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Of Oxford, Rome and 2019 -Segun Adeniyi

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How do you feel about the next generation of Nigerian leaders?

That was the first question from the Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, Prof Ngaire Woods on Monday. It was in the course of a meeting between the authorities of the school and the team from the African Initiative for Governance (AIG), a not-for-profit institution being gradually but steadily built by former Access Bank Managing Director and the immediate past President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Mr AigbojeAig-Imoukhuede. The essence of the session was to explore opportunities for collaboration between AIG and Oxford University in the years ahead.

On the side of Woods at the meeting were the School’s Director of Development, Dr Kirstine Knox; Head of Executive Office, Hillary Coyne-Bar and Head of Partnership and Fellowships, Gail Allan. Renowned Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Sir Paul Collier was also invited to join in along with other eminent scholars from Oxford. From the AIG Board were Mr Aig-Imoukhuede, his wife, Ofovwe, Access Bank Group Managing Director, Mr Herbert Wigwe, Ms Chienye Ogwo, the AIG Chief Executive Officer and three members of the Panel of Advisors, including our chairman, former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Although we are seven on the Panel, only Obasanjo, this reporter and Mrs Yemisi Ayeni–a former finance director of the Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, (SNEPCO) and the first Nigerian woman to be appointed to the Board of a Shell company in the country—were present at Oxford. The other four who could not make the meeting are Dr Enase Okonedo, Dean of Lagos Business School;Mr ““`Abubakar B. Mahmoud, SAN and Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President;Mr Ernest Ebi, former CBN Deputy Governor for Policy and Corporate Services and current Chairman of Fidelity Bank Plc and Mr Ken Ofori-Atta, an economist and investment banker who is currently the Finance Minister of Ghana.

Apparently following series of earlier discussions between Aig-Imoukhuede and the Woods-led team from the Blavatnik School of Government, the Monday sessionsucceeded in securing, on an annual basis, online training that would be facilitated by Prof Collier for hundreds of serious minded public servants in both Ghana and Nigeria though the final details will have to be worked out in the coming weeks and months. With Ofori-Atta now a top man in Ghana, AIG should have no problem securing the buy-in of the country’s authorities but while the Head of Service of the Federation, Mrs Winifred Eyo-Ita may have been supportive of AIG efforts thus far, it is our hope that Nigeria’s peculiar politics will not hinder the next level of engagement.

The whole idea arises from the realisation that the poor record of public sector governance not only in Nigeria but within the continent is an underlining factor in our current level of underdevelopment. Intent on changing the narrative, Aig-Imoukhuede some years ago conceived the idea of bringing private sector innovation, leadership and funding to attract, inspire and support future leaders of the public sector in Nigeria and Ghana. It is a tall ambition by Aig-Imoukhuedeand I remember our inaugural session in 2015 where I spoke about expectations that could also come with possible disappointments, especially in our kind of environment.

To achieve its objective, the AIG would sponsor five scholarships annually for outstanding Nigeria and Ghanaians from all backgrounds–young men and women who are passionate about the public sector and are ready to pursue the Master of Public Policy degree at the Blavatnik School of Government (BSG), University of Oxford. Upon graduation, such Scholars will be expected to return to their home country and apply their learning experience to drive best practice standards of governance by ensuring sustainable economic growth and social justice.

In addition to the scholarships, the AIG is also funding an annual Fellowship tenable at the BSG. It is open to senior officials or practitioners in Nigeria and Ghana who have made outstanding contributions to the development and implementation of a policy that has had a meaningful impact on growth, development and the public good in their respective country. The first pick last year was former Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Prof AttahiruJega who has since completed the programme and is back toBayero University in Kano where he was once the Vice Chancellor. The second fellow this year is Justice Georgina Woods who retired recently as the Chief Justice of Ghana. Over the longer term, AIG is working to establish Africa’s version of the Lee Kuan Yew Institute where hundreds of Africans will be given world class postgraduate training on an on-going basis.

On Monday, we had our first formal meeting with the six AIG scholars (five from Nigeria and one from Ghana). We were joined by DrStefan Dercon, Professor of Economic Policy and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies; DrMartin Williams, Associate Professor in Public Management;DrFolashade Soule-Kohndou, a Global Leaders Fellow who hails from Republic of Benin; DrEmily Jones, an Associate Professor in Public Policy and Rafat Ali Al-Akhali, a Fellow of Practice – Strategic Projects. Not only was I impressed by the young scholars whose horizons have been broadened, I could recall the interactions I had with each one of them in the course of the interview session early last year. So, in a way, I felt justified that we made the right selection.

However, what I took away from the Oxford session was the challenge before our country and continent. For instance, in his contributions before he left our meeting for another engagement (though he would join us later both at the Obasanjo lecture—during which my late boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was at the receiving end of the usual vitriol—and at the dinner), Prof Collier shared interesting perspectives on the significance of the AIG idea and how it could serve as a catalyst for change. He drew examples from several countries that have tried it with varying results. “When you have a small group that is committed to shared ideals and a higher purpose, it can help to galvanise others and transform a bigger pool”, said Collier before highlighting what he considers the next big challenge for the continent: the growing demographic bulge.

Interestingly, Collier is looking at the challenge from the angle of the opportunities it also offers in that new cities would have to be built to accommodate the ever-increasing population and that in itself creates incentives for new economies in transportation, in environment, in education etc. Meanwhile, African leaders have hardly shown any concerns about the implications of a population explosion amid dwindling resources and lack of opportunities. This became glaring for me yesterday afternoon in Rome, Italy.

In continuation of the research into my coming book on irregular migration, I was at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Coordination Office for the Mediterranean where I had a very productive, albeit, depressing meeting with two of their top officials. With Nigeria, for a third year running, topping (by a far margin) the numbers of irregular migrants either arriving in Europe or perishing on the Mediterranean Sea, I believe the authorities are not doing enough to tackle this challenge . “Just this morning (yesterday) we got information from our office in Libya that there was a ship wreck with more than 100 persons now missing (IOM euphemism for dead bodies that are yet to be recovered)”, said Flavio Di Giacomo, the IOM spokesperson for the Rome office.

Another official, Ms Giulia Falzoi, who said she had stayed in Nigeria more than 15 years ago wondered why the challenge of prostitution ring involving Edo State rather than abate seems to be growing. “What worries me is that the girls being lured into this unfortunate trade are getting younger and younger with some of them within the age bracket of 14 to 17. It is more depressing that even when we want to help some of them, they refuse help because they believe in the efficacy of the oaths they were forced to take by their ‘Madams’ who brought them from home under the false pretence that they were going to learn some trade, mostly hairdressing before selling them as prostitutes on European streets.”

When I look at both the interactions at Oxford and Rome, I can see a connection because taken together, they tell the story of Nigeria. Rome presents the dark side of our country while Oxford speaks to the endless possibilities. To deal with the latter or harness the potentials in the former will take leadership and that unfortunately is where the problem lies.Even with all the noise about 2019, there is no real debate going on about how we can overcome the challenges we face beyond scapegoating and the usual empty promises: I will fight corruption; I will provide free health services; I will offer free education; I will create ten million jobs—without telling us how!

Besides, there seems to be neither fresh thinking nor big vision either by those in power or those who seek to take over from them, at practically all levels. The aspirations remain tackling the self-created problems that others before them have promised to “fight” without much success. Yet, leaders, according to George Ambler, must focus on a future they want to create, rather than the problem they intend to solve because by focusing only on the latter, they will always be subject to the what he described as “the “whims of circumstances”.

However, the challenge of our country is that the leadership selection process seems incapable of producing those who can harness our immense potentials by dreaming big.That was what my friend, Prof.Wale Adebanwi, Director of the African Studies Centre and Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, lamented about when I visited his office on Monday. The nature of our politics is such that we produce only leaders who come to power to share rent proceeds or dispense patronage, as we have seen over the years, leaders who can neither create opportunities nor even solve existing problems. What saddens even more is that our leaders have never consciously groomed successors let alone invest in successor generation.

At the level of planning for the future, the absence of any strategic approach to public policy has meant that Nigeria never projects, never anticipates and never envisions beyond the immediate and that reflects in the state of our critical infrastructure and social services—from education to health.But to the extent that we cannot continue that way if we must develop, it is not too late to embrace a new culture and a new thinkingfor the public service and that explains why I wholeheartedly support the vision of Aig-Imoukhuede’s AIG.

Beyond what the government can do, we need men and women with resources to begin seizing the space with innovative ideas that will help to empower the young and brilliant of our society for the future that is still very much within our reach.

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