By Hope Eghagha
We need strong institutions in our country, in our world; institutions which are stronger and bigger than men. It has often been said that we do not need strong men in a democracy. What we need are strong institutions. Yet, institutions are manned by human beings who must stand strong in defence of the principles which the institutions are created for. We therefore need men and women of strong character to run these institutions. A man without character, without integrity is likely to cave in to the demands of forces that wish to compromise the duties of an institution.
Most countries and organizations are divided into compartments or segments with established roles. In a democracy, the three arms of government and their roles are distinct and need to be preserved. The clearest are the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government. Within these branches are created small bodies which are charged with the responsibility of ensuring fairness, equity and level playing ground. Although the executive arm may appoint them to offices they are NOT bound to obey their administrative orders if such orders will compromise the raison d’être for their existence. Even within the different branches some administrative orders could jeopardize ethics and ought to be resisted. How many men of character are there in our polity that can stand against the tirades of over bearing bosses?
Institutions are created to meet a particular need. There are many institutions which need to be strong – judicial, social, security, political, legislative and religious institutions in most societies are needed to stabilize the polity and act as a check to the excesses of individuals. While some of these institutions are backed by law others are largely supported and sustained by convention and tradition. For example, there is no written law that an Inspector General of Police or the Chief Justice of a country should not be too chummy with the head of the executive branch. Yet, a relationship that is too close between these officials could jeopardize national interest. It is clear therefore that not all operational guidelines are enshrined in the constitution of the land.
In history there have been many men of character who stood firm against tyranny and paid the supreme sacrifice. Such men have written their name in gold and have become reference points in established procedure. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the issue of separation between the church and the state. The relationship between Thomas Beckett and King Henry II is a case in point when the latter decided to champion ecclesiastical rights around 1170. The raging political drama in America between President Donald Trump and the Democrats which is testing the strength of institutions and the character of the dramatis personae is another case in point. While Robert Muller has stood firmly on principle (shunning the allure of political grandstanding and media attention) the Attorney General Barr cannot be said to have shown character. His first loyalty is to the man who appointed him. Sadly, the attorney general before him Jeff Sessions who had a very negative press before, during and after confirmation hearings, showed more loyalty to the constitution than Barr by recusing himself from the process. This angered Trump from Day One and Sessions was a marked man; thus it was no surprise that Trump fired him from the position in a most humiliating manner.
In Nigeria, no Attorney General can develop the liver to challenge the chief executive. Most attorneys-general in Nigeria see themselves as representatives of the president or governor and not the people. To be sure in our country a chief executive could fire an attorney-general for standing on principle and nothing will come of it. In recent memory we have not had this kind of experience. But how many appointees can disagree with the boss and hope to remain on the job? Indeed most chief executives demand absolute loyalty even when the rights of others are trampled upon.
People who are appointed to office must understand the demands of the office and learn to respect them. This is why we must return to one of the first points made in this essay- the need for men of character in public offices. Appointees who hold power in trust on behalf of the people are not beholden to the appointing official. Their loyalty should be to the overall national interest. A narrow understanding of the demands of office produces men and women who cannot stand for anything principled.
Men and women of strong character are endangered in our current polity and are disappearing from the scheme of things. Time was when we found men of character in all strata of society in Nigeria- from the headmaster in a primary school, the principal of a school, the local catechist, Vice Chancellors, magistrates, to the chief judge of a country.
These days such characters are in the breach. Individual security and personal integrity are no longer respected or valued. A man like retired Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe (Number two man under the Babangida administration) who stands on principle is likely to receive calls from his kinsmen to soft-pedal and enjoy the beauty of the office. ‘We didn’t send you there to eat principle’, they are likely to say. “Eat our share of the national cake and attract development to our land”. Also men who stand on principle can be crushed by interest groups and the state would do nothing about it.
If we need men and women of character to grow our institutions, if we need men and women of character in the land then we must protect such citizens by law and in practice. Let us not promote the narrative that Nigeria is not worth dying for. How long would a Commissioner of Police who plays by the rule last in a state? How long would a Customs Officer who does not accept bribes last in a juicy position in Nigeria? What is the reward for honesty and a principled approach to public life? These are questions we need to answer if we are really serious about building strong institutions.