Chukwuma Charles Soludo, CFR
Being the First Graduation Day Keynote Speech at the SPPG Pioneer Class of 2021 (International Conference Centre, Abuja): January 29, 2022
Dear Friends, let me begin by appreciating one of Africa’s finest amazons and founder of the School of Politics, Policy and Governance (SPPG), my sister Dr. Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili (Oby) for continuing to be a key change maker in Africa. Graduating the first class of the SPPG today is like planting many seeds in a wide field: some may end up as iroko trees, others as shrubs, but we hope that together, they will all bond into a visible and impactful forest. When I received Oby’s letter some five days ago, I concluded that given my punishing schedule at the moment, I would just come and make a few ex tempore remarks. But I decided last night to scribble a few talking points— to avoid being misquoted. Therefore, if I appear incoherent, please forgive me.
The Graduation Theme is “Emergence of Unconventionals”. I understand that SPPG was founded to radically and deliberately transform the quality of political and public leadership in Nigeria and Africa, with a view to building a pipeline of value-based and disruptive thinking political class equipped with requisite knowledge and skills to solve complex problems of development in order to reposition Africa in the 21st Century. This is music to my ears and Africa is grateful to Oby.
In 1999, I co-authored a book entitled “Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment”. In 2000, I was the long-term consultant in a pan African project that resulted in a book published by the World Bank entitled “Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?” In both books, we identified the centrality of disruptive leadership and a developmental state in Africa’s renaissance. A little over 20 years later, the SPPG has set out to walk the talk by working to deliberately orchestrate the emergence of leaders with knowledge and capabilities.
You can therefore understand why I am personally elated to be speaking at the first graduation ceremony of this cohort of emerging unconventional leaders. Congratulations to you all, and in a few seconds, I will be commiserating with you as well. You volunteered to be in this team, and my charge to you is to go out and make the difference: be the change you have offered to see. Africa is waiting for you. Africa is watching you. Do not let us down.
On leadership, Africa has had a chequered history. While some see only the dark spots, I actually see multi colours of the good, the bad and the ugly. While the bad and the ugly dominate, I always try to avoid what our other sister, Chimamanda Adichie called the “single story” of the African narrative. In some ways, part of our future is in our past. When I read about the plans, values, passion, and accomplishments of some of Africa’s liberation/independence leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Nnamdi Azikiwe, etc I have cause to smile as an African. Back home, I am inspired by the examples of Aminu Kano, M.I. Okpara, Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, etc in our first republic. We can fill up hundreds of pages as eulogy to our gallant and patriotic past heroes and heroines, including those distinguished civil servants, captains of industry, journalists, civil society activists, musicians, etc who worked hard and some even paid the ultimate price to see Nigeria a better place. In our more recent history especially since 1999, we have seen occasional glitters of hope here and there but despair deepens. Around the continent, there is a mixture of bright and gloomy stories. “Africa Rising” was not just a fluke. The Dark Continent remains potentially the land of opportunities and could indeed be the global economic driver of the 22nd century. But the time to lay the foundation is now. The second scramble for Africa is raging, with the Chinese on the loose. Africa indeed needs new orchestra teams and new songs. It needs to run at the speed of a thousand kilometres an hour to seize back its future and shape its narrative. The graduates of SPPG have onerous and daunting tasks ahead of them. You have my commiserations!
With some 140 multidisciplinary topics covered in the past eight months, what can anyone tell you again in terms of knowledge. You have it, and also know where to find more if needed. With the hoes and machetes, the next is to get into the farm and ensure higher productivity. That farm is the field of politics, policy and governance. I am sure you carefully studied the nature of that farm in Nigeria and Africa, and I wish you good luck as you try to navigate through it to leave the society better than you met it.
But let me suggest, for emphasis, that indeed Africa needs a new liberation movement. The first struggle was liberation from the colonial masters. The second will be liberation from rentier politics and politicians. For me, there is almost a sense of nostalgia, recalling the mission and accomplishments of our founding fathers, especially as we contemplate the world without oil in Nigeria. Much of the existing social order is founded on competition for, and distribution of, rents. Oil and the easy money that came with it destroyed the social fabric and the elite created new institutions and political structures to maximize their gains. As the noose tightened globally on other rentier/criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking or internet scamming, many of the barons flocked into politics as the next easy alternative.
Politics has become big business. Appointment or election into public office is seen largely as an opportunity to “eat” rather than a call to selfless service. There is an army of rich (big men) who have never worked or done any productive work in their life and believe that it is their right to expect something for nothing. The tiny less than one percent elite have a stranglehold on the public purse, sprinkling occasional crumbs to the citizens as ‘dividends of democracy’. The citizens themselves either out of helplessness or acquiescence join the party, expecting the politicians to dole out pittance out of public treasury as charity. The citizens actually clap for such phantom “charity”. Politicians who refuse to do so are deemed as “stingy” or “wicked”, and the circus goes on. With a rentier system, a culture of freebies emerged, and most people don’t expect to pay for anything, including taxes, electricity, water, petrol, etc. A classic feature of the political environment is that corruption has become part of the “culture”, with little incentive for honesty. Honesty is scorned as wickedness, foolishness or mere pretense, and those who dare to be different have a steep price to pay. So, who among you is ready to be honest and scorned by society?
Oil is on its way out, but dismantling the decades-old debilitating institutions and politics around it won’t be a tea party. Nigeria is now at a fiscal cliff with a crunching solvency challenge. Youth unemployment, insecurity, poverty, inflation, etc threaten the social fabric. Migrating to a post oil world of 4th Industrial revolution and sustainable prosperity will require massive disruptive transformations and restoration of a productive social contract.
Such disruptions will come at great costs, and could indeed be dangerous. It is not far to imagine what could befall serious disruptors. In Nigeria, we remember what happened to Murtala Muhammed, and the history books are replete with hundreds of examples of the inherent risks. At a personal level, undertaking the banking revolution in Nigeria came with 19 written threats to me and my family, including physical attacks. Disrupting the existing social order is dangerous. Beneficiaries of the current order are powerful enough to organize and viciously fight back to protect their privileges. On the contrary, the masses who are the ultimate beneficiaries are not organized enough to act as a bulwark against the special interests. As things stand currently, we are standing between the rock and the hard place. With the objective to retain power within the context of short electoral cycles, politicians are afraid to undertake the necessary disruptive changes to guarantee long term safety and prosperity for all. On the other hand, the existing trends are totally unsustainable and the system is living on borrowed times. Everyone is sleepwalking to the hard place, and praying that somehow a miracle will happen along the way.
So, who is ready to put his head on the line to lead such productive but dangerous disruptions? Are the SPPG graduates ready for the assignment? I assume that you can’t wait to get to work, to apply your knowledge for a new Nigeria. Am I right? You have my prayers! As I pray for your success, let me throw up a few random nuggets to chew on your way.
Dear friends, fixing politics requires talent and skills. But these won’t be enough. It won’t happen by lone wolves working in silos. It requires new developmental organizations – organizations/teams of believers, driven by defined ideology, purpose and character. Let’s be clear about one point: Nigeria does not lack well educated/skilled and widely travelled stock of human capital to drive her development. In the U.S alone, Nigeria ranks highest on education among ethnic minorities and as a percentage of its population, it has the most educated population of all ethnic groups. At home, we have over 100 universities churning out hundreds of graduates every year. All over the world, Nigerians excel as champions in their various fields. A key missing link is purpose driven cohesion and organization for transformation of the homeland. There are many disparate groups and organizations, including political parties which claim (at least on their statutes) to champion national development. Only a few, if any, can be identified by any soul in terms of a nationalist ideology, professed and practiced by its members. The liberation struggle for independent Africa was driven by a nationalist ideology to be anchored by a developmental state. There is a huge void today, and I am not sure how we can fix our politics without the requisite organizations for change.
So, my first charge to my new friends and graduates is to profess their purpose in the political farmland and actively participate to actualize it. If you have not yet done so, when you go home today, write down your purpose (what do you want to achieve) in the public arena and paste same beside your reading table or anywhere for everyday reference. Then join a political party, a civil society organization, or organize alternative better platforms of leverage. You may better disrupt from inside than outside. Organization is power. The key is to participate in the process or stop complaining. For Nigeria, most people focus on politics in Abuja and we have for too long tried in vain to fix Nigeria from the obtuse centre. It is time to try fixing it and its politics from below— from the subnational units. If you have something to offer, go and run for office. Win or lose, your participation will add something to the process. Then persevere, endure, and remain focused on delivering your purpose.
For starters, let me suggest that the Alumni of SPPG should form themselves into a New Nigeria Network for change. As SPPG expands, an African network would emerge. Over the next decade, I can see a network of thousands of Africans who share a common template for redeeming our heritage. A Pan African movement may eventually take the stage by storm. The SPPG graduates must literally inculcate and profess a messianic philosophy as the driving force behind their network. It is good to look up to a role model for continuous inspiration or let each SPPG member carry the badge of honour and integrity everywhere. Personally, I would like to hear graduates of SPPG keep reminding the society that “as a graduate of SPPG, there are things I can’t do”, or “as a graduate of SPPG, I always stand up for public interest and not for personal gains” or “I am prepared to pay any price or go to any length to make Africa great”. Just do something different; say something different.
As part of your participation, please deliberately mainstream volunteerism. Don’t waste your new skills or wait until you are in public office. Find or create opportunities to deploy them. Volunteer to teach one hour a week in a local school. You can never imagine the impact. Volunteer in community service: providing information and helping with environmental management, traffic control, public education on lifestyle changes, mentor children and youths, etc. Indeed, volunteer to serve in the village government or clan. Barack Obama failed his first election and went to offer community services, and from there attempted again, and again. Fixing politics requires illustrative personal examples. As Mother Teresa advised, if you can’t change a million lives, start with one. Won’t it be great and a new dawn if on daily basis, each member of the SPPG alumni posts what actions he/she took to be the change he/she desires? Imagine spin-off organizations around Africa with millions of members over time on the same vision and mission. Obviously, something will give!
Dear friends, I won’t end these remarks without reiterating the centrality of purpose in the bid to fix politics. Purpose is everything. If you have not read it, I sincerely recommend the book entitled “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For” by Rick Warren. Purpose is deeply personal. Everyone must have that personal deep reflection and answer that question: “what on earth am I here for”? For some, the answer is roundly selfish: to eat, drink, marry, build house(s), and accumulate and accumulate all the vanities of the world and then die. In the circumstance, political arena is nothing but a dining table. I know many people trained in some of the best universities in the world and widely travelled but who complain about being deployed to ministries considered “dry” in public service in comparison to the ones they considered as “juicy”. In this instance, it is not about knowledge and skills but purpose. For others, there must be a divine purpose why God in His infinite wisdom decided to make you an African, a Nigerian, etc. If the divine purpose is interpreted to mean that God sent you here to contribute in leaving His creation better than you met it, then you must be driven by a different meaning and impetus to life.
Every society that has prospered and endured has been led by men and women who have discovered a higher purpose beyond self. For such people, politics is a vocation for selfless service and not a job. Such people are driven by a single purpose— to make a difference and leave legacies. Whenever and wherever competence is augmented with character and developmental ideology, the society wins. I recently re-read Lee Kuan Yew’s book “From Third World to First”, and can’t stop being inspired. The combination of competence and driven by higher purpose produced such a transformational leadership that orchestrated a miracle in development. In one of his last speeches before death, Lee Kuan Yew observed that he and his colleagues were prepared that even if they died trying to make Singapore great, they would have been happy to die for a worthy cause. The choice is personal. The choice is yours.
But if perchance, you choose, as I believe you have elected, to join the crusade for a better Africa, and knowing the missiles that will come your way as you strive to do good and be different, let me encourage you with the great words by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.
Dear friends, let me end with this simple prayer for you. May God of Africa grant you the wisdom to discover the divine purpose for your life, the wisdom to know what is right, and very importantly, the courage to do it.
God bless you!
God bless Nigeria!!