Speaking truth to power in Daura
If President Muhammadu Buhari needs some education about the country he is leading, he got it the other day in his hometown Daura, Katsina State where he played host to community leaders from the five local governments of Daura Emirate, as part of the Eid el Kabir celebration.
There, in a gathering that ordinarily should look like a concert of praise singers and sycophants, an audacious community leader, Mohammed Saleh, spoke truth to power. He stated: “Anytime the President is around we enjoy 24 hours power supply. But if he is not around, the power supply is not always stable.” If the president thought his position granted any privilege to his people, or that his government was providing adequate power supply as has been touted by his Minister of Power, that ‘achievement complex’ was deflated by Saleh’s candour.
This frank display of audacity is very commendable because it is an unusual commentary in the face of authority. It is unusual for two reasons. First, the remark came from one of the president’s own kinsmen that should ordinarily popularise his government’s actions. Moreover, considering the thriving practice of sycophancy amongst our people whenever a top government functionary is either a host or guest of an event, and given the expectations of gratification or rewards from government officials or politicians at festive events, many Nigerians would hardly express critical comments. That is why Mallam Saleh’s courage and sincerity of purpose should be noted at such a time like this.
A common dictionary of English language defines a sycophant as “a person who praises important or powerful people too much and in a way that is not sincere, especially in order to get something from them.” In this age of political correctness, certain rights groups and legal theorists have justified sycophancy on the ground that it finds expression in the individual’s freedom of expression, while public officers, especially politicians, view sycophancy as legitimisation of their actions.
Sycophancy is a deliberate representation of the other with the intention of instrumentalising or objectifying him or her. In other words, it amplifies an inauthentic state of affairs solely for personal satisfaction. Such kind of thinking thrives more in the political circle or in a situation where one has power or influence. Undeniably, therefore, in politics and management of people where insecurity, tension and fear are rife, sycophancy becomes a strategy for exploitative socialisation.
A sycophant has a misconstrued thinking that everybody likes affirmation, that is, likes to be flattered, supported or seeks unwarranted alliance. By his ability to alter a realistic self-perception of the other, the sycophant also thinks that he or she is smart. His smartness seems to thrive on the gullibility of his victims. The sycophant is enthused by the fact that he is able to under-rate the intelligence of his victims, for he knows that anyone gullible enough to be affected by his praise-singing must truly be blind to see the difference between a state of affairs as it is and as it ought to be.
It is obvious, therefore, that the sycophant is a self-centred person who is motivated by inordinate ambitions and immediate gratification. He is so myopic and insular in the appreciation of his actions and the world around him that he is unashamed to betray the collective for personal gains.
In the light of this, the recipient of sycophancy is a willing victim; one who is as myopic, selfish and insular like the sycophant. The victim of sycophancy may be naïve to conflate genuine commendation with empty praises, or be overconfident about his delusion of grandeur. Victims of sycophancy abound everywhere and come in different shades of professions. Recently a Nigerian university lecturer was flattered to think that he was a world genius when a phony body declared him winner of the World Physics Championship in Einstein’s Planetary Equation, having beaten 5,721 contestants from 97 countries. Only last year, for instance, the Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali, curiously rained undue and unwarranted praises on President Buhari when he mopped up re-election support for the latter. There were many public officers who were not supposed to get near partisan politicians at that time who also surprisingly did without consequences except public disapproval of such despicable flattery.
Even in the wave of widespread insecurity, governors in affected areas, for reasons best known to them, still believe that the security architecture of the country is in top shape, and all is well. Whilst many privileged Nigerians are articulate analysts and theoretical solution providers to problems where there are civil society actions and functions, they fret and become consummate praise singers in the presence of government functionaries. This is a sad commentary on our affairs in Nigeria where sycophancy has become an occupation.
The actions of sycophants are not only irritating, despicable and dishonourable, they also serve as interludes that should jolt the people to critical reflection. Whilst it remains incredible that elders in society wallow comfortably in the demeaning drama of adulation, their actions also reflect the abysmal level of misguidedness and misdirection being communicated to Nigerians.
The lesson Saleh’s remarks bring to light is that group communication between state actors and the people demands that charitable but candid truth-telling be spoken to people in power. Telling the truth by presenting the proper state of affairs is a motivation for openness to social development and national growth. It is the key to transparency and accountability in the management of resources, just as it facilitates genuine reconciliation necessary for building a just society.
That sycophancy does not wish anyone well is a truism that should guide those in power. If public officers are desirous of quality service to the people they serve, they should do well to solicit constructive criticisms as ways of evaluating their performances. Rather than witch-hunt or take offence at critics, public officers should savour critical remarks as score cards. In the main, our leaders should note that they need around them significant people like Daura’s citizen Saleh to tell them some inconvenient truths that can save them from the stranglehold of sycophants who actually have some power to destroy.
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