Nigerian Dossier: In search of the Philosopher King


Last Updated on May 31, 2022 by Memorila

Since 1960, Nigeria has grappled with leaders who, unlike the Philosopher King, have been unable to take her to the Promised Land, writes M. A. Nababa

In Plato’s Republic, we read that the state is ruled by a Philosopher King. A kind of leader who is very knowledgeable on almost everything that exists. Hence the followers are assured of being treated justly and have everything in abundance.

The followers are equally contented that their leader is versed in almost everything under the sun, therefore, they stand to gain from his reservoir of knowledge and the art of survival.

Plato’s Republic has thus become the most idealistic proposition ever conceived or made for the administration of mankind. Ideals, however, are frequently at odds with realities faced in life.

Plato’s Republic, consequently never went beyond an idealistic tendency. It had never existed throughout human history precisely because it is impracticable, a mere wishful thinking or in fact, a fantasy of the ancients.

Although the Republic was conceived from one of the best of human thought, very positive and compulsively appealing to the nature and mechanisms of human desire. But even so, it has not been devoid of imperfection for overlooking the dynamics and volatile way that human behaviour, attitude and even faith can go.

Throes of woes

At some points in Nigeria’s history, the country had defied any kind of leadership. It has several times seemed almost ungovernable. A Philosopher King, perhaps, had seemed the only leader that can put Nigeria on course.

Nigerian past leaders. Photograph: Hint NG
Nigerian past leaders. Photograph: Hint NG

The first real experience in democracy in Nigeria was not only short-lived but was also tragic. This is because the political leaders of the time in the 60s were not only brutally killed but even had their corpses desecrated by a section of the military who felt they were more nationalistic, forthright and well ‘educated’.

But barely six months later, the military fought itself, its other section masterminded a countercoup that plunged the country into a gory civil war of thirty months.

And since the military tasted the forbidden fruit, there was no going back because they realised that power is sweet. But they were no Philosopher Kings.

Nigeria had since the civil war been engaged in things other than those that would ensure its presumed status of unity in diversity. No one can say today, with adequate justifications that a civilian government has comfortably given us what the military has over the years been accused of denying us – civility, rule of law and genuine hope in our collective aspirations.

The search

The search and yearnings for an upright and level-headed leader have eluded Nigeria since independence. What we always got were leaders either made by accident, coup-plotters or those who were very unwilling to take the burden of leadership selflessly.

And even those seen in the shadows scheming their ways up, and who eventually got to the pinnacle, ended serving themselves and their cronies or are unable to grapple with the problems at hand.

The search for a leader – a leader who can damn the odds and call a spade a spade, a courageous and truthful leader not tainted by tribal sentiments or religious bigotry, a person above board who can resist the temptation of fingering the public till, who can tolerate to live an exemplary life, be conscious of the fact that millions of his country men and women are living not only from hand to mouth and in penury, but well afflicted by killer diseases, ignorance and insecurity, has all along been the salient prayers of all Nigerians.

We never came close, and never had the chance to try and have one. The best chances we had, have all gone but a thread left that we hold on edge today.

Three clean slates

Nigeria had clean slates on three occasions to redeem itself. First, was in 1985, then in 1999 and also in 2015. The first two periods lapsed without taking us to the Promised Land and we are not even sure of attaining the feat with the third chance we are witnessing today.

Babagida: Time not on side
Babagida: Time not on side

First slate (1985-1993)

This refers to the period in 1985 when the self-styled Military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, GCFR, toppled the government of the then Major General Muhammad Buhari.

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It was a clean slate because the government he toppled did not had its foot well on the ground and its mission was wrapped in uncertainties. No matter how well intentioned, no matter how focused it was, the public welcomed its ouster and the toppled military junta was generally condemned locally and internationally as a government that was hard on its policies and harsh on Nigerians economically.

The military government of Buhari grappled with a poor record of human right abuses and the trampling and muzzling of the press with the infamous Decree No 4.

Buhari left with his head low, while IBB, as he was come to be known, held sway for eight straight years as Nigeria’s military dictator and presumed Philosopher King. 

IBB’s eight years was a clean slate because for eight years, he cowed Nigeria.

He had his way. He had all the resources. Nigerians believed him, those who don’t were either settled, framed or eliminated.

Given the fact that IBB was a key player in the scuttling and ousting of the democratically-elected government of Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari, GCFR, to install General Buhari as head, he knew the good will expressed by Nigerians at the time and how the military government was supported when they were chasing, repatriating and jailing politicians on account of corruption and abuse of office.

IBB had literally had to drag Nigeria by the neck to presumably, the land of honey and plenty, after he had cajoled every one, pampered every citizen, spoilt every effort and made all to believe everyone has a price. And so, it went.

But at the end of it all, he had no vision.

He left a contraption and handed over to a renowned business mogul and technocrat, Chief Earnest Shonekan, just to assuage the Yoruba for his failings to allow MKO Abiola claim his mandate of being an elected president in the 1993 general elections.

IBB, Nigerians realized, was no Philosopher King, but a flop.

Olusegun Obasanjo: Twice lucky
Olusegun Obasanjo: Twice lucky

Second slate (1999-2007)

General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd.), has been at the corridor of power since the active days of late General Murtala Muhammad.

He was unanimously accepted as Nigeria’s Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters when Murtala and other top brass of the Nigerian Army toppled General Yakubu Gowon’s administration in 1975. When Murtala was suddenly assassinated on February 13, 1976, barely six months in office, General Obasanjo was sworn in as his successor, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Obasanjo governed from 1976 to 1979, when he made history for handing over power to a democratically-elected President, against many odds, in the person of late Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

That feat earned Obasanjo a very good reputation at home and abroad. He became the conscience of the nation and always spoke to every government since then.

General Obasanjo had eyes on every government since he left in 1979, and made his opinions count as well. He was listened to at home and abroad.

Indeed, he was among the seven Eminent Persons Group, EPG, selected worldwide by the Commonwealth to lead truce on the notorious apartheid in South Africa.

Except, perhaps, the government of late President Shehu Shagari which he handed over power to, he was very harsh on all subsequent ones, as either military dictators or incompetent.

He did it particularly to the governments of General Buhari, IBB, Shonekan and late Abacha, all between 1984 to 1998.

But before late Abacha’s sudden death in June 1998, he already had Obasanjo in his custody, accused of playing a part in an attempt to topple his government.   

General Abdulsalami Abubakar who succeeded Late Abacha granted state pardon to Obasanjo and freed him.

And because he has built an image akin to a Philosopher King, Nigerians and the political class found in him a Messiah.

Obasanjo was dusted, washed and dressed as a political juggernaut ready to contest for the presidency when the administration of General Abdulsalami promised to hand over to a democratically elected President on May 29, 1999. And so it was.

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With this intimidating profile, Nigeria was indeed celebrated to have arrived. Everyone supported Obasanjo and democracy was fully embedded in the polity, the military were indeed kept at bay.

However, not long afterwards, there was crack in the administration between Obasanjo and his vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Turakin Adamawa.

While the former Vice President was unable to absolve himself of corruption charges, he was also able to expose the tacit attempt by the President to extend his tenure beyond his second tenure which terminates by 2007.

At the end of the day, President Obasanjo had a succession crisis and wobbled his way to singlehandedly install late Alhaji Umaru Musa Yaradua as his successor, denying his Vice President in the process.

Former President Obasanjo, by and large, was no Philosopher King.

Muhammadu Buhari: Not built for the task?
Muhammadu Buhari: Not built for the task?

Third slate (2015-2023)

This era was the best chance of all, and the lot fell on not less a person than General Muhammad Buhari, Rtd. Here we had retired a military general who was believed to be apolitical in all respects. 

Buhari was Nigeria’s Military Head of State from the close of 1984 in December to August 1985. His regime was purposeful as it was draconian, and along with his fellow officers, Nigeria had to be salvaged at all cost. But there was crack in the ruling council which led to his ouster by a section of his cabinet members.

His detention for about three years or so kept him out of public sight.

During and after military administration of Babangida which almost turned Nigeria on its head, Buhari was utterly angry and disappointed. And eventually in 2001, he suddenly threw in the towel and joined the muddy politics of Nigeria.

Buhari contested for the Presidency three times in a row and lost in all. From 2003 to 2011, he was indeed a serial looser.

He gave up the contest but as fate would have it, he was drafted back to the ring by some political figures after some wide consultations. In 2015, along with some political juggernauts across Nigeria, Buhari came up with a merger, All Progressives Congress (APC), which swept off the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. The latter had been in power for sixteen years since 1999.

To Buhari’s credit, for the years that he was a visible contestant, he had built a cult followership that it was almost certain that he was Nigeria’s Messiah. And when he won the election in 2015, it was unanimous that Nigeria will rise again.

In 2015 when he was sworn in as Nigeria’s President, there was serious security challenge, corruption, and several dislocations in the polity. And when he made his agenda clear, everyone believed him and keyed into his pledge to fight corruption, restore security and revive the economy.  

Like a flashlight, he made the impact needed but barely into his second tenure, all started to crumble.

Beside Boko Haram, then came the banditry that started to ravage the North in particular, kidnapping also set in as well as cattle rustlers also became so notorious in the country.

The economy has also nosedived with the Nigerian currency exchanged at an all-time high. Nothing seemed to be good courtesy of the performance of the government.

Nigerians are almost in unison, that the Buhari government which was seen as the most trusted to deliver, is ending in a very low note and seen as the most disastrous to them all.

Thus certainly, Buhari is no Philosopher King.

Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1960-1966)

As at 1960, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was Nigeria’s Prime Minister.  He saw it all, from the struggle for independence to victory when the British left Nigeria to grapple with the task of nation building. Late Tafawa Balewa was the most modest Nigerian leader that ever lived. Simple in speech and austere in his personality. He was fair to all and of course patriotic for a bright Nigeria. He was no Philosopher King, never pretended to be one.

Nigeria’s first Military Head of State, General Aguiyi Ironsi (January 1966-May 1966)

General Ironsi was either a beneficiary of the section of the Military who masterminded the first military coup in Nigeria and assassinated most of northern military and civilian leaders, or an outright accomplice because the executioners were largely of his Igbo stock.

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Barely six months on the saddle, he lost his life in the hands of the countercoup masterminds who were of different tribes and who were obviously aggrieved with the January 1966 coup that targeted and eliminated selected political leaders of their regions. Ironsi was no Philosopher King.

Nigeria’s second Military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon (1967 – 1975)

General Yakubu Gowon, a Northern Christian who has a good following and was a respected military officer, emerged as the new Military Head of State after Ironsi was toppled. He was accepted by all, except of course General Ojukwu who demanded for the proper trial of the murderers of the late Head of State.

Indeed, this altercation led to a fratricidal civil war. General Gowon ruled for nine years postponing the handing over to an elected government on several occasions. As he continued, even after the war, corruption and administrative malfeasance became noticeable.

It was during his regime that an Odoji (a national cash bonus) happened hinged on the declaration that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it. His compatriots in arms decided to toppled his government and stopped the rot.

General Gowon, was indeed, no Philosopher King.

Nigeria’s third Military Head of State, General Murtala Ramat Muhammad (1975-1976)

He was like a meteor. He came in a hurry, and left just too swiftly. But he left his foot in the sands of time.

What late General Murtala did as Nigeria’s Military Head of State were astonishing. He was able to plan the relocation of Nigeria’s capital city from Lagos to Abuja for security reasons, economic benefits and sense of belongings to all Nigerians.

He also elevated the status of six affiliated colleges to federal universities at Ilorin (Unilorin), Jos (Unijos), Kano (BUK), Maiduguri (Unimaid), Sokoto (UDUS) and Benin (Uniben). Late Murtala also increased the numbers of states from 12 to 19.

Late Murtala also won the hearts of all radical movements of the world and Africa in particular. In the course of that, he made the most powerful speech ever uttered by any Nigerian leader tagged “Africa has come of age” at an OAU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

But late Murtala was no Philosopher King.

Who is a Philosopher King?

Perhaps the Philosopher King that fits our need, even if not exactly as Plato would have envisaged, is indeed simple but obviously, a Herculean task. But to enumerate, these are his or her qualities:

1. A leader that will not steal, will not allow or condone anyone to steal public fund or property. If it happens, appropriate punishment should be meted out immediately.

2. A leader that is patriotic and eloquent – not taciturn – enough to make the desired impact on the populace.

3. A leader that can stop his family members from participating in any function or take advantage of such position. The family members must be out of sight in governance, except where they exercise civic or constitutional responsibilities like any other citizen.

4. A leader that is learned and or experienced enough to have his discretion to get public trust.

5. A leader that has a clear-cut agenda in tandem with the political party that promotes him.

6. A leader that is energetic and not above the age of fifty years. The leader should be agile, healthy – physically and mentally – and without any trace of chronic illnesses.

7. A leader who will not keep records of foreign investments or foreign bank accounts at the expense of the state.

8. A leader that can prohibit foreign studies and medical trips for all government officials.

Meanwhile, you can read about Shekarau and the taste of a fruit salad.


M. A. Nababa

M. A. Nababa is an essayist with deep interest in education and history. He has written on several topical issues for decades. And he is the co-founder of Memorila.

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