General Gowon, Nigerian former military leader for more than nine years marked his 80th birthday last week, with Governor Fashola as the guest speaker at a birthday bash in Gowon’s honor. The picture to the cover story shows a gracefully aged Gowon, a marked difference from the effervescent, young and strong military leader of the Nigerian Civil war days. At the height of Nigeria’s real oil boom, Gowon was reported to have stated that Nigeria’s problem was not money but what to do with the money. If Gowon said those words and if he was correct, then those days were long gone.How the money went and where the money went to, again, if true, is a question that appears to be in the minds of all at the podium at the ceremony including Gowon. Equally, it is a question that Gowon appeared to have answered once and for all, but in the most dangerous and impetuous manner, and joined by his guest speaker, Fashola.
Gowon was reported to have cautioned Nigerians to debate those in authority on policies and to avoid the personal, to avoid divisive issues. He went further to warn those that bring Nigeria’s name into disreputeshould leave and head back to whatever country of their choice. According to him, Nigerians must “love Nigeria Honestly, unless you love and accept your country as a nation, then whatever you do is not worth it”. As Fashola, the guest speaker, advocated in his speech, and which this writer agrees with, values matter! And Gowon’s value blazed through his comment like a midnight star.
On the surface, Gowon’s statements appear typical and innocuous, but a deeper understanding reveals a very dangerous sentiments and value system. First, it will be an administrative malpractice to place a fox in charge of the chicken house mainly because of the cleverness of the fox, just as it will be criminal to place a pedophile in charge of teenagers simply because of his or her teaching excellence. In short, the person and the personality matter.
Gowon treats politics as a game of golf—a non-contact sport; this is wrong. In politics, a person, as well as the policies, are not only a fair game; they are essential. The failure to dig deep into the person of the former minister for Aviation, Stella Oduah’s claim to a higher degree from a University in the US, allowed her to perpetrate a major fraud on the nation. Simply, anyone fearful of the heat does not need to go into the kitchen. To treat the person as infallible, is to dangerously thread back into our sordid history when our Obas, Chiefs, Emirs and others were regarded as second to the gods and infallible. This amounts to autocracy—that subdues and abridges the rights and liberties of the people with impunity. We must and should not retreat back into that dark world.
Fashola, on the other hand, suggested a conference of values and ethical codes to rebuild the nation. According to him, when Nigerians have asked for a better life, the leadership either misses the question or simply avoids it, and gives a new law or a new document or set up one Committee or another. He opined, “ordinary Nigerian will not be as interested in what is written in the Constitution, as he will be interested in safety, food, shelter, prosperity, education and work.” As such, he advocated a shared vision to reclaim our lost values, to re-define our moral codes, and agree on a common definition of what is good and what is bad.
Good and bad are never fixed and are relative in time, tribes and topology. Whether, as John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham advocated that the aggregate of happiness is the standard for measuring good and bad, or as the Confucian argues, that the relationship of an individual to a community defines good and bad; Nigerians, according to Fashola, will be required to place their religious, cultural and historical differences together in a box to sift a unifying concept of good and bad. This is not only impossible and unrealistic; it is not necessary.
The subtle point of convergence between Fashola and Gowon is their argument against individual liberty. Gowon argues that speech and expression must be curtailed as a condition for Nigerian citizenship—that, speech concerning Nigeria must be controlled. Fashola, on the other hand, believes that “ordinary Nigerian will not be as interested in what is written in the Constitution, as he will be interested in safety, food, shelter, prosperity, education and work.” As obvious, Fashola did not take issue with the content of the written constitution but rather with what he considers the predicate to the question an ordinary Nigerian asks. In short, that an ordinary Nigerian will substitute the written constitution with the so-called “stomach infrastructure”.
This argument is not new, benevolent autocrats around the world employ it to rape and impoverish the same citizens they intended to benefit—they have used the argument to curtail rights and liberties of those they professed to represent.
As Jesus Christ argues, man shall not live by bread alone but the words of God. The words and the constitution matters, it is what gives breadth to the relationship between the governed and the governor; it defines the relationships among the governed; and the relationships between the governed and others that choose to be governed. Man needs more liberty and not less, and between bread and liberty, any group of people that chooses bread has lacked both bread and liberty, while the converse remains the ideal. “Give me liberty, or give me death!” was a quote attributed to Patrick Henry, one of the American founding fathers in 1775. From a humble beginning in 1775, America has risen to dominate the world. The same cannot be argued in the case of the dominant powers of 1775 that had chosen bread over liberty.
Both Fashola and Gowon argue for a collectivist system, that would form the basis of the Nigeria State and where Nigerians could all share an identity—a commonality of ideas. According to Fashola, what Nigerians need to rebuild the nation is to reclaim the lost “values, re-define our moral codes, agree on a common definition of what is good and what is bad, pursue the development of our nation along these codes”. What is a moral code of the nation…and, who defines what is good and bad? This is a very dangerous phenomenon when a State defines a moral code and legislate good and evil. Fela AnikulapoKuti will be writhing in his grave wondering whom he should send to remind Nigerians of my generation the lyrics of his “Zombie” again. Who will become the moral czar, and whose morals would form the code?
A Persia king was said to have summoned his Greek advisers to ask what it would take for them to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. The Greeks thought the request was detestable, as they burn their corpse, and politely told the king that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, the king summoned the Callatiae Indians in his court, who eats the dead bodies of their parents, and ask the same question, what it would take for them to burn the dead bodies of their parents. In horrific disgust, the Callatians responded that they would not do it for any money. As Herodotus, the Greek poet stated, custom is king of all. Morality is what the majority espouses at a time, but the majority should not be conflated for all. To agree on a definition of what is good and bad is to limit curiosity and innovations. The evolution of morality, just as in good or bad, has always responded positively to a competitive advantage of nature.
Without a doubt, Nigerians need a discussion on a value system—a national value and not a moral or social values advocated by Fashola. There could not be a moral or social absolute. Any restriction placed on moral or social values lead to cohesion and totalitarianism, and is bad for development—it restricts innovation, development and expression. Having said, the French revolution and American bill of rights were both modeled on national values—the freedom of the people from government abuses and economic liberty. These are the values expressed by Jeremy Bethany and John Stuart Mills in their sums of the individual happiness doctrine.
In other to guarantee freedom, liberty and happiness of the individual from oppressive governments, both the French and the Americans placed strictly defined rules upon their governments. The rights and liberties of the Individual were extracted from the convenience of the kings and his courtiers. The limits of good, bad and morals were set low to accommodate both the appealing and the distasteful. Anything less or different is dangerous. Again, when Fela Anikulapo Kuti married twenty-seven wives or chose to transport vegetables, leaves and trash inside his expensive Mercedes Benz, he invariably extended our rights and liberties.
Ambrose Alli was a professor of virology and former governor of Bendel State between 1979 and 1983. In 1980, Alli challenged President Shehu Shagari for visiting Bendel State without any former and proper notification from the presidency. Alli’s goal was to define the limits of federal power over States in a federal system of government, unfortunately, many Nigerians objected to Alli’s actions and crippled our federal system.
While Gowon’s military background could explain his value system. After all, as a General and military Head of State, his position placed him at the stratosphere of power over subordinate military men and women, and over Nigerians. He ruled Nigeria over a period of anarchy when civil liberties and freedom were curtailed as a matter of right. That could not be said of Fashola.
With liberty of assumption, Fashola came to his own at the same time with this writer. More than not, Fashola was born around the time Nigeria obtained independence from the British, her colonial master. The British had ruled Nigeria with little respect for the rights and liberties of Nigerians. Whenever the rights of Nigerians conflicted with the powers of local authority, the British sided with the local government authority. And with the British kicked out, our own Nigerian elites have perpetuated the same policy the British implemented.
These values that fail to respect the rights and liberties of Nigerians must, for a start, be eradicated.