Attahiru Jega, the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had the unenviable task of delivering a free and fair election for 170 million people last month.
The complex environment consisted of 69 million eligible voters, 155,000 polling booths and 700,000 temporary staff, all deployed across a landmass of 923,768 sq.km. There was also faulty voter technology, logistical challenges, power cuts and terrorist threats. And failure could prove the catalyst for predicted election violence.
In a bitterly contested election, Jega emerged an unlikely, hero name-checked by the leader of the free world president Barack Obama, who singled him out for special mention in his post-election statement of congratulations.
At home in Nigeria the focus and admiration has been for his unflappable rigor even in the face of extreme provocation with many public calls for his sacking in the run-up to the elections.
But just how did he do it?
Well, put simply, Jega evoked the forgotten dark-arts of general management. Over the past 20 odd years, general management proficiency has witnessed a steady decline. The rise of technology, complex business structures, shrinking talent pools, poor employability training and emergence of the rock star CEO, has all contributed to its demise. Moreover, in Nigeria, you have the additional challenges of a school system based on old-fashioned missionary values and management norms shaped by local custom. Both of which affirm a default position that it is ill advised to challenge age and authority.
Communication platforms like email, Whatsapp, BlackBerry Messenger and SMS have changed the way Nigerian organizations are run. Stakeholders expect immediate responses and this may affect the quality of management decisions. In complex matrix structures, staffers may have 2 or 3 bosses and young high fliers expect promotion despite lacking the emotional intelligence that only comes with experience. The rock star CEO personifies high risk and reward environments and big top down decision-making is expected and celebrated in equal measure.
This is what makes Jega’s performance even more astounding. In a stressful environment and with the world watching, he dug deep into the management toolbox of planning, coordinating, directing, prioritization and fire fighting.
He used technology to enable the business model, introducing Biometric voter ID card readers into the delivery process. He led from the centre, managing vertically and horizontally, positively influencing security agencies, candidates, political parties and voters. He used committee-based decision-making when required and in an uncertain environment he responded with tactical aplomb.
In two defining moments of the live broadcast he excelled. Injecting humor when the returning officer for the embattled Rivers State fluffed his lines, thus alleviating suspicions of unscrupulous behavior and in responding to public accusations of impropriety from former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Elder Godsday Orubebe, he deployed a good old-fashioned managerial pause. Buying time to consider a measured fact-based response. Humor and pause are simple yet effective tools of general management.
Nigeria’s recent success in handling the Ebola virus provided a template for the international health community. Many who work closely with the state run agencies of the Lagos State Government were not that surprised. Similar to the election, institutions can be extremely effective when you least expect.
But on the whole, Nigeria’s battered institutions are considered slow, ponderous, corrupt and in dire need of modernization. President-elect Muhammadu Buhari has long established that a bottom up rebuilding will take place under his watch. An incoming president elected on a popular change ticket has the burning platform to push through desired institutional reform. In Jega and INEC, Nigeria just might have the template for success.