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#NewLeadership Series With Chude Jideonwo: Underestimating the Problem & Overstating Our Capacity



 There is a truth young Nigerians need to know – and it is that if many of us find the privilege to step into public office today, we will act the exact same way as many of those whom we criticise, even despise.

Recover quickly and let’s interrogate that assertion.

The problem is neither a default in character (the “all Nigerians young and old are corrupt” doctrine) nor a sudden absence of conscience – the problem is, as I see it, one of understanding. More than once, I have quieted down and listened to government officials who were once activists or critics or columnists or opposition members repeat that they “did not fully understand the depths of the problem that existed” or that suddenly they have seen the light. That in itself is a major problem, and I don’t think we understand how grave a challenge it presents – and why we need to pay attention to what these people are saying.

It is very troubling to listen to the public discourse amongst young people and see them belittle and simplify the magnitude of the problems Nigeria faces or why it has been impossible for many brilliant, determined Nigerians in government to fulfill the promise that they made or represented.

They are preparing themselves to fall into the same traps that have caught their predecessors.

Let’s look back on perhaps the finest example of this tragedy – Bola Ige, that excellent man who government took away from us. It had been barely days since he joined the government, without looking at the files, sitting down with the decision makers, understanding the bottlenecks or indeed having a cup of coffee to think over the mountains ahead, but he went to the public space and declared that he would solve the problems of NEPA in a couple of months. His timeline came and passed – and, of course, he failed.

Government in Nigeria is surely not a matter solely of good intentions. If you are a politician, you face a number of woes: a severely corrupt set of grassroots politicians that subsists almost entirely on cash-patronage and is driven by primal, primitive interests. To break all that English into a simple phrase – it is cash-and-carry (to win a local government election in the South-West, I have heard, you need at least N20 million).

You face an electorate populace that will sit outside the home of a Senator to get their “dividends of democracy”, most times in cash. On rare occasions, they demand that a legislator sink a borehole in the community or build a bridge, a responsibility that is neither his nor does he oversee whose it is. If you are, say a minister, your woes surely multiply – government is a complex layer of mundane, redundant, and gravity-defying bureaucracy that can consume (and corrupt) you. There are permanent secretaries who have outlived two decades of ministers whom you have to co-opt or circumvent (ask Adenike Grange). By the way, you cannot fire them, nor can you discipline them. The Ministry of Youth Development is perhaps a good example here. It is a ministry that “handles” the National Youth Service Corps, but then, that is easily a joke.

Despite the fact that its budget is taken almost 90 per cent by the service corps scheme, the minister unfortunately has very little control over matters as simple as whether corps members allowances have been paid – in fact, effectively, the director-general and other officials of of the Corps are beyond his control No amount of “fire and brimstone’ threats can make any real change in those places unless he somehow finds himself having the ears of the president on a constant basis. Unfortunately, youth development is not a ‘powerful’ ministry – another major problem. You find yourself beholden to a severely corrupt National Assembly whose members have been there since democracy returned in 1999, who already know “how things are done here” and are armed, dangerously, with small minds and huge egos. You are pressured on every corner to ease your own passage during sittings and hearings (ask Fabian Osuji) for everything from your budget to mini-controversies, and you find yourself having to learn a whole new range of social skills to get any work done.

And I have only mentioned two principalities. One remembers Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tell a tale on her first course in Nigerian government about how she had to go out and buy pens for the ministry herself because the process of getting the monies out was about to drive her crazy. And that’s just pens.

Have I told you the story of a government minister who entered into office and sought to do the simplest thing possible –a re-design of the ministry’s website? Ah, then maybe I should tell you. First and foremost, the directors in his office could give him no clues, claiming the previous minister had single-handedly managed the site. There was no email trail made available to the new minister, no proper handover in documented format (the minister before him had simply upped and left). When he eventually got a contact, informally, to the special assistant to the former minister (whom, as you must recall was no longer in the vicinity), he was told that the contractor who managed the back-end of the site could not reached. Cut a long story short, to get anything done, he had to register a whole new URL and get a new website designed, leading to a situation where different ministries in Nigerians government circles have wildly different URLs.

Of course, when you go down to Twitter to hear the chatter, you hear things like this: “Why can’t this minister do a simple thing like change the website of this country?! Why do we have such daft people in government in Nigeria?”

The problem unfortunately, is not ‘daft people.’ The problem is a daft system that has made itself so impossible to change that it takes the will and guts of a mad man. What do you find, therefore? Brilliant technocracts who have blazed trails internationally or in the private sector or in the development community who find themselves hampered by the labyrinth of government in Nigeria – where they are unable to do the most basic things.

Cushioned unfortunately by the interminable luxuries of that same government, they will not resign, but will simply throw their hands in the air, do the little that they can to “satisfy their conscience”, moan about how terrible it is to steer any change in Nigeria. Where they are smarter, they launch into quick wins – developing a string of nice-sounding ideas and projects that will quickly win them column inches and the admiration of donors and foreign governments. They are seen as visionary and transformative, but they know that the minute they step out of government, their unsustainable ideas will be churned out, along with their strategists, consultants, and other suits.

The result is that we take no step forward, and two backwards.

This is the challenge that a new generation of leaders faces. Government is the most important force for change in any society so ultimately to make any sustainable change, you have to have people in this imperfect, impossible governance structure. Getting into public service without seeking to correctly understand how deep the corruption, the ineptitude, and the failure of common processes runs means that you are getting into government without the competence and the capacity that you truly need to make any change possible.

We don’t need another generational merry go round where people go into government all fired up and ready to go and come out with no concrete achievement – ending up as additions to the long list of failed “whiz kids”.

Therefore, any young person who is desirous of joining that system (indeed, any system) on a tangential or major level, must begin to take the time to understand that system –indirectly through observation, monitoring, and knowledge osmosis (conferences, sittings, etc), or directly through internships, mentorships and other interactions. That is what will truly differentiate a new generation of leaders from the old: knowledge, and the capacity to make change happen. Not to complain about how hard it is when you eventually arrive there, not to be crippled by the relentless graft that defines it, not to be slowed down by its institutionalided inadequacies; but to come into those offices fully understanding the complexity of our problems and how deep they run and armed with a plan and a strategy on how to circumvent or de-mobilise those situations and achieve sterling results.

For now, we are not at that stage yet. Many of us are still under-estimating the problem, and we are over-stating our own capacity to make that change happen simply because we have read a couple of textbooks that have outlined “alternative sources of energy in emerging economies”, we have not faced any situations that test our character, or have attended one or two conferences on “The Asian Tigers” during our summer holidays at Stanford. Many of us still imagine for instance – and this is truly worrisome – that good intentions are enough to solve our power problems and dismiss the circling of vultures including ex-heads of state who have vested interests in that sector and will fight reform tooth and nail; or that it takes just one fiery senator to dismantle the wickedness in high places that are siphoning Nigeria’s oil wealth.

I’m sorry, but it doesn’t have anything to do with passion, or righteous indignation. It has everything to do with the competence and the capacity to navigate these treacherous waters.

The solution bears repeating – Any young person who is desirous of joining that system (indeed, any system) on a tangential or major level, must begin to take the time to understand that system –indirectly through observation, monitoring, and knowledge osmosis (conferences, sittings, etc), or directly through internships, mentorships and other interactions.

These are not times for trial by error.

Photo credit:
Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV & He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.

Jideonwo is a storyteller, using the research and evidence on human flourishing to inspire new narratives about politics, markets, faith, identity and society in Africa. He is a co-founder of RED, which he ran for 13 years before stepping down in December 2017. One of its companies, StateCraft Inc. handled communication for the Muhammadu Buhari campaign in 2015 and has worked in elections in Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.


  1. Msunderstood

    January 15, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Oh my God! Chide is so right. I have at so many times imagined how I can transform different aspects of govt n always wondered how HARD it could be for the “silly people” in govt.
    I remember how Bola Ige was frustrated out of Nepa n later transferred to another ministry n eventually assassinated. It definitely takes more than good intentions n enviable portfolio from d private sector or a foreign establishment. Sometimes, these people with good intentions get frustrated n end up joining d crowd.

  2. faith

    January 15, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    I thought I was d only1 dat analys our problems d way I just did…

  3. Anonymous

    January 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Real talk…. actually got me thinking

  4. EfKay

    January 15, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Izzalie!!! No comment ke?? What a shame!!! So people by-passed this to comment and hate on Chika Ike! Indeed we are not there yet. Thank you sir Chude for your wise words. In as much as I have always known that we have ‘special’ (for lack of a better word) problems in Nigeria, I think I’m also guilty of underestimating the problem and overstating our capacity. I also strongly agree with your recommendations of understanding the system. This was a real eye opener and I’m grateful for and proud of people like you. May God bless you richly and may we together live to see the Nigeria of our dreams.


    January 16, 2013 at 2:43 am

    Nice work.


    January 16, 2013 at 2:50 am

    May we be delivered from the Reuben Abatis, Labaran Makus,… of this society. #cunningelements

  7. Energy

    January 16, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Our problems are man made. So I’m sure that we can find solutions to those problems. I disagree with all this talk about govt. bureaucrats standing in the way of progress. Our leaders steal millions regularly but complain about perm secs and directors when it’s time to work for the people. Chude, our leaders (President, Governors, and their cabinet members) in Nigeria are too powerful so quit deluding yourself. The system might be daft but the leaders are to blame because it’s their job to fix the system. They need to put in work and quit whining. Leadership is a contact sport; nothing is going to be handed to you on a platter.

  8. Ada Owerri

    January 16, 2013 at 6:52 am

    I am in full agreement. I have always thought of the bureaucratic aspects of issues within the government and wondered why the whiz kids didn’t achieve more e.g. Segun Aganga- what’s he up to these days ? You’ve just put all my thoughts in context. The question is what do we do? How do we reform what is a colossus of failure? I have always wondered if change should be top down or bottom up? Imagine trying to reform local governance for instance. You want each one to have information on a website but you also know that quite a few local governments don’t even have a suitable office, power is not constant to run computers and and some staff are at best illiterate. How do you then reform such system? You can’t sack them all because that in itself would be too disruptive. These are often my musings driving down the M25 to work… One thing’s for sure, change is not going to come quick.

  9. Adeola Onafuwa

    January 16, 2013 at 8:28 am

    The problems in Nigeria seem to have been overtaken by the fearless corruption of OUR leaders & this is only fueled because today’s youth choose to be politically ignorant and inactive towards arresting the situation in which we’re in. How can a government boldly come out to declare it intends on ‘spending’ over 60 billion naira on cellphones for farmers; it is evident that this is a bogus sum & part of another scheme by those at the helm of political power (the same people that swore to serve & protect the interest of the commoner) to squander our already depleting resource(s). Nigeria is decaying and it’s youths are doing absolutely nothing about it. We have allowed ourselves to be distracted by socio-economic indulgences and a lifestyle that is not coherent with our status. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we are a struggling nation both economically and politically; political ‘optimists’ may choose to argue differently but the truth is glaring for all to see. The crimes of our government are numerous and it hurts to watch these selfish, ignorant and power-drunk individuals collectively jeopardize the future of an entire nation. What would it take for the Nigerian youth to realize that things are not meant to be the way they currently are and that positive changes are highly urgent, essential and achievable? Violence is never the answer because it isn’t self sustaining, however, what we need to do as Nigerians is empower ourselves with knowledge! Know what and who we are up against and how best to tackle it without harming ourselves. We are up against physical, mental, socio-economic oppression by the ‘older’ generation who seem to be comfortable with this lifestyle of corruption. They have become so comfortable that there is now a total disregard of the the opinion and cries of the commoner against their excessive corrupt practices. Elections are rigged without fear, money goes missing from the CBN without a follow up investigation, our resources are being squandered by multi-national corporations and there isn’t a single regulatory body to ensure that these “billionaire demons” are held accountable for the improper ways in which they treat OUR land. Nigeria is our home, it is more than just a country, it is a feeling that is groomed by our mental state. It is high time the Nigerian youth begin to speak up against the mishaps in OUR home, WE have a duty to protect OUR land from the bad eggs amongst us. The national pledge and national anthem should mean something & not just be recited for the sake of it. We the youth of nigeria need to empower ourselves with knowledge, become politically aware and responsive to the internal threat(s) we face, threats that are fast becoming fatal. No jobs, lack of proper infrastructure, absent security, bad healthcare system, laughable international reputation, religious and ethnic conflict fueled by greed, selfishness and ignorance…yet we pride ourselves as being the giant of Africa, we pride ourselves as belonging to a nation “omo Naija”, we expect other nations to respect us and treat us with love, sincerity and seriousness while we breed hate, deceit and mediocrity in OUR home. We are oppourtuned to live in an era where information is easily spread and accessed, information is key to the sustainence of any modern society. Let us take the battle to these corrupt & misinformed oppressors, let us empower ourselves by uniting for one cause – the improvement of OUR home. No one else will do it for us, no one. We have a common plight, every one of us, even those who claim not to be directly affected because of whatever reason(s) or excuse(s). We number in millions that study in foreign academic institutions, let us do something that we will be proud of and the future generation would benefit positively from. Spread the information on every social media, we can influence the affairs of OUR home without having to be violent. We have the opportunity to help our brothers & sisters back home who cannot afford to help themselves out of this predicament. let us be their voice to the outside world, we will roar and shake the very foundations of aso rock! We will let these oppressors know that every single Nigerian worldwide is fully aware of their actions and we are prepared to do something about it! There is no leader without followers! We have a choice not to be oppressed! We have the right to take that choice and take power from these wolves who are inflicting pain, discomfort, confusion & death upon us! We are the future of nigeria & we decide when that future is & we say the future is NOW!

  10. phantom

    January 16, 2013 at 8:35 am

    I have to commend you for this brilliant write-up, Chude. it clearly outlines an important but overlooked part of the Nigerian problem-even the bible states that only a foolish man will propose to build (or in this case, repair) a tower without first sitting down to count the cost. In addition to your point, however, i strongly believe that one major thing the leaders lack is a strong political will to change the status quo. The simple truth is its much easier to join the muck than to change things, which is the main reason some of the so-called activists get into government, see the depth of rot, do a volte-face and start speaking with the other side of their mouth.

    I tell you, the will to do good is grossly lacking in this country. Sure, it will be difficult to get things back on track but its not impossible. Case in point: Georgia. Georgia was one of the most corrupt countries in the world as recently as 1998. Being one of the fragments of the former USSR, things were as bad as could be. All it took to put things back on track was the determination of a single man: Mikheil Saakashvili. His reforms were so drastic, he shocked the world. In one day, he sacked the entire police force of the country and re-constituted it. And to think they dont even practice democracy!!! The result? the country went from being at the bottom of the barrel to sitting among the top 20 countries of the world. and all this in less than 10 years.

    Its time for us to shape up around here and quit moaning ’bout how endemic corruption is. We need to get knowledge, grow balls of steel and get this country back.

    • Tiey Rex

      January 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      Excellent! Well said. My thoughts exactly.
      I just fell in love with Phantom *hoping Phantom is an unmarried man*

  11. Adanna

    January 16, 2013 at 8:50 am

    What a nice piece!

  12. missy

    January 16, 2013 at 9:42 am

    @phantom you deserve a hug for your ocmment!
    @bellanaija, the like button is long overdue.
    I am such a huge fan of the Georgia reforms and such drastic action is what we need in nigeria as we obviously do not understand anything else.

  13. ola

    January 16, 2013 at 10:17 am

    great work from you guys…

  14. MissShayee

    January 16, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Very well written Chude. I am still trying to collect my thoughts on the state of our system,because that is where the true problem lies. Wishful thinking and righteous indignation will surely not resolve our woes.

  15. inori

    January 16, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I agree with you wholeheartedly , the road blocks in the system are too many to comprehend .The same Nigerians who want change to not realize that it starts from each and every one of us. if we all did our bit particularly in the ministries things would become a lot better but sadly as a whole (Nigerians) we are greedy ,selfish and corrupt not only those in power but every one of us

  16. Anonymous

    January 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    is that a goat? 😛

  17. omototun

    January 17, 2013 at 4:59 am

    later now Chude will turn to our generation’s Rueben Abati…..not a personal attack on Chude, but it is what it is, am now very pessimistic!!! Never trust a man until he’s also in power, anybody can talk or is it write…I don tire!!
    and yea I know this is not the most analytical response

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