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Power without Moral Capital

Power without Moral Capital


None of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello ever held the position of the chief executive officer of the Nigerian state. Yet, the national reputation of each of these past leaders has endured for ages. The perception that these historical figures were foundational leaders (of different ideological and cultural hues) has persisted in the country. For different reasons and depending on the perspective of the observer, their names have become reference points.

As a leader, Azikiwe was widely acknowledged even by his contemporaries as an inspirer right from the anti-colonial days to the period that he was the premier of the old eastern region. Even though after independence he assumed the post of president without executive power, his place in history as a nationalist is firmly assured. Awolowo was distinguished by his record of governance in the old western region and the brilliance of the ideas he effectively put into practice. Bello gave efficient leadership as the premier of the old northern region, a geo-political entity with 19 governors now in charge doing the job one man did from 1954 to 1966. Bello’s performance has remained a benchmark for governance and leadership 56 years after his death.  

In markedly different contexts, the perception of these Nigerian leaders by the people is akin to that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. For instance, with his huge moral stature, Mandela went to Washington to tell an American president that the West could not stop South Africa from being a friend to Cuba, Libya, and Iran because of the support of these countries for the anti-apartheid struggle. This was even before Mandela was elected president.

One thing these leaders had in common in their time is what social scientists describe as moral capital. As different from other forms of capital (economic, social, human etc.) moral capital could be sourced from the realm of values, perception, institutions, habits, norms, virtues etc. which result from  the delivery of public goods when a leader is in power. In diverse locations and situations, legitimacy was derived by these leaders by imperceptibly drawing on their accumulated moral capital.

The memories of Azikiwe, Awolowo and Bello that people keep today is not about their private estates or the awesomeness of the power they held while in power. What lingers is that perception by the people that these leaders did some public good, which even their harshest critics could not deny. Here we are talking of the moral perceptions of their respective roles in history as individuals. 

As it is with the individual leader, so it is with public and private institutions for which reputation and integrity constitute a huge moral capital. Now, of the various dimensions of the Nigerian crisis, the moral one is often underplayed. Yet the repair of the moral damage that this bourgeois politics is inflicting on the society will take a longer time than rebuilding the broken physical structures and reviewing policy issues. In other words, long after you must have fixed collapsed roads and bridges and revamped derelict schools and hospitals the blurred line between right and wrong in the conduct of public affairs may persist. Meanwhile, politicians and pundits alike continue to   say glibly that “there is no morality in politics.” Politicians make a virtue of playing their game without a moral compass. 

After all, a presidential candidate may have in his campaign team economic advisers, political strategy consultants and social policy experts. But have you ever heard of a candidate appointing a moral adviser as a member of his campaign team?  

On this occasion of ‘Democracy Day’, therefore, it may be worthwhile to employ the idea of moral capital in pondering Nigeria’s experiment with liberal democracy in the last 23 years. As a sociological category, moral capital is also a very liberal concept. To say that moral capital is a vanishing virtue in today’s politics is far from making a radical critique of the malaise afflicting the socio- political system. 

The symptoms of this affliction are manifest in the political landscape. 

The other day a political strategist wrote that it would be considered frivolous if a presidential candidate budgets less than 20 billion naira for his campaign while a governorship candidate who wants to win should be ready with at least five billion naira. A senatorial candidate is even expected to raise hundreds of millions of naira because he wants to represent his district in the National Assembly. Promptly, another election expert replied that such figures were a gross under-estimation. 

The obscene monetisation of politics in a poverty-ridden society is now on display with the outrageous fees for nomination forms and reports of “buying” of delegates with huge sums of money in local and foreign currencies. Some of the dollars allegedly given to delegates have been reported to be fake.

Giving and taking of bribes as well as spending fake currencies are still crimes in the books. Yet this political culture of monetisation of all values blossoms as a political strategy. A politician keeps an army of thugs and boasts that he has “political structures on ground” in readiness for an election. A political party makes its members to pay for nomination forms to contest intra-party elections and turns round to ask the aspirants to step down in the interest of a zoning arrangement without refunding the fees. 

In official statements, public office holders tell barefaced lies. Without blinking an eye, politicians renege on promises made while on the hustings. Arrogance of power is flagrantly on display at all levels of government. The culture of accountability is abysmally lacking on issues of public interest.  Few former governors can walk freely on the streets of their state capitals after governing the states for eight years. Some governors cannot point to enduring institutions perceived by the people as serving their interest. 

A governor is given the mandate by the electorate to govern on the platform of a political party as required by law. A few months after the election he joins another party without relinquishing the mandate given to the party having its name on the ballot paper during election. He goes to court to get away with the absurdity on technical grounds. The public is told that while such political behaviours could be immoral, it is considered legal.

The parliaments at state levels and the centre are hardly perceived by the people as ventilating their views and interests. A lawmaker should be the tribune of his constituency. Few of the state and federal legislators can be so called in the Nigerian context. Oversight functions of the legislature have been turned into perennial extortion of ministries, departments, and agencies of the executive.  

The foregoing is the very brief introduction to Nigerian politics for an 18-year-old citizen who would be voting for the first-time next year. Such is the enormity of damage that politicians and their agents are doing to the system. Questioned about the morality of his position, one eminent Nigerian politician said cynically that “politics is no Sunday school affair.” Besides, unlike economic, political, and social capital that politicians also seek, moral capital is profoundly subjective. You can buy votes with dollars. But moral capital is that intangible asset residing in the minds of the people that you cannot buy with all the money in the world.

To borrow the famous title of one of the books of an American philosopher, Michael Sandel, moral capital is “What Money Can’t Buy.” If moral capital is to be sold how would Azikiwe, Awolowo and Bello now buy some to keep their names beyond their graves? Their memories live on with great moral prestige. 

So moral capital cannot be commodified like votes, awards, or hagiographies. One factor that drains moral capital from the polity and society is the pervading belief that everybody has a price, and all values can be bought. The beauty of moral capital, however, is that the judgment of what is good or bad governance ultimately lies with the people. This is despite the efforts of politicians and their publicists and strategists to manipulate the people’s perception. A government may stage an elaborate commissioning of an uncompleted road. But the people can do their assessment of things when they travel on the non-motorable portion of the road.    

The proposition that moral capital should be prioritised as a resource for politics and leadership is no sterile moralising about politics. In Nigeria today, it is a potent factor to prevent a descent into a moral jungle in the name of smart politics. Leadership cannot be credible without moral authority which is a slice of moral capital.

In seeking power, politicians often discount the factor of moral capital because of the absolute contempt they have for the people as demonstrated by the samples of political behaviours mentioned above as well as the hostility to the politics of ideas. The result is obvious in the low level of the development of liberal democracy in the last two decades. Hence the word “nascent” has lost its meaning in Nigeria because it is still unconsciously used to describe a dispensation that began in 1999.   

Beyond brandishing the legality of political power, politicians should also acquire huge resources of moral capital for the purpose of legitimacy. It is important to keep moral capital like other capital for it can be eroded with time. Yes, moral capital is also vulnerable to loss or damage just like economic capital. Moral capital can be squandered by a leader or an institution just like other forms of capital.

Currently, political leaders need a lot of moral capital to prevent a crisis of legitimacy. It is, however, not clear to what extent they are conscious of the need for this resource as they are busy seeking other resources to be equipped for the 2023 electoral battle. The future of politics without moral capital is bleak for the nation. 

KAYODE KOMOLAFE  A journalist with over 30 years’ experience, Komolafe has participated in numerous international conferences in Journalism, labour, democracy and development including the Leadership and Simulation program at J.Mac Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. In 2013 he was inaugurated into the National Human Rights Commission Governing Council. Currently THISDAY Deputy Managing Director, Komolafe holds a first degree from the University of Calabar, Calabar, and a postgraduate certificate from the International Institute of Journalism Berlin, Germany.

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