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Murtala and Nigeria’s leadership question

“Every great achievement is a dream before it becomes reality,” says former American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  Kissinger was commenting on the miracle of Singapore, the tiny South Asian state that rose from poverty to prosperity.

 A nation with no natural resources and a landmass of not more than 640sq km, has today become one of envy in the comity of nations.  A nation that works for its people and the outside world, attracting thousands of tourists globally, who never stop marvelling at the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of a people once hemmed in by more ambitious and prosperous neighbours like China and  Indonesia , and derided as a place where no quality products or services could ever come from.  A nation of fakes and the substandard.

 But all that was yesterday.  Today the new Singapore is the delight of visitors and the dream of every forward-looking nation. From engineering to the financial sector, jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities,  the country is a far cry from what it used to be.

The man, who dreamt the big dream of achievement; who turned his dream of a great nation to reality was Lee Kuan Yew. Undoubtedly its most charismatic leader to date, Lee Kuan Yew   literally turned stone to bread; desert to savannah, and dust to gold.  Singapore’s amazing rags-to-riches story, as widely known, is essentially the story of one man’s vision, and his bulldog tenacity to making things happen, leaving a worthy legacy for his people. 

Lee Kuan Yew declares triumphantly, albeit boastfully, in his expository narrative FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST: THE SINGAPORE STORY: “We have left behind our Third World problems of poverty.”  Who would not be boastful in Lee’s shoes?  From when he first assumed office as prime minister in 1959 to when he quit power, his country’s GDP rose from a paltry $400 dollars to $12, 200 in 1990, and has been on a steady rise since then.

There is also the story of Brazil’s labour leader-turned-politician, Luiz Inacio da Silva, popularly known as Lula.  Lula shot Brazil from ground zero to a pedestal of respectability, where it is no longer looked down on by other nations.  Brazil may not be in the first world or class of super advanced countries, but it is certainly not in the class of poverty-stricken Third World countries. Brazil’s technology, agriculture and youth empowerment make it a nation on the upward rise.

Lula quit the stage in 2011 after serving a constitutional two terms, and leaving his imprints in the hearts of his people.  He said he was fired to offer his best because he needed to prove that labour leaders could also make good administrators. “If I failed, it would be the workers’ class which would be failing; it would be the country’s poor who would be proving they did not have what it takes to rule,” he said, while reminiscing on his stewardship.  

 In the two instances above, what happened to the countries was its leadership edge.  Focused and creative leadership; leadership that made service to the people the fulcrum of its policies and actions. Leadership made all the difference.  Leadership turned poverty to prosperity; hopelessness to hope;  hope to reality. 

 Without the right leadership, Singapore and Brazil would not be where they are today; Ghana  and South Africa would not be challenging us to the leadership position of Africa.  The United States of America, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe would not be the attractive destination point for our army of youths in search of the better life.

 In Nigeria, we should never get tired of talking about leadership.   Leadership is the reason we are where we are as a nation, where nothing works, where basic amenities of life remain a pipedream, where youth and graduate unemployment has assumed an embarrassing dimension, where infrastructure decay stares us in the face. A nation helplessly and hopelessly in the vise-grip of criminals and other outlaws. With the right leadership or rather, with the right people in leadership positions, we could be nearer to realising our full potentials as a truly great nation.

 Indeed, we were once on that path to greatness when we had Chief Obafemi Awolowo at the helm of affairs in the West; Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in the East and Sir Ahmadu Bello in the North. These men dreamt great dreams for their regions, and we saw the results.  We saw the economic boom. We witnessed the renaissance in the West where free education was an article of faith.   We saw how Bello educated a generation of northern elite.  Now sadly, we see the decline in the bomb-crazy youths and almajiri. We see uneducated graduates with degrees that only announce their illiteracy in all parts of the country, including Awo’s beloved Western region. From a generation of brilliant, job-discriminating Nigerians, we have plummeted to a generation of unemployed and unemployable Nigerians.

The above thesis on Nigeria’s leadership question throws up the fact that we also once had a Murtala  Ramat Muhammed,  the six-months head of state, slain in a coup d’tat by obviously misguided elements in the Nigerian Army.  February 13 marked 41 years of his brutal killing. And as usual, seminars and remembrance events were held in many parts of the country, including the nation’s capital city of Abuja.  Long and short speeches were made extolling the virtues of Murtala. He was called a focused, resolute, principled and visionary leader; others described him as a patriot and nationalist, who dreamt lofty dreams for his nation and was on the path to actualising them before he was cut down by angels of darkness.  True, very true.  But many of those who mouthed those flowery words about Murtala, also nicknamed The Hurricane, were obviously being hypocritical and playing to the gallery.  They only wanted to be politically correct by aligning with the progressive credentials of the late General.

How many of those who stood on the dais, extolling Muhammed’s virtue are truly patriotic? How many have the integrity and vision of the ex-head of state? How many of them would have the courage to willingly surrender personal property to the state based on mere allegations, even when the court was yet to decide as Murtala did when an activist, Ohonbamu, accused him of wrong doing?

How many of our today’s leaders would put the interest of our nation above personal and selfish considerations? When you think of the current Halliburton and Siemens scandals, involving top Nigerian leaders, you shudder at how debased leadership has sunk since and after Murtala’s time.

He was hurricane at home and abroad. He called the bluff of the United States, bellowing: “Africa has come of age, and no longer under the orbit of any country or super power.” That was when the super power countries tried to intimidate Nigeria against supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. Without Murtala’s visionary leadership, countries like Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa would still be under the bondage of colonial shackles.

 He had zero-tolerance for corruption and whipped corrupt civil servants into line. Even though some accuse him of destroying the civil service with his 1975 purge, no one can deny that the place needed urgent detoxification. The rot hasn’t stopped even now.

More than anything else, Murtala proved that it is not how long a leader stays in power, but how well he discharges his duties that matters. In six, quick, months, he dazed us with the magic of purposeful leadership; he woke us from our inertia and deep slumber. He taught us how to believe in ourselves as a nation. That remains his enduring legacy.           

That’s why if I were President Buhari, I would lose no sleep over a one-term or no second term tenure, some politicians are beginning to fly everywhere even when the man has not done two years in office. It is how well a job is done that ultimately matters, as Murtala’s eventful six months prove. 



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