“…I’d have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it’d have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations… I have never been a quitter. To leave the office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first… Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice president Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office…”
A thriving community of amoral politicians, a maladjusted polity, poor standards of living, a society beaten into the ground waiting with trepidation for the next blow to fall, an increasingly self-seeking citizenry; the list could go on. Nigerians are a people in desperate need of moral leadership. As you may already know, the quote is an excerpt of Richard Nixon’s “Farewell to the White House” speech. In the wake of the Watergate scandal which overshadowed his second term in office, Nixon resigned as president of the United States, becoming the first in history to do so. At the moment, it is quixotic to expect any semblance of this from a Nigerian public official simply because such ethical considerations do not apply here. “Big men” reign in lawlessness, grinding citizens to dust in their wake. They revel in the knowledge that we ‘know who they are’ and dare law enforcement to say it is not so! Here, we keep quiet when policemen ‘parade’ suspects, but cry more than the bereaved when a benefactor and paymaster in public office is handcuffed. Here, internet “warlords” and “e-warriors” profane the ether, accusing government of witch hunting, partiality and tribalism when attempts are made to fix what is broken. Here, to analyze is to criticize and vice-versa, whole budgets go ‘missing’ and get unwarranted attention from the mainstream media. Here, winning an election is the surest way to recoup the money and repay loans spent irresponsibly during campaigns. Here, relations between uniformed men and civilians often produce fatal consequences. Here, politics is not service but business and in business, there is little room for morality. Religious leaders will ‘release’ vague prophecies next year, even as this year’s prophecies fail to materialize.
We all know these, so the challenge is not necessarily a lack of information or education (32 members of the 8th Senate have at least a Master’s degree), business acumen or political instincts. We are a country in need of moral leadership at all levels, in all spheres. We need men and women who live by deeply nurtured moral principles, and exhibit moral leadership in simple daily living. This code of moral behavior is guided by a refined conscience rather than the Code of Conduct Bureau.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith placed his faith in an ‘invisible hand that guides free markets towards the common good. Perhaps he did not – or could not – envisage a short supply of integrity, wisdom, trust and morality. When short-term results become the overarching principle, market forces tend to outrun moral concerns and profit is preferred to prudence. We may bemoan the non-emergence of a new generation of moral leaders, but the capacity for outstanding moral leadership lies within everyone. Moral leadership is not the preserve of a few, but something that should pervade the actions of everyone. We each have the capacity to do the right thing at the right time.
It is important to note, however, that moral leadership can be more problematic than it appears, especially in politics. For starters, morality is hard to define; there are key words which may mean different things to different people. Furthermore, great moral achievements in politics are often only recognized in retrospect, while attempts to assert moral leadership are often frustrated. In a heterogeneous society like ours, moral purpose and democratic policies often collide; this tends to produce paradoxical outcomes. It means that although moral leadership is useful, its misconception can be dangerous and risky.
Herein lies a puzzle, a challenge. We need moral leadership at the right times and on the right issues. But how do we ascertain what those times and those issues are, and who the right leader is for them? Even daily living is full of moral ambiguities. What is certain is that we must approach the selection of leaders with caution and sensitivity to moral issues but never expect that politicians will solve all the moral puzzles for us.
This post was first published in the 22/11/2016 edition of BusinessDay.