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Igbo & Leadership Question: The Achebe Example —By Ikedi Ohakim


The simple reason is that it is offensive in Igbo culture to exhibit your possession or wealth lest you attract the envy of your neighbours. But today an Igbo youngster who can boast of a million Naira in his bank account, makes the noise of N50 million to the irritation of his competitors who are probably richer than he is. He is thus marked out as a target for economic strangulation.

The Igbo must return to the spirit of Onye Aghala Nwanneya. We must once more become our brother’s keeper, help those less privileged, pull up the weak among us and raise the hopes of those in despair. That was how we did it in the past. That was how we bridged the educational gap between us and the Yoruba in a space of 30 years. We can do it again. If it worked before, it will work for us again.


Several people, including our own legend of the millennium, Chinua Achebe, have located our national problem on the quality or absence of quality leadership. For me, especially as a politician who has been in the arena of contest for power, leadership is critical, whether in the family, Town Union, Age Grade, the community or nation. The success of a group or a nation depends entirely on the capability of the leadership. Even economists have agreed that the progress of a nation no longer depends on the wealth or natural endowment of the nation, but on the core values espoused by that nation; values like responsibility, transparency, honesty, accountability, hard work, delayed gratification, etc, etc. It is the responsibility of a leader to drive these core values.

Leadership is that point where we can all look at and feel reassured that our hope is alive. It must be the furnace that constantly fires up all our aspirations, the engine room of our national advancement. In order words, my idea of leadership is like a canvass on which everyone can see his or her dreams, and the hope that those dreams can be realized in a secure nation that, in the first place, guarantees those dreams as the rights of citizens. Often, we have a terrible situation where Ndigbo are denied the right to dream, denied the ability to live those dreams and denied the confidence to hope for a secure future. As Max dePree, a former CEO put it, the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, and I dare say, also to change existing reality. In his own view, Warren Bennis defined leadership as the ability to define issues without aggravating the problem. It would seem that in Nigeria, leadership has constantly aggravated our national problems. There is a crisis of definition of who is a leader. 

This crisis is not helped by the bravado of the roving band of money-miss-roads of invisible means in Igbo land. Once a young man sees N500 million in his bank account, no matter how he made it, he aspires to buy his way to the governorship of his state. If that does not work, he tries the Local Government. If that fails, he guns for the traditional stool of his town. If he can’t get that, he anoints himself a party chieftain and becomes a political godfather or city father who sponsors mayhem in his state, if the resources of the state or local government are not shared to him. In an increasingly complex, competitive and dangerous world, with increasing conflicts, how we choose to respond to these realities depends on our understanding of the character and capacity of our leadership.


For the interest of the youths, perhaps it will be appropriate here to examine the attributes of some leaders who changed the world. The leader must be a man of courage and conviction if he must change the status quo. James Callaghan, former British Prime Minister, captured it accurately when he said: “A leader must have the courage to act and to act against an expert advice”. A good example of what Callaghan was saying is another former British Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Thatcher could have allowed the economy of Britain to continue the downward slide of the 70s or to crumble under the weight of inefficiency of nationalization. But she had the courage to privatize the economy when the Labour leadership and the Trade Unions thought it could not be done. She was not swayed by the barrage of criticisms. In fact she was called the Iron Lady in a rather pejorative sense. Her conviction saw her through. At the end she prevailed, became one of the longest ruling British Prime Ministers and at the end, the British economy became competitive.

Nelson Mandela, who has been mentioned earlier, was doing well as a lawyer. But he had the courage and conviction to take on the apartheid system. Even when it cost him 27 years of his active life and marriage, he did not waver. His travails in prison did not deter him. Moreover, as we showed earlier, Mandela is a mediatorleader, a conciliator and a bridge-builder. He could have gone for vengeance after prison, but he did not, because the struggle was bigger than his self interest. A leader must be visionary to effect change. A visionary leader must see possibilities beyond the present. He must be able to see tomorrow and shape the future without necessarily getting there. Martin Luther King proclaimed to the black Americans in the sixties: “I have seen the promise land; but I may not get there with you!” It has been over five decades from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream!” to Barack Obama’s “Change We Need”. As Mandela said, there are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.

Apart from being visionary, spontaneity is essential in leadership. In the early sixties, the Soviet Union sent man to the outer space. America was caught unawares by that feat by a rival power. President John Kennedy gathered his cabinet to articulate a response. While Kennedy’s men were thinking of sending man to outer space, Kennedy stepped aside for a few moments, came back and abruptly announced to his men and to Americans: “We are going to put man on the moon!” Kennedy saw possibilities beyond what those around him could see. When he made that prophetic declaration, Kennedy did not know how America was going to achieve the feat. That is a matter of details which was not his responsibility. The broad picture is the responsibility of the leader. Details are the responsibility of his lieutenants. But Kennedy’s vision was ultimately achieved long after his death and America became the greatest power in the world.

The leader must have the ability to break barriers or push the frontiers further even when people believe that the barriers and frontiers are impregnable. A leader must have an intuition to seize the right moment to confront the status quo. Britain held its colonies in bondage and resisted the liberation movements and nationalists until Harold Macmillan, a former British Prime Minister, changed the momentum with his “wind of change” speech of 3 February 1960, which altered the dynamics of independence to the colonies. Our nationalists, Herbert Macauley, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Mbonu Ojike, Ahmadu Bello, Aminu Kano, Tafawa Balewa and others pushed at the barriers of colonialism to usher in Independence in 1960.

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