Leadership and moral conscience
The art of leadership is difficult enough in normal times. In an age of upheavals, the complexities are infinitely more daunting. Political leadership is the one vocation to which many are called but few are really chosen. Today, sadly, the world is truly bereft of great leaders.
You wouldn’t, for example, call Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain a great leader. Anybody who goes and deceives Her Majesty the Queen and decides to lock parliament for weeks ought to be tried for high treason. Nor would we dare to tag Donald J. Trump with the undeserved appellation of a statesman. Some psychologists believe that his entire cognitive corpus — by way of concepts, lexicon and cosmology — does not transcend that of a high school teenager. I wouldn’t pass the torch to the young Emmanuel Macron who fancies himself the god Jupiter who dishes out ex cathedra pronouncements to the uncomprehending hoi-polloi.
And there are still a few madmen around: North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un is a good example. Robert Mugabe, as you all know, has gone where his types normally end up. I am not exactly sure where to place the de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
In the West, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany fulfils some of my basic requirements of a visionary leader. She has served Germany well. In Africa I would defer to Paul Kagame of Rwanda — warts and all. Recent Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia has deservedly earned rock-star status within and outside his country. He is a breath of fresh air in Ethiopia where the people have been strangers to freedom for more than a century. Tanzania President John Joseph Magufuli is also making the right waves.
By real leaders I mean those servants of the people who have the courage of their own convictions — who make things happen and who transform our world — transformational rainmakers who have the capacity to move societies from a low level to a higher one.
One of the principal qualities that sets apart great leaders from the common run is conscience and moral conviction. By moral conscience we are referring to the still, small voice which tugs tremulously on our hearts; urging us on when we are on the right and warning us when we are on the wrong. Every human being is born with a moral conscience. Conscience lies at the foundation of moral law. And it is largely from the moral law that natural justice and equity arise as precepts of jurisprudence. Conscience tells us that we must do unto others as we would wish them do unto us. It also tells us that it is wrong to bear false witness against another or to take what is not ours or to take another’s life or property. Conscience dictates that we treat others with fairness and justice. It also tells us that all life is sacred.
The famous book by the pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, comes to mind: Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-Colonisation and Development with Particular Reference to the African Revolution (Monthly Review, 1964). In that classic work, Nkrumah underlined the mainsprings of the African mind as deriving from the triune foundations of African Traditional Religion, Islam and Christianity. These three cosmologies define the corpus of African ethics and spirituality. At the deepest levels, there is no disagreement between the three at all.
It all goes back to Socrates, the Greek philosopher and ancient gadfly of Athens. He claimed to have been guided all his life by a voice. When he was doing the right things, the voice always expressed approval. But whenever he was derailing, the voice would always give a reprimand or warning. The inner voice compelled him never to accept the dominant idols and prejudices of the age, but to always question them. It soon got him into trouble with the ruling establishment. He was eventually tried on false charges of treason. He was forced to drink hemlock to his own death. Socrates was one of the most remarkable human beings who faced the prospect of his own death bravely and without bitterness. He recognised the awful fact that some lives would have to be sacrificed in the defence of truth, virtue and justice.
His last words, as recounted by his student Plato are extraordinarily haunting: “Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death….For which reason, also, I am not angry with my condemners, or with my accusers; they have done me no harm…Still I have a favour to ask of them. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to … trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing,—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care….The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”
It was the martyred civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr who declared that a man has not begun to truly live until he has a cause for which he will willingly give his life. That is the foundation of conviction leadership. Mere politicians are two for a penny these days. It is almost considered to be a mark of political sophistication for a public servant to be shorn of politics and convictions.
Three thinkers are guilty for this current state of affairs.
The first is Niccolo Machiavelli. The Florentine political thinker famously proclaimed that “the end justifies the means” and that it is better to be feared than to be loved. The most dangerous type of leaders are those who read The Prince out of context. Machiavelli was writing at a time when renaissance Italy was made up of fissiparous, warring city-states. What he wrote was a treatise on how the statesman might secure the existence of a free republic in an age of internecine strife. It is therefore not surprising that those who read him out of context are likely to behave like beasts.
The second culprit is the seventeenth century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’s most famous book, The Leviathan, was written during the years of the brutal bloody English civil war. His pessimistic temper was shaped by those violent experiences. The Leviathan emerged as a thought experiment of how a sovereign must govern under what he terms “the state of nature”. In that primordial condition in which life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”, the sovereign must rule with an iron hand. Moral considerations are to be suspended when what is imperative is protection of human beings from devouring one another like beasts.
The third culprit is Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws of Power. An aspiring politician once gave me a tour guide of his library at his palatial home. The only book on the sprawling oak table was Greene’s book. He looked at me knowingly. Deep in my heart, I concluded that this man has become a lost soul. I believe that 70 percent of our politicians have read The 48 Laws of Power. The irony is that when all of you have read the same book and are trying to play the games recommended by the book on each other, it all becomes a fools’ market. You know that I know that we are all playing the games of power. In the end it all leads to nowhere but a common dungeon of moral nihilism.
What will ultimately save our country is conviction politics. We may never all agree on values. This is why Winston Churchill described democracy as the worst system of government — except for the others. And because this is so, we must be prepared to subject all our principles to the rigorous marketplace of ideas — to Reason, debate and dialectical logic. The godfathers and moneybags that control our political and party systems abhor such things. They prefer pliable operators in dark, smoke-filled chambers. Most of our politicians think strictly in terms of religion, ethnicity, tribe and region. Rare are the statesmen and women who believe in Nigeria, her common good and her manifest destiny within the temple of humanity.
I daresay that our country will never live up to its promise of greatness and will never transcend its mediocrity unless we hand over the torch to a new generation who possess the courage of their convictions — who are guided by conscience and the ideals of enlightenment and civilisation.