the country, who dare not run for the leadership of the Student Union in his or her university or even at the faculty level simply because he is not an Igbo or a Yoruba as the case may be, despite having all it takes to turn around its affairs.

Those are the effects of tribalism. The greatest sufferer is the nation itself, the general population which has to contain the legitimate grievance of a wrongful citizen; accommodate the incompetence of a favoured citizen and more important and of greater magnitude, endure a general decline of morale nd subversion of efficiency caused by an erratic system of performance and reward.

Social injustice therefore, becomes not only a matter of morality, but also of sheer efficiency and effectiveness. We fail to realise that whereas ethnicity might win enough votes to instill an ethnic jingoist in a tribal ghetto, the cult of mediocrity, will bring the wheels of modernisation and change grinding to a halt throughout the land. The evidences are adduced in our collapsing public institutions, our inefficient and wasteful parastatals and increasingly, our state-owned companies.

It cannot be argued, that there are manifestations of tribal culture which we cannot excuse. For example our peculiaar habits of dress, food, language, music etc. But these are positive variables that add richness and lucre to our national culture. But to prevent or try to prevent a committed member of a group from participating in the socio-political leadership of the group he has identified with over time, is another matter altogether. Our constitution disallows it (even though it is only in principle unfortunately).

Prejudice against ‘outsiders’is an attitude one finds everywhere. But no modern state can lend its support to prejudice without undermining its own progress and civilisation. While it is almost impossible to (realistically) legislate prejudice and ethnic sentiments out of the hearts and minds of individual citizens, the state, its institutions and citizens, must not like the Abdallahs of this world endorse or condone such habits. It is immaterial whether they do so in good faith or with malice.

Finally, as citizens of a behemoth country trying to recover its tracks, it is incumbent upon us all to everyday make inquiry into the Ethnicity and Leadership question. Not only when it suits us, but also at everytime it’s ugly fangs opens up before us. Our society is grossly in need of capable hands to steer the ship of state back to its coordinates. Those hands are not dotted with marks of a particular tribe, much less a particular religion. They are hands scattered in the general population and locating them, would not be by zereoing in on a particular tribe out of the whole.

We are already at a crossroad where swift choices are needed. Our situation to make matters worse, is already comatose. Must we then make it any more octopian by building our thoughts around a janjaweed mentality? I do not think the answer to that poser should be in the affirmative.

The writer is of the Faculty of Law University of Maiduguri, Borno state. He is on twitter as @RayNkah/[email protected]