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Leadership selection in Nigeria: The perils of overconfidence

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By Abdulrauf Aliyu

In the realm of Nigerian politics, the past two decades have witnessed a transformation in leadership that has left a significant mark on the nation’s destiny. It is a period marked by transitions from one administration to another, each promising to bring about much-needed change and progress. The leadership selection process, however, has often been plagued by the peril of overconfidence, as aptly noted by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. This op-ed examines the leadership styles of two former Nigerian presidents, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, through the lens of overconfidence and its implications for the nation’s progress.

Daniel Kahneman, a renowned psychologist and behavioral economist, has spent decades studying human decision-making and the cognitive biases that often influence our choices. His assertion that “one of the real dangers of leader selection in many organizations is that leaders are selected for overconfidence” is a fitting starting point for an analysis of Nigerian political leadership. Overconfidence, in the context of leadership, can manifest as an unwarranted belief in one’s abilities, a lack of receptiveness to feedback, and an overestimation of the likelihood of success. This overconfidence can have far-reaching consequences when it comes to governance.

Goodluck Jonathan, who served as Nigeria’s president from 2010 to 2015, is a prominent example of a leader whose tenure was marked by overconfidence. When he assumed office, he inherited a nation grappling with issues such as corruption, insecurity, and economic instability. His leadership, however, was marred by a lack of decisiveness in addressing these challenges. Instead of acknowledging the gravity of the problems and seeking innovative solutions, he often appeared complacent, as if hoping that the issues would resolve themselves.

One glaring example of Jonathan’s overconfidence was his handling of the Boko Haram insurgency. Despite the escalating violence and the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok, he downplayed the threat, leading to a delayed response that allowed the terrorist group to gain more ground. This overconfidence not only cost lives but also fueled a sense of frustration and helplessness among Nigerians.
Furthermore, Jonathan’s leadership was characterized by an inability to tackle corruption effectively. Despite promising to fight corruption, he seemed reluctant to hold his own party members accountable for their misdeeds. This selective approach to anti-corruption efforts eroded public trust and perpetuated the culture of impunity.

On the other side of the spectrum, Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency, which began in 2015, was also marked by overconfidence, albeit of a different kind. Buhari, a former military leader, was widely seen as a disciplinarian who would bring order to Nigeria’s chaotic governance landscape. His reputation was built on a perception of unyielding integrity, and many Nigerians believed he had the solution to the nation’s problems.
However, Buhari’s leadership style often veered into authoritarianism, with a tendency to sideline democratic institutions and concentrate power in the executive branch. His administration’s overconfidence in its ability to solve Nigeria’s problems without consulting a wide range of stakeholders resulted in a lack of inclusivity and accountability.

One of the most significant manifestations of overconfidence during Buhari’s tenure was the mishandling of the economy. His government’s decision to implement a strict foreign exchange policy and its reluctance to embrace economic diversification led to a recession that hurt ordinary Nigerians. Overconfidence in a narrow set of economic policies disregarded the complexity of the nation’s economic challenges and hampered the country’s growth potential.

Furthermore, Buhari’s administration displayed overconfidence in handling security matters. While the fight against Boko Haram made some progress, other security challenges, such as the Fulani herdsmen crisis and the resurgence of secessionist movements, were often met with heavy-handed tactics rather than dialogue and reconciliation. This approach fueled resentment in the affected communities and exacerbated conflicts.

The peril of overconfidence in leadership selection becomes evident when we examine the impact of these two presidencies on Nigeria’s development. Jonathan’s reluctance to confront pressing issues and his selective approach to governance led to a lack of progress on critical fronts. Buhari’s authoritarian tendencies and rigid economic policies stifled innovation and hindered the nation’s growth potential.
It is essential to acknowledge that leadership decisions in Nigeria are influenced by various factors, including political patronage, regional considerations, and ethno-religious dynamics. However, the common thread of overconfidence in leadership selection remains a concerning factor.

To overcome this peril, Nigeria must adopt a more rigorous and merit-based approach to leadership selection. Leaders should be chosen based on their competence, track record, and ability to navigate the complex challenges facing the nation. Additionally, mechanisms for accountability and transparency must be strengthened to prevent leaders from becoming complacent and overconfident in their positions.
Furthermore, leaders should surround themselves with diverse and knowledgeable advisers who can provide different perspectives and challenge their assumptions. Overconfidence often thrives in environments where leaders are insulated from dissenting voices. In contrast, leaders who encourage constructive criticism and engage in open dialogue are more likely to make informed decisions that benefit the nation.

In conclusion, the peril of overconfidence in leadership selection has had a significant impact on Nigeria’s political landscape. Both Goodluck Jonathan’s and Muhammadu Buhari’s presidencies were marked by overconfidence, which hindered progress on critical issues and contributed to the nation’s challenges. To break free from this cycle, Nigeria must prioritize merit-based leadership selection, accountability, and inclusivity in governance. Only then can the nation harness its full potential and address the pressing issues that have long impeded its development.

Abdulrauf Aliyu
An economist and Policy Analyst writes from
45 Ashiru Road, U/Dosa New Extension

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