Nigerian Politics, Leadership and Nation-Building

George Obiozor


By George A. Obiozor  |

NIGERIA is a nation born in optimism in 1960 at independence but has in its 55 years lived in a state of doubt and uncertainty. Within those years too, all kinds of analysis and conclusions have been assembled on critical issues responsible for what has become a Nigerian dilemma over nation building and national development. This is because all the countries compared to Nigeria in 1960 have made astronomical progress, developed relatively stable political and economic systems. David Kemp compared Nigeria to Brazil in the 1960s; others spoke of Malaysia, Indonesia, India etc.

One of Nigeria’s fault lines was for a long time attributed to leadership failures, others suggested defective political and economic structures, and yet others spoke of the Nigerian national character or the “Nigerian factor”. Well, whatever or whichever, the reality is that in comparison to her other contemporaries, Nigeria was an abysmal disappointment in both expectations and achievements. This is obvious when one realizes the position of India, Brazil, Indonesia etc. within the present international political and economic system, in comparison to Nigeria.



Nigerian history is both fascinating and an object lesson in “politics of precarious balancing” in a society of irrepressible pluralism and hostile sub-cultures. It is actually a country of outrageous paradox in the sense that it is a nation constantly threatened not by those who have nothing to lose, but ironically, by the incoherent national political elites who have everything to lose. Consequently, although Nigeria is assessed as uniquely powerful in its African and global scope, at the domestic level the country is assessed as equally uniquely insecure and unstable. It is therefore imperative for us to recognize and accept, no matter how uncomfortable that the tensions and crises constantly present in Nigeria arise not from imaginary but real issues which the national leadership must address urgently.

It is a historic fact that leadership is everything in governance and management of human affairs. Here also, history has furnished us with examples of specific qualities and attributes that contribute to effective leadership.

These include clear sense of purpose or mission and vision, charisma and the ability to motivate others in a way that favours compliance, dedication and devotion to the fulfillment of the vision and the mission. The late sage – Chinua Achebe – summarized Nigeria’s leadership problems in his book – The Trouble with Nigeria. Accordingly, he said “Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal examples which are the hallmarks of true leadership”. He further concluded that “in spite of all conventional opinion, Nigeria has been less fortunate in its leadership”, and placed the blame on the “seminal absence of intellectual rigour in the political thought of our founding fathers”.

Leadership and nation-building have consistently been Nigeria’s most constant priority agenda before and since independence fifty-five years ago. Unfortunately, in spite of all good intentions and spirited efforts of the nation’s leaders since 1960, these twin problems have remained a national dilemma. Throughout Nigeria’s history, sub-national or ethnic nationalism has dominated and sabotaged all meaningful discussions and debates about national integration and nation-building.

In fact, no generation of leaders, military or civilian, has been able to create an atmosphere of credibility to ensure Nigeria’s claim to a political future as a nation. None was able to evolve a unifying national ideology that was embraced either by fellow political elites or by the entire Nigerian populace.

Recently, some Nigerian political leaders have said that “Nigerian unity is not negotiable”. This is an irony because these leaders have forgotten, or have failed to learn, the lessons of history. Nigerian unity is definitely negotiable and must be re-negotiated for it to stand or survive the test of time. The reality over the years remains that in spite of the best efforts of all our leaders past or present, Nigerian unity is not guaranteed. It is simply, at best, an aspiration and not yet an achievement. Hence, the statement that Nigerian unity is “not negotiable” is simply a historical fallacy. In fact, just recently too, in a brainstorming exercise at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), one outstanding  Nigerian scholar referred to our country as one of the “most and fastest declining states in the world” and supported the assertion with startling and incontrovertible statistics.

If we are to salvage our country, we must begin to face reality, stop the syndrome of self-deception and self-delusion about  Nigerian historical exceptionality, Today, if the truth must be told, our diversity has turned into disorder, and our democracy into an invitation to incremental anarchy.

For Nigerian unity and nation-building to succeed the leaders need to borrow a leaf from or emulate the experiences of countries that did not ignore the element of pluralism in their respective countries and societies. Nationalism, including ethnic nationalism, is not about to disappear in the world generally, and certainly not in Nigeria, no matter how much we want to wish it away. It is still a potent force and all its advocates feel they have a strong case and believe that history is on their side.

Without mincing words, the disparity between claims to nationhood and the political realities in Nigeria are responsible for the political instability, military coups, sporadic guerilla warfares, crises and violence that have characterized Nigeria’s history. It is equally the same realities that compel the Nigerian political elites – military and civilian – once in power to quickly split along many lines, particularly, the lines of ethnic origin, religion and region. The result has been inter-elite rivalries, reciprocal suspicion, hostility of position and status conflict among Nigerian elites. Consequently throughout our history, the national elites have been engaged in deadly competitions and conflicts of hostile sub-cultures, resulting in various danger signals that often threaten the survival of the country. There is hardly any national issue over which our incoherent national political elites would accept consensus. Every issue is subject to political maneuvers and intrigues, conspiracies and sabotage of one another or of one group against another. Hence there exists in Nigeria, almost on a permanent basis, a heightened level of elite insecurity, with its inevitable national psychosis.

One thing is clear and has always been clear; Nigeria needs credible and committed leadership for unity, nation-building and development to be achieved and sustained in the country. In fact, we need not just leadership in the ordinary sense of the word but heroic leadership because our national problems, now more than ever require the talents and inspirational articulateness of an extraordinary person or persons for the design and execution of sustainable solutions. Certainly, ordinary people or mortals have tried over the years and failed; so, perhaps, only heroes or heroic leaders can transcend the various cleavages and conflicts that continue to hang around the country’s neck like the proverbial albatross. We need heroes, crises managers and leadership capable of carrying people along. In the history, of nations at crossroads like ours, France had Charles De Gaulle, Indonesia had Surkano, Yugoslavia had Tito, Egypt had Nesser and Turkey had Kermal Mustafa Ataturk, to name just a few. These were all self-confident, visionary leaders and, without doubt, patriotic and genuine nationalists. As Richard Nixon said, “a leader is one who has the emotional, mental and physical strength to withstand the pressure and tensions, and then, at the critical moment, to make a choice and to act decisively. The men who fail are those who are so overcome by doubts that either crack under the strain or flee”. In fact, the worst leaders in the world have been those who refused to make decisions on critical national issues.

Nigeria as a country needs a leader who is a political man who can direct the attention and affection of the people toward himself and the collective aspirations of the entire nation. The irony is that in the past when our leaders vacillated and refused to make critical decision, they indirectly invited challenges to their own authority and legitimacy. And our experience ought to point to the fact that in spite of our pretenses of unity as the 2015 Presidential Election revealed the Nigerian society actually remains sharply divided by mutually reinforcing cleavages with each segment of the population living in its own separate world. The consequences have been that all along the dangers of a breakdown of the system have been clear to any reasonably interested observer of Nigeria politics, locally as well as internationally.

We must therefore reform – if you like, transform – and restructure the political system in a way that compels the allegiance of the various peoples and that complies with their national or group aspirations. We need a system that can effectively contain or reduce the level of the disintegrative tendencies in Nigerian society. The leadership must also recognize that any new system for the country must take cognizance of the present national reality that today no single group or bloc, no matter their pretenses to power, can again dominate the Nigerian political system. We need a system that commands the respect of our people and is seen as fair, just and equitable to all. 



Nigerian politics needs restructuring and institutionalization as a way to contain its adverse effects on efforts towards nation-building, national integration and national development. It is possible that with appropriate political structures, the leadership and other national problems can be reasonably managed through the democratic process. In that regard, Nigeria needs a system of shared power, bearing in mind that political decency flourishes best in societies in which stable, peaceful and just political institutions make it difficult for reckless and lawless political adventurers to thrive.

Today we have two choices: first, to continue to follow our present political arrangements which favour over-centralization of governance and resources. This road is where we are now and has in the past and present led us to all kinds of sorrow, including a civil war, the Niger Delta crises and Boko Haram, among others. It is a difficult, if not an impossible, road to follow for successful and sustainable nation-building, national unity and integration or progress. The second choice is to recognize our irrepressible pluralism and the necessity for voluntary integration. Coercive integration – or integration by force or by intimidation – has failed all over the world including Africa. Events in Sudan, for example, are indicative of the reality that no matter how long you hold people by force against their will; eventually the people’s yearning for freedom and voluntary association would triumph.

A political system that makes it difficult for leaders to lead effectively and for followers to follow voluntarily is a recipe for either progressive anarchy or national catastrophe. Our system of government must respect our respective cultural identities, interests and priorities.

We need a truly federal system as the United States, India, Canada, Switzerland or the present devolution process as in the United Kingdom. Federalism, in essence, is simply “a contractual non-centralization” involving structural dispersion of power among many centres whose legitimate authority is constitutionally guaranteed. Hence, entrenched diffusion of power or division of power among levels of government remains the principal characteristic and argument for federal democracy. It becomes therefore clear that when one speaks of federalism, one means, in short, “coordinate supremacy of the levels of government with regards to their respective functions”. Certainly in this context, the “golden rule” of federalism as stipulated by scholars and political analysts, has been constantly ignored or breached in Nigeria over the years. Nigeria has also ignored the important aspect of the equilibrium between the CENTRE and the REGIONS.

Our present defective federal system needs to give way to true federalism, which will also enable leaders to deliver social justice and guarantee citizens’ rights, safety and security across the country. It has become clear worldwide that leaders who are unable to ensure justice at all times and to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity, region, creed or ‘state of origin’ have no right to demand peaceful behavior amongst the citizenry. As I have often observed and remarked, “Throughout history, those denied justice have had no interest in peace”

The nature of political system conditions the expectations and behaviours of the operators, politicians, bureaucrats and citizens alike. A flawed system can hardly compel the obedience or loyalty of all citizens, nor can it promote good governance. Here we cannot avoid stating the obvious fact that operating a system with a strong, overarching centre and basically a unitary system in the guise of a federation – as we have had since 1967 – has been the root of the constant do-or-die struggles by our sectional political leaders for the control of the central government. This, according to Professor Elaigwu, has “turned the game of politics into the battle of politics” among the Nigerian elite.


Other Topical Issues:


It has been stated by many experts that “Nigeria cannot achieve its famed great potential by practicing a corrupt system; a system that rewards the indolent, and punishes the industrious; a society that places premium on ethnicity rather than merit. No society progresses without justice and ours is an unjust set-up that supports and facilitates corruption. This situation must thus be rectified if we are to survive and thrive as a modern nation”. (THISDAY, SUNDAY, AUGUST 23, 2015, P16). The above statements represent critical elements that have negatively impacted on Nigeria’s economic development.

Fiscal Federalism or Resource control is a problem that must be resolved before Nigeria and Nigerians would think of a peaceful or harmonious co-existence as one nation, united and indivisible. The Founding Fathers of Nigeria had it effectively solved and settled. But the Military Coups, the Civil War and Military Regimes abandoned this important legacy of Nigeria’s Founding Fathers.

In fact, the federalism including fiscal federalism which they founded was principally a CONTRACTUAL DECENTRALIZATION that respected and recognized the Autonomy, Legitimacy and Authority as well as the cultural identities of each Region. But as a result of the Civil War and prolonged military rule, the political restructuring of Nigeria drastically changed with its IMBALANCES, INCONGRUENCIES and MANIFEST injustice at various levels.

Virtually all well – meaning Nigerians know that the post-civil war and post military regimes political and economic structures must be revisited. And every regime since then has tinkered with it in the form of reforms, conferences, and debates including the 2014 National conference. And all have aimed at restoring Nigeria to its relative pre-civil war modicum of political stability, economic justice, peace, progress and national unity.



Foreign policy of nations is generally organized under three levels of interests.

  1. Military/strategic interest
  2. Political diplomatic interest
  3. Economic/Socio/Cultural interest

In the end, what all nations seek can further be reduced to:

  1. Survival
  2. Security
  3. Prosperity
  4. Honour/Prestige
  5. Peace

Don’t be deceived nations denied any of the first 4 powerful or potentially powerful will not go for peace.

In international relations,  1-4 are the causes of conflicts and war. Peace is defined  by school of realism as; ability of a nation to defend its interest through peaceful means or protect their national interests by any means from coercion, intimidation to war. Peace is actually the last thing any country whose vital national interest is threatened.

Nigerian national interests are not different from the above general analysis. What makes a difference is a country’s choice of priorities. And the leadership and national capability to defend them.

Many countries in the world are helpless in the sense that they can’t defend or protect their vital national interests – highest totality of which is sovereignty and independent. Nigerian vulnerability on the Military / Strategic level is evident in the present high threat perception and actual general insecurity caused by Boko Haram and other militant groups within the country.

Our country is virtually at war that nobody wants to declare and fear factor has not allowed citizens to ask the cost in human and material resources. In fact, the world was mesmerized by the way the Boko Haram was able to instill fear in a country with great potentials like Nigeria. If the truth must be told, it was the domestic/Nigerian and international panic and outrage over Boko Haram insurgency that made President Jonathan’s defeat inevitable.

The Administration’s last minute rally of sporadic success came too late to save it from a biased public perception of incompetence and weakness.



Nigerian Diplomacy after President Obasanjo, took a serious nosedive. Nigeria by itself as a country matters within the international system. However, since international relations is a high profile business/game, high profile personaliies/leaders dominate the field more so than others. Thus the international system looks like the biblical injunction that many are called but few are chosen.

In my view over the years, personality, leadership, and circumstances or the international environment have played critical role in the success or failure of Nigerian foreign policy.  To put it bluntly, if other countries particularly our principal foreign policy partners, the United States, and Britain like our leaders ; our foreign policy objectives get advanced, projected, recognized and appreciated. You notice the flow of diplomatic visits, suttle diplomacy etc                                                                         Nigerian diplomacy must learn how to cultivate and retain friends at personal and institutional levels/variables. To do this successfully, countries combine using their successful business men in what is called Economic Diplomacy, along with prominent citizens as well as their diplomats.

For instance, we followed the national celebration that followed President Buhari’s visit to the United States. I wrote an article too on the issue: POSITIONING NIGERIA IN THE UNITED STATES. Definitely, the visit was unusual both in its timing and the level of reception accorded to the President. To that extent, it was relatively a successful visit.

But one thing we must note is that the United States ‘foreign policy is rooted in its domestic axioms and doctrines. First is that “it is a land of the free but home of the brave”.  Second is that “there is no free lunch”, and the third is “in God we trust”.

Consequently throughout their history, the Americans are enigmatic friends and dangerous enemies if you dare them. Indeed, to be successful in dealing with the United States, you must know what you want and be prepared to pay the price. The United States foreign policy is not based on “God Samaritan” or “Red Cross” philosophy but rather, it is strictly based on the country’s vital national interests that correspond to the tripod – military/strategic, Political/Diplomatic, and Socio/Cultural interests. The United States will help you if they are convinced that you can help yourself. If your case is too bad and desperate, they leave it for God and go home.



A nation’s economic resources level, development status, and diversity play major role in its capability assessment. For a long time, Nigeria’s power potentials were based on two positive factors – human resources and material resources (oil/petroleum). And for a while these factors carried the country very far within the hierarchy of nations. It is obvious that the difficulties we have today stem from the management of the economy in general and the fall in oil price.

In the present circumstances, we must do our best to retain our customers even if they are buying less or none of our oil. How to do this will require political engineering and diplomatic ingenuity. Afterwards, there are many ways to keep diplomatic relations open even in times of crisis or war. In fact, Nkrumah’s doctrine should re-echo in Nigeria diplomacy today – seek yee first the political kingdom and everything else will follow.

History has demonstrated that when the politics or diplomacy is right/good between countries, political “miracles” help solve other problems including the economic. Nigeria should work hard on improving relations with our principal partners – United States, Britain and intensify relations with China, Russia, the Asian Tigers and India.




In political science, legitimacy is the popular acceptance of a governing regime or laws as an authority. In fact, where such acceptance is absent like in Nigeria immediately after virtually every presidential election from 1979 to 2011 the environment for effective governance becomes problematic.

Nigeria has had too many protracted crisis of philosophical and psychologically nature and history has shown that too many such crises destroy nations, either through partition or outright disappearance into oblivion. Which way for Nigeria? This is the critical question that should determine the kind of leadership Nigeria needs. The present reality in Nigeria is that in spite of all the denials, self-deceptions and delusions, of all the problems facing Nigeria the greatest is the absence of a nationally acceptable leadership, with its concomitant elements of legitimacy and authority crises.

History has shown that the destiny of leadership is closely tied to the destiny of their respective nations. In fact, it is not easy to imagine India without Gandhi, Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, South Africa without Mandela, Ghana without Kwame Nkrumah, China without Mao Tse Tung, etc.

Nigeria needs a leadership and a constitution that focuses on nation building, national integration, and economic/social development. We must have the courage to admit that all our previous political arrangements have failed in producing an enduring stable political leadership or guaranteeing national integration. We should go back to the drawing board, look at our national priorities and design appropriate system that meets our goals and national aspirations.

Finally, there are no barbarians on our borders, we are our own barbarians. And the country has just employed or (elected) its last centurion.

In 1999, the nation went back to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who had left public office 20 years earlier in 1979, and 2015, went back to Muhammadu Buhari, who left public office 30 years earlier 1985. There is no explanation to this mystery than a country in search of its past, frightened by its present and uncertain of its future. Or to put it more clearly, Nigeria is a country whose past is better than its present and its future is a subject of debates and speculations at the national and international levels. One can consult two books – Karl Meir; Nigeria: This House Has Fallen, and John Campbell; Nigeria: Dancing  On The Brinks, out of many books on the issue.

Certainly history has been kind to Nigeria, but nobody knows for how long. Nigeria must wake up. And if or when it disintegrates in spite of all our efforts, claims and clamours, nothing extra-ordinary will happen. The next day, the sun will rise .Look at the grave yard of history, it is full of nations great and small, empires and civilisations that failed to take timely decisions at their historic moments. In fact, the verdicts of history can be harsh and wicked to leaders and nations that neglected their responsibilities at critical times in their history. History, indeed has no sympathy for nations without heroes.

Nigeria is today at its worst critical cross-road-don’t ask me, look around the country. Do you see security, peace, unity, prosperity and one nation under God?          

Prof. George A. Obiozor was former Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Israel and Cyprus.

— Oct 26, 2015 @ 01:00 GMT


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