Tolu Ogunlesi: How to be great (YNaija Frontpage)










To qualify for greatness we have to get used to doing things in a greatness-compatible manner. It isn’t impossible, by the way.

Last week I promised we’d talk about greatness – in relations to Nigeria, a country that has everything it takes to be great but habitually insists on the most blatant, most unapologetic forms of mediocrity. I’d like to kick off the maiden gathering of the ‘Nigerian Greatness Committee’ (copyrighted!) with some ‘factors’ I consider foundational to the attainment of greatness (feel free to disagree).

Here we go:


Greatness is a habit, according to what motivational speakers tell us. Ditto mediocrity. We develop habits and then our habits develop – or under-develop – us. Athletes who compete at the highest levels of human performance know a thing or two about this – that a consistent dose of even modest practice trumps infrequent bouts of over-the-top exertion. Likewise, great countries know that long-term planning trumps a throw-cash-and-committees-at-the-last-minute approach to government. (Just in case you didn’t know, the Nigerian Government did not release funds for Olympic preparation until April 2012).

To qualify for greatness we have to get used to doing things in a greatness-compatible manner. It isn’t impossible, by the way. Remember when the seat-belt rule came into force a couple of years back. It seemed weird. Haha – imagine asking Nigerians to use seat-belts. It took time. Today, we’re all used to it, clipping our belts into place unconsciously the moment we sit in the front seat of a car. Recall when the streets of Lagos were devoid of guidance of any sort – zebra crossings, street lights, offside lines, etc. Today, things have changed, and we at least have a chance to get used to making better driving decisions.


There are no consequences for bad behaviour of any kind in Nigeria. There are no questions asked. When a civil servant buys a plot of land worth ten times his annual salary, there is no one to ask the simplest of questions: Prove to us that you can afford this! Now, I seem to have observed that the penchant for misdemeanour cuts equally across all countries and peoples. My feeling is that Britain’s youth are no less prone to unruliness than Nigeria’s youth. But guess what – in that country people pay for their misdemeanours. You may not be prevented from doing evil, but you will be caught and punished. Eventually, when people get used to that cycle of deed and recompense (habit, habit), falling in line becomes an easier option. That mechanism, sorely lacking in Nigeria, breeds impunity. Call my theory simplistic – I’ll insist it’s hardly rocket science.


This morning America demonstrated its greatness again, landing a $1.6 billion craft on the surface of the Mars. In the Olympics of space travel America is racing and ‘dusting’ itself. (Meanwhile, there are parts of Nigeria that, considering our current capacity for ‘exploration’, are as alien as the moon, which might explain why it took six months to find a plane that crashed in March 2008, in the forests of Busi in Cross River State.)

America’s greatness is due to many factors, not least of which is the vision of its leaders. In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Barely two-and-half years later Kennedy lay dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet. But his dream, the challenge he threw to a nation hungry for greatness, lived on. It took a while, but it happened.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Now, Kennedy was in no way a perfect man. A philanderer extraordinaire; a man of whom his younger brother, Robert, said: “If a mosquito bit Jack Kennedy, the mosquito would die.”

But not being a perfect human being does and should not in any way limit one’s chances of accomplishing great and inspirational things. It is only in countries like Nigeria where theft and tyranny form the sole legacy of the ruling elite. Dictator Suharto stayed in power longer than Babangida and Abacha combined, and perhaps stole more money than both of them, yet somehow managed to leave Indonesia decades ahead of Nigeria in development terms. Dictator Castro managed, amidst his repression, to produce a health-care system that supplies doctors to Nigeria, as well as trains Nigerian doctors. Where are the Nigerian leaders with a vision of the country they would like to see.

This is where one has to doff a giant hat to Governor Fashola. Listen to the man talk, pay attention to his style and come to the conclusion that this man has a vision of the sort of city he would like Lagos to become. One can safely say the same as well of the fascinatingly-controversial Nasir el-Rufai, from his stint in Abuja.

There are not many Nigerian politicians one can say that about. Certainly not the man currently in the country’s cockpit (names withheld, so as not to join the gang of unpatriotic miscreants currently conspiring with Google to make his name a byword for “insult”).

(To be continued)


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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Comments (3)

  1. You're the man! Your op-ed pieces are very well-written, and what more, echo my sentiments exactly(or I echo your sentiments, whatever).

  2. In our present situation, there is a CODE we need to adopt in order to form the HABIT of excellence that would propel us into perpetual development. Without embracing this CODE, we'll continue to be living experiments.

  3. Time to start following Tolu Ogunlesi in here, I love this. Looking forward to the continuation.

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