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Nigeria’s time has come – but are its leaders up to the task?

2015-brainfood-nigeria-883x432Nigeria is experiencing some of the fastest economic growth on the continent. With a newly elected president, the triumph of democracy and a young population, many commentators reckon Nigeria’s time has come. But are its leaders, both political and business, up to it? “There is a clamour for change among the youth,” says Dr Enase Okonedo, Dean of Lagos Business School. “We have seen lots of things go wrong here; the youth feel that whether in politics or in the commercial world, older people have been leaders forever and have changed nothing.”

Dr Philip Stiles

Dr Philip Stiles

Cambridge Judge Business School’s Dr Philip Stiles, Co-Director of the Centre for International Human Resource Management and Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance, says that many leaders would agree that there is this clamour for social change. “A lot of politicians want to create social change,” he says, “but some are frustrated as they can’t do very much because the level above them won’t allow it.”

The leadership challenges, from the security situation with Boko Haram, to the vexed question of corruption, to ethnic divisions, are undeniable – but so are the opportunities, according to Queen Nworisara Quinn, co-founder of the Cambridge Africa Business Network and whose doctorate in Strategy & International Business was approved in 2015. She spends much of her time promoting a robust dialogue about business, investment and entrepreneurship in Africa.

Queen Nworisara Quinn

Queen Nworisara Quinn

“Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa. When people think about market entry to Africa, Nigeria has to be top of their minds,” she says. And while Okenedo argues that when it comes to management training, the vast majority of Nigerians – those who have not spent many years living outside the country – are very well-placed to understand the intricacies of Nigerian culture and business practice, Nworisara Quinn has a slightly different view.

Given Nigeria’s trans-continental and global importance, she believes one option for managers would be to employ “repats” who have been educated internationally and who have worked elsewhere, “harnessing all the skills and lessons they gained working at international institutions to the benefit of the country”.

She points to a dearth of skilled managers on the African continent as a whole. “I’ve talked to some fund managers who said there was a consistent need for skilled managers. Any manager in a multi-national or private equity or mid-sized company will say this is a consistent challenge.” This may be due to the demographics of the continent, she believes, with many young people ready to work but lacking proper education and training.

Progress at the very top is being made, however. In 2014, Cambridge Judge Business School faculty designed and delivered three training programmes for both the Nigerian National Assembly (NNA) and the Lagos State House of Assembly (LSHA). These took place in Cambridge and in Lagos, and all the LSHA parliamentarians and staff and a cross-section of key NNA members were involved.

Dr Kamal Munir

Dr Kamal Munir

Dr Kamal Munir was the programme director for the LSHA programme on Transformational Leadership and Organisational Change, and was also involved in the NNA programme. He says that the philosophy behind them was simple. “The parliament’s task is to create laws and provide oversight. In order to do their job well, however, they need to know many things. For example, when the executive arm of the government or the bureaucracy puts up a budget for discussion in the parliament, is the latter well-equipped to scrutinise it?”

At the same time, Munir believes, parliamentarians need to have an effective and efficient organisation that supports them in their work. But are the staff well trained in these aspects of the job? Could exposure to the practices of older, more established parliaments, such as that of the UK, help?

“The programmes were designed with all these things in mind. We are aiming to build capacity, and involved experts and British parliamentarians in the programmes. Going by the feedback from our Nigerian participants, the programmes were extremely successful,” he concludes.

In a country that has too often been linked to the word “corruption”, Okonedo stresses the importance of teaching the opposite. “We put a strong emphasis on business ethics. Long-term sustainability depends on good ethical practices,” she says.

Some Nigerian philanthropists have invested in management training, showing that this is already underway. For instance, Tony Elumelu, philanthropist and founder of his own foundation, is doing just that through his entrepreneurship programme. His philanthropy comes out of Africapitalism – a philosophy that stresses the private sector’s transformation of Africa through investment. And showing that leadership involves community responsibility, as well as wealth-generation, Aliko Dangote – Africa’s richest man – is in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate polio in northern Nigeria.

What about the experience of the many multinationals that are based in Nigeria? Where are they finding their senior teams? Stiles says there is a drive from various multinationals to make better use of local workforces, who will better understand the continent’s needs, rather than simply jetting in expats. “It is in their interests, given that some multinationals are not perceived as having the best of images. It is imperative they develop local talent if they want to have a legacy in the country.”