“My Oga At The Top” – Reflections on Nigeria’s Leadership Deficits

On 8 March 2013, Obafaiye Shem, the Lagos State Commandant of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corp (NSCDC) appeared on Channel Television's breakfast programme, "Sunrise Daily".

The invitation to do so had been extended to his organisation because it was one of those mentioned in a series of allegations about bribery and corruption practices in the employment processes in several Ministries and other government departments in Nigeria. An integral part of this bogus employment process involved invitations to desperate and unsuspecting potential employees to respond to potential vacancies advertised on internet sites. Once accessed, participation would lead to demands for payments to facilitate the process. Many of these sites were cloned versions of actual websites or variations that were so close in identity that they inherently misled those unfamiliar with the genuine sites.

This was supposed to be a fairly routine early morning interaction. It was, presumably, assumed that by appearing on behalf of NSCDC, he had its mandate to offer its own "side of the story". In other words, it was reasonable to expect that his responses would involve or, at the very least, touch upon questioning raising issues around the existence of and the genuineness of internet access involving his organisation. As the interview progressed, these questions gravitated expectedly to verification of the actual website used by NSCDC. Shem first conceded that he had not visited the site. Questioned for confirmation about which authorised site, he then fell into the pattern of responses for which he now has the dubious distinction of becoming famous. He skirted incompetently around a correct answer. Sensing "blood", the interviewers "moved in for the kill". For the avoidance of any doubt, no criticism attaches to the journalists who would have been guilty of the most indefensible abdication of duty had they done otherwise. Shem repeatedly failed to give a definite answer until he had, initially, sought to "cover his back" by giving the now notorious response that he was reluctant to offer an answer so that this does not conflict with that which may be given by his "Oga at the Top"! Lest there may be readers unfamiliar with the word "Oga", this is Nigerian Pidgin English for "boss" and probably the most popular word in that linguistic vocabulary. To complete that picture, when pressed further, he provided an address that was incomplete and, in consequence, wrong.

Since this interview was aired, its circulation in the social media has reached immeasurable proportions principally for its comedy value. The purport of the interview, namely a public, spirited and articulated absolution of the NSCDC by a senior representative from any knowledge of any of the wrongdoings consequently disappeared and, as such, was clearly not achieved. Now that organisation has come to be remembered as one that has provided, in this short period, an episode of such jocularity, its leadership must be concerned about a damage limitation exercise. But this approach belies a significantly bigger concern across the country as a whole. It brings new focus to a concept of such destructive value that has pervaded the work ethic and structure in Nigeria: the "Oga At The Top Syndrome"!

Simply put, this syndrome ensures that no decision is made, approved or publicised without the direction and consent of the person at the helm. This, in Nigeria, means the President, Governor, Minister, Chairman and/or CEO, Managing Director, Director or by any number of titular descriptions that the post holder is designated by. Across both the private and particularly the public sector, there is a pronounced presence of this syndrome. By virtue of antiquated work practices, indescribable micro-management driven by sheer lust for control and power; an over-rated abundance of caution, those at the helm aggregate and arrogate to themselves authority – even those capable of easy delegation – to the extent that renders the vast majority of the following workforce weak and ineffectual. The result is that even competent subordinates become emasculated; shorn of initiative, opportunity and confidence. Combine this situation with poor exposure and training, individual experience deficits and self-preservation, the result is staggering levels of incompetence the likes of which have been exemplified by the Channels Television programme.

There are three schools of thought that are responsible for this situation. The first is the "thirst" for control by those in leadership positions across these institutions. They crave involvement and control over even the smallest tasks out of a misplaced feeling of importance; a desire to create high levels of dependence by the institutions on themselves and to "keep their fingers on the pulse" of everything that happens in the work place. The second is that by doing so, the can accept responsibility for the actions of their duties and that this cannot happen unless they "sign off" on all actions emanating from their spheres of responsibility. The third is that this has produced an insipid, impotent and lily-livered workforce of individuals content to be led and populated by people whose views about work, when challenged, is: "Na my Papa work be dis?". For clarity, this, in Nigerian Pidgin English is the typical manner of disclaiming responsibility on account of limited equity in the employer's business.

What transpires from this is that mini-fiefdoms are created where subservience and loyalty to the "boss" is a sine qua non. Those who comply are favoured. Those who do not, perhaps by asserting initiative or independence are effectively maligned, marginalised and ostracised. For many, the cost of asserting initiative is so high a price to pay for trying to be effective in post especially with the dearth of alternative employment and the multitude of personal as well social needs assuaged by continuing employment.

The effect is plainly evident. Output is inherently one-dimensional. Delay is rife, largely because the approval process is dependent on a very small number of individuals who, by virtue of their own desires, are often inundated. Matters capable of quicker resolution take a laborious, unproductive route frustrating those placing reliance on those outcomes. This encumbers growth, stifles progress and curtails development. This attitude now sits squarely in the indices of drawbacks to doing business in Nigeria and is a serious factor in the issues that make such endeavour way more difficult than it should be. This episode demonstrates the considerable seriousness that this syndrome has on the operational aspects of leadership in the country. It underscores, even more than most would admit, a quite debilitating problem that has gone unchecked for decades and appears to be getting worse. It is easy to see how an unprepared top executive can evade taking responsibility for the reason that he has not received higher-level consent to put a position forward even if, clearly, it is one that he is able to do. But it is dire to see that this level of managerial discretion is not present unless it concerns the highest placed individuals in such organisations.

This attitude is not easy to change. A starting point would be for leaders to recognise that it exists. It is easy to suggest delegation as an answer but in reality, irresponsible delegation lacks accountability and will perpetuate the creation of further mini-fiefdoms. However, the concept of organised delegation must occupy the management processes of every organisation to produce meaningful output. Those that are competent, committed and confident must be afforded the space to showcase their abilities without fear of reproach or reprisals. Those who are given the opportunity must demonstrate an application that imports an understanding of what needs to be done together with an interest to justify earning such responsibility. This, clearly, is a two-way approach that requires nurturing, investment because this syndrome is such a leadership deficit in Nigeria that it continues to constrict and undermine human capital development in proportions that will remain incalculable.

Andrew Obinna Onyearu writes from Abuja

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