The Sun News

Culture, leadership and higher education in Nigeria

Being lecture delivered by former governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, at the weekend

I consider my being here today a rare privilege. This is my second coming in less than three years. It shows the love that exists between students of this great university and me, on one hand and the authorities of this institution and me, on the other.

Let me go straight to the task of the day. In the course of my research on this presentation, I stumbled on the website of Texas A&M University, otherwise known as TAMU. I became attracted to the website and sought to learn more about what they said culture was and its manifestations. By the way, TAMU was founded in 1876, as the state’s first public institution of higher learning. My inquisition into what they say culture was turned out the following:  “Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.”

They also gave other meanings to culture, which include: “Culture is the system of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.” And: “Culture in its broadest sense is cultivated behaviour; that is the totality of a person’s learned, accumulated experience, which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behaviour through social learning.”

 The university also sees culture as “a way of life of a group of people – the behaviours, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

It said also, “culture is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group’s skills, knowledge, attitudes, values and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions; culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifact; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning influences upon further action; culture is the sum of total of the learned behaviour of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation,” and finally: “Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (

 Further to the above, TAMU also espoused several manifestations of culture. It argued that culture manifested itself in several different ways and according to the reality of linguistic groups. It also said culture manifested itself in symbols, objects, artifact, and personifications. It, therefore, lists the different manifestations of culture as follows:

 • Symbols are words, gestures, pictures or objects that carry a particular meaning, which is only recognised by those who share a particular culture. New symbols easily develop, old ones disappear. Symbols from one particular group are regularly copied by others. This is why symbols represent the outermost layer of a culture.

• Heroes are persons, past or present, real or fictitious, who possess characteristics that are highly prized in a culture. They also serve as models for behaviour.

 • Rituals are collective activities, sometimes superfluous in reaching desired objectives, but are considered as socially essential. They are, therefore, carried out most of the times for their own sake (ways of greetings, paying respect to others, religious and social ceremonies, etc.).

 • The core of a culture is formed by values. They are broad tendencies for preferences of certain state of affairs to others (good-evil, right-wrong, natural-unnatural). Many values remain unconscious to those who hold them. Therefore, they often cannot be discussed, nor can they be directly observed by others. Values can only be inferred from the way people act under different circumstances.

 • Symbols, heroes, and rituals are the tangible or visual aspects of the practices of a culture. The true cultural meaning of the practices is intangible; this is revealed only when the practices are interpreted by the insiders.

Beside what TAMU had developed on culture, an anthropologist, E.B. Tylor, quoted in an article on culture published on Wikipedia (, says of culture as “that complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man, as a member of society.” The Cambridge English Dictionary simplifies it and tells us that it is simply “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time.”

For me as a member of the human society, culture relates to the very essence of man, his true self, his worldviews and his mode of operation as a person. This would include his dress sense, his mannerisms, his language, his appreciation of nature and beauty, his love for others, his respect for the human society and its norms, his outward presentation of the beauty that is inside and above all, his leadership traits. 

All these put together, lead us to a connection, which the developers of this topic may have had in mind when they sought to find a nexus between culture and leadership. 

Now, what is Leadership? The Online Dictionary defines leadership as “the action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this.” This definition ties us directly to culture because the ‘group of people’ to be led exists in a particular time and space and must have all the manifestations and characteristics espoused above as constituting what culture is.

In, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former President of the United States of America, was quoted as saying, “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Also, on the same page, Professor Warren G. Bennis, an American scholar, organisational consultant and author, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies, who died on July 31, 2014, was quoted as saying: “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.”

The editorial team of envisages leadership in different levels – like “a political leader, pursuing a passionate, personal cause”; an “explorer, cutting a path through the jungle for the rest of his group to follow” and “an executive, developing her company’s strategy to beat the competition”. It concludes by stating, “leaders help themselves and others to do the right things. They set direction, build an inspiring vision and create something new. Leadership is about mapping out where you need to go to “win” as a team or an organisation; and it is dynamic, exciting and inspiring.” 

British political scientist and historian, Prof. Archibald Haworth Brown, more popular as Archie Brown, had a wonderful dissection of leadership in his book, The Myth of the Strong Leader. In that book, he detailed reasons leadership should be transformational, thus further developing the concept of transformational leadership as against the strong leadership, which some politicians think is the best. He writes: “Strong leadership is then, generally taken to signify an individual concentrating power in his or her own hands and wielding it decisively. Yet, the more power and authority is accumulated in just one leader, the more that leader comes to believe in his or her unrivalled judgment of indispensability, the more decisions are taken by one individual leader, the less time that person has, thinking about the policy and weighing up the evidence in each case. Since there are only 24 hours in the day of even the strongest leader, that person’s aides find themselves (often to their great satisfaction) taking decisions in the leader’s name. That is just one reason the allure of a ‘strong leadership’ being exercised by a single person at the top of political leadership should be resisted.”

He jettisoned ‘strong leadership’ for transformational leadership, which was earlier developed by the duo of James MacGregor Burns and Bernard Bass. In transformational leadership, we talk of a leadership that inspires, motivates and drives vision to deliver on mandates. It creates an inspiring vision of the future, motivates and inspires people to engage with that vision, manages delivery of the vision, coaches and builds a team, so that it is more effective at achieving the vision. In other words, we are talking of a leadership that brings together the skills needed to make positive things happen.

However, Ahmed Raza, a leadership expert, writing in an article on leadership, published on, develops 12 types of leadership. They are Autocratic Leadership, which is boss-centric. Here, the leader makes decisions without consultations. This leaves no room for flexibility and often does not bring out the best in subordinates. There is also the Democratic Leadership where subordinates are involved in decision-making. However, leader here takes responsibility for outcome of the decision. One of the hallmarks of this sort of leadership is delegation of functions. 

According to Raza, “the most unique feature of this leadership is that communication is active upward and downward.” It adds that democratic leadership is one of the most preferred leadership, and it entails fairness, competence, creativity, courage, intelligence and honesty. There is also developed, a brand of leadership called Strategic Leadership, which is about “a leader who is essentially the head of an organisation.” says a “strategic leader is not limited to those at the top of the organisation. It is geared to a wider audience at all levels, who want to create a high performance life, team or organisation. The strategic leader fills the gap between the need for new possibility and the need for practicality by providing a prescriptive set of habits.  An effective strategic leadership delivers the goods in terms of what an organisation naturally expects from its leadership in times of change. Fifty-five per cent of this leadership normally involves strategic thinking.”

Other forms are Transformational Leadership, which we have referenced earlier in Prof. Brown’s work. Then, we have Team Leadership, which “involves the creation of a vivid picture of its future, where it is heading and what it will stand for. The vision inspires and provides a strong sense of purpose and direction.”

According to Raza, “team leadership is about working with the hearts and minds of all those involved. It recognises that teamwork may not always involve trusting and cooperative relationships. The most challenging aspect of this leadership is whether or not it will succeed. According to Harvard Business Review, team leadership may fail because of poor leadership qualities.”

There is also Cross-Cultural Leadership, which is a form of leadership that “exists where there are various cultures in the society.” This leadership has also “industrialised as a way to recognise front runners, who work in the contemporary globalised market,” Raza says, adding, “organisations, particularly international ones, require leaders who can effectively adjust their leadership to work in different environs. Most of the leaderships observed in the United States are cross-cultural because of the different cultures that live and work there.”

Raza also developed Facilitative Leadership, which he said is “too dependent on measurements and outcomes – not a skill, although it takes much skill to master.” He argues, “the effectiveness of a group is directly related to the efficacy of its process. If the group is high functioning, the facilitative leader uses a light hand on the process.”

The eighth leadership form is Laissez-faire Leadership, which he said “gives authority (power) to employees.” Here, subordinates are allowed to work as they choose with minimal or no supervision. He also notes that according to research, this kind of leadership has been consistently found to be the least satisfying and least effective management style.

We also have what Raza developed as Transactional Leadership, which, according to him, sustains the status quo. He said: “It is the leadership that involves an exchange process, whereby followers get immediate, tangible rewards for carrying out the leader’s orders.”

I think most of us in Africa are too familiar with this sort of leadership. The 10th form is Coaching Leadership, which entails “teaching and supervising followers,” while Charismatic Leadership is the type where the leader expresses himself or herself, as a revolutionary with lots of charisma to move people to action, especially by his words and style. A charismatic leader will be able to have a transformative effect on followers, making them change their values and beliefs or behaviours and attitudes. I am sure we have also seen a bit of that in Nigeria.

Lastly, we have the Visionary Leadership. This, Raza explains, as leadership that “involves leaders, who recognise that the methods, steps and processes of leadership are all obtained with and through people.” He adds, “most great and successful leaders have the aspects of vision in them.”

In all, however, I have a personal view of leadership. For me, it is what you do with the powers that you have when you are empowered to lead a people towards a desirable outcome. In my days as Governor of Abia State, I did my best to pull the state from the backwaters of development and place it on a pedestal where it would no longer be ignored. I moved the people to action without as much as forcing them to do so. I motivated the people to realign themselves to their culture and begin to undo those things that they were doing that brought them and the state poor image and name.

Recall that as at 1998, Aba had become a no-go area due to activities of some criminal gangs. My administration had to think outside the box to fix the challenge. We adopted multi-pronged approach to achieving that. We set up a vigilance group, empowered and supported it to work assiduously to fish out criminals. The strategy worked. 

 Apart from the vigilance group, I began what was uncommon in our country. My administration initiated programmes that rebuilt the confidence of police personnel in the state. We introduced an insurance scheme for members of the force. This had an instant positive effect on them. They were ready to die for the state, knowing that their death would not be in vain. That was how we restored sanity in Aba and the state generally. 

What we discovered through those strategic engagements was that what we saw as criminal gangs were logical outcomes of the erosion of cultural values and ethos of the people, which was further destroyed by the failure of education standards in the state then. Don’t forget that I was the second civilian to lead Abia State, as governor after a military leadership that began in 1983 and ended in 1999. Signature of this period was a systematic destruction of education with abysmally low investment in teachers, teaching aides and school infrastructure. During this period, no new science laboratories were developed. Universities did not get the sort of attention they required. A lot of courses were not even accredited. Pupil and student enrolment dropped and we had more children on the streets, hawking groundnuts and biscuits than we had in the classroom. Some even hawked those items for their teachers. Those who went to become apprentices graduated not knowing much about book-keeping. 

Even with a not-so-impressive balance sheet as at 1999, we set out to address these issues and made sure we returned as many children and youths, as we could, to school. We set out rebuilding schools and providing infrastructure for learning. We made efforts to improve on teacher quality and earnings to boost education. We engaged community leaderships to enable them re-energise the local systems to re-create awareness of cultural background of our people. As Igbo, there are things that are considered taboos in our culture. Such things as stealing, rape, armed robbery, murder, etc. I am sure those of us here, who are older, can still look back to our culture to remember how someone who was caught stealing yams, or goat, or chicken, etc. was treated those days.  I still recall how young girls who became pregnant in their parents’ home were looked at in the days gone by.  Today, they glamorise such developments and call themselves ‘baby mamas.’ In those days, when our culture matters, even young men don’t take cars, motorcycles or even bicycles that are not theirs home. Your parents will certainly ask questions. Today, some parents will welcome such with a party. During that period, such crimes were almost absent. So, what happened? We lost our cultural heritage to love for western models.

There is a direct connection between lack of access to education, and lack of education, with failure of culture to make the man what he is. Education is key to what you want your future to be. Every man plots the graph of his future, using education as a tool. We discovered that and did our best, as a government, to lay the foundations for which Abia State is ranked today in education. It would please you to remember that Abia State ranked first in the 2016 WAEC examinations. We probably would not have achieved that feat if we did not get the foundations right.

 How did we do it? We started first by declaring free education from primary to secondary schools across the state. We made sure the free education did not stop at their tuition fees and educational materials; we sponsored their First School Leaving Certificate (FSLC) and West African School Certificate (WASC) examinations.  We also saw the need to give free education to adults, who were not privileged to acquire education in their early growth stage. This we did by embarking on a programme called ‘work to learn.’ This state-sponsored programme saw the artisans, traders, market men and women, coming to evening classes to learn and increase their stock of knowledge. Those who wanted to further their education after two years of study, we paid for their WAEC examinations. To make sure our free education cut across all educational levels, we also extended it to Abia State University. While each student paid five per cent of their school fees, our government took care of the 95 per cent of the total fees.

When I was governor, despite the lean allocation, over N150 million went to the state university on monthly basis and the students were allowed to pay N7,000 only as their school fees. Meanwhile, we limited none of our free education to the indigenes. Other Nigerians, most especially neighboring states that schooled in Abia, benefitted same, as Abians did.

Nonetheless, we gave exclusive attention to education not because we had the abundant resources to do so, but because we understood that a stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens. We understood that the gain from the education of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but also to other members of the society. We knew that education adds to the economic and social value of its recipient.

Today, most of those children, who probably may have been knocked down and killed by fast moving vehicles while running to sell N5 biscuits or groundnut along Osisioma Junction, or on the streets of Aba, Umuahia, etc., have been through school and are re-orientated to become valuable members of society. I am sure some of them are now the small-scale entrepreneurs in Aba, whose products are not being advertised as Made-in-Aba. It is all about leadership that transforms and envisions the Eldorado.

However, that tool will not be effectively transformative if the individual fails to appreciate those values that make his culture distinct from others. The values of truth, respect for elders, hard work and respect for life are not taught in schools. They are ingrained in our cultures and we learn them growing up. 

Today, however, despite our education, most are also lost in the riot of cultures. A lot of our young people are battling within themselves whether to stay with our Igbo cultures or to dump them and imbibe western cultures. Some are having troubles returning to their roots for holidays, like Christmas because of the disconnect they suffer with their cultural roots. I am also sure that in this hall, there are students who will tell me that they cannot speak their dialects or languages. The most common reasons I have heard for this is such thing, as ‘my parents live in Lagos and we don’t go to the village.’ Some will readily argue, ‘my uncle or my aunt doesn’t want to see us…’ There are also those who will tell you that there are too many evil people in the village and so, they won’t get back to know their roots. Often, one is told that what we see acted in Nollywood, about the village witch doctor, is actually true. In other words, as cultural being, we allow life to imitate art instead of art imitating life. That is a wrong appreciation of our different cultures.

Education is meant to liberate the mind and enable it see the beauty of culture. Education should liberate man to make him realise that life must not imitate art. Education should make the man able to understand the need to identify with his cultural roots and accept that reality that no culture is superior and none is best. As far as I am concerned, it is ignorance that blinds men to seeing the Ikenga, for instance, as a symbol of idolatory. It is ignorance that would make an Igbere boy refuse to speak pure and unadulterated Igbere in preference for the English language or any other secondary language. It is for me, a thing of joy to see young people, as all of you in this hall, speak and express yourselves in your native languages. It is a matter of cultural differentiation and appreciation, setting you apart as one with roots. 

Remember that in the battle to conquer man, the first point of attack is his culture. Once an invader is able to destroy your culture, and the cultural heritages that you ought to hold as priceless, including your language, and supplants that with his, he has effectively conquered you.

To end, I call on all leaders, especially those involved in education and formation of the minds of those who will become our successors tomorrow, to lay more emphasis on teaching of cultures and those aspects that would help to restore the dignity of man. If we fail to do that, we would have created opportunity for the erosion of the dignity of man by man himself.



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May 2018
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