One of the unfortunate dimensions of the Nigerian postcolonial malaise is the terrible statistics concerning adult illiteracy in Nigeria. The 2018 literacy rate puts adult illiteracy at 38% or about 65 million Nigerians. And with the out-of-school figure standing at 11 million children, there is an approximate total of 70 million Nigerians who lack the fundamental ingredients not only to make their lives worthwhile, but to also contribute meaningfully to national development. Everyone agrees that a state’s development prospect—a state’s capacity to generate infrastructural development—depends essentially on the dynamics of human capital development it is able to facilitate. Add 38% illiterate Nigerians to the over 60% unemployed and unemployable youths, and we instantly see the enormity of Nigeria’s development challenge
And the narrative becomes gloomier when we consider the lamented and lamentable diminishing reading culture in Nigeria. In a 2017 survey by the World Culture Score Index that monitors the world reading culture, India tops the list with an average of 10.42 reading hours per week, followed by Thailand with 09.24 hours per week. China came third with 8 hours per week. Only Egypt and South Africa were the two African countries listed, Nigeria is nowhere on the list. Several reasons have been adduced for the low reading culture—low budgetary allocations for the development of functional libraries, the influence of social media and the new technologies, lack of adequate reading materials, poor or inadequate readership promotion programmes, inept and poorly trained personnel, and even corruption and poverty.
Reading is inextricably tied to intelligence and cognition, and the capacity for analytic and critical reflection and problem solving. Self-conscious awareness, emotional intelligence, mental health, pure reading delight, experiential upliftment, acquisition of social grace, empathy, and so many other skills associated with reading are all significant not only for mental progress but also for socioeconomic development. I suspect that this is the key reason for racial slur that “blacks do not read.” Most of us have heard or read that statement that if you want to hide something important from a black man, the perfect hiding place for such insights and ideas is inside the pages of books. And since the black man does not read, you are guaranteed the safest hiding place! This is a racial reasoning, no doubt, but does it tell us something fundamental about our postcolonial condition?
Let me identify a dimension of the reading culture that I consider very fundamental. This is the capacity or otherwise of the leadership of any state to read books. At the end of his second term in office, the reading list of President Barack Obama was published. No one would ever believe that the two-terms that were filled with partisan worries and racial troubles would ever leave sufficient space for a black president to develop a reading and play lists. Obama did, and the list spans history, philosophy, memoirs, literary fiction, sociology, current affairs, political science, and many more. Obama devoured authors as popular as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Melville Herman, V. S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Nelson Mandela, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Adichie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many more. He read such incredible books like The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Invisible Man, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, Harry Porter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Soul of Black Folks, How Democracies Die, The New Geography of Jobs, Basketball and Other Things, Shakespeare’s tragedies, and many others.
Now, it has not been established that there is a direct proportional relationship between the quality of a leader’s reading list and the governance quality of a state. Yet, it is safe to say that a reading leader would likely be a good leader. Reading opens the mind to a variety of human experiences that have the possibility of influencing one’s thoughts, decisions, plans and perceptions. Imagine a leader of a third world state reading about the development experience of Lee Kwan Yew or the turbulent presidency of Barack Obama? Imagine a president in any of the African states reading the bestseller, Why Nations Fail? or Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom.
Thus, we can ask: do Nigerian leaders read? This question can be tracked historically. I have never read anywhere the reading list of any Nigerian president. One could say, with some level of certainty, that former president Olusegun Obasanjo was an intellectual. The same could be said for Nnamdi Azikiwe. Otherwise, what has characterized leadership in the Nigerian political space is an extreme and fixated sense of parochialism colored by ethnicity, religion and selfish impulses of the worst type defined by a clientelist or prebendal elememts. In Nigeria, we care more about the religious and ethnic affiliations of leaders and leaders-to-be rather than their intellectual and development quotients. We elect leaders based on their sense of political correctness or the capacity to distribute largesse. We are not bothered about the kind of mindset a prospective leader is bringing into critical offices in the land.
There are two types of mindsets that have been identified, each with serious implications for national development. The first is a fixed mindset which is fixated on some specific dynamics or ways of doing things without any desire for a reflective change. It takes little reflection to see how such a fixed and fixated mindset could rigidly adapt itself to a rent-seeking context where everything is seen in the light of politics and power play. On the other hand, there is a growth mindset that capitalizes on experience, intelligence and learning as the crucial elements in the dynamics of success and achievement. The growth mindset requires extra effort, extra reflection, and an urgent desire to experiment. Of course, the fixed mindset does not require the extra effort determined by joy of reading and continuous learning.
A fixed mindset is so fixated on limiting and selfish considerations to an extent that it fails to consider the mistakes of the past, historically and intellectually outlined in the pages of many reading lists. In other words, leaders who are not readers will fixatedly continue to do the same things in the same way, continue to attend religiously to tradition, while expecting to see or achieve different and fundamental results and outcomes. A leader fixated on the traditional essentially lacks the experimental sensibility that is transformational rather than transactional. Transaction is the usual administrative style that abides by certain debilitating rules and procedures, transformation is radical because it is experimental and bold. Such experimental leadership sees the historical and sociopolitical and economic consequences of certain policies, say, the inequitable revenue allocation formula, and takes distinct but coherent step to interrogate its essence and utility for a strong and united nation.
Transactional leaders often fail to engage with the leadership experiences of others who have gone ahead or are still right in the stormy saddle of leadership. Leadership and governance traps are often right there on the pages of political discourses. But they are often hidden from the mind and consciousness of non-reading leaders who are then forced to reinvent the wheels of failed strategies and policies initiatives that are disenabling. But let us take it for granted that the Nigerian leadership, from the legislature to the executive, has a modicum of reading culture. The next significant question is: what do they read? And how does what is read shape mind set and behavior? How does it reflect on governance sensibility and democratic/citizen relations? What, for instance, do the speeches of Nigerian leaders tell us about their ideological bent and prospective political trajectory? Speeches are not just mere platitudes that are poured over unsuspecting audiences. On the contrary, they reflect the multiple and enabling experiences of the leader—what he or she has read and reflected on, the ideological impact at work in his or her mind, and experiential factors and variables that condition actions. One can imagine Bill Clinton of the United States or the late Leopold Senghor of Senegal or the late Kwame Nkrumah sitting together with their speechwriters to fine tune their speeches so that they could inspire or persuade the audience. American presidents draw on the fundamental insights that link them with past presidents. Barack Obama often drew on Mandela’s leadership nuggets. That is because he read and digested Mandela.
It is definitely not sufficient for a development-deprived state like Nigeria to remain lackadaisical about the quality of its leadership. And it just will not be sufficient for any leader at any level to simply be literate. Literacy may not amount to anything much when it is not deployed to consuming those insights, found in books that could be directed towards transforming the development atmosphere of Nigeria. I look forward to a day, and very soon, that Nigeria will get a leader who is not only social media savvy, but who energetically immersed him or herself in the idea field—about education, indigeneity, development, poverty, corruption, etc.—on Twitter. I will love to see a Nigerian leader who quotes Gandhi, Mandela, Awolowo, Sardauna Bello, etc., and seek to liberate the many ideas locked in many books for the benefit of transforming the governance dynamics of the Nigerian state.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa is Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org