Home Opinion Can A Weak Leader Build Strong Institutions? | Tunji Olaopa

Can A Weak Leader Build Strong Institutions? | Tunji Olaopa

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It is reasonable to predict that this question will appear a straightforward one with an equally straightforward answer. In a sense, this would be a fair assumption. But social scientific questions are rarely amenable to simple assumptions and layman presumptions. They are edged round about by theoretical postulations and methodological analysis. The discourse around structure and agency, and their relationship, is one that has generated serious intellectual and theoretical industry that swings between seeing structure as the fundamental variable in achieving a functional society, and contending that agency is the definitive factor in building institutions for a stable society.
In recent times, and because of the resurgence of the new institutionalism as a theory of looking at human society, there has been a decided preference for institution as the best place to look for stability. This preference is further grounded by fundamental works like Why Nations Fail, the 2012 bestseller by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The authors’ argument is that the difference between poverty and prosperity of nations depends on the institutions that guide the decision-making process of those states. Former president of the United States, Barack Obama, when he made a visit to Ghana, keyed into this institutional argument by remarking emphatically that Africa needs only strong institutions and not strong men.
The discourse on the Nigerian state, from Chinua Achebe town to many contemporary social scientists have however been couched in terms of leadership problem. According to Achebe, the trouble with Nigeria is not the land or the people or the weather, but simply the problem of leadership. Within this framework of agency, it is the leadership of a country that is saddled with the responsibility of creatively putting together the institutional elements of structures, systems and operational parameters as well as codes of ethics and the rule of law that could facilitate national development. This is the reason why, and maybe rightly so, Nigerians have had no patience whatsoever with any Nigerian leader since the commencement of the democratic experiment in 1999. Democratic governance is supposed to be a political invention that promotes human welfare and empowers our yearnings to live fulfilling lives in the political community. From Obasanjo to Yar’Adua, and from Jonathan to Buhari, Nigerians have asked serious questions about why governance has not transformed their lots and empowered them to live the good life worthy of human dignity.
However, democratic governance is about functional institutions capable of transforming government policies into infrastructural development and sustainable economic growth that the citizens require to make sense of their existence. But, functional institutions not democratic mechanism that materialise out of thin air and serve human political needs and aspirations. On the contrary, they are deliberately cultivated to stand against human whims and caprices that, most often than not, undermine institutional dynamics in order to achieve human preferences that antagonise the common good of the citizenry. Dictatorial structures, for example, answer to the aspirations and imperatives of one man or a group of men. Left to their devices, and if the English philosopher, David Hume, is to be believed, humans are always motivated by selfish impulses that will tweak the institutions to satisfy one ego above every other one.

The egoistic impulse cannot be divorced from political consideration. Indeed, the whole essence of political or bureaucratic corruption is its elevation of personal interests over the interests of the collective. When one politicians or government official embezzle billions of naira or workers’ pension, such officials would definitely not want the institution to function in ways that will curtail such selfish impulses.

We are therefore left with the question: how do we build such a strong institutional framework(s) that have curtailing capacities? This question leads us unerringly back to the question of leadership. If solid institutions do not just emerge of their own accord, then they must be subjected to the human creative political manoeuver. We confront here a political difficulty. All across the social science literature, there is a loud reaction against military intervention in politics and any form of totalitarian, authoritarian or dictatorial forms of government. Even the ancient master, Aristotle, did not consider dictatorship to be the best form of government. The sin of authoritarianism is often taken to be the suppression of the democratic impulse. Democracy is taken to be the best form of government because it allows for the flourishing of the human will. It is also fundamental because it provides a level playing ground where different endowments are equalised and opportunities are democratised.

A dictatorship imposes the political will of one human on the rest of the population. History and political scientists revile Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Samuel Doe, Robert Mugabe, Sanni Abacha, and the rest of the authoritarian rulers for undermining the will of the people. Joseph Stalin did not only stand against the will of Russians, he ensured that six million of his people were killed to service his own ego. From Lenin to Stalin, it is difficult to demonstrate how these dictators were able to install an institutional framework that would empower the people. But the opposite is also the case: weak leaders do not also have the political will and the ideological strength to facilitate the emergence of strong institutions that will limit human arbitrariness.
If a dictator’s capacity to build institutional structures is often undermined by lack of regard for the citizens, and a weak leader fails to acquire the ideological will to build strong institutions, and democracy is often a camouflage for human selfish impulses, how then do we build strong institutions outside of an authoritarian government? This is a tough question to raise and answer.
Outside of the many answers that have been proposed, I will propose that the answer lies in between authoritarianism and popular participation. What I mean to say is that strong institution is not a function of a strong man alone. It also requires the involvement of strong popular assent to what the strong man intends. Otherwise, what we are left with is just pure authoritarianism of the Stalin and Mugabe type.

A leader is weak in the first place either because he or she lacks the political will to legislate very strong institution-building policies, or because he lacks the legitimate support of the people. The third source of weakness for a leader is that such a person has allowed personal gains and aggrandising impulse to overshadow selfless decision making. In any of the cases, there is no foundation laid for the emergence of strong institutions. In Why Nations Fail, the authors trace a trajectory of how the politics of the ego could lead to the emergence of extractive structures, rather than inclusive, participatory and developmental institutions, which deplete a state’s scarce resources because the leadership has no foresight beyond what feathers its own nest or those of the political godfathers. However, in talking about a weak leadership, a further point is necessary: such a weakness if further aggravated if there is no active citizenry—through various civil society and civil rights organisations—that keeps the government on its toes in terms of policies and implementation framework that are enabling.


It is a combination of the citizens and the leadership that cooperate in the building of institutions that can in turn subsist as the foundation of national well-being. Institutions serve as the framework for channeling social order and policy efficiency. And within the context of democratic governance, rather than a dictatorship, building inclusive and strong institutions is a collective responsibility. Permit me to cite the famous example of the Singaporean strongman, Lee Kwan Yew as a good example here. Singapore, under Yew, was not an absolute dictatorship. His authoritarian template was ringed roundabout with a strong popular sovereignty. This type of government has been dubbed authoritarian pragmatism or soft authoritarianism. And it is pragmatic because it was not founded on procedural rights but rather on pragmatic considerations that elevates the lives of the average Singaporean in the fundamental decision making and the policies of the government. With affordable healthcare system, clean air and water, functional and capacity ready bureaucracy, corruption-free government, and the third highest per capita income in the world, Lee Kwan Yew built Singapore as a country where the institutions are the key to prosperity. And the key here is that Yew had the Singaporean in mind in his attempt at building those institutions. Those institutions are not just to emerge to serve them, they could not have even emerged without their support.
The most important is whether the strong has a sense of history and of destiny. Lee Kwan Yew is now known as the founding father of modern Singapore. Someone else could be called the founding father of modern Nigeria if there is the political will to put Nigerians first and seek their support to build strong institutions that will empower them and give them the good life.
Prof. Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy

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