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Opinions of Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Columnist: Patrick Utomi

Why character matters in politics

One of the sad paradoxes of Nigeria’s political journey is the current widely held view that in politics anything goes. To explain the most disgraceful personal conduct, it seems ‘okay’ to just say ‘na politics na’.

This dominant vice of politics, as the art of the indecent, rather than the art of the possible, which is dominant in contemporary political culture in Nigeria is exactly opposite the core issue in Western political thought and history. There the central issue has been morality or public virtue, as Montesquieu calls it.

The great escape from misery for Western civilisation, beyond Angus Deaton’s case for the contribution of health care and the discovery of the germ theory of disease, has largely come from freedom that democracy offers. This phenomenon much defended in Federick Hayek’s 'The Road to Serfdom' has been typically built on the democratic order in which morality has been the central phenomenon, as one of the true greats of Nigerian political science, Professor Peter Ekeh, pointed out in his seminal publication on Colonialism and the Two Publics written in 1975.

Indeed, Baron Montesquieu, the French philosopher generally more famous for the doctrine of separation of powers which the Americans gave life to, argues that the key issue in politics is public virtue. It should be no surprise, therefore, that our democracy, devoid of ethical conduct and morality has not brought us the prosperity that this order canvassed for the public sphere in the West.

So why do we accept, or tolerate, from politicians that lack of integrity can be the mantra for political life to get its goals in a kind of mindless Machiavellian fashion. Even well-educated people react to the indication of their peers that they want to enter the public arena by asking if the friends are able to pass the ‘Adedibu test’.

That test is: Can you kill a man for politics; can you swear an oath knowing that you are telling a lie; and can you pull your shirt and fight in the marketplace. To redeem politics in Nigeria the imperative of the cleaning of the augean stable is critical. This is not because the focus on morality in Western political thought assured the public sphere was free of cobwebs but because it has ensured pressure for accountability which results in institutional arrangements that give confidence to those whose ideas and investments propel human progress.

I have referred often to the French parliamentarian and writer of the first half of the 19th century, Fredric Bastiat, who writes about the abuse of the law by those who have authority. In the law, a book that appeared in the year of his demise, 1850, he shows the pursuit of power as often a journey to use power for legal plunder.

Whether it be legal plunder or illegal plunder sets back the context of competition that provides incentives for economic wealth creation. Sadly, a great deal of our transactional politics tends towards even illegal plunder.

This poison of plunder often reduces citizen wannabes to either tribesmen or idiots in the Greek categorisation of society on a hierarchy of idiots, at the base, tribesmen and citizens. Where idiots or fools are people who think more of themselves with little care for others and tribesmen value only people of primordial relations and see people outside the group as threats to be fought and are therefore combative.

The top of the hierarchy are citizens who treasure the shared humanity and common good. The collapse of character in Nigeria has exacerbated the return to the clan and the erosion of civic culture in the Peter Ekeh sense. This has made nation building more challenged. And continues to decelerate the pace of development in the country. The importance of ethics and character in politics must be elevated now if progress is to come to our climes. Why is this so important?

The major reason it is important is that politicians are agents, as representative of the people sent on errand for the people. They are fiduciaries with a duty to act in the best interest of those they represent. As our experience shows clearly when they are of poor character or do not act ethically, personal goals substitute for public goals and the common good gets sacrificed. Progress courses it path forward much more slowly in such places. Integrity and character should, therefore, be the litmus test for politicians, the absence of such, troubles our polity today.

In looking at how values shape human progress, as the Harvard colloquium on the subject derived from Daniel Patrick Moynchan’s two truths suggest, I have worried much about character and how society builds character. I found that when national character is right and infused well in its people, it is often through the example of leaders, especially political ones.

The case of Lee Kuan Yew in once very corrupt Singapore is emblematic of this mantra. Truly, character matters as Singapore’s rise From Third World to the First, in one generation, to borrow from the title of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, proves. Culture matters. And character is a building block of culture. Lawrence Harrison and Samuel P Huntington who moderated the Harvard colloquium would surely agree.

This is why no society can take the absence of character in its political class as a joking matter. The slogan that reminds me of this is the motto: when wealth is lost, nothing is lost, when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.

I hope we can recover national character which has been lost to the collapse of culture in Nigeria. I believe Jared Diamond who makes the point in his great tome on human civilisation, the book, Collapse, about how societies have failed throughout human history, that culture, values are central to the cause for Nigeria to rise up again.

Culture has to be reformed and politicians have to live as people of character whose word is their bond. Professor Utomi, a political economist and founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership, is co-chair with Rt. Hon Ghali Umar Na’abba of the National Consultative Front.

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