Ethics and Relics in Nigeria’s Politics

December 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Kenneth Amaeshi

Cast your mind for a moment to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904–1996), Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909–1987), and Sir Ahmadu Bello (1910–1966). It doesn’t take any ingenuity to conclude that ethnic politics has been rife in Nigeria since independence. On the contrary, ethical politics is scarce, and ethical scrutiny of ethnic politics is not our culture. Subjecting the politics of any of our founding fathers to ethical scrutiny is often considered disrespectful and politically inflammatory. It is an idea steeped in folly and dead on arrival.

However, such ethical scrutiny resurrects some very interesting questions. For instance, what is the moral difference between an ethno-regional leader who protects the interests of his people, and fraudulently enriches himself and his family in the process, and a similar leader who does not protect the interests of his people and yet fraudulently enriches himself and his family in the process? Fraudulent enrichment here will include the use of one’s political position and clout to attract economic favours and commercial profits, which would have been impossible or at best difficult to access without the platform of the political office. In both instances, one could argue that fraudulent enrichment is not a worthy aspiration and therefore not good for the society.

Assuming we accept that fraudulent enrichment is a social ill, it leaves one with a choice between two evils: a seemingly altruist fraud (the leader who protects the interests of his people) and a narcissist fraud (the leader who enriches himself at the expense of his people). One might be inclined to choose the leader who protects the interests of his people despite his fraudulent behaviour, as a lesser evil, on the grounds that many people would at least benefit from his leadership than in the other scenario. Making ethical decisions on the basis of the number of people who would benefit from such decisions is known as utilitarian ethics. Because it focuses on the consequences of ethical decisions, utilitarian ethics could also be described as consequentialist ethics. However, a fundamental question here is: does the end justify the means? In other words, what are the possible implications of focusing on consequences as a measure of rightness or wrongness?

There is only a narrow divide between a consequentialist and a Machiavellian. One of the implications of consequentialism is the marginalisation of the minority. Little wonder Winston Churchill – a former British Prime Minister – described democracy as the tyranny of the majority against the minority. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the politics that dominates the global polity. It works from the premise that the preference of the many must be true and good. If we stretch this position to its necessary logical conclusion, it might produce some uncomfortable but real outcomes: if many do not believe in the existence of God, for instance, does it make it true and good? If many think that abortion is good, does it make it true and good? If many believe in gay marriage, does it make it true and good? If many think that enriching oneself and family fraudulently is good, does it make it true and good? Nonetheless, the implications of consequentialism in contemporary democracy are often understated. They are often left unchallenged and any attempts to challenge them are seen as impractical, idealistic, and sometimes imprudent.

An ethical view which is often marginalised in contemporary politics is one that aims to assess the morality of both the process and the outcome. This is deontological ethics, which derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behaviour itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. In other words, the quality of the outcome is not superior to the process, and vice versa. The challenge of this ethical view is that it is much more demanding than consequentialism as it requires one to fulfil two conditions, which are equally important and couldn’t be easily traded-off against each other. This is obviously a tougher demand. It challenges the assumption of the wisdom of the many and empowers minority views. Christian moral theology, especially Catholicism, is to a large extent founded on deontological ethics. For a true Christian, therefore, deontological ethics allow for some natural impossibility where one with God, for example, can be majority.

In the eyes of the world (i.e. the many), deontological ethics can grant wisdom to some asinine and absurd conclusions. In this regard, it is very easy to gravitate towards pragmatic ethics, which is based on the exigency and expediency of the circumstance. Pragmatic ethics is also consequential in nature, but does not necessarily imply utilitarianism or a good outcome for the many. Pragmatic ethics instead allows for a narrow definition of ethical outcomes for the minority – even if that minority is selfishly defined. Exigency and expediency constitute the ethical paradigm for political flexibility, manoeuvring, domination, and victory. At the end what counts in politics, as they say, is the outcome – i.e. victory.

It does appear that the Nigerian polity is one dominated by pragmatic ethics, where benefits and outcomes are not necessarily broadly articulated from what works for Nigeria as a whole, but rather narrowly defined as what works for my ethnic group, regional and religious affiliations, and in most instances for what works for myself, my family, and cronies. This view of political ethics is very much embedded in the system that we often find it difficult to imagine a different political ethics outside this ethnic and selfish worldview. We create and fashion our political heroes from this perspective. Overtime, these views are consolidated into effigies that are venerated. They reflect our tribal and ethnic icons and relics. Attempts to challenge this political ethics are easily characterised as tribal bigotry, political insensitivity, and disrespect for our political heroes past and present.

The present day Nigeria is entrenched along ethnic lines that inhibit us from rising above our selfish interests. As long as I benefit from the system, it doesn’t matter what goes on in other parts of the country. As long as my side of the equation is shielded from the onslaught, the rest can go to blazes. This mentality fans the view that there are no permanent friends in politics, but permanent interests. When interests are selfishly articulated, they can never lead to an altruistic leadership or society. A friend recently reminded me that this kind of politics often lead to neopatrimonialism, a genre of prebendalism and corruption.

Notwithstanding our present day mental constraints, our generation has a choice to enshrine our political icons and relics, feed them with our daily sacrifices of encomia and nostalgia, and embed them perpetually in our consciousness. We also have the choice to courageously re-examine these political icons and relics from a different but much more constructive political purview. This re-examination may not necessarily be painless. It is likely to involve some kind of iconoclasm – a constructive destruction of the past for a better political future and scene to emerge. The choices are ours.

In the final analysis, what spectrum of political ethics do you subscribe to? Who is your political icon/relic? What is his or her political ethics? Will you consider iconoclasm as a way for a better Nigeria to emerge? The options are all yours.

Amaeshi is a Visiting Professor Lagos Business School and member of the Thought Leadership Forum, Nigeria.

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