In recent political commentaries, there is a tendency to dismiss the need for integrity from our leaders. Now and then, someone analyses the Nigerian social situation and concludes that what we need is not a leader with integrity, but competence, as if the two are mutually exclusive. I can sympathise if Nigerians are already cynical of “integrity.” Those who regularly beat us on the head with President Muhammadu Buhari’s so-called integrity themselves cannot recognise it even if it strikes them across the face with a thunderbolt.
The meaning of integrity in the Nigerian social imagination has been banalised to the point that it is bleached of any essence, a nostrum that is only sellable because of the paucity of other virtues. In January, during the campaigns for Buhari’s re-election, a former Lagos State governor, Bola Tinubu, while proclaiming Buhari’s virtues stated that the President was so honest that one could leave a naira on the table with him in a room and still return to find it. The irony of Tinubu proclaiming someone’s integrity aside, the mindset that defined integrity so narrowly is troubling because of its reduction of the meaning into naira and kobo. There are many reasons someone would not pick up a naira note on a table, and most of them have nothing to do with some innate virtue. It could merely be because that the person wanted someone else to steal it on their behalf so they can maintain their semblance of integrity.
Integrity, by the way, is not a thing one possesses like one agbada (flowing dress) among many others in the wardrobe. Integrity is having moral principles and adhering to them even when the consequences ultimately hurt. By that, I do not mean a pig-headed observation of rules, but a philosophical understanding of why certain ethics subsist and why they need to be maintained. The US President who signed the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson, is a useful example in this regard. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it fell on him to pursue and sign the Civil Rights Act into law. Some of his biographers record that he knew that that decision would hurt the future of his party, the Democratic Party, but he also told his associates that he would still go ahead as some issues were beyond politics. How does a country claim to practise democracy when some people are treated as second class citizens based on the colour of their skin? It was a decision that ultimately changed the voting pattern of America, but the impact of his action has reverberated across generations.
History has made a similar beckon to Buhari, particularly on the issues of the pro-Biafra protests and the Shiites, but his responses had no comparable moral content. When he was called on to address the issue, he had neither an expansive vision of nor salutary words to offer anyone. He turned the moment into one that allowed him to display the strong man character, and that was all. There was no demonstration of an understanding of the necessity of building a nation by enshrining values that will outlast your government.
No, and having integrity as a leader does not presuppose you will do everything right every time, but it does mean that you are aware that your actions are inscriptive, and they have the power to determine how social and political relations in the polity can and will be structured. A leader has to appreciate that social mechanisms, like concrete buildings, rely on integrity to hold up and that is why you invest in strengthening the ethical pillars of society and not corrode them for short-term gains.
When the President’s critics rip into the reputation of his integrity, what they typically attack is his moral weakness on the issue of herdsmen; his endorsement of Kano State governor, Abdullah Ganduje, despite his pending allegation of corruption; failed electoral promises; sloppy administration; corruption scandals in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation; fuel subsidy fraud; disrespect for court orders and his advocacy for the abrogation of the rule of law; and then, his political associates who constitute a considerable taint on his reputed moral candour. All of these have their elements of truth, but I will argue that all of these instances are not even places where our leaders’ lack of integrity primarily resides. Nigerian leadership from top to bottom, through their action and inaction, shape a social and national ecology that is so grossly undermined by their mediocrity that they cannot entrust their own lives or those of their children to it.
There are many examples of how this attitude manifests: our leaders preside over critical decisions in which they have no skin. We have leaders who superintend over public education even when their own children attend lush and well-managed private schools both in Nigeria and abroad. They allocate meagre budgetary provisions to the health sector for millions of Nigerians while they fly themselves overseas to receive far more wholesome medical care at the expense of the public. If Buhari has to treat earache, he flies to the UK and spends a considerable amount of time and resources in a foreign hospital while they preach to the rest of us to live -and probably die- within our means in decrepit Nigerian hospitals.
The lack of leadership integrity that hazards us is further evidenced by the way these people inaugurate public infrastructure such as the railways with fanfare, but after the ceremony and the photo-ops, they fly away in private jets. It takes a remarkable lack of integrity to sign off public projects that you do not use either because those infrastructure do not work at all, or work properly, or will not work for long enough to make them worthwhile. Most of our leaders are so lacking in integrity they make grandiose promises they have no intention of fulfilling, and even worse, the discipline or the self-mastery to even try to accomplish. To hide their lack of integrity, they stand on rooftops and loudly proclaim the virtues of one man who will not pick one naira on a table. That is not all integrity is about; it is not an object you possess once and for all. Instead, it is a self-reflexive journey in which people want to do better and be better to realise a higher good.
During the presidential campaigns, it was unfortunate that the noise of integrity superseded party manifesto and a genuine exchange of ideas between the leading presidential candidates. Some people were so fixated on the idea of “integrity” they would not be bothered to ask how Buhari’s putative integrity has translated to the upholding of certain ethical ideals, and how such ideals has impacted the character of the nation. What is the point of integrity that resides in the body of just one man and has no quantifiable impact on the national atmosphere?
No matter how badly the word has been bastardised by unscrupulous politicians who have turned its meaning inside out, we should not surrender that requirement in our quest for purposeful leadership. Integrity is, in fact, a great facilitator of competence. Africa is currently a wasteland and graveyard of human potential because we lack leaders with integrity. We are a continent led by men and women who would rather live elsewhere. The lack of leadership integrity muddles national life, and that is why these leaders create safe spaces for themselves within or outside the country, away from the rot other citizens are supposed to embrace with gratitude. The noise about “integrity” as it relates to Buhari is breeding an insidious cynicism about its intrinsic worth, and that is not helpful. No country in the world can thrive without leaders with this character trait. That is why we should insist on integrity, even when they have gentrified its meaning.
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