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Odeyemi: Imperatives of principles and ethics in politics

By John Odeyemi
24 February 2015   |   11:00 pm
“Do not pursue wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, business without ethics, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice and politics without principle.”  – Mahatma Gandhi (Oct 2, 1869 – Jan 30, 1948) IT is presidential election year in Nigeria. We have keenly observed the political intrigues, backstabbing and defections as the buildup…

“Do not pursue wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, business without ethics, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice and politics without principle.”  – Mahatma Gandhi (Oct 2, 1869 – Jan 30, 1948)

IT is presidential election year in Nigeria. We have keenly observed the political intrigues, backstabbing and defections as the buildup heats up. Many political analysts and social commentators have opined in diverse ways that this election is simply an exercise in futility since the two choices of presidential candidates placed before the nation are but a re-cycling of the same political personas of years gone by. We have shouted ourselves hoarse on the possible directions in which the nation is headed with either candidates emerging victorious in the coming election.  This election, some argue, will chart the future of Nigeria for good or its final descent into total ineptitude and failure. The ontological problem(s) with political leadership has not been addressed properly.  Corruption and bad leadership did not appear and entrench itself so powerfully into the Nigerian polity but was slowly incubated, birthed and metamorphosed into what it is today because our politics is devoid of ethics and truth.

    Politics will never serve a people if it has no basis on ethical foundation and the desire to work for truth and justice.  This virtue ethic often times is difficult to achieve merely by pure intellectual activity. Along with intellectual formation, we need religious faith, practised as an act of self-submission to the tenets of doctrinal requirements. When virtuous citizens are denizens of any designated community of persons who agree to cohabit within a political system such as a nation/State, their politics can be a tool of progress.  There is no perfect politics but political societies who make a genuine effort to have and practise ethical politics often times tend to be more egalitarian than otherwise.  This is the root problem that Nigeria, her politics and political participants face.  

    Any attempt to separate politics from morality is tantamount to separating politics from truth.  Truth is foundational to right or ethical politics which as moral and political agents must be our collective goal. To ethically pursue that which is true and altruistically pursue common good even at the expense of personal gain often times is buoyed by a morality firmly grounded in a religious spirituality. 

  Although politics and religion are two distinct entities, they are conjoined because they both naturally ought to aim for the same end; making ethical citizens who live morally so that the community of persons can live in peace.  On the part of religion, it requires this morality not only for peaceful and meaningful co-existence but with a caveat of reward in another life.  Therefore, religious faith naturally tends to create morally upright citizens by instruction, education and obedience to religious demands of obeying the laws of God.  As society continues to expound, the question of the separation of religion from civil society continues to grow all around the globe.  No one can argue that Western civilization and the Eastern and Islamic Arab worlds are not at various levels influenced by religious ideals in the enactment of laws that guide societies.  In my candid opinion, there is no nation, no matter how post-modern its politics is, that can claim to be un-influenced by religious ethics.

    The idea of politics and ethics goes back into the very earliest understanding of practical political arrangements binding on all based on a perceived ideal of common good of the commonwealth. From Plato to Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau to Locke, Mao, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Awolowo, Azikiwe and a host of other social and political philosophers, all point to a moral evaluation of any viable political arrangement that has to do with sovereignty, the rights of the individual and the rights of the State, questions of equality and justice. Logically, therefore, intrinsic to the very nature of true political system must naturally include the desire for common good directed at every member of a polis.  This common good must be founded on the individual member of the political class who, as moral and political agents, have the desire for truth and egalitarianism, people who are properly motivated by will and intellect only for the good.  Politics and its internal and organic arrangements become thwarted and disconnected if a political construct does not enjoy the inter-subjectivity of the desire for common good.  A nation’s political system can, therefore, not be sectional or regional, divisible by political ideology, religious bigotry and ethnic sectionalisms. This altruism is possible if the political class has educated itself in virtue, truth and the desire for common good and better still with the support of the practice of true religion.

   Based on this premise, the question of politics and leadership in Nigeria ipso facto has suffered a stroke resulting in partial paralysis.  Thus Anthony Akinwale surmises that “the challenge of leadership comes from a double separation and a collapse of distinction. The separation of politics from the moral quest for the good, and from the intellectual quest for truth deforms politics by leading to the emergence of leaders who are intellectually inept, morally unsuccessful and professionally incompetent.” Here lies the entire thesis on which this essay is based: the Nigerian political landscape is made unviable because there is no common will towards common good, and having political leaders whose politics is devoid of truth or virtue, which creates a State at the verge of anarchy and self-annihilation.

    Nigeria, more than any other country on the African continent, parades a multi-layered religious culture. From the various traditional religions of the various ethnic groups to the post-colonial emergence of Islam and Christianity and now much more to the multiple layered forms of Christianity in denominational orthodox groupings, then we talk of the Indigenous African Christian Churches and now with the arrival of mega Pentecostal assemblies.  Within Islam, the Shiites, Sunnis, Salafis, Sufis and Ahmadiyya are main line Islamic sects.  In most of Nigeria’s urban cities, businesses and residential buildings jostle shoulder to shoulder with religious centres of worship.  The Muslim call to prayers over loud speakers hung high up on minarets from mosques clash with morning praise worship from loud speakers from Christian Churches. And at major intersections, it is not uncommon to find sacrifices offered to the gods deep in the hours of darkness. There is generally an ever present and reminder of religion that encompasses Nigerians’ visually and auditorilly every single day.  Yet the country is known for its widespread and institutionalised corruption both at the private and governmental levels. The truth is that we practise what Gandhi calls “religion without principles”, truth or ethics.  We need, therefore, to re-educate and re-conscientise the entire nation. We need a new orientation for the entire nation, a change of our collective vision and ideals, which have been at variance one with the other since independence.  The nation is in need of re-shaping the ideals and habits of its citizens.  Our focus must be on truth, what unites and a desire to build a united country that will attain the possibilities that naturally Nigeria can and should achieve.  We have seen the after effects, in a very short period of time, of the government take-over of schools from religious proprietorship in some post independent African countries, most notably Nigeria.

      In our next attempt at self-governance, attention must be given to the re-educating of the entire nation based on truth, right ethical conduct and a clear moral vision, which comes from the proper practice of religious faith.  We are a believing nation, without the personal and individual conviction that we need to be morally upright persons who live in a moral universe and who will be held accountable by a transcendent being, our politics naturally will fail. Moral education, therefore, is as good as dead in the water before it could ever take off.

   This election year is another challenge to the entire nation to review our collective responsibility towards the Nigerian project; the building of a political system which focuses on a welfarism that is totally merit oriented, completely inclusive and unbiasedly nationalist in content and approach. This project must be etched into our national psyche and made a watch-word of every citizen.  It is by this self-transmutation that the nation can be regenerated into its true nature and character, and can live up to the original creed of the founding fathers and possibly achieve its lofty ideals of unity and faith, peace and progress. The entrenching of this consciousness nationally will repair the walls of separation our politics and politician have built over the years and help the nation to heal by building new bridges that connect a nation whose people are bound by a common desire to be great.

• Fr. Odeyemi is of the Department of Systematic Theology, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA.