Strategic Leadership: My Personal Theory & Practice, By Asiwaju Bola Tinubu


Asiwaju Tinubu addressing the Course 25 participants at the lecture

I am honored to address the National Defence College and you, the participants in Course 25. I thank the Commandant, Rear Admiral Alade, and the staff of this esteemed institution for the privilege to deliver this lecture. The Defence College has a special role to play in reshaping Nigeria. This institution is that special place where the best talent in the military may engage in fertile intellectual exchange with some of the brightest  in our civilian institutions and from other nations. The laymen often mistakenly view the military as an inflexible, often unthinking collective. This is a distorted view of the military. Some of the best minds in our nation are found in the military.  No military can be successful over the long-term unless it has the intellectual agility to adopt its doctrines and practices to the challenges of a dynamic  and chaotic world as we have today. Like any large organization, a military overly resistant to change will find itself on the wrong end of history. It will not answer the questions an incessantly changing environment places before it.

The Nigerian military was established to respond to challenges resident in Third Generation or Trinitarian Warfare. The genesis of standard military philosophy can be traced to the works of classical and neo-classical theorists and practitioners such as Sun Tzu, Jomini (Joe-me-knee), Clausewitz (Clau sah vits), Alfred Mahan, Giulio Douhet (Do-hay), JFC Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart. Today, much of the world’s military challenges have little to do with the confrontation of standing army against standing army. You now must adapt your concepts and your very institution to Fourth Generation or Non-trinitarian Warfare. Here, you deal with the intersection of ideology, politics and highly weaponized non-state actors whose membership, tactics and aims are fluid and inconstant.

In the space of the last ten years, the Nigerian military has had to face violent militants in the tropical Niger Delta, then turn to battle wicked Boko Haram in the Sahelian Northern Nigeria. The principles of Jomini and Clausewitz have to be materially reinterpreted to apply to these battles. Yet these conflicts are of a different nature than what these 19th century thinkers encountered, but these modern conflicts are as brutal, and strategically important to the state as traditional warfare. This modern version is even more difficult to master and to win due to the fluid, almost clandestine nature of the adversary. Today, you battle  not against standing armies; but against vanishing ghosts.


I commend the Nigerian military for what it has achieved against Boko Haram.  You have battled and bested this evil enterprise. This vile force has been reduced to where it no longer poses a strategic threat.   You have done as well as a military can in putting down this amorphous danger.  The nation thanks you. I must say here, however, that we cannot lower our guard. We have learned cardinal lessons from the Boko Haram crisis. First, we must govern justly and for the benefit of the people to prevent the recurrence of violent extremism in the future. Widespread poverty caused by an unjust allocation of income, wealth and resources provides fertile ground for extremist ideologies, that run contrary to the inclusive democracy we seek to perfect.

Protracted years of gross mis-governance are a down payment on the rise of extremism.  Second, the armed forces may contain violent outbreaks but they cannot fully resolve strife originating from a nation’s political and social imbalances.  Some type of political resolution is needed. The military is hamstrung because it must restrain operations in order to protect the civilian population, which is the prime duty of the military. A paradox of fourth generation warfare becomes apparent. The duty to protect the state is rendered more complex because of the restraint that must be exercised in combating domestic insurgencies. However, engaging in less discrete operations may be easier done but this always proves counterproductive in the end because of the risk of alienating the local population.

Third, the longer an unfair political economic situation goes unattended, the more extreme become the views of the disaffected. The more difficult a political situation becomes, once the situation degrades into violent insurgency. There is little room to find a political solution and almost no mutual trust to attempt to locate that finite space. As a result, the nation is compelled to resort to force, to resolve non-military contradictions. This means the more the military has to expend itself in a contest of diminishing military returns. The more time that passes, the more the military is degraded. A conventional military is not structured to be on perpetual war footing. More resources have to be spent to prevent the military from diminishing its current state of readiness.  The insurgency becomes institutionalized with each passing year. Insurgent ideology gives way to institutional inertia. Insurgency becomes something its members do simply because they have been doing it. It is no longer a means to an end; the insurgency becomes the end in itself.

Enough of my layman’s attempt at military theorizing for the moment. Yet, what I have said underscores a crucial point.  The civilian and military worlds do not  occupy distinct universes. They are but different points along the spectrum of collective human endeavor. For a nation at our stage of evolution, any politician who cares about internal security must be somewhat versed in military concepts and strategy. Any military officer who cares about the future progress of the nation must be conversant with the different political and economic themes contesting to govern the moment. I was asked to speak about Strategic Leadership: My Experiences. I shall do so. But, since I am not in uniform, permit me a touch of insubordination. I have slightly amended my message to be “Strategic Leadership: My Personal Theory and Practice.”


Excellent strategic political leadership is based on commitment to a political vision. A leader must have a coherent objective in mind. Strategy and tactics are then fashioned to work toward that vision. This is an essential consideration. There cannot be strategic leadership without a conscious objective. Political leadership in Nigeria generally has fallen   short in this regard. Leadership has been short-sighted and fixed on narrow, immediate objectives. Because of this, leadership has been more transactional than strategic in nature.  It has been more focused on the retention of power and control than on the substantive results and long-term consequences of its policies and actions.  This state of affairs results in a cruel paradox. Fixation on the details of numerous transactions produces a mirage of control and order over every event and episode. However, when all the pieces are brought together, they give a picture of disorder and even chaos. Excessive control over individual parts comes at the sacrifice of harmony of the whole. The parts do not fit well together because they were not created as a unified whole.

Things become as confusing as a labyrinth, with many entrances but no exits. It is as if we take 20 authors asking each to write a separate chapter of a book, without coordinating with each other. In this way, we protect ourselves from the writers plotting against us. While that objective is achieved, there is little chance that the book will be a coherent tale when we tack the chapters together. Each section will be fine in isolation. When read together, they constitute nothing more than literary confusion, intelligent babble. The totality of the work becomes less than the sum of its parts. So much energy expended towards almost no discernible purpose, except to control the process no matter how dysfunctional the outcome.

This is the bane of our political economy. We have so much talent in the nation but it has not been engaged and engineered to function in unison.  Fiscal policy does not mesh with monetary policy. Trade policy undermined industrial policy, thus ease of doing business is inhibited. Overseas peacekeeping missions do not always harmonize with core foreign policy interests. No national system is perfect. In each, exist some contradictions. This is but evidence of the imperfection of human nature itself. However, a nation in progress seeks to minimize, not harvest additional  contradictions, otherwise its leadership strategy is doomed to fail.

These dilemmas arise in governance because there is no accepted overarching vision or strategy to achieve that vision. In the absence of these essentials that give definition to inputs and outcomes, coherence gives way to happenstance. Unaided by a greater purpose, governance and its institutions become ends in themselves. Their primary aim will be to exist, not to achieve. Leaders likewise become imbued with the same blindness. They occupy power because power needs to be occupied.  I was fortunate to recognize early in my political life  that a true political leader distinguishes himself by marrying principled vision with practical strategy. In combination, these things show you the way home and how to get there.  Just as importantly, they help you determine what not to do or where to avoid as a good compass keeps you from going south when your destination lies north.

Developing vision and strategy are easily said but hard to attain.  Thought, diligent planning and constant reflection are needed.  President Dwight Eisenhower once said: “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” The deeper meaning of this statement is priceless.  You may set forth intelligently crafted plans. Once the complex enterprise begins, war or politics, unforeseen events and untold chance stirs the dust and changes things so quickly that the strict letter of our plans loses utility.  Any general or leader who stubbornly adheres to preconceived notions has written his own tombstone: here lies a leader who defeated himself.

No matter the beauty of your intellectual constructs, they cannot subdue reality; they must adapt to it.  The plan can be a prison but the planning is essential. It conditions the mind to keep an eye on the objective so that you may adapt to changing conditions without losing sight of the prize. At this juncture, I am reminded of the tale of a farmer and his son.  The farmer’s corn fields were plagued by ravening birds.   Saving the harvest clearly became his objective. His strategy was to have his son gather stones, early every day, then toss them at the crows to scare them off. This went on daily for several months. One day, the crows did not come.  The boy spotted the birds in the adjacent fields of his father’s worst enemy.   Conditioned to bothering the crows, the boy hauled rocks to the other man’s field so that he may pelt the crows. While the boy was gone, wild pigs came and trampled the much of the cornstalks.

The father spotted the boy and scream for him to come home. The boy came running. The father asked why was he being so disobedient. The boy was perplexed, saying  you wanted me to chase the crows away. The father answered: “No.” I wanted you to protect our corn. While here, the birds were our enemy. Not here, they are just birds. When they are in that man’s field, they are even my friends. “My son, you forgot the purpose of what you were doing. So you set yourself elsewhere and left the field unattended to bother birds that were doing us no harm. By your mistake, you just undid all the toil of these months and you put the harvest at risk.”  My constant vision has been the transformation of this nation into a robust decentralized democracy with a diverse industrial base, to provide sufficient jobs to a growing urban population; and a sufficient agricultural base, to achieve food security and provide a decent livelihood to the rural population.  We have made some progress toward this vision. But we have a long way to go. I want to sketch out the journey thus far and offer my thoughts on how the future might unfold.



During the 1980’s and 1990’s, a progressive politician like me was at extreme odds with the military.  This   opposition was not against the military as the military. It was against military governance. Military governance was diametrically opposed to the democratic Nigeria I envisioned.  The permanent aim was to attain democratic governance. During this period, the strategic objective had to be the exit of the military from power.  Tactics would be devised to meet the moment. The tactics  ranged from cooperation with the military during the SDP/NRC aborted transition to outright protests at home and seeking international condemnation of the succeeding military regime when it sought to perpetuate itself in power.

When that regime became increasingly brutal, tactics  changed. Some of us were arrested and detained; some of us went into exile. We could not contest muscle for muscle against the regime. Instead, we engineered a strategic retreat to be outside the regime’s strong reach.  From this distance, we still did an effective job canvassing the nation and international community to support democracy and freedom.  Our words were akin to long range artillery or air power. The military controlled the ground but we held supremacy in the air waves. We were winning the battle for the hearts and minds of people. Please take note here. My opposition was based on the fact that the hierarchical and centralized command inherent to military institutions was ill suited for  democratic governance. While individual military officers may transform into successful democratic leaders, the institution as a whole constituted a brake on democracy. We worked to ease the military from the political arena. There would be no recrimination or backlash against the institution. Once the military was out of politics, my opposition to the military ended.

Others in the pro-democracy struggle embraced a more hardline position.  Some wanted the military to be put in the docks. They wanted to weaken it as national institution.  In my estimation, they gave more weight to temporary strategy than the overall objective. They had fought against military rule so long that they came to believe the goal was to defeat the military.  No. The deeper truth was the return to democratic governance. Ending institutional military control of politics was merely the way to reach that end. Fortunately, our less combative approach won the day. The military exited governance but was not persecuted. It returned to being the strong unifying national institution it has always been. Imagine if those who advocated a punitive approach  had won the day. The military would have been greatly weakened. Such a broken outfit would not have summoned the leadership and dedication necessary to tackle both the Niger Delta militancy and Boko Haram’s terror.

This is an important lesson. Narrow focus and the unwitting conflation of strategy with ultimate objective can be dangerous in the affairs of a nation. Civilian Rule Came. I was elected governor of Lagos in the AD (Alliance for Democracy), which came to be the pre-eminent party in the Southwest. The PDP controlled the federal government and most states. Quickly, it revealed itself to be a party of authoritarian excess. It boasted it would rule the country for 60 years. Just as quickly I came to the realization that continuation of PDP national leadership might be the death knell of my dream of a democratic Nigeria.  As a democrat, I understood equal competition meant that my party could lose a free and fair elections. I was and remain ready to take a fair loss. Yet, I was and remain unprepared to see victory stolen from the rightful winner and to see any party install itself in near perpetuity, notwithstanding the expressed will of the people.

My strategic goal became the defeat of the PDP at the national level during this period.  When the 2003 election came, the PDP dangled an alliance before the AD. The proposal was that if we supported the PDP at the presidential level the PDP would not oppose us at the state level. Because of my strategic perspective and the previous legal confrontations I had with the federal government due to its overreach, I rejected the proposal. It sounded too easy to be good.  Sadly, some of my colleagues lost sight of the long-term objective; they were enticed to chase after short-term promises. Those promises were hollow. My friends chased themselves into a corner. Their non-opposition to the PDP at the presidential level would be repaid with deception. The  PDP outflanked them in the gubernatorial race. Lagos was to be the only state with an AD governor. From this setback and crippled position, we began the long journey that would reduce the PDP’s boast of ruling for 60 years to just 16.


Leading into the 2015 election season, progressive politicians throughout Nigeria and across party lines recognized the nation was in deep trouble. Corruption was rampant. The Boko Haram menace growing. The  economy was unbalanced and government policy was not providing the right growth catalysts despite favorable oil prices. PDP governance had overstayed its welcome. The people were ready for change. And we must develop the strategic leadership and determination to achieve the change. Standing as separate parties, we could not best the PDP. We had tried that path; it led to defeat in 2011. A strategic rethink was needed. To attain the goal of ousting the PDP and placing Nigeria on the road to progressive governance,  the strategic linchpin would be the merger of opposition parties.  Time is inadequate to recount the complex journey toward the merger.  My firm position was that only a merger would work. Anything short of that would disintegrate due to a combination of PDP enticement and the internal pressures arising from the strong identification of many politicians with their legacy parties. An ad-hoc alliance would be put asunder by these factors.

Our push for a merger of the old parties into a new entity carried the day.  We would join hands to form a  collective identity. The CPC and my party, ACN,  ANPP a long with progressive elements of the APGA formed the party. Key elements of the PDP would later join.  For this amalgamation to work, it had to be more than an anti-PDP gathering. It had to present a genuine, positive message that spoke to people’s hopes and aspirations.  We developed the theme of change as our strategic message. The broom became an apt party symbol. We would sweep out the old, sweep in the new and work hard towards prosperity for our country.  We fashioned a tripartite campaign message and strategy message. Security, Economy and Corruption.  We would drive these three messages home as if with military artillery. However, we have only our leadership and strategic hammer.

Still all of this would have been to no avail without the right candidate. Given his stature and reputation for integrity, honest dealing and patriotic commitment, there really was no other candidate to have carried the day, than then General Muhammadu Buhari. Yet, even with such a figure as our candidate, we foresaw the need to construct a public relations strategy to counter false accusations of religious intolerance and parochialism that would be hurled at him. We did this with great success because we prepared for these attacks beforehand. We established other democratic and leadership strategies for our success, details of which time would not permit me to reveal here. We did not have the vast war chest of the PDP. Our efforts had to be sharper and more compelling. We accomplished this task.

We did not win the election by accident. I had studied the resulting and voting patterns of all the prior elections since 1999. Our team did an honest assessment and detailed assessment of our strengths and weaknesses and those of our opponents. To win, we knew the votes we needed and identified the likely places and demographic constituencies from which the bulk of those votes must come. We did not waste time chasing votes we would not get. We concentrated on our strengths and the other side’s weaknesses, realising that our defence must be as tight as if we are inside the War College here in Abuja. The other factor is one that is little spoken of. Our early insistence on biometric voter registration and the use of the card reader on voting day were of strategic importance as it is essential to safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. In past elections, PDP vote padding had been massive in certain areas.  We had to curtail this malpractice to achieve the objective of making the election as fair as possible, allowing us a chance to win.

The card reader minimized the rigger’s ability to steal the election. Before its use, results could be written without regard to the number of actual people who cast ballots. In a polling booth where 50 people actually showed up to vote, the rigger could falsify figures and claim that 500 votes were cast. With the card reader, the rigger could steal no more than 50 votes. The tallies could not be inflated beyond the number of actual voters. Upon these strategic pillars, we built historic victory. For the first time in the nation’s history, incumbent president and party lost the national election. This historic transition further cemented our democratic evolving tradition and structures, advancing us closer to the overarching vision that guides my political actions. Completing a personal transition, General Buhari would become President Buhari. And former President Goodluck Jonathan would become a stateman, winning worldwide commendation for conceding defeat, even before the final results were announced.


In relative short order, the Buhari administration has done what the prior government seem unable to do. With the courage and dedication of the military, Boko Haram has been subdued. Also, notable and significant progress is being made against corruption. Press freedoms and civil liberties are protected, putting to lie those who cried that President Buhari would not respect democracy and rule of law. To move closer to the overarching vision I outlined, we now have to shift primary focus to the economic front. The decline of high oil prices threatens to be a long-term phenomenon. It placed the nation in recession last year and revealed the structural weaknesses of our national economy. Strategic objectives during this period of economic uncertainty must be to re-engineer the economy bottom up, diversify the economic base, strengthen our industrial base, modernize infrastructure,   enhance agriculture, and provide employment. And of course, ease of doing business must not be overlooked in order to attract foreign investment. The lower oil prices also reduced hard currency earnings. This undermined the naira, causing a steep rise in the cost of imports. The higher prices have suppressed aggregate demand, causing a decline in business activity. The challenge before us is a difficult  but not impossible one. If we stick to the progressive beliefs of the APC, we shall overcome these difficulties to place the economy on surer permanent footing.

Government has shown its commitment to these ideals  via its budget for this year and by the strong help it is giving state governments to meet their budgetary requirements. The unprecedented stipend program for the poorest highlights the government’s concern for those who have been left unattended by the dynamics of the marketplace. Achieve the desired economic restructuring will require a change in economic mindset and strategy.  We must avoid the nostrums of mainstream orthodoxy that say government deficits are always bad. In the situation we face, deficit spending is essential to bolster aggregate demand and direct funds to projects that build infrastructure and bolster employment. We must better harmonize monetary policy with fiscal policy. It undercuts our goals if monetary policy is unduly tight at a time fiscal policy begets deficit spending. We must also realign trade policy with our need to create a meaningful industrial base and more potent agricultural sector. We can no longer allow cheap imports to preclude the development of industries and sectors strategic to our enduring economic future.


My public life spans over three decades.  I have had my share of triumphs. I have felt the sting of setback. Through it all, I have tried to keep faith with the overarching vision I earlier set forth – of a more democratic Nigeria with a robust economy that provides sufficiently for all-. Throughout most of this time span, the strategic focus has been on politics, free enterprise and assuring democracy. I believe the toil and sacrifice has been worthwhile. We have secured democracy in Nigeria. Now, our strategic leadership must focus on realizing the second part of that vision, the economic component. It was first necessary to getting the political equation right. From this platform, we can then better reform the economic side.

The profound lesson my experiences as a political leader has taught me is the need to remain faithful to an achievable, well-articulated vision. Then develop practical strategies and tactics to progress toward that vision. The vision is the unchangeable lodestar. Strategies and tactics may change as events unfold. One must be intellectually vigilant, inquisitive and always examining the utility of strategy and tactics.  Always guarding against muddled thinking or allowing emotions to blind you. You make sure, as a leader, that you do not commit the grave error of giving primacy to transient strategies or tactics, over the permanent goal.  If you adhere to these leadership principles, you give yourself the best chance of progress toward your desired goals. In the imperfect world of human endeavor, no one can ask for more than this. Thank you for inviting me today. I hope you got half as much from listening, as I got from reliving these experiences in strategic leadership.

*Being a text of a lecture delivered by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu on Wednesday, January 25 to participants in Course 25 of the National Defence College, Abuja.



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