INTERVIEW: Ashimolowo: It’ll Be Difficult To Manage A Disintegrated Nigeria

Mathew Ashimolowo

Nseobong Okon-Ekong holds a conversation with one of Nigeria’s leading clergymen, educator and businessman, Mathew Ashimolowo on why leadership in Nigeria is still encumbered with many challenges with no redemption in sight

Why do you think the leadership of Nigeria is still crawling; still floundering, why are we not getting it right?

In my attempt to answer this question I want to first of all put forward a caveat. Every time a Nigerian responds on social media it usually attracts very vitriolic attacks. Our people need to mature to understand that I have a right to my perspective and opinion. You have your right. You could critic my opinion, without raining insults like, ‘stupid man, ‘foolish’.

I think Nigeria is the way it is and will continue to be the way it is for two or three reasons. Number One; when the Brits left, they made sure they left big men, small systems. In any nation that you have big men, small systems, things will not work. The first thing we should have developed are huge fantastic systems that are bigger than Nse and Mathew; so that whether Mathew comes or goes; like they say, ‘soldier comes, soldier go,’ the barrack remains. I live in the United Kingdom. Why has there not been a civil war in the United Kingdom in 1000 years? Have you ever asked? Have you ever wondered? When I got to the United Kingdom, I didn’t want to be one more pastor. I actually started a degree in Sociology of Britain. I didn’t finish it, I backslided, but I got what I needed. I wanted to study the Sociology of this country where I was going to spend much of my life. I found that in 1000 years they have not had a civil war. Why?

They created a system that embraces the common man. You may call it an opiate; something that cools his pain. Two, they recognized his mind and his right to be a contributor and they created a parliament-House of Commons; it means a place for commoners. The aristocrats who own 62 percent of the United Kingdom’s wealth took themselves to the House of Lords. The House of Commons will deliberate a matter, the House of Lords will, most times, just confirm, unless they have a reason to argue. The commoner is happy that he is recognized. He has a voice. On top of that, in the 1920s a particular Prime Minister brought a welfare system where it will be hard for you to go to bed without food in your stomach-there is unemployment benefit or disability benefit or single parent benefit or child benefit.

Even if you are the wealthiest in the United Kingdom, your children are entitled to 18 Pounds every week until they are 16 years. If you have three children, they send 18 Pounds in three places to you so that no child goes to bed hungry. That is part of creating a robust system: Legal, they created, transportation, they created systems; in every aspect of the United Kingdom, they created robust systems. If you go to the United States of America that was the same thing they did. They created a robust system If you look at most of Western Europe, you notice that what they did was to create a robust system. Some of the Western nations are so crazy you don’t know their wealthy men. I doubt if you know the wealthy men of Germany. They have multi-millionaires, but the system is so robust, you don’t even need to know them.

When you have a robust system, the next tier is a robust leadership. What we have in Africa is tribal chiefs, not leaders. How do you know a tribal chief? He surrounds himself with people from his tribe. Every African president or Prime Minister if we go back to those days tends to surround themselves with people from their tribes. The challenge of Africa is small systems, big men. Instead of great systems; then work on raising great leaders. America has had all kinds of presidents, but the system is like a man who swallows a crazy fish. His body can absorb it. America had a farmer for president-Jimmy Carter. The nation did not come down. America had an actor for president-Ronald Reagan. The country did not fall apart. America had a man who first struggled with a lot of alcohol because he was raised privileged-George Bush Jr. The only time America had a challenge was when a big man was trying to challenge a big system. He found out that you may be a big man with your money, the system is bigger than you; that is Donald Trump. He was shocked. The system is so big. Guys were ready to resign. The system taught the CIA Head that there are things he should keep to himself. There are places he should be able to say yes or no to the President. Can you do that in an African nation? Can the Central Bank Governor challenge the president who says print more money?

When the Central Bank Governor of Uganda challenged Idi Amin, who asked him to print more money, by saying our money is like toilet paper. He said you call Uganda money sh*t money? Go and do to him what they do to sh*t! You cannot do that in the Western world.

What did Boris Johnson do that our leaders in Africa don’t do; that the whole house was brouhaha? Members of his party were saying they were going to move a vote of no confidence. I think what saved him was the Ukraine crisis that made that thing to go quiet. The same governors who say people should not drive against traffic, what do they do? They drive against traffic. You can’t do that in the UK. The first thing society should do is build super systems. After you have done that you begin to build super leaders.

We have gone round the cycle of blame. Some people think it is the old people. If we remove the old people, then we can put younger people in and they are worse. The challenge is the system. I think the army; the generals who came out and became presidents are the best! I was born and raised in the barracks. By the time you are a 25 or 26 year-old full Lieutenant, they put 50 men under you. You are a Platoon Commander. You learn how to manage 50 people. By the time you are a Captain, you are a Company Commander. They put 100 men under you. Ninety percent of the guys in the Senate do not have five people in their chambers if they are lawyers. They have never managed five people. Leadership is not the degree. It is the capacity by the way of your training. The Nigerian Army-you may laugh at them-because they don’t know how to market themselves.

By the time you are a Major in the Nigerian Army, you are required to go to Sandhurst in England for training. Teshi in Ghana. You are required to go to India and to the United States. You have been exposed. When you go to those places, you don’t go to eat. They train you on the leadership principles of different generals. They teach you how to handle crisis. By the time you are a Brigadier-One Star General; you are the head of 5000 soldiers. I want you to point to two or three governors in Nigeria who were not soldiers that have ever managed 5000 people in their business? It will be very hard. Not that we may not have one or two, but in the history of Nigeria we have had several governors, but when you are managing a broken system, you are seen as the one who does not know how to do it.

This country does not even know how much wastage we go through; by the time you are a One Star General; for instance, in the Air Force, you are one of the best Physicists, you are one of the best in Electronic Engineering. You could fly several planes. By the time you are a two or three Star General, you are now managing more than a brigade under you. You are managing between 15000 and 20000 soldiers. You make decisions. You were part of a process. The challenge we have, having said all that is that the army itself has been tribalized. Because of that, chances are that somebody may have been given promotion who did not go through all the things I just described. If the system is robust even someone with little experience will manage it. I was a teenager when General Gowon took over. He was only 32 years. Will you hand over Nigeria today to a 32 year-old man?

Do you know that because of his exposure; Sandhurst, Teshi; all those places and rising to the place where he was a Lieutenant Colonel, he had experience. In leadership, even though they call you Commander, you don’t command. You seek counsel. Esuene was in the Air Force. Akinwale Wey was the Head of Navy. I still remember clearly. He brought Awolowo to be the head of Finance. Ukpabi Asika was in the charge of the East. May be I am a bit biased in my opinion, it is still my favourite government up till now. A lot of things you see in Lagos were built by his administration or designed not completed-from the National Theatre to FESTAC, the Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi, the National Stadium, Games Village to the International Airport, the Trade Fair Complex; that is a system with good leadership.

Gowon did what America did for Europe after the Second World War. Europe was basterdized. Europe was destroyed; so, they declared a Marshal Plan. Europe was helped to rebuild. Many of the structures you see in Lagos today were built by that administration. All the civilians that have taken over since 1999 till now, what have they done? Now, Lagos is impossible. I was in traffic for over five hours.

I must also commend the governors of the Second Republic. They all did very well-Prof. Ambrose Alli; this Weeping Governor-Sam Mbakwe; some of them had no house at the time of their death; Dr. Clement Isong, Lateef Jakande, Balarabe Musa, Bola Ige; those guys were too refined and selfless. The governors of the Second Republic were fantastic; even the central government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari; to be fair. The difference was that the political parties were big. No individual was bigger than the political party. These days individuals are bigger than the political parties.

There is hopelessness everywhere in Nigeria. Even when people offer hope those who it is being offered view it with suspicion. Why do you think hope is rare in Nigeria today?

The challenge with Nigeria is that Nigeria is an enigma. On one hand, I personally believe we need to stay together. Disintegration will have monumental consequences on all parts. Dare I say, the North will suffer it most. Eastern Nigeria has a harmonious culture. There may be variation in the way the Igbo man may say somethings. The West has a harmonious culture. In the South-south, there is some degree of cultural affinity with each other. The North has 300 tribes. Most people in the South don’t know that Hausa and Fulani are not the only languages in the North. Each of these tribes, for a long time, have been suppressed. It will be very difficult to manage a disintegrated Nigeria because of these people who have been fused together and suddenly have a reason for disintegration, may not want to come back together again. How many nations do you want to create?

What is the way forward? I think each area should be given a degree of autonomy at the same time belonging to the greater body. That will be the beginning. Number Two; I think that we need to allow that autonomy to the point that let the West raise its standard. Let the North-east, North-west raise their standard to compete with each other. In the attempt to compete, we become stronger and better. The hope for Nigeria is in harmony, unity and allowing for a honest atmosphere of competition and elevating competence not tribe. If you don’t celebrate me for my gifting but first want to check where I come from then I know I don’t belong. We need to find a way to celebrate peoples capacity and ability. If that is not done, then there is no hope. Having said all that I have travelled to the whole of Africa. I can tell you that Nigeria is one place of opportunities. There is volume in the market. There is the talent of the people. There is the hunger of the people for success. Apart from the Bamalekes of Camerooun, the Kikuyus of Kenya, the Igbos of Nigeria and the Ashantis of Ghana, most of Africa is subsistence in thinking, the African man just wants to eat and survive.

In Nigeria, the Igbos and Yorubas have rubbed off on all of us. All of us want to do business. All the se—back in front of our houses have a shop. All the shops in front of our houses. We are by nature, as Nigerians, enterprising. Some Caribbeans who are in our church in the UK told me that when they go to the market to buy meat, while they are trying to price it, a Nigerian will just come, pay for the meat and go. We challenge ourselves. Why did you do that. You think because my skin is different from yours, you can treat me anyhow? The Nigerian changed the UK. When all the children born in the UK who came to Nigeria returned to the UK, you want to say Africans are not educated? Here are loads of doctors and pharmacists. They had no choice. They had to change the system. Nigerians are educated. They are savvy. They have capacity. They have ability. One in eight black persons in the world is a Nigerian. There is hope. The only thing we can say is the people in leadership should realize that all these things about me are still about big man, small systems.

Let any young man who finds himself in places of responsibility tomorrow be part of the development of the big system. When they do that even if they don’t get the benefit, their children will. Let’s build big systems. I want to register a company in the UK, I don’t see anybody. I go online and in 10 minutes, it is done. I pay 15 Pounds. There is a deliberate disorder in Nigeria because somebody is benefitting from the disorder. Order removes bribery. Order removes corruption. Order helps building of systems. Order makes things to flow. Order makes society to be more robust. Order makes others outside to come in for your business. It is very difficult to find funding for your project in Nigeria because of disorder. It is very difficult to find anyone to come to your aid from abroad; bribery. Somebody is deliberately ensuring the computer doesn’t work or he creates new documents that can’t be accessed. Forever CAC is saying you can register your company online. It does not work. Nigeria is the most expensive place to register a company-N75000.

Disorder is also because the system is not robust. If you ship anything to Nigeria, it says seven days after the arrival of your load, it will enter demurrage. The system has been created for your cargo to enter demurrage. I am in the UK, I order a Hummer from Dallas in America. I don’t see the clearing agent. It arrives at my home in two days.


When you have a robust system, the next tier is a robust leadership. What we have in Africa is tribal chiefs, not leaders. How do you know a tribal chief? He surrounds himself with people from his tribe. Every African president or Prime Minister if we go back to those days tends to surround themselves with people from their tribes. The challenge of Africa is small systems, big men. Instead of great systems; then work on raising great leaders