How not to compare leaderships: A tribute to late Gen Murtala Ramat Muhammed

By Umar Ardo, Ph.D

On 31st December, 1983, then Major General Mohammadu Buhari, after being installed Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, following the overthrow of a democratically elected government of President Shehu Shagari in a bloody military coup, declared that his military government was an offshoot of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime.

By that assertion, Head of State Buhari was inferring that his regime was a continuation of the Murtala/Obasanjo military régime of 1975-1979. That it is a generally conceded fact Nigerians look at the Murtala/Obasanjo regime with utmost satisfaction is doubtless. Beyond its enchanting philosophy, outlook, performance, etc., its decisiveness, precision in action and clinical thoroughness in putting national objectives above self and group benefits made it a regime that cleansed the body politic of the country, generated national contentment, inspired and oriented citizens towards higher national ideals – making it unquestionably the most credible and popular regime in Nigeria’s checkered history.

These were all high leadership qualities that made the Murtala/Obasanjo regime a dawn of a new era in the annals of Nigeria national leadership. Being part of the regime, it was no wonder that Buhari claimed his military regime as an offshoot of the Murtala/Obasanjo one. It must first be understood that Gen. Buhari made that claim basically to gain for his regime legitimacy, acceptability and support at home and abroad. Second, being himself a key member of that regime as Military Governor and member of the National Council of State, and Minister of Petroleum and member of the Federal Executive Council, Gen. Buhari had every right to make that claim.

To the credit of the new military regime, which came to be known as the Buhari/Idiagbon regime, it measured up to a degree to the standard of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime; in seeming patriotism, fight against corruption, in instilling discipline in citizens, and in state affairs. In addition, on leaving office as Head of State in 1979, General Olusegun Obasanjo, Murtala’s deputy and successor, wrote glowingly on the character and disciplinary nature of Buhari as a person and as an officer in the cerebral book, “Not my Will”. And, for most impressionable minds like ours then in Secondary Schools who adored the Murtala/Obasanjo regime as the highest example of idyllic leadership, such professes and attestations made Buhari instinctively the ideal leader to many of us.

Hence, Buhari as a public servant captured the imagination, sympathy, loyalty and support of patriotic Nigerians. Part of the difficulties of the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida regime that overthrew the Buhari/Idiagbon government in a bloodless palace coup d’état was the initial disapproval of this group of Nigerians. Buhari thus left office with a high leadership persona. It was this persona that became the vehicle that would later be flung for him to acquire popular support and drive his electioneering campaign under the current democratic dispensation, and ultimately getting him elected president in 2015.

But having ridden on the back of Murtala/Obasanjo to gain the image that got him elected president, can the present Buhari leadership be compared with the Murtala/Obasanjo regime of 1975-1979, or even the Obasanjo presidency of 1999-2007? Notwithstanding the different types of government under review, the key element for comparison is personal leadership. The answer to this question is no, as five failings of Buhari government made it uncharacteristic to compare his personal leadership to that of Murtala on whom he rode to prominence.

First, unlike in Murtala, there is incapacity to provide strong and decisive leadership by President Buhari who clearly exhibited lack of firmness, confidence and direction. Almost any problem can be well resolved if there is effective leadership at the top. All that is required is the force of personal leadership, and that is what Murtala had in abundance and manifestly lacking in President Buhari, who can rightly be termed in political jargon as a passive leader – one who allows problems to solve themselves and intervenes only when it is utterly necessary!

For a government to solve problems, it ultimately requires direction and prodding of a leadership at the top – one dominant unifying leader facilitating clear decisions and enabling prompt, efficient execution of those decisions! Even though some decree of collective decision-making of the cabinet on critical national issues is necessary, such collective decisions must be led by a single leading mind that keeps close control of the overall strategic direction of the government.

This entails the leader taking charge and full responsibility for the act and outcome of whatever events set in motion. Where this is lacking then there is a problem. And this is simply absent in President Buhari’s leadership. This leadership deficiency is both unsuited to the active requirements of a country in dire need of peace, unity, political stability, economic growth and social harmony, and uninspiring, discouraging and disappointing to zealous and devoted politicians, intellectuals, bureaucrats, patriotic citizens, etc. who are eager to see Nigeria leap forward into the developed world of the 21st century.

Second, even in organizing for collective decisions, President Buhari exhibits other serious deficits. Over the years, it became clear that there is lack of harmony and coordination among the various segments and agencies of the executive organ headed by the president that affected the regime’s general output. In all these the president prefers to remain aloof and silent, with minimum or no intervention from him.

Notwithstanding contrary views, this is simply a wrong approach to leadership, as harmony and cooperation is the bench phrase for a successful government.

Third, again unlike Murtala, President Buhari seems to have little value for ideas and innovations. The essence of collective decision-making in a government is to aggregate various ideas from cabinet members with the view to evolving the best policy option for the problem at hand. As we all know, there are plenty of good ideas out there if only they can be listened to and brought into practice by the leadership. But the president has proven to be a non-listening leader. This explains his utterly wrong directive to all appointees, especially Cabinet Ministers, to pass through his Chief of Staff in dealing, communicating and meeting with him.

Needless to say, this is a mindless bureaucratic process that will deliver nothing but mediocrity. A serious leader must evaluate and guide firsthand the initiatives of his appointees. Consequently, in a situation where another appointee becomes responsible for evaluating and deciding on policy initiatives of other appointees, not only an unnecessary bureaucratic bottleneck is created but it also diminishes the zeal, confidence and energy of the appointee concerned, which ultimately hinders the general policy outputs of government.

Naturally, this lack of direct evaluation and guidance of the president on the initiatives of his appointees rendered the government slow and weak in outlook and output, and bankrupt in policy formulation and implementation. The result is that nothing has been properly or usefully designed and decided all through these 7 years, as all initiative and energy are paralyzed.

Fourth, whatever efforts put forth by other members of the government became mired in confusion from the outset owing chiefly to lack of good understanding of the real issues at play, thereby resulting in poor policy options and choices for the regime. The reason being that most of the personnel appointed did not fit the offices they occupied. Sourcing the right personnel to occupy key offices of government is no doubt important, but the refinement of the personnel to fit the offices they are assigned to is even more important. To this end, sufficient thought ought to have been given to matching the suitability and character of the individual with the oddity of the office assigned to him or her and the need of the moment. In this, President Buhari also failed miserably. To appoint linguists as Agriculture and Petroleum Ministers, an Accountant and Newspaper Columnist as Education Minister, a Medical Doctor as Labour Minister, Lawyers as Power and National Planning Ministers, a Political Scientist as Transportation Minister, etc. without requisite skills, depending solely on “common knowledge”, tells the reason for his government’s failure.

A purposeful leadership must always have its policy makers strive to conceive and implement new initiatives so as to create and maintain positive momentum for the government. And this can only happen if the right persons hold the right offices.

The fifth failing in President Buhari’s leadership style in comparison to Murtala/Obasanjo is temporization. While the latter were prompt and decisive, the former hardly takes decision on virtually every issue. We have seen that in him time and again on even the most serious issues. These include the formation of his cabinet, acting on corruption allegations on his appointees, etc.

Not that long period of procrastination necessarily gives cause to taking right decisions, or decisiveness leads to taking bad decisions, but temporization is hardly a virtue in the books of leadership. In fact, as the saying goes, the easier it is for a leader to do nothing, the harder it is for him to achieve anything.

A good leader must be decisive; he must abhor procrastination, temporization and equivocation. As Murtala’s favorite maxim would put it, “act on all promises without delay”. But Buhari delays on taking decisions at all until compelled to do so. As it is now virtually too late, having entered into election year, for a drastic change in the president’s leadership will, capacity and style, I am afraid Buhari’s presidency, far unlike that of Murtala/Obasanjo’s regime, will be for Nigeria, just another eight wasted years.

Ardo a political strategists writes from Abuja.


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