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The tortuous search for integrity in politics (3)

By Francis Onaiyekan
31 March 2015   |   9:46 am
POLITICS of convenience and politics of impunity, so dishonorable and despicable, are rife in the nation’s political space. It is played by men as well as women (apparently politics self-interest is gender-blind) who, by their station, should behave with honor and excellence.


POLITICS of convenience and politics of impunity, so dishonorable and despicable, are rife in the nation’s political space. It is played by men as well as women (apparently politics self-interest is gender-blind) who, by their station, should behave with honor and excellence.

Mark Twain would say that it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them. Politics of convenience sends a dangerous message to, and sets bad examples for the youths and future leaders.Alhaji Lateef Jakandespoke of seven social sins. Top of them is Politics without Principle that is prevalent in the Nigeria of today. Bread- and -butter politicians, averse to the hard thinking and hard work that build nations, merely seek the most personally rewarding and the most comfortable political space to occupy.

The Book of Proverbs says ‘if you faint in the day of adversity, your strength [including integrity] is small’. It seems to me that the ‘strength’ of too many persons in politics and government ‘is small’. Many who occupy high offices would rather flow and bend to where their bread is best buttered. Bending to avoid every obstacle is said to makes the river crooked. It is no wonder then that in Nigeria and elsewhere, there are more crooked (integrity-deficient) people in high offices, than are straight ones and the  destructive  consequence is everywhere in evidence.

‘The ultimate measure of a man’, said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, ‘is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’.  A conspicuous indicator  of the quality and  global rating  of  Nigeria’s political leadership is that since the annual award was instituted in 2007,  no head of state of this ‘giant of Africa’ has been adjudged to deserve the Mo Ibrahim  Prize  for Achievement in  African Leadership which is given to  a democratically elected  African  leader  with a sufficiently impressive  record of good governance.

I would say however that the sharp deterioration in leadership and governance in Nigeria dates from about thirty years ago. Machiavelli is so often pressed into service to justify the ‘realistic’ behavior of politicians.

In The Prince, he wrote that ‘the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide… a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous…therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to the need’.

As earlier quoted, he also said that ‘a prudent ruler cannot, and should not honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage’.   Armed with these, apologists for chicanery in politics argue that in real life, politics is the art of the possible. Others say that politics is the art of the practicable.  I agree with both points of view but only to the extent that I firmly believe politics can be practiced with integrity and meticulousness.

The former governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, stated in a 2005 newspaper article that ‘…running for governorship, I declared my programme, my direction, what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it. Without that direction and ideology, I could not have achieved …’ Jakande was a democratically elected governor of Lagos State from 1979 to 1983. Since 1999 however, I have often been tempted to see government as a body conspirators (comprising public servants and civil servants) against the people.

Just think:  since the  advent of  multiparty democracy  in 1999,  the politicians  of different  political parties  in the legislative houses  never differ nor disagree  on issues of their remunerations  (including hardship allowance) no matter how  unjust, how commonsense-defying the packages. The Yoruba term them ose’lu turned oje’lu meaning roughly makers of the polity turned devourers.

Voltaire may be right that in general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one  class to give to the other. Lest anyone concludes that The Prince is all about self-seeking politics and a ruthless style of governance, Machiavelli also suggested how a ruler can do right, please the people earn their loyalty and respect and survive on the throne.



He ‘should not deviate from what is good,  if that is possible…’;  [for] he  will incur the hatred of the populace  if  he is ‘rapacious  and aggressive  with regard  to the  property and women of  his subjects’,  and ‘he will be despised if  he has a reputation for being fickle, frivolous,  effeminate, cowardly, irresolute’.

The author warned that the ruler can guard against internal dissension ‘if he avoids being hated or scorned and [he] keeps the people satisfied’. ‘One of the most powerful safeguards a prince can have against conspiracies is to avoid being hated by the people’.     Machiavelli stated further:  ‘A prince …wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy’, ‘[he]  should also  show his esteem  for talent, actively encouraging  able men, and paying honor to eminent craftsmen… he should encourage  his citizens, enabling them to  go peaceably about their  business, whether  it be  trade or agriculture or any  other profession.

One man should not be afraid of improving his possession, lest they be taken away from him, or another deterred by high taxes from starting a new business. Rather, the prince should be ready reward men who want to do these things and those who endeavor in any way to increase the prosperity of their city or their state’.   These are the qualities –and even more- that leadership demanded in the past, they are even more urgent now. Why are some nations greater than others? It is because the former are governed with a higher level of integrity -honesty, openness, prudence, accountability, patriotism – relative to the latter.

In such lands, the personal integrity of both leadership and followership inspire, drive, and sustain the integrity of both state constitution and institutions. People, including the US President Barak Obama, say that nations need strong institutions not strong men. I agree.

But I see a huge difference between a strongman and a strong man. A country needs a strong man to sustain the strength and effectiveness of the system, of institutions, and of the nation as a whole. Such a man is strong of character (especially self discipline), in the conviction of his cause, in competence, and in courage.  A weak leader weakens even strong institutions; he degrades the system and on the long run, brings down the nation. This much is expressed by Pringle (2007).

Integrity dilemma confronts both leaders and followers. We are, every time and everywhere, faced with the choice to do ‘what we will’ that may bring personal and immediate reward, or do ‘what we ought’ that serves, on the long run, a purpose higher than oneself.  Stephen Carter, (1996) suggested that although it is easy to   pontificate  on  the urgent need for integrity  in leadership,  most  people  would  put integrity aside  of the price is right.

In truth, integrity dilemma challenges people; it neither challenges nor bothers things, structures and systems -governments, politics, and institutions. No. People say ‘systemic corruption’ is the bane of the Nigerian state.  I do not believe there is a corrupt system or a corrupt state.  People construct and operate systems, and run institutions.

Political systems, economic systems, social, cultural systems, all are products of human imagination and thinking; they are by people, of people, and for people. The laws, institutions and other machinery for the maintenance of law, order, good governance, peace and stability are therefore, only as ‘integrated’, as just and as effective as ‘we the people’ make them to be. Consider the rule of law.

To adapt the words of former US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, the law will only be respected to the extent that it is made respectable.  Now, to make the law respectable in sprit, in letters, and in implementation, is a task not for the law per se and on paper; it is a duty and a task for persons who are invested with the power and the authority to so do.

To the extent that such persons fail, for whatever reason – to do what they ought  but  choose to do what they will , to that extent  will the rule of law, and in turn the  whole system,  malfunction to the detriment of  the state and its citizens. If then a nation is said to be afflicted by systemic and endemic corruption, it is to say that this is the condition of its people as their choice.

For it is a matter of choice. The Role of the Followership IN modern times, basic universal values grant without qualification that political leadership irrespective of the form of government is morally obligated to govern in the best interest of the led, for the greatest good of the greatest number. Ideally, this obligation is spelt out in detail in a constitutional document.

The followership on its part has the duty to help leaders fulfill this obligation with minimum distraction and illegitimate expectations and demands. A failure to do this is to have C.S. Lewis’ ‘men without chests’ as leaders. In this country but also in many around the world, the followership is often too divided by individual and sectional selfishness, too unorganized, and too lacking in courage to challenge the leadership and force a change of ways. Atenu is a Yoruba word now in currency; it is a shortened form of at’enuje, which roughly means reward that compromises personal integrity.  ‘Stomach infrastructure’ is   a new- and for me detestable- phrase that has entered the Nigeria political language.

It means the distribution of food to the electorate instead of empowering them to create food by themselves. In just about every segment of society,  atenu followers have largely lost a ‘senses of character’; they act from the ‘find –me-something’, settle-me, mindset.

In sum, the followership is too deficient in character to be able to unite and force the change that betters its collective lot. A nation of oje’lu leaders and atenu followers is a nation in grave danger.

For, even as leaders guide, the total strength of a nation lies in the character of its people.   To the led, the cost of inaction in the face of blatant mis-governance is to suffer it on the long term.

Edmund Burke counseled that when bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle’.  Similarly,  Carter (1996)  warned that ‘if  indeed we allow  the distractions of living to  prevent the discernment  of right and wrong  so necessary  to living with integrity, we should blame  [no one – government, media,  leaders] but  only ourselves’.

I substantially agree with Carter but, in the context of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended), but I disagree with respect to the media. The Role of the Media IN the Nigerian constitution, the mass media is the only professional sector specifically charged with the oversight function of assuring good governance. Section 22 states: ‘the press, radio, television, and other agencies of the mass media  shall at all times  be free to uphold  the fundamental objectives  contained in  this  chapter [II]  and uphold the responsibility  and accountability of the  Government to the people’.

In simple, direct language, this constitution demands that the Nigerian press practices ‘watchdog journalism’.  Indeed, watchdog journalism is a key clause in The Elements of Journalism which is more or less the journalists’ manifesto.

To faithfully discharge a constitutional responsibility is of course an act of patriotism and to whom much (constitutional role) is given, much is expected.  The pertinent questions then:  has the trustee of so unique and high responsibility satisfactorily lived up it?  I would say that it has not.  As constitutionally charged by the relevant section, the media is yet to be the best it should. This is not for want of trying.

But the point must be made that the 1999 Constitution (as amended) does not charge the media to merely try; it directs that certain obligations be fulfilled, pure and simple. In other words, the media has more than a right; it is duty-bound to ‘uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people’.

In the prevailing circumstance, this is a tough order to execute and, with the benefit of a view from the inside, I can offer some justifications.  One, whoever has attempted  to  practice with integrity journalism, or indeed any other  profession, in a climate of  systemic corruption and brazen  impunity  will  appreciate  the obstacles, the  temptations, the  pressures,  the  risk and the cost  that attend the effort.

Two, in the course of fulfilling the watchdog role, the press must consistently monitor, interrogate, and investigate the motives and processes of, and the personnel in government. Investigative journalism, otherwise called accountability reporting will occasionally cross the path of the powers that be, and challenge government authority and state power.

Given the enormous powers of coercion and resources allocation that are available to the ‘the other side’, the news media cannot but act with caution and with due cognizance of government’s capacity to make and to destroy. After all, we must keep in mind that for most media proprietors, it is a business that must at least sustain itself and preferably, earn profit.

Three, investigative journalism involves ‘exposing how laws and regulations are violated [and] holding the powerful accountable’ in the words of Sheila Coronel (2009).  The very process of investigation involves among other issues, (a) determining  what is worth investigating in terms of  the  public interest and common good value. (b) what open and hidden credible sources are  available and what verifiable information these offer. (c) how much resources – money, time, influence, analytical skills,  reputation can be invested in  such public-spirited exercise (d) what  personal and corporate  risk and  cost are bearable for exposing the rich and the powerful?  In sum, the price of Section 22 to the media can be very high even in relatively mature democracies.

APC Presidential candidate ,Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd). Image source ynaija

APC Presidential candidate ,Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd). Image source ynaija

It is more so in a ‘Kabiyesi’ political culture where government can, and does, take deliberate measures to pressurize, harass, and sanction the watchdog. Four, to take on government in the pursuit of a public-spirited agendum, the press must have the financial strength, the resoluteness, and the support of the public in whose interest it takes the risk.   I doubt that these can be taken for granted in these parts.

It may be of consolation that the pen is mightier than the sword.  But that is in the long run. In the short run the sword will have done incalculable damage to the pen.   Five, lacking the means-financial, legislative, coercive- available to the political leadership, there is a limit to the capacity of the press to meet the obligation imposed upon it by the Nigerian constitution.

And, as much as I know, the extant constitution does not create any special and separate protective shield for the media if and when the heat comes in the course of discharging its constitutional duty.  In this connection though, it is gratifying to note some evidence of progress. The Freedom of Information Act, 2011 empowers the press, and indeed ‘any person’ to access records information on matters of public issues ‘to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy’ . On its part, the 2014 National Conference proposed that ‘the provisions of Section 22 of the 1999 constitution should be made justiciable… ’ If enacted, this will embolden and strengthen the capacity and confidence of the Press to execute its constitutional mandate.

Six, – and this is  a  major argument of this paper-  the  ultimate responsibility  for good governance  and for a safe and thriving  society  rests  primarily upon  the political leadership acting through   the machinery of government that it controls.

This is the intendment of Section 14 (2) (b). Sometimes, the press is blamed for ‘’blowing out of proportion’ (whatever that means) the failings of government and the ills of society.  But, as respected journalist, editor and author Peter Enahoro rightly said, ‘the press should not be held responsible the malaise in the country [because] what the Press does is [to] hold up a mirror to the society at large.

The press should not be blamed when some people don’t like what they see’ (The Guardian, February 7th, 2015). There are even people who think that the press tends to go beyond its accountability reporting brief. Former editor of Harper’s, Lewis Laphams once wrote that the men of the fourth estate ‘may have been living beyond their moral and intellectual means’ by the way they take ‘substantial liberties with the facts and [contrived] mythologies’.

I agree that excesses do occur in this profession, as do too in others. But this does not rule out the necessity, for the good of society, of a constitutionally protected press manned by people of integrity.’ The freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty, and never to be restrained but by despotic governments’ said Virginia’s George Mason in 1776.

I should add not only by despotic governments, but by corrupt governments. The Role of Religion  I make a brief comment on leadership in religious organizations for the reason that Nigeria is, in different ways, a very religious society. Too often, we are admonished to pray for our leaders and against evil.  I have no objection. Indeed, Godliness is essential to the making of a good man and by extension, the building of a great nation.

Writing about America, Alexis de Tocqueville is quoted to say: ‘I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbours and her ample rivers – and it was not there… in her fertile fields and boundless forests – and it was not there… in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there… in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there.  Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpit flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great’.

Notwithstanding the widespread display of religiosity, too many perpetrate one form of ungodly act or other in this country Even as ‘spiritual wickedness’ pervade all the ‘high places’, there are too few voices from the pulpit courageous enough to speak hard truth to power.

Pray, where are the prophets as of ancient Israel?  I seek for men of sufficient spirituality and God-derived authority to, even at personal risk, decree divine punishment against rampant abuse of power and the worship of Mammon, the god of wealth; I am yet to find them here. It is good and necessary to pray.

But what we pray for and how can obviate the efficacy of prayer. I do not think that God will come down to do for man what He has empowered man to do by himself.

Concerning Nigeria, His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan wrote in his 2006 Christmas Message thus:  ‘God has already intervened in our nation; He has given us all it takes to make a great nation. The rest is in our hands, to move forward, or to lag behind in a fast moving world. It is not enough to keep praying for divine intervention. We must muster the courage and strength to make good commitments and stand by them’. This much is the message of Jack Reimer in Likrat Shabbat quoted by Harold Kushner (1981).

We are spiritually called to greatness through the act of seeking and achieving purposes higher than ourselves.  As leaders at various levels, a man has an inexcusable obligation to pursue only what, in his honest judgment, serves the greatest good of the greatest number. That is acting for a purpose higher than self; that is what Godlikeness is about. Conclusion GREAT nations are built by leaders who possess intrinsic moral authority and who muster the will and the courage to walk in their integrity.  Bereft of this in recent times, Nigeria, to borrow from the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran (1934), has become a nation that is ‘full of beliefs and empty of religion’, a ‘nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats bread that it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own wine press’’. ‘Pity the nation’ the poet wrote, ‘whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking; … Pity the nation divided  into fragments, each  fragment deeming itself a nation’.

Nigeria and the world in general, are in turmoil because they are neither led nor managed with the highest level of integrity. Leadership failure is writ large on the face of the globe. Nowhere to be found among leaders is the ‘sense of shame’ most necessary for the self control and self discipline that safeguard against greed and the general degeneration of and in values. The terrible, disheartening consequence we experience personally, or through the media.

I insist that in varying degrees, all men are guilty of the mess that nations, nay, humanity now finds themselves. But first at the level of the collective, there is no doubt in my mind that political leadership that acts with integrity makes all the difference in the progress or decline of a nation.  A fish, says the Yoruba adage, begins to rot from the head.  Second, the change for a better society must begin at the level of the individual where every man must in the words of a wise man, ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

It is up to mankind to do things differently and achieve a different, collectively beneficial outcome. In the praying words of Jack Reimer, in Likrat Shabbat: ‘We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end. war; Or we know that you have made the world in a way.   That man must find his own path to peace within himself and with his neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation; For You have already given us the resources with which to feed the entire world If we would only use them wisely. We cannot merely pray to You, O God, To root out prejudice, For You have already given us eyes with which to see the good in all men If we would only use them rightly. We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair, For You have already given us the power To clear away slums and to give hope If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease, For You have already given us great minds with which.   To search out cures and healing, If we would only use them constructively. Therefore we pray to You instead, O God, For strength, determination, and will power, To do instead of just pray, To become instead of merely to wish’.

I conclude this paper by insisting that politics and integrity are not mutually exclusive. No.  Really, God created man upright, but man chooses to devise complex schemes that merely complicate his life and make it difficult.

Voting 27=3=15 Copy


Even as our integrity is put to the test at home, at work, on the road, indeed everywhere and every time, how we stand –or fall – is a matter of personal choice. In this light, the politician as leader can, if he so chooses, practice his art with integrity as defined by Carter quoted above. To walk in integrity comes with its price –as well as its prize.

It can cost friendship; lead to persecution, deprivation, and loneliness.  Temptation will come from the immediate and short term ‘success’ of those who seem to bring wicked schemes to pass’.   However, the psalmist counsels: ‘Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, / Because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass… For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; /Indeed, you will look for his place, / But it shall be no more’ (Psalm 37). I say that the prize on the long run is definitely worth the price.

Consider this: Chief Obafemi Awolowo a politician with character, an intellectual and a prolific writer, never succeeded, hard as he tried, to be president and head of state of Nigeria. That is the price he paid for walking in his integrity. But yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the sage is a recurrent factor, even the issue, in the discourse on Nigeria’s politics. Besides, he remains the reference point for integrity and for good governance.  This is the prize that Chief Awolowo has earned – now and till the end of time. • Concluded •Onaiyekan is a visiting member of The Guardian Editorial Board. The original version of this paper was presented as the Guest Lecture at the 2014 Annual Oluku Day on 27thDecember, 2014 in Kabba, Kogi State.