why leaders fail

Why Leaders Fail 

In Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, life was competitive, violent, brutish, and short. It was so because there was no central governing authority to check human relations, and because people wanted, largely, the same things, things that could not go around everyone. So it became a struggle, a violent one in which the strongest almost always won. Survival of the fittest. In this state of nature, there were no enforceable criteria of right and wrong, and everyone had the freedom to do as they pleased. 

However, that was not a sustainable way of existence, as nobody was safe or guaranteed anything, despite whatever strength they possessed. And because humans could process issues and look at things from various angles, it was determined that human relations could not continue in that violent way. Hobbes and others in his school of thought, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then built on the foregoing to describe how society came into being. This they did in their Social Contract Theory. 

The social contract theory argues that because humans accepted that life could not continue in such a violent way, they agreed to relinquish their “individual freedom” and submit to a governing authority, which has an obligation to prevent violence and allocate resources among everyone. In other words, they exchanged their freedom for security and a promise of a life of dignity. This relinquished freedom is what gives the governing authority its power, and it is this power that would aid it in discharging its duties. 

Ironically, because humans are human, the governing authority, over time, has been unable to uphold its end of the social contract, and this is, perhaps, the reason for the continuous mistrust and relative conflict between the governing authority and the governed. While there is a continuous questioning of the governing authority’s powers by the society, Hobbes argued that the power of the sovereign was ultimately justified by the consent of the governed, who agreed, in a hypothetical social contract, to obey the sovereign in all matters, in exchange for a guarantee of peace and security. 

In a slightly different position, Locke argued that the governing authority’s power is not its right and must not be taken for granted. To him, a Government exists, among other things, to promote the public good, and to protect the life, liberty, and property of its people. For this reason, those who govern must be elected by the society, and the society must hold the power to install a new Government when necessary. This is the foundation of the argument for legitimacy, which is the approval and/or acceptance of the power of the governing authority by the governed, without which the governing authority should not even be in existence. 

While legitimacy is regarded as a must for any government, there is no single way to get this public approval, and that is why different societies have different forms of government. Of all the forms of government, the closest to Locke’s argument is democracy. Democracy was earlier defined as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But over time, it became obvious that that definition was not a reflection of reality, as supposed democratic governments turned out to be governments of some people, by some people, and for some people. 

Its proponents then redefined it as a “representative government”, meaning that it is a “piece” of the “whole”, largely because it was chosen by the whole. This definition is most appropriate in societies where the electoral process has been engineered to earn the trust of the majority of the society, where the people trust that their choice (vote) is, largely, the result of the electoral exercise. Now, it’s been seen over time that many governments come to power through such a widely accepted process, but end up losing that wide acceptance (legitimacy), for various reasons, chief among which is, often, the failure to perform the governing authority’s obligation in the social contract theory – delivery of public good. 

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Now, why do these governing authorities fail in their obligation? There are several answers to that. The real interest of political actors in politics and governance, not their claims. The people around them and their interests. And the ordinary citizens who support them irrespective of what they’re doing in government, among other factors. Of these factors, the people around leaders are a reflection of the leader’s thoughts and interests, and these people have the least role in this failure. The leader’s interest is the most significant of the factors, followed by the ordinary citizens who support them irrespective of what they’re doing. 

The leader’s interest is so important because that is the foundation of whatever plays out in the government. This is, largely, what separates societies in all areas of life. Security, economy, politics, development, poverty, progress, perception on the international stage, etc. It is the reason America became the most influential country in the world, it is the reason China was able to lift more than 700 million people out of poverty in a few decades, it is the reason Britain’s influence waned, it is the reason Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been able to do the wonders he’s done in Dubai. It is the reason Lee Kuan Yew was able to manage various ethnic groups in Singapore and also do all the great works he did in the country. 

On the other side, it is the reason unemployment and insecurity are epidemics in South Africa, it is the reason poverty is rife in Kenya, it is the reason Egypt has not known peace in the last decade, it is the reason unemployment, poverty, and insecurity have plagued Nigeria since independence, and the reason these challenges became worse since 2015. It is the reason Nigeria’s president Mohamadu Buhari told the hurting victims of violent herdsman’s crimes to accommodate their brothers, the criminals. It is the reason Buhari could be in his home state of Katsina, and criminals would ride into town, a few miles from Buhari’s location, abduct hundreds of school children, and take them into captivity without no security agency stopping them. 

Platforms like Netflix, YouTube, and books – in addition to entertainment – provide information about these subjects from far and near. In a Netflix docuseries, Dirty Money, the first episode told the story of the Former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak. The son of a former prime minister, Najib was elected to Malaysia’s parliament in 1976, at the age of 23, replacing his late father in the legislature. Growing in influence, Najib worked across various ministerial portfolios in defense, education, culture, youth and sports, and finance. So, he could not be said to be lacking in experience. He rose and was Prime Minister from 2009 until 2018 when he was defeated by the opposition. 

During his time as prime minister, between 2009 and 2018, Wikipedia says Malaysia “was marked by economic liberalization measures, such as cuts to government subsidies, loosening of restrictions on foreign investment, and reductions in preferential measures for ethnic Malays in business. After the 2013 election, his government was marked by the pursuit of a number of its critics on sedition charges, the imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim following a conviction for sodomy, and the implementation of a Goods and Services Tax (GST)”. 

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When he assumed office, Najib’s claimed focus was on domestic economic issues and political reform.  On his first day as Prime Minister, Najib announced the removal of bans on two opposition newspapers, Suara Keadilan and Harakahdaily. He released 13 people held (for various reasons) under the Internal Security Act. Najib’s government established the state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which later became a major part of the causes of his defeat in 2018. 
Created as an investment fund for Malaysia, 1MDB did not benefit the country as it set Malaysian taxpayers back by several billions of dollars. In the same period Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was in the public’s black book for splurging money. One of the major players accused of wrong in the 1MDB scandal is Low Taek Jho (better known as Jho Low), an ally of Najib Razak’s stepson, Riza Aziz. According to the US Department of Justice investigation into 1MDB, which indicted two ex-bankers of Goldman Sachs, Tim Leissner and Roger Ng Chong Hwa, more than US$4.5 billion was diverted from 1MDB by Jho Low and other conspirators. 

In 2015 Najib became implicated in the 1MDB scandal, which led to rallies calling for his resignation. Following his defeat, “on 3 July 2018, Najib was arrested by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), having investigated how RM42 million (US$10.6 million) went from SRC International, a company related to 1MDB, into Najib’s bank account. In the process, the police had seized cash and a number of fashion accessories worth $273 million while searching through his properties.” From its publicly filed accounts, 1MDB had nearly RM 42 billion (US$11.73 billion) in debt by 2015. 

In response to questions about his role in the 1MDB scandal, Najib said that “in the day-to-day schedule of running a country, it is impossible to pay attention to details”. When a leader’s mind works in that way, you cannot expect things not to go wrong. What job should require one to pay attention to details more than the job of leading a country? Erasing all doubts to an obvious lack of a sense of responsibility, Najib, when asked about the ceased cash and $270 million worth of jewelry, said he was “continuing the tradition of the president of the political party”. “This was a CSR political account under my name. You see, the donation that was given, under the behest of King Abdullah, was specifically meant for me, as the leader of Malaysia. For welfare purposes and political purposes”, he added in the Netflix documentary. 

Let’s pause on this, and look at the other significant factor that aids the failure of leaders – the blind support of ordinary citizens irrespective of what the leader is doing and how that is affecting them. Nigeria has never been in want of these citizens, but since president Buhari’s disastrous administration began in 2015 observers have been bewildered by how millions of citizens (most of them literal casualties of Buhari’s misgovernance) keep supporting and encouraging the numerous ills of the administration, daily excusing Buhari’s many obvious deliberate wrongs. He is unaware, they always say, even when the man later grants interviews and confirms in clear terms that he’s aware of everything.  

Thousands of miles across the ocean, Buhari’s supporters have non-blood relatives in Malaysia. Talking about Najib Razak, Former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad said “people expect the government to do something that will be good for the people. If you do that, you’re bound to be supported by the people. But he [Najib] had a different idea. At one stage, he told me that cash is king”. Registering his disagreement with that notion, Mahathir said “when you say cash is king, you are actually saying that bribery is okay. If you use the money to buy support, that’s alright”. That Netflix documentary showed some of these supporters. 

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When an interviewer asked a group of Malaysian citizens about their opinion of Najib’s time in government, one person said, “Najib used to give us RM300 (equivalent to about $72). Now, this Mahathir [Najib’s successor] gives us less”. Another supporter said, “Before the 1MDB scandal, everyone got cash assistance. For all kinds of things, boats, engines, lots of things. We don’t have what we used to have, there’s no more money”. The interviewer then asked if they all agreed, and they answered yes. If you’re wondering if these people understood the wrongs Najib was accused of (stealing of their commonwealth), they cleared all doubts. The first respondent spoke again, “Though Najib takes money from others, from the country, he gives to the people. He takes care of the people, it’s okay if he takes the country’s money”. He then asked, rhetorically, “Who doesn’t steal? What Prime Minister doesn’t steal? It’s not just Malaysia. Be it America, India, China, or any country”. “Maybe it’s not right, if they have the chance, they’ll take everything”, he concluded. 

If you think this is weird, how will you process the fact that some supporters are even asking that he should seek election back to the office of Prime Minister? One person, at a gathering of those seeking to get Najib back in the office, said “He’s not guilty of anything. His government fell down because of lies. Lies and conspiracy. So, nothing to be ashamed of. He can move on. He can strike back”. Najib’s lawyer, in his defense, argued that Najib didn’t know that the “gifts and donations” were from funds in the loans taken by 1MDB. 

However, Clare Rewcastle Brown, a journalist who followed the 1MDB story from the start does not agree with Najib’s lawyer. She said Najib knew everything, that there was no way he didn’t know, because there are shreds of evidence of his approval, with his signature on them. Unsurprisingly, and from his earlier position on not paying attention to details, Najib suggested that he didn’t know. About his signature, he said he signed many documents. “Once it is recommended, and the board sanctions it, normally, as a matter of course, I have to sign it”, he said. 

Like Buhari and his supporters, Najib didn’t recognize the fact that a leader should take responsibility for the things that happen under his watch. He said the man “at the top” cannot be blamed for everything, as he couldn’t have knowledge of everything that takes place under his watch, since many people make up the government. Under such leaders, society suffers and things could deteriorate to the extent of looking like a reversal to the state of nature. Do you think that’s not possible? Go ask Nigerians about their reality since 2015. Unfortunately, they cannot easily install another government of their choice (even in a supposed election), as John Locke argued.

  • Seun Lonimi (lonimisamuel@gmail.com) writes from Lagos, NG.

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