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When the cheering stops

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Here is an old maim that reflects the eternal battle between God and the horned one. “Speak the truth and shame the devil.” God stands for truth; the devil stands for lies. When you speak the truth, you are on God’s side and the devil hangs his horned head in shame.

The maxim is intended to make us courageous and always ignore the small voice in our heads advising us to speak with forked tongues. Perhaps its modern version is, “speak truth to power,” anchored on the belief that rulers, all rulers, are victims of sweet lies packaged by their aides and the men and women who seek accommodation in the corridors of power. If you tell them the truth about how they use power, you help to free them from their aides whose survival in office obliges them to make their bosses look good, honourable and respectable when they are anything but.

All well and good. However, the problem, and it is a big one at that, is that when you speak the truth, you do not shame the devil. You put yourself in trouble, a steaming okra soup no less. Jails and detention centres are full of men who dared to speak the truth with the sole purpose of putting the devil to shame. They spoke the truth all right but they failed to put the devil to shame. Instead, they lost their liberty and freedom because the law put its noose around their scrawny necks. Trust the devil; he does better than chuckle at this. He laughs out loud at the discomfiture of the truth-tellers.

Speaking the truth to power exacts a stiff price. What about padlocking our lips? It too exacts a stiff price. I often ask myself about the choice we make as individuals and groups of people.

How do we choose between speaking truth to power and keeping our lips sealed with Araldite? Men make that choice daily in all countries. There were and there are courageous men and women in our country who chose/choose not to padlock their lips when they saw/see things going wrong. They refused/refuse to be intimidated by the consequences of speaking the truth to power because for them the consequences of sealed lips are worse for everyone than speaking the truth and suffering for it. Some of them paid, and others still pay, a stiff price as frequent guests of the government in the slammer.

Generally, however, the majority of us choose to padlock our lips and let our rulers do as they wish, whether they rape the law to please themselves and their acolytes or not. Cheating is part of the game of rulership and followership.

Societies do not always make a clear choice between naked truth and coated truth. If we choose to flatter our leaders rather than criticise them, we opt for coated truth. Coated truth is sweet. It does not grate on the ears. Its sound is mellifluous.

Our political leaders know this only too well. Flattery feels good. Few rulers, if any, resist its pull. Who among us would tell the president and the state governors the truth as they see it about how we are governed and how we ought to be governed within the constitution and the laws of the country? It does not sound good in the ears of our rulers – and that for at least one good reason: criticism means you are questioning the wisdom of the ruler. It is not always wise to question the wisdom of the wise this way because you make him look foolish; or so, he verily believes. You become an enemy. An unpleasant label that ostracises you – thanks to your sense of fairness and justice.

I find two obstacles to speaking truth to power. One is cultural and traditional and the other is self-preservation, regarded as the first law in nature. The cultural and traditional obstacle has a stronger pull because it is rooted in our defined trado-cultural relationship between the rulers and the ruled. This takes us back to our traditional institution and the role of the traditional ruler – chief, emir, oba or obi – in our traditional system of governance. Omniscience comes with the ascension to the throne. The king becomes a wise and all-knowing personage who could do no wrong. When he speaks, he does so with the divine rights conferred on him by his exalted office. Human nature being what it is and human society is what it is, dissidents are made by the system even here.

Even in that traditional setting, we still find men who choose to risk everything and tell the king the truth; not to shame the devil but more correctly to make him mend his ways where necessary, for the good of the people and his own throne.

This is what we have inadvertently imposed on modern governance. Omniscience is not a qualification for being president or a state governor. It is merely an assumed right claimed by the incumbents. Still, we see them as God-sent. If they are God-sent, they must have arrived in their exalted positions fully equipped with the divine sense of honesty, honour, fairness, and justice. This, we take for granted. We miss the point.

While our rulers are in office, the trado-cultural imperatives of leadership and followership oblige us to cheer and praise-sing them as uncommon men. It takes uncommon courage and the love of the people, in case you did not know, for a state governor to construct an inter-state road; or build a school; or build a health facility. He does so with the people’s money entrusted to his care for that very purpose. Still, we take out advertisements in newspapers and the electronic media to praise him for doing what he promised to do if elected into office.

Here is a consequence of this. While we praise them for serving us, we pretend to be blissfully unaware that these men are busy abusing our trust. We only get to know the truth when they leave the office and the cheering stops because while it lasted, it was deafening and nothing mattered that much anymore. When Ibrahim Magu and his men in EFCC haul the former angels incarnate before judges accused of their apparent inability to distinguish between public funds and personal funds, the truth speaks to the people.

I wonder, and it is no small wonder if it would be possible for us to moderate corruption in the system if we balance the need not to closely question what our leaders do with the greater need to speak truth to power when it matters most – before the cheering stops. Rulers tend to develop itchy fingers. They try to cure this by dipping their fingers in the public treasuries. At the end of the day, Magu insists they must explain to him and their lordships why dipping their itchy fingers in the public treasuries is the only effective cure they know. The sudden transformation of a hero into a villain must be one of the deep mysteries of life.

I know the devil would be amused by all this. He escapes the shame, even if he is blamed for misleading those who lead themselves down the crooked path of perdition. My hope is that someday humanity would make a true and rational choice between making truth in human affairs count and giving so much latitude to plain lies and coated truth. I am just wondering.


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