I am starting this piece on leadership with a hypothesis. And my hypothesis is founded not just on my perception of leadership over time, but specifically on how my understanding of Yoruba culture and philosophy has affected what I think about the nature, dynamics, and responsibility of leading a country like Nigeria.
Leadership is a critical subject matter that brings political philosophers, political scientists, and political theorists together since it is the concept around which we try to understand how to facilitate human flourishing in a social and political space. And it is even more crucial for Nigerians since independence because that is the key to the transformation of the Nigerian state. And hence, this explains my ongoing curiosity, as a political theorist and public commentator, about how we can keep orienting and expanding our understanding of what leadership means. The 69th birthday celebration of the ubiquitous Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu provides me with yet another opportunity to test my ideas.
Asiwaju Ahmed Tinubu has become a curiosity in the Nigerian political firmament before the commencement of the democratic experiment in 1999. He has become a significant gladiator in the agitation concerning the future of the Nigerian state. His views, opinions, and even silences have been subjected to heated debates that explore the boundaries of personal, political, and cultural understanding of an average Nigerian politician. But Asiwaju is not an ordinary Nigerian politician. However, beyond any analysis of who they are and what possible understanding we can have of their motives, politicians should be studied in ways that enlighten us about leadership and its dynamics. And this is even more so in the case of Tinubu. I doubt that there is any “popular” leader in the sense of someone who enjoys consensual support across the many spectrums of political opinions and interests. Leadership popularity is even all the scarcer in Nigeria because of the acute nature of what is demanded from anyone wishing to lead in such a politically inflammable context.
Yet, Tinubu keeps resurfacing in almost all the discussions about Nigeria’s present and future. And all the more also because he is Yoruba. Even more critical: he is the fourth in the line of critical Yoruba politicians that had defined the Nigerian state—Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, and Chief MKO Abiola. By some kind of an unfathomable good fortune for my political understanding, I have had more than casual encounters with the four, though with MKO to a limited extent and therefore will not be focused in this reflection. My encounters and engagements with them have been in the service of my ongoing attempt to facilitate an institutional reform philosophy that could backstop Nigeria’s inherent possibilities as a state. Thus, it began to dawn on me to reflect on how these Yoruba national leaders have engaged with the Nigerian state from the perspective of their ethnic nationality.
In other words, what is it about being a Yoruba that instigates the kind of notoriety each one of them symbolizes? To varying degrees, each of these political gladiators represents similar achievements. My observation reveals (a) abiding respect for intellectual capital and the authority of knowledge and meritocracy in governance; and (b) a commitment to Nigeria and her possibilities, within their individual understanding of their responsibilities to the commonwealth. However, each of them had been embroiled in a dilemma that pitted their political principles against a rampaging populism that often sieve these principles through the prism of what the people think and expect from their leaders. But part of their enigmatic character has been due to their resilience in holding on to their belief about Nigeria, even in the face of the most scurrilous public opinion and political shenanigans.
The name “Asiwaju”—Tinubu’s popular title—is a Yoruba appellation that carries the burden of Yoruba ethical principles. It means “the one who leads.” Fundamentally, leadership is a moral responsibility which the Yoruba attach to being an omolúwàbí. As a moral imperative, being an omolúwàbí is an ontological and ethical idea. Omolúwàbí denotes a mode of being that lies behind the Yoruba understanding of iwa (character) and ewa (beauty). To be an ordinary Yoruba person demands being an omolúwàbí, a moral exemplar. But being a leader demands more. The beauty that iwa confers on a person’s existence is expected to manifest in how one relates with others in human society. A leader is commendable when her actions contribute to the well-being of the collective. A leader that has ewa or beauty further signals such a leaders’ capacity for relational and social goodness.
From Awolowo to Asiwaju, we have Yoruba leaders that we have attempted to cast in the mold of an omolúwàbí. Awolowo was represented as the reincarnation of Oduduwa, the eponymous leader of the Yoruba. One of the most significant achievements of Awolowo is the unification of the Yoruba as one solid ethnonational group within Nigeria. That unification became significant within the context of the positioning for significance within the Nigerian national space. Awolowo became almost mythic in terms of his sociocultural force and political vision. He needed to unite the disparate Yoruba tribes as a critical issue in Nigeria’s national integration challenge. Awolowo’s deep philosophical intuition recognized that the Yoruba had to achieve self-respect as a precondition for a strategic place in the unity of Nigeria. Unfortunately, Awolowo failed to prevent the Yoruba factor which consumes its own force of being. Alaafin Aole was alleged, by Samuel Johnson’s reading of history, to not only have suffered the fate of being betrayed by his lieutenants but he also allegedly left a curse that subjects the Yoruba race to persistent self-inflicted treachery. And it would seem that, in retrospect, the Yoruba nation has been left rudderless in its attempt at remaining a strong force for unity in Nigeria.
With Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, there was no antecedent mythic relationship with Oduduwa that Awolowo enjoyed. Indeed, his Yorubaness was questioned within the intrigues of politicking that characterized the Nigerian political class, as well as the political calculation that brought Obasanjo to power. There is no doubt that Obasanjo has a deep sense of Yoruba history and culture, yet he struggled with the imperative of cultural capital that could have been a strong base for his governance performance. However, it had not been easy to balance a sense of national unity and an imperative of ethnic loyalty. This has always been the challenge of nation-building in any plural state. But Wale Adebanwi has argued before that the Yoruba vision of egalitarianism and social justice, especially within an ethnically divided Nigeria, is adaptable by other ethnic groups because of the humanistic basis of that vision. The problem is now that of first selling the vision to the Yoruba elite who have not necessarily bought into the selfless philosophy of unity and national integration. In other words, the general populace sometimes reacts to the whirls of what elite actions throw up, which are not often all that clear. A politician, therefore, has to face the often vicious recriminations of those who perceive their political principles differently.
Obasanjo has definitely regained his acerbic directness after he got out of the chokehold of Nigerian power politics. On the contrary, Asiwaju Tinubu is still caught in the grip of that excruciating context of power tussle and national dynamics of building a united Nigeria. And he is struggling too hard to live up to the responsibilities of his appellation as one who leads. But one must understand the demand of leadership as often an attempt to mediate between often contradictory principles and demands. Asiwaju has often been caught in between the demand to stand with his Yoruba credentials which require that he pushes an agenda that he might be reading differently; and the need to attend to the imperatives of nation-building which has a civic prism through which all ethnic visions must be filtered. Well, we must also not forget the realm of personal ambition, and the aspiration to become anything anyone wants to become. If Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu wants to be the president of Nigeria, that should be seen as a legitimate aspiration for one who has invested so much into the Nigerian project. But all ethnic, national, and personal agendas are constrained by the urgency of transiting to a pan-Nigerian political unity that everyone can accept and work with.
Every leader with an aspiration must thread what we can call the landmines of leadership. But then what character is required to traverse the landmines of politics in a place like Nigeria? The Yoruba culture demands relentlessly that such a leader must be an omolúwàbí, and the goodness generated by the beauty of that character must form the basis of governance. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, has curious leadership advice: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” There is an element of enigmatic quietness in this advice that seems to speak to Asiwaju’s reticence sometimes when there are issues demanding his voice. But there is equally in Lao Tzu’s advice the expectation of governance performance that must satisfy the yearning to unravel the enigmatic leader and his political prowess.
Democracy is such a beautiful thing. It enables the citizens to vote in a potential leader based on the mechanics of possibilities that such a candidate portend. Whatever the political aspiration of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, he is an embodiment of democratic possibilities, like every other person with similar aspirations. And in his travails as a political leader, we already learn how difficult it is to be a leader in a context where leadership is sorely needed.
•Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration/Policy, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.