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.
ABOUT CHIEF ERNEST SHONEKAN, GCFR, CBE.
Chief Ernest Shonekan is 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
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: The 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
People point to leadership failure as the main problem of Nigeria. What is your view?
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
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?
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?
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?
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.
ROLE FOR TRADITIONAL VALUES
P. J: What role can our traditional values play in Nigeria’s development?
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.
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?
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.
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
Shonekan: The emphasis on ethnicity and religion is obviously unhealthy for 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.
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.
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).
THE THREAT TO NATIONAL UNITY
P. J: Why is it that Nigeria appears to be threatened with disintegration despite the call of our leaders for national unity?
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
FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS
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?
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.
PERSPECTIVES ON THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE
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.
of weaknesses, we can identify several. The institutions have grown 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.
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.
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.
As far back as in 1993, you lent your voice to the call for debt reduction while
Why do you think nobody is listening to us?
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.
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?
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?
think what has happened is that investors are taking advantage of 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.
THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE
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?
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.
COLLAPSE OF THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
Nigeria’s educational system is now in crisis. Can you relive your days at the C.M.S Grammar
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.
days at the Grammar School, I am proud to say that we had the best of 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.
Sometime ago, President Obasanjo made the famous statement: “I see hope.” Do
you see such hope? What is such hope based on?
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.
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.
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