By Tayo Oke
Instead of the usual capital markets and other esoteric economic law written about on this column week after week, I made an executive decision to digress onto the anodyne and slightly more convivial topic of “brilliance” and “leadership” as virtues in public life.
It is a topic that fascinates and bewilders the enquiring mind, certainly, also less tedious than quibbling about economic numbers. That being so, it is also a topic that defies explanation even though everyone in this country seems to acknowledge its centrality to our socio-economic well-being. How nice would it be to have all our political vacancies filled by really brilliant people, who would make sparkling decisions for the public good? How marvelous would it also be to have only brilliant people as captains of industry in this country? It is not difficult to imagine a huge number of people giving their nod of approval to these conjectures, but there is an economic case for not having all positions filled by only brilliant people though. It is that it dilutes the measure of value for all leaders, but first, what is this thing called ‘brilliance’ in respect of leaders anyway? Can a leader be bright without necessarily being brilliant?
Let us start with the elephant in the room. We have a President and a Vice President, one does not have a university degree, the other, was a university professor (he still has the tag “Professor” appended to his name even though the President, on his part, has jettisoned his own “General” tag on his elevation to a higher duty). On the surface, though, does the stark realities/educational backgrounds of the two most senior citizens in this country make clear who is more brilliant than the other? The answer, quite clearly, is no. There is a reason why one is President and the other is Vice-President, but let us leave that to one side for the moment. Nigeria has been through this type of stark (educational) realities in the past, in the persons of the then Biafran leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and the then Head of State, Yakubu Gowon. The former was an Oxford History graduate, while the latter was a direct military recruit into the army. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was said to have several times pondered his irritation and indignant at having to subordinate himself to the “less informed”, and “less educated” Gowon.
Gowon himself lent credence to this thought when, upon being ousted in a military coup in 1975, and in exile, he decided to enrol for an undergraduate degree in political science at Warwick University in the UK. When asked to justify his decision, having already been the Head of State of a major country, he pointed to the niggling irritation of his own; not having gone to university and how that never ceased to make him doubt himself in office. He stayed and studied in the university until he was awarded a Ph.D in political science. By all accounts, as Head of State without a university degree, Gowon was one of the brightest leaders of his generation, but in spite of that still felt he needed to attend the four walls of a university classroom to prove his brilliance.
The question that follows from the foregoing is this: Does a university degree (I mean even the best of them) make anyone brilliant, necessarily? Suppose we have a federal cabinet full of Ivy League graduates in all subjects, would that translate into good and better governance? Since we are a society that flaunts titles; Dr, Barrister, Professor, Engineer, Architect, Surveyor, General, Pastor, etc. We use and flaunt these titles as if brilliance is implicit in them. It is not. Dr. Garret FitzGerald, was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s. He was a renowned economist before entering Parliament, and was touted as the putative saviour of the country from galloping inflation and low growth. He failed in both respects and was rightly turfed out of office for making a mess of the country’s economy. Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States, who served from 1979-1981. He was thought to be a more cerebral person than his successor, Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a Hollywood actor, and a cowboy. The actor was universally adjudged to have been the most successful US President of the 20th century, surpassing anything Carter could have achieved in office.
Similarly, in the field of industry, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs (deceased), Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson, to name but a few, are founders of Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Virgin Airways respectively. All of them are dropouts from college, and all are giants of the industrial and technological world of today. I hasten to add, that none of those would have been given a chance in our own society so obsessed with paper qualifications as we are. There was a time in the 1990s, the education authorities made it mandatory for university lecturers in this country to obtain Ph.Ds in their respective fields. A Ph.D is essentially a research training, it does not bestow any special knowledge that would not have been covered through undergraduate and Master’s curricula. Nonetheless, the mandate to obtain a Ph.D made those without the qualification less valuable than those who had it. It completely discountenanced experience and ability to impart knowledge in favour of a title. It led to a loss of talented lecturers leaving the education sector and others running helter-skelter to obtain the title by crook or genuine. What then transpired was an overall devaluation of the title, and a subsequent decline in teaching standards in our public universities. A Ph.D is desirable but not essential to be a good university tutor. “Brilliance”, for our education policymakers, is obviously an attribute of paper qualifications. This is patently wrong.
Whenever an appointment to a ministerial duty or government parastatal is about to be made, recommendation usually favours those who have obtained a degree in the precise title of the department or portfolio concerned. Questions of leadership is often overlooked in favour of paper qualifications. While it is possible to be history graduates and be head of the justice ministry or minister of finance in the UK (Chris Grayling and George Osborne respectively under Prime Minister David Cameron – 2010-2016), such persons in Nigeria would have been deemed only suitable for appointment as culture or information ministers. Make no mistake, formal education in relevant fields is important, but a leader’s attribute is neither one that can be taught inside a classroom, nor one that reflects in a qualification title. Leadership is about the strength of a person’s character, his value and moral convictions. Brilliance is an innate ability to get things done; to accomplish one’s goal under a given circumstance. There is a dearth of both currently in our public life.