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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #3

A Meeting of the Minds
(Interview with Chief Ernest Shonekan)

Chinua Achebe Foundation

 By Pini Jason


Mr. Pini Jason is a columnist for Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper, Associate Editor of New African, London (1987-2004), author of A Familiar Road and publisher/Editor-in-Chief of The Examiner newspaper. Mr. Jason has several years of experience in major Nigerian newspapers as well as international publications. 





Chief Ernest Shonekan Ernest Shonekanis from Abeokuta and holds the traditional title of Abese of Egbaland.


He was educated at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos, and the University of London, graduating in Law in 1962, the year he was also called to the bar. 

Chief Shonekan joined the Legal Department of the United Africa Company (a Unilever Group company) in 1964, rising to become Chairman and Managing Director in 1980. 

In 1992, Chief Shonekan was appointment Chairman of the Transitional Council and briefly served as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria in the Interim National Government in 1993. He was Chairman of the Vision 2010 Committee, which in 1996-97 drew up the blueprint for
Nigeria's economic development.


 Perceived as the “quintessential political and economic insider,” Chief Shonekan is currently an economic adviser to the President; Chairman and director of numerous companies in the commercial, industrial and financial sectors; member, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry; member, Nigeria-Netherlands Chamber of Commerce; author of The Nigerian Economy (1986); and is the recipient of the Commander of the British Empire and French Legion d'Honore. In 2004, he was awarded Nigeria’s highest national honor – The Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR).







P. J.: Nigeria is viewed as Africa’s sleeping giant. Why do you think it has been difficult to set Nigeria on its way to greatness?


Chief Shonekan: Ernest ShonekanThe task of nation building in an underdeveloped multi-ethnic state has never been easy anywhere in the world. When you consider the fact that Nigeria has had issues with good governance, it will become clear why it has been rather difficult to set Nigeria on the path of greatness. For one reason, the rot went very far, and for too long. The nation has regressed disastrously as a result of years of bad governance. It will take some time to recover lost ground, and move forward on the path of greatness. Institutions have broken down, age-long values have been eroded, and we are lacking in consensus as a nation. Nigeria in short, is not that easy to fix.



Nigerian Leaders and Nigerian Leadership


P. J:  People point to leadership failure as the main problem of Nigeria. What is your view?


Shonekan:  I agree that Nigeria has had problems of leadership, but that is only a part of the problem. With the kind of rot that we have in Nigeria today, it seems to me that we have also had a problem of followership. But then it is probably a chicken and egg situation. Simply put, which one comes first? When you appreciate the role of leadership in any organization, it becomes difficult not to blame Nigeria’s problems on the failure of leadership. When leaders lead by example, followers are bound to fall in line.





P. J: There are those who say part of the leadership problem is that Nigeria has never had a roundly educated, and exposed -- some say a university graduate -- as leader. Do you think that is the problem, considering that John Major, former British Prime Minister, finished with formal education at age 17?


Shonekan:  The level of education of the leader though very important, is not the controlling factor. The more important criteria should be personal character, experience and exposure. Simply put, I do not think that not having a university graduate as the leader has something to do with the quality of leadership in Nigeria. For one reason, the leader has access to the insights of the best brains available even if he/she cannot really do rigorous thinking. It is therefore, more a question of good judgment, and great political will to make a lasting impact.




P.J: What is your reaction to a statement accredited to the presidency that Nigerians have stopped thinking?


Shonekan:  The problem in Nigeria, you will agree with me, is not about lack of ideas for moving the nation forward. Rather the Achilles heels of our national efforts have been our inability to translate laudable ideas into flawlessly implemented policies and laws. Put simply, our problem is lack of the discipline of execution.


P. J: Who is to blame for the general lack of discipline in the society?


Shonekan:  The general lack of discipline in the society is symptomatic of the breakdown of values. Values are first learned or inculcated right from home and the community. So, while the whole society (governments, particularly law enforcement agencies, church or religious bodies, families) has a share of the blame, we must particularly underscore the role of the family.






P. J:  What role can our traditional values play in Nigeria’s development?


Shonekan:  I have always believed that Nigeria’s dream of becoming a great nation will remain a mirage until we return to our traditional values. Values such as honesty, hard work, industry, system of merit as opposed to nepotism, selfishness that seems to pervade our society today must be embraced once again in the overall interest of all of us.


With these values, leaders will lead by example. Corruption and indiscipline will become things of the past. You are aware of the incalculable damage that the emergence of counter culture has done in Nigeria. I am very positive that the return to traditional values will bode well for Nigeria.




P. J: Women complain that they are often left out. Why is it that the nation does not seem to reckon with the contributions of women?


Shonekan:  My response to such complaints is to find out whether women face unique problems in Nigeria, and what those problems are. As long as our problems are not gender-specific, it is probably not a big issue if we do not seek gender balances in most government activities and decisions.


It must be noted however, that Nigerian women leaders have generally tended to be very purposeful and reliable with very good leadership qualities. The nation will be denying itself of the very positive contributions that our women can make if we continue to ignore their voices. So I am wholeheartedly in support of harnessing the latent energies of women for national development.





P. J: Ethnic intrusion into our politics is so commonplace that it has been written into our constitution as “Federal Character” and is being exploited as the basis for seeking election into the highest office in the land. Can we really build “a Nigerian nation” with such obvious emphasis on ethnicity and religion?


Shonekan: The emphasis on ethnicity and religion is obviously unhealthy Ernest Shonekanfor the country, and this is part of the challenge of nation building in Nigeria. Policies and actions of government are viewed from the prism of ethnicity or religion. Even people who have committed heinous crimes that should normally be held accountable for their actions exploit ethnic and religious loopholes to escape the long arm of the law.


Specifically, in the Federal Character policy, I do believe that if well applied, it can only help the cause of national unity and cohesiveness. In a multi-ethnic state with gross imbalance in development, a policy of leveling up that is judiciously applied can go a long way to give the weaker side a sense of belonging. In the same vein, the idea of allowing every section of the country to have a chance to hold the highest office of the land is borne out of our national history.


You will recall that part of the tension in the land following the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections was the perception that a particular section of the country was bent on holding on to the highest position in the land. To debunk this, and give a sense of belonging to each section, it seems to me that Federal Character, as a policy, is something that could be said to be a product of our history. It deserves to be supported in the short run (pending when the basis of unity and peaceful co-existence will no longer be questioned).





P. J: Why is it that Nigeria appears to be threatened with disintegration despite the call of our leaders for national unity?


Shonekan:  I find it particularly disturbing that in more than four decades of the attainment of political independence, instead of forging ahead as a united and indivisible entity, signs of disunity within the nation remain palpable. Ethnicity as you mentioned is becoming more pronounced. It seems to me that this is happening because people are unable to see the advantage of being part of the Nigerian union. As the quality of governance improves and people see increased benefits in being identified as Nigerians, there will be greater commitment to promoting and fostering national unity.





P. J:  The recent elections in Ghana have been upheld as “a model for West Africa.” Why, with the exception of the 1993 elections, has Nigeria not succeeded in having a universally accepted free and fair election?


Shonekan:  The problem with elections in Nigeria seems to be connected with the lack of a democratic culture, and this is, itself, a product of the prolonged period of military rule. With a well-developed democratic culture, it will become clear that winning and losing cannot be divorced from democracy. The current approach is to win at all cost. And therefore the electoral process is compounded. I consider this as part of the teething problems associated with democracy.





Pini Jason: You have been a major player in both the private and public sectors of the nation. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of each sector?


Chief Shonekan: As you rightly acknowledged, albeit implicitly, both sectors have their strengths and weaknesses. Looking at the public sector, we can identify a clear strength. The top echelon of the public service appears to have a crop of highly trained and dedicated officers. Several sources of funding for capacity building are also available, which is one other strength. We only need to take advantage of them.


In terms of weaknesses, we can identify several. The institutions have Ernest Shonekangrown weak with poor policy or project execution capabilities. The resource allocation profiles until now had been rather poor with a glaring misplacement of priorities. The political instability that had characterized administration did incalculable damage to the capacity of the public sector. With the high rate of turnover of officials associated with political instability, frequent changes in policy and lack of continuity became the order of the day.


We can also identify the structural weakness of the public sector bureaucracy, which has grown rather unwieldy as a result of the balkanization of the country to 36 states and several hundreds of local government areas. Most of the states and local governments, as you are aware, are unviable, and, therefore, cannot meet up with their responsibilities to the citizens. There is, as well, the very high cost of running these bureaucracies, which would only leave us with little or nothing for development. I can go on and on.


For the private sector, we can identify the very impressive entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerian private sector operators and its closeness to the public sector as key strengths. Again, the sector is weak with a strong dependence on both the public and the external sector. The technological base is weak and the sector is still not generally taking the long-term view in its investment. There is, consequently, a focus on trading and other services. So on balance, I would say that both sectors are still far from what they should really be.


P. J:  As far back as in 1993, you lent your voice to the call for debt reduction while visiting Paris. Why do you think nobody is listening to us?


Shonekan:  Nobody is listening to us because the creditors rightly or wrongly think that we are not serious in relation to the management of our affairs. They believe we have the ability to pay, and if you can pay your debt, why should your creditor forgive the debt? They see extravagance, they see siphoning of public funds abroad, and they think that we are still not where we should be in terms of rising above these vices. They will not listen until they are convinced that we have done what must be done to earn debt relief.



P. J:  Some critics often deride Nigerian “Captains of Industry” as mere commission agents of offshore companies. Are these Nigerian business moguls really adding value to the economy compared to their level of consumption of our foreign exchange?


Shonekan:  I would recommend a dispassionate review to understand the role of the so-called business moguls. What is perhaps beyond debate is that the private sector, as I mentioned, is weak and very dependent on the external sector. So while the captains of industry may be trying their best, there is a limit to what they can do in an environment characterized by poor infrastructure, weak technological base and unstable policy environment, among others.



P. J: Some Indigenized companies have eventually returned to the control of foreigners. Is that not an indictment of Nigerian managers?


Shonekan:  I think what has happened is that investors are taking advantage Shonekan, Jimmy Carter, othersof the liberalized investment environment. Because there is so much money to be made in Nigeria, the parent companies of established organizations in Nigeria have always been willing to invest in their affiliates in Nigeria. As you know, with increased investment, there must be increased representation both on the board and management of these organizations. So, it is the natural response to the liberalized investment environment. I do not see it as an indictment of Nigerian managers really.





P. J.: The National Conference appears to be a major focus in the country. Do you really see this summit as the cure all for Nigeria’s political problems?


Shonekan:  There is always some value in dialogue. The national conference will afford participants the opportunity to discuss, dialogue, and place their reform priorities before the conference. Already, it is beyond debate that there is need for representatives of each of Nigeria’s diverse communities to discuss and agree on the basis of our union. While it may be too optimistic to expect the conference to be a cure all for Nigeria’s political problems, I have no doubt in my mind that it will go a long way. A lot however, depends on how we implement the recommendations of the conference.





P. J:  Nigeria’s educational system is now in crisis. Can you relive your days at the C.M.S Grammar School?


Shonekan:  The situation in Nigeria’s educational system is, to say the least, depressing, and I believe concerted efforts must be made to revitalize the system if Nigeria is to move forward.


In my days at the Grammar School, I am proud to say that we had the best Ernest Shonekanof high school education. Teachers were qualified, highly motivated and ready to teach, the needed facilities were provided and students were also willing and ready to do serious learning. We received all round education including religious and moral instruction. The government was also ready to play its role of defining and enforcing rules and standards. Above all, parents were also interested in the kind of education that their wards received and were prepared to go to any length to ensure that their children excelled. Today, the situation is different.



P. J:  Sometime ago, President Obasanjo made the famous statement: “I see hope.” Do you see such hope? What is such hope based on?


Shonekan:  I see hope too. As individuals or even as a nation, we must maintain the ability to raise our eyes above the overwhelming challenges of today. Without hope we die. Hope is based on Nigeria’s widely acknowledged potential in every sphere of human Endeavour. If other nations with similar ethno-religious profiles that are less endowed are able to move forward, I am fully convinced that Nigeria too can emerge from the crisis of today as a strong positive force to be reckoned with in the comity of nations.


Besides, time and again, Nigeria’s remarkable resilience has been widely acknowledged. Even when it seemed that the nation was almost at the edge of the precipice, there is a natural pull back. In addition, it has become clear that there is so much strength in our diversity that can be harnessed for the overall benefit of all. So I see hope like the President.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.



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Nigeria: A Meeting of the Minds: Interview with Chief Ernest Shonekan