Keynote Speech at a Webinar (Zoom) organized by Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Liberty Court, Apapa Lagos on: “(TALK NIGERIA): The Values and Ethics of Leadership”. Sunday, 19th July, 2020: 3 -5 PM
Let me thank Pastor Adebayo Oseni for the invitation to participate in this important conversation. This is a huge topic which requires volumes. We focus narrowly on Nigeria’s public sector leadership and attempt to provoke debate with just a few random remarks.
Values constitute the enduring beliefs or principles that guide our judgments as to what is important in life (including integrity, honesty, justice, compassion, responsibility, freedom, liberty, hard work, etc). Ethics on the other hand, are those gamut of moral, religious, social, and cultural ethos of what’s right and wrong. Our ethics guide us as to what is good or evil, rights and obligations, just and unjust, fairness, etc. Positive ethical values therefore constitute the core of the non-tangible driving force of transformative change in every society. A society without sound ethical values is one without a soul, and which will continue to grope without a compass to anywhere.
Leadership itself is the art of inspiring and mobilizing people to accomplish defined goals. It is both a product and driver of society. A transformative leader leads by personal example: (do what I say and what I do) and usually exhibits such qualities as: integrity, accountability, empathy, humility, resilience, vision, and influence. It therefore follows that an effective and transformational leader must have clear guiding morals, ethics and values derived from the society or which he must offer the society.
In broad terms, we are all leaders and followers in our own rights. The differences pertain to job descriptions, place, and time. One is a leader in one context and a follower in another: the leader in a family becomes a follower in his place of work; the leader in the place of work is a follower in the place of worship; the leader in the place of worship is a follower in the village union or local council; the leader in the council is a follower in the state; the governor of the state is a follower relative to his president; the president is leader of Nigeria but a follower in his mosque. We are all leaders and followers at the same time. Leadership failure is therefore a systemic failure—not just the failure of tiny 0.01% of our population holding public offices.
It is in the light of the above that I commend this Webinar— the topic of which should elicit a structured national conversation. Our premise is that there is a systemic collapse of ethical values and almost all citizens are accomplices through acts of omission or commission. The challenge as we see it is how to evolve a society founded on operational sound ethical values as well as ethical leaders rooted in transformative values, in a society where the dominant value is the worship of money (however acquired), where ethical standards have become shifting posts, and where corruption has become part of the culture. As a point of departure from most commentaries, our thesis is that we are all leaders and followers at the same time, and the change we desire must come from all of us. We all have a collective responsibility to create and sustain a society and leadership of ethical values and vision. For a change, we should try a double-barrelled approach— a dominantly bottom-up demand for change and a top down action plan.
II: Explaining paradoxes of perverse ethical values
In the 60 years of Nigeria’s independence, there is an apparent inverse relationship between the quantum of professed personal and group ethics/values and deterioration in public morality, ethics and values. Most Nigerians are either Christians or Moslems and all supposedly subscribe to the ethics and values embodied in their religious books—the Holy Bible, and the Koran. Most virtues of a good person and ethical leadership are espoused by both. So, why is the opposite largely the case? Check out the lyrics of our National Anthem and Pledge; the various oaths of office and allegiance; the various programmes of national orientation, the manifestoes of political parties and candidates before elections, the Constitution (especially Chapter 2 on the Directive Principles of state policy), the myriad of legislations bordering on transparency, probity and anti-corruption, etc. Yet, Nigeria continues to slide on the fragile (failed) states index (now under the red-alert category); ranks poorly on corruption, as well as most socio-economic indices despite earning hundreds of billions of US dollars from oil, etc.
So, why is this extreme variance between professed ethics and values and reality? There are many explanations, and the most popular is poor leadership. People blame poor leadership but without a concrete proposal as to how the desired leadership can emerge and endure. Or, why any previous episode(s) of ‘good leadership’ did not endure (if there has been any). Leadership is certainly a part (only a part) of the story. We offer three others.
The first is that as a multi-ethnic, multi religious country, Nigeria is still in search of unifying common purpose and destiny. The citizenship question is lingering, and public morality and national vision are seen from too many, albeit conflicting prisms. The second is the natural resource rents (mostly oil rents) that seem to be the thread holding together the fractured elite as well as papering over the fault-lines. Previously, we have written copiously on this point and won’t elaborate more. In summary, the fiscal federalism created to share/consume the oil rents together with its perverse incentives which create a culture of indolence and entitlement is antithetical to the tenets of accountable and ethical leadership. There are indeed very few diverse societies such as ours that suddenly stumbled on huge natural resource rents (without strong institutions) that the lottery effect of such rents did not wreak havoc on their institutions and governance. In a rentier culture, raw wealth divorced from work/effort is the new god. People worship it, and most talents and institutions are devoted to chase the “manna from heaven” without any moral compunction. After all, they would say, “it is government money, and not your money”.
The third explanation is the stage whereby the sharing and scramble for rents are socialized or ‘democratized’ to the extent that the citizenry is numbed to any moral reprehension to unearned wealth. The sharing and distribution of rents (either from oil money or criminality such as drugs, internet fraud, or treasury looting) have produced a horde of millionaires and billionaires with no known daytime jobs. A new value system is enveloping some youths: “get rich young or die trying”. Not surprisingly, thousands of our youths are languishing in prisons abroad—trying to get rich by whatever means possible. The public has become numbed and largely acquiesce to, and normalized it to the point of celebrating such. An Igbo proverb says that once a hitherto abomination is tolerated for a year, it becomes part of the culture. You are seen as kind and generous if you acquire illicit wealth and sprinkle some in a display of opportunistic charity (marked by photo ops). Most don’t care how you get the money. All is fair provided that it gets money. The only crime in such a society is poverty.
The culture adores the man who “has money”—- not necessarily the one who “makes money”. Citizens applaud, defend, and celebrate primitive accumulation. Hypocrisy and multiple moral compasses compete for space: many publicly preach integrity and transformative change but privately demand and crave for their share of the bazaar. Politics is considered an occupation by many rather than a vocation. Many people see public office as “lucky” avenues for private enrichment and not necessarily for service. Transactional rather than transformational leadership is the norm. Citizens evaluate the importance of public office held by “one of their own” by the size of its procurement (“juicy” vs “dry” ministries and agencies). Many public officials merely play hide and seek games with law enforcement agencies, while the citizens rejoice or mourn depending on who is prosecuted. If he/she is from his church or ethnic group, then it is ‘political persecution’ but corruption if not.
In such an environment, prosperity and wealth accumulation are largely explained by “luck” rather than enterprise. And some of our religious leaders tend to complicate matters: prosperity preachers promote testimonies about how people “got money” that has nothing to do with enterprise or value creation (hard work). A friend of mine was once wondering whether we still preach personal responsibility and hard work as embodied in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 3, especially verse 10 that says: “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”. Many clergy have substituted prayer/luck for hard work. While we preach against bribery and corruption, those that loot and donate to the house of God receive blessings.
A theory of corruption opines that in a society where corruption is endemic and part of the culture, there is no incentive or reward for honesty. “So, what is he trying to prove?” is usually the response to anyone trying to be different, and the price can be stiff including social ostracism. A principle-centred leadership that wishes to uproot the existing social order must be prepared to pay the price. This is especially in a democracy where a majority of the voters (with totally different ethical values rooted in rent extraction and ‘stomach infrastructure’) will decide the leader’s fate. With politicians having short term time horizons and eyes on the next election, the challenge is immense. It is said that an “ethical leader is not afraid to do what he believes to be right—even if it is unpopular, unprofitable and inconvenient”. Well, there are now sufficient case studies at both the federal and state levels in Nigeria to test the efficacy of such leadership disposition. Some of us who have tried with some successes in fighting an existing social order have nasty experiences— including for me, 19 written threats to life, etc.
Let me share three of the many examples that illustrate the collapse of ethical values and normalization of such by society. An elder statesman once told me that after public office, even if Jesus Christ were to come down and announce to all Nigerians that one was free of corruption, Nigerians would be disappointed in Jesus. According to him, they would think that Jesus collected bribe from the former public officer to lie on his behalf. He was trying to pass the message that it would be fruitless trying to convince anyone of your integrity once you have stepped into public office.
At a public lecture in one of the federal universities, I once asked the audience (99% composed of lecturers) what society would think of a former state governor who, after 8 years in office, returns to his former three bedroom flat in a high density neighbourhood with his old Peugeot 504. The response was one that I won’t forget in a haste. Everyone in the auditorium shouted that the ex-governor must either be ‘mad’, ‘an idiot’, ‘foolish’, ‘crazy’, ‘a pretender’, etc. As that part of the lecture was interactive, I enquired whether anyone would consider that he must have been honest or saintly and some thundered: ‘for where?’ with greater laughter in derision. I summed up by informing them that what we did was a “focused group sampling”, with a selection of the category that constitutes the top 0.1% of our educated elite. If such an elite group held such a view, didn’t it stand to reason that they were in effect saying that if they found themselves in public office, they would loot or that they were demanding corruption from public officers since no one would want to be thought of as being ‘mad’, ‘an idiot’ etc. It was at this point that they got the thrust of my thesis, and applauded.
A friend of mine narrated his experience at mobilizing the people to resist unjust treatment at a petrol station that was selling at far higher pump price. After filling his tank, he paid the appropriate official price (and expected the people to join in the protest). The crowd in the queue descended upon him—reigning insults at him. Some told him that if he did not have money to pay for petrol he shouldn’t waste their time; others told him to sell his nice suit to pay for fuel, etc. So much for the people’s power or ‘standing up for the masses’. Evil by the minority, they say, can only persist if the majority decides to do nothing. Yes, we want change but no one is prepared to lift a finger for it. No society has developed that way.
III: Next Steps: Towards transformative society and leadership
Nigeria requires a new social order—- a society rooted in ethical values and visionary leadership that embodies and manifests current and aspirational values of society. Effective leadership or appropriate political will do not fall from the sky. They are products of society. A leader may try to impose his narrow pristine values on society but such a social revolution must be socialized and acculturated in society otherwise such attempts have often ended as temporary footnotes.
In a democracy, political parties are supposed to aggregate and promote alternative aspirational values of society. Unfortunately in Nigeria, political parties are not ideologically driven. Despite all the noise and so called manifestoes, parties are mere platforms to grab power, with factions of the same ‘Elite Incorporated’ constantly grouping and regrouping to acquire power and superintend over the distribution of rents. Truth be told, there are not many examples of the visionary leadership several commentators romanticise about (especially from China, the East Asian countries or Dubai) which have multiparty democracies and term limits of four or eight years. Many examples often cited have one party/leader in power for extended period (some decades), and hence able to think and act long-term. If politicians have very short term horizons and you have weak civil/public service and complacent citizenry/civil society, visionary leadership becomes an occasional aberration that comes by fluke.
A sustainable new social order and leadership won’t be handed over to us by the mythical leader from the skies. In democracies such as ours, the evolution of society and leadership is a function of constant struggles by an ever vigilant civil society/citizenry as well as constant refinements of the institutions/legal frameworks that underpin society. We need actions at three levels: individual (family/household); organizations/civil society; and legal/legislative actions.
The individual as the unit of change. The change we desire is within us. This is often the most neglected focal point of action. The society is aggregation of individuals and if we think and act in socially conscious manner as well as self-belief, we can achieve anything. As Shakespeare said, ‘the problem is not in our stars but in ourselves’. We need to rediscover the power in the self. If we can’t change all, start with yourself. Some say: “the change starts with me” or “be the change you want to see”. Let’s go back to the roots— the family. How many times do we hold that family session on values of integrity and service to others?
It all starts with purpose: Depends on what we see as our purpose or mission in life– material versus spiritual interpretation of our purpose. If one sees his mission as being to contribute to God’s creation by leaving the world better than he met it, life has a totally different meaning from the vain primitive accumulation. In this context, life of selfless service driven by ethical values acquires concrete meaning. I strongly recommend the books by Rick Warren especially “The Purpose Driven Life” and “What On Earth Am I Here For?” We must return to the traditional family values, and teach our children that integrity requires that one can be hungry and yet refuse food. In the end, no one can give what he does not have. Individuals without ethical values cannot offer them to society.
Let each one do his/her part. How do we as individuals contribute for a better society— at the traffic point; paying my bills; place of work; family; relation to others; community service; neighbourhood; voluntary works; collecting money to sell our votes during elections, demanding for bribes or for unearned gratification at all levels, etc. We don’t all have to be president to ‘lead’.
It is also very important that each individual takes more than a passing interest in politics and governance. Not everyone should be partisan or contest elections but no one can afford indifference. As Bill Maher said “Freedom isn’t free. It shouldn’t be a bragging point that ‘Oh, I don’t get involved in politics’, as if that makes you somehow cleaner. No, that makes you derelict of duty in a republic. Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn’t insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable”. In a society such as ours, indifference in my view, is a sin.
Organization is power
As the saying goes, “if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. With the vacuum created by ideologically-hollow political parties, civil society organizations and in particular the religious organizations— must assume more than usual roles as creators and custodians of social values in governance. Like Caesar’s wife, they must be above board and live out the true essence of the change they preach. Most Nigerian leaders profess either Christianity or Islam, and so are ‘followers’ of one priest or Imam. If the religious leaders are seen to be co-opted into the rentier circus, then the road to a new social order will be long and tortuous.
The importance of organization and citizens’ resistance for a new social order cannot be over emphasised. There are hundreds of laws in the books of most countries for ethical values. Whether and how they are implemented depend on the activism of the citizens. The American Constitution professed that “all men were created equal”, and yet they fought a civil war to end slavery; a resistance started by one woman (Rosa Parks) in December 1955 and civil rights protests led by Reverend Martin Luther King for over one year before the segregation was declared unconstitutional; and even after more than 60 years and in spite of all the laws on equality in America, the Black Lives Matter movement is alive. Following recent protests, many states and cities in America have reviewed or are reviewing their criminal justice system. It is instructive that many of the protests in the US history are galvanised by religious leaders/ organizations. For a new social order, Nigeria probably needs more than 50 Martin Luther King or Gani Fawehinmi.
Without organized citizens’ demand for good governance, status quo becomes bliss. A frontline (forthright) politician was once publicly asked why corruption persists in Nigeria and characteristically, he shot back: “because you people don’t stone us”. Deep statement to ponder! If the response of the citizens is to line up and pick the crumbs from the looting machines or to wait for their turn rather than protest, how do we expect change? Unfortunately in Nigeria, many civil society, labour, and religious groups speak out or protest only when their particular interests are threatened. This needs to change.
As stated earlier, the church and religious organizations have unique and decisive roles to play. For starters, the prosperity gospel that promises unearned cash or wealth (“something for nothing”) based upon luck/miracles as if God serves people breakfast on bed has proved to be part of the problem. No society has advanced based on these values and certainly in the emerging digital age of the 4th Industrial revolution, that may prove misleading to our youths. Our youths cannot lead the future with such values. We may consider preaching/teaching more productive ethical values based upon personal responsibility and diligent, smart hard work (as embodied in the Bible especially 2 Thessalonians Chapter 3). Finally, can the Church of God and other religious organizations lead the new moral and ethical renaissance by articulating, publicising and enforcing their own concrete code of conduct/sanctions for their members in public office? This may be difficult but it would be a true revolution and leadership by example.
Refinements of the Legal Framework
The legal framework of every country is a living document which continues to evolve. Most reasonable analyses of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria have concluded on the imperative of fundamental changes especially in relation to the fiscal federalism, electoral and judicial systems, etc. We need to break the perverse incentives in the Constitution and laws that perpetuate the status quo. These changes will significantly affect the leadership selection process and incentivise the search for productive leaders.
It would be a historic waste if the 8th National Assembly fails to give Nigeria a new Constitution for prosperity— or, at the minimum advance the process significantly!
Let the conversation continue!
By Prof. Chukwuma Charles Soludo, CFR
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