Thursday, October 22, 2015 8:50 pm
By Kayode Fayemi.
So often, when themes like the dearth of transparency, corruption and the abuse of power are the subject of public discourse, the context is usually the political domain. We politicians are the scapegoats for all that is wrong in our country and are thought to be the most afflicted by such deficiencies. As a political operative myself, I can certainly relate to this. The conversation on leadership, for example, tends inevitably to focus on political leadership as though this is the only type of leadership that matters or exists.
The theme of today’s lecture therefore offers an opportunity to discuss a dimension of leadership that is rarely given as much prominence as it deserves, but which has become increasingly vital and strategic. Of course, political leadership remains both necessary and important; hence this paper will focus on the nexus between Corporate Governance and Public Sector Leadership as we explore progressive ideas for stimulating national growth and development.
According to James McRitichie corporate governance is most often viewed as both the structure and the relationships which determine corporate direction and performance. The board of directors is typically central to corporate governance. Its relationship to the other primary participants, typically shareholders and management, is critical. Additional participants include employees, customers, suppliers, and creditors. The corporate governance framework also depends on the legal, regulatory, institutional and ethical environment of the community. Whereas the 20th century might be viewed as the age of management, the early 21st century has been predicted to be more focused on governance. Both terms address control of corporations but governance has always required an examination of underlying purpose and legitimacy.1
The theme that emerges from present-day definitions is that in the 21st century, corporations are no longer perceived and narrowly defined as solely commercial entities. They are now recognized for their wide-ranging impact on society, politics, and indeed on everyday life. More than ever before there is greater interest in how corporations are run. As Robert A.G. Monks and Nell Minow wrote in their book, ‘Power and Accountability’, “Corporations determine far more than any other institution the air we breathe, the quality of the water we drink, even where we live. Yet they are not accountable to anyone.” 2
Corporations are no longer simply evaluated as being able profit-making institutions but as corporate citizens with broader responsibilities to the society at large. Contemporary perspectives on Corporate Governance demand accountability to not just shareholders and management but the entire society.
The Crisis of Corporate Governance in the Early 2000s
The subject of corporate governance has become particularly salient since the beginning of the 21st century when a gale of scandals swept across Wall Street, ravaging several American corporations and resulting in the high profile collapses of establishments such as Tyco, Enron and WorldCom due to financial fraud. The scandal also claimed the famed accounting firm Arthur Andersen which was auditor to both Enron and WorldCom and was indicted for complicity in the fraud perpetrated by both corporations. The financial costs of these frauds were astronomical. Enron’s stock collapse wiped out $67 billion in shareholder wealth while the nosedive of WorldCom’s shares cost investors over $175 billion – nearly three times the value of what was lost in the implosion of Enron.3
In the wake of the scandals in Enron, Tyco and WorldCom, there was widespread recognition that these events had badly shaken investor confidence in the integrity of financial statements and that an overhaul of regulatory standards was required. In 2002, the U.S. congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to protect investors from the possibility of fraudulent accounting by corporations. The act mandates strict reforms to improve financial disclosure and prevent accounting fraud.4 It also required chief executive officers and chief financial officers to certify at regular intervals that both their reports and their financial statements contained no untruths and omit no material facts. More recently, just this year, we have witnessed the scandal in Volkswagen seriously damage the reputation of one of the world’s most iconic carmakers and lead to the resignation of its leadership.
Nigeria has also had its own share of corporate governance scandals. During the 1990s, the then newly liberalized banking sector became a theatre of large-scale fraud as poorly run banks sucked up depositors’ funds while promising unrealistic interest rates only to crash leaving untold misery in its wake. This was the era of the Cowboys who ran the so-called magic banks or wonder banks and allied financial institutions. In reality, many of those new banks were complicit in an elaborate regime of official graft and serving conduits for illegal remittances abroad by the ruling elites and eventually collapsed during the gale of bank failures in the early 1990s.5 Commenting on the financial crisis that bankrupted several banks in the early 1990s, Olusegun Obasanjo wrote, “Banks and the foreign industry in Nigeria seem to have made money-making without regard to production and the health of the economy, their objective.”6
In December 2006, a multinational company operating in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector of the Nigerian economy fired its Chief Executive Officer and finance director over the doctoring of its 2005 financial statement. The independent auditor appointed to investigate its financials confirmed a significant and deliberate overstatement of the company’s financial position over a number of years to the tune of between 13 and 15 billion naira. The company consequently disclosed that since 2003 it had recorded a loss of N5 billion while reporting huge profits to shareholders and the general public.7
In 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosed that some bank chiefs gave some N388 billion in unsecured loans to investors without collaterals. Subsequently, these investors dumped the loans on the stock market driving up share prices thus triggering the declaration of fabulous profits and dividends.8 In order to maintain the illusion of size and strength, several Nigerian banks had organized public offers with which they raised funds to buy up more property and establish more branches. Banks borrowed from each other to shore up their profit margins at the end of their financial years. Ultimately, it was revealed that they had been using depositors’ funds to hike their stock prices by lending to corporations and individuals who, in turn, invested in their banks’ shares.9
This edifice of fraud collapsed in 2008 in the wake of the global financial crisis revealing that financial institutions were led to the brink of terminal bankruptcy by thieving executives. In the ensuing reforms, several CEOs were removed by the new Central Bank leadership and subsequently charged to court for financial crimes. A number of Nigeria’s hitherto highly rated banks were left in need of multibillion naira bailout by the federal government to guarantee their survival. The financial journalist Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, observed that Nigeria’s financial crisis was caused by self-inflicted factors, namely, greed and regulatory failure.10
There is a link between the conduct of some of the Bank executives, for example, cavalierly playing fast and loose with depositors’ funds and the nonchalant attitude of some public functionaries towards public funds. Both traits belong to the same spectrum of elite irresponsibility. We find the same broad plagues of leadership failure in both the public sector and the private sector.
Between the Private Sector and the Public Sector: Comparative Perspectives on Leadership Failure
If Nigeria were to be a private company, the mismanagement we have witnessed over the last years would have made us bankrupt. The symptoms of sovereign bankruptcy are however not merely economic. They are reflected in the wide-ranging dysfunction of institutions, rampant graft and social unrest – from the militancy in the Niger Delta and the terrorist insurgency of Boko Haram in the North East to the various formats of violence essayed by hostile non-state actors. All these plagues emanate from a failure of public sector leadership.
In my view, the greatest expression of the failure of public sector governance is the creation of extreme poverty and inequality in the society. The defining contradiction of Nigeria is that it is a country characterized by widespread poverty in the midst of plenty. The statistics are stark. With a maximum crude oil production capacity of 2.5 million barrels per day, Nigeria ranks as Africa’s largest producer of oil and the sixth largest oil producing country in the world.11 In the last fifty years, Nigeria has earned over $800 billion as revenue from oil.12 The giant of Africa has proven reserves of 180 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – the largest on the continent. In recent years, she has recorded an average growth of 7.4 percent, which according to the World Bank is one of the highest in the world; and an aggressive monetary policy has helped restrict inflation to single digit levels.13 Judging from all these indices, Nigeria ought to be an economic super power, a prime player in the world league of dominant economies. She is not.
A staggering 70 percent of our population or about 112.5 million Nigerians live in abject poverty – below $2 per day. Poverty greatly curtails the access of millions of Nigerians to the elementary things of life – good health care, a decent education and a broad spectrum of social and economic opportunities, not to mention a decent quality of life – things that they should rightly expect as citizens of such a wealthy country.
Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of child mortality. Over 3.9 million children have died between 2009 and 2014. Nigeria has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. 55,000 women die annually during childbirth. The fact that the majority of our people are poor means that most people cannot afford healthcare. Only 1.5 percent of Nigerians have health insurance coverage and 75 percent of Nigerians have no access to primary health care. A 2013 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring report ranks Nigeria as one of the countries with the highest level of illiteracy. The report states that the number of illiterate adults in Nigeria has increased by 10 million over the past two decades, to reach 35 million. It also states that 10.5 million Nigerian children of primary school age are out of school. 59.2 percent of Nigerian households live in single rooms and it is projected that 24.4 million Nigerians will be homeless by 2015. Only 40 percent of Nigerians have access to electricity. Broadband penetration is 6.9 percent while life expectancy stands at 52 years. Nigeria, for all her natural wealth and much vaunted economic potential, is ranked as the 33rd poorest nation in the world.
What makes our paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty even more bizarre is that Nigeria is officially the largest economy in Africa. The big question is why despite these healthy figures which apparently show an economy in good health, do millions of Nigerians, in fact the majority of our compatriots, still live in desperate conditions? In other words, how is it that these figures have failed to translate into food on the tables, roofs over the heads and access to functional social services for the majority of Nigerians?
According to the Nobel Laureate, Muhammed Yunus, “Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society”.14 Poverty and unemployment inevitably lead to social unrest and instability. There is a clear link between socioeconomic conditions and our national security challenges amongst other portents.
We cannot sustain a country that exists with two different realities prevailing coterminously. One in which a select few have more than their fair share while others wallow in indigence. We cannot continue to speak of a housing deficit for the majority of our people when vast overpriced real estate in our major cities are unoccupied. We cannot keep up with a broken educational system yet Nigerians as international students deploy our commonwealth to fund the functionality of education systems in other countries, ditto our healthcare industry. A research company, Euromonitor forecasts that champagne consumption in Nigeria will reach 1.1 million litres or $105million annually by 2017, with 2012 consumption figures at almost $59million, yet a large majority of our people lack access to pipe borne water. 15
The questions we should ask ourselves in designing developmental policies and programmes for Nigeria, either as government, corporate social responsibility actors or development facilitators is “how many people will be liberated from the bracket of abject poverty”?, “how will this create greater access to economic opportunities for Nigerians”. We need to close the gaps, and create a society where everyone, regardless of age, sex, religion, physical ability or any other social markers has access to equal opportunities to lead a full and productive life.
In other words, in applying the metaphor of Nigeria as a corporate institution, we might say that Nigeria is not a for-profit enterprise. It is a for-people enterprise. To think of Nigeria as a corporation is to insist that it cannot simply exist for the benefit of a well placed and well connected minority. It must exist for the profit of all our people. This is why the ability of the nation-state to ensure mutual prosperity is the key to internal coherence and successful common citizenship.
Problems and Prospects of Corporate Governance and Public Sector Leadership
As discussed earlier, the Nigerian Financial banking scandals of the 1990s and the mid 2000s exposed the wanton violation of business ethics and corporate governance codes by entrepreneurs who recognized no fidelity to their customers or duty to society at large. There was no sense that the pursuit of wealth cannot be conducted at the expense of the society. Indeed, these bankers have been likened to corrupt politicians and public servants in their conduct. Among the many lessons to be learned from the banking crisis is the fact that the public sector has no monopoly of corruption neither is the private sector populated by saints. The discourse that depicts the public sector as a bastion of official sleaze ranged against a private sector that is a paragon of probity, efficiency and effectiveness is simplistic and is, in fact, a false debate. What is at issue is the conduct of our elites.
Abuse of power and impunity are as much a reality of leadership in the private sector as it is in the public sector. In a society that esteems opulence and exalts the big man, it is no surprise that the very concept of leadership has been debased. This is apparent when we survey the signs and symbols of power in our land: the pomp and pageantry, the long motorcades, the sirens, the circus-like atmospherics surrounding leadership, the retinue of idle “aides” and the inevitable flock of hangers-on, praise-singers and sycophants. Some of these idiosyncrasies which surround leadership in Nigeria derive from the legacy of colonialism and military dictatorship. In those forms of government, leadership was always imposed from the top and was therefore an alien imposition on society and an intrusion on our peace. The semiotics of power tended to be bullying, loud, garish, oppressive and violent. This has become installed as part of our leadership culture and has carried over into our democracy. But this pathology is clearly evident in some private sector institutions where the boss is virtually worshipped as god and maintains a vulgar ostentatious lifestyle that is often at variance with and at the expense of the fiscal health of the corporation.
For the next generation of private sector leaders therefore, it is essential that we recognize that one does not need a political office or title to become an exemplar of higher values. Ethical leadership is needed as much in the public sector as much as it is required in the private sector. In the province of Nigerian business names like Gamaliel Onosode of blessed memory, Felix Ohiwerei, Pascal Dozie, Umaru Muttalab, Christopher Kolade and Fola Adeola – indeed, Akintola Williams, to mention a few, have become synonymous with ethical enterprise, we similarly have their counterparts in public sector leadership, we therefore have a rich repertoire of good examples to build on in envisioning values-based leadership in both the private and public sectors.
Succession Planning and Strategic Long-term Visioning
The failure of corporate governance in ensuring the long term sustainability of corporations accounts for why there is hardly any large indigenous corporation in Nigeria that is up to 100 years old. Few Nigerian companies have outlived their founders. It is therefore heartening to note that in recent decades, the tides have turned with several new corporations having been founded by visionary Nigerians who appear to have punctured this trajectory and departed from the norm, establishing solid companies on the foundations of sound corporate governance codes. These companies are a pride to Nigeria and indeed Africa and hold the promise for long term economic growth as they shine the light as good examples for other corporations to follow. In keeping with global best practices, they have demonstrated that very careful thought has gone into succession planning and long term vision considering the enviable manner successive generations of chief executives have passed on the baton of leadership without negative impacts on neither the quality of the company’s service offerings nor its prospects of surviving profitably.
These corporations shouldn’t only inspire their peers in the private sector to run their businesses ethically and sustainably, they should also inspire public sector leaders to borrow a leaf and be more strategic in the way government is run. The failure of long term visioning and succession planning is a key public sector leadership deficit that is traceable to the dominant model of leadership in our institutions and the disappearance of ethical values in the promotion of the cult of personality over institution. The dominant cultural and institutional models of public leadership have been typically defined by the exercise of raw power. This authoritarian paradigm has become a template for leadership in virtually all our institutions. Herein lies one of the characteristics of dysfunctional organizations – leadership is seen as being vested in a single authority figure rather than as a function diffused among several empowered actors. Because of their overwhelming personalization of power and the centralization of authority, leaders in this mould who also tend to be psychologically insecure are simply unable or unwilling to mentor and empower their subordinates. Under these circumstances, young potential leaders are not being prepared to undertake greater responsibility.
Any country that fails to plan for succession also plans to fail the leadership test – and much more. Embracing strategic thinking also means jettisoning our institutional and cultural predilection for short termism. Successful development planning like succession planning is a long term endeavour. Indeed, development planning cannot be separated from succession planning. The economic miracle of Southeast Asian nations was built on the back of long term planning. China’s emergence which is perhaps the most talked about and analyzed development story of recent time was nurtured over the course of thirty years. These are the countries we want to emulate. There is a valid debate over the possibilities of long term strategic planning in a democracy with defined term limits. It is said that the problem with democratic environments is that cycles of regular electioneering impose short term timelines which are not really conducive to long term strategizing. Electorates tend to want immediate and tangible dividends to validate their confidence in their elected governments. Politicians, especially in our clime, are prone to crude populism often making wild promises to perform immediate miracles once they are voted into office. The result is often mutual disappointment.
What we therefore need is the strengthening of institutionalized long term strategic planning that is not susceptible to the impulses of political cycles or political actors. We simply cannot afford to legitimize the reasons given by some of our African leaders for perpetuating themselves in power indefinitely. In this regard, it has to be said that Africa’s legacy of developmental underachievement has something to do with lack of careful succession planning. What we see in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi today in terms of the pursuit of perpetuation of power clearly attests to this. The fact that of the 10 current longest ruling non-royal national leaders of independent countries in the world today, six of them are Africans, with the top three being Paul Biya of Cameroon (Over 40 years), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (Over 36 years) and José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (Over 36 years) cannot be unconnected with the slow pace of development in these resource rich countries.16 Sadly, longevity has not resulted in the transformation of their economies for the better. For the most part, progress has actually been hobbled by longevity.