Part of the mystique of the events leading up to and succeeding the annulled presidential elections held June 12 1993, was the unusual succession of moments of truth associated with the people, processes, and events involved with that now infamous episode in our annals. My favourite such moment occurred during the debate for would-be vice presidents. In response to a question on his position on several economic issues, one of the candidates masked his obvious unpreparedness for office by arguing that, as vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he would “hire and fire economists”.
Profound? I didn’t think so. Truth to tell, I felt profoundly patronised by his response! As co-decision maker in my small family, I regularly contract and discharge myriad artisans. But, that I believe is only because I have a sense of my need — plumbing in dire need of repair, faulty locks, punctured tyres, etc. On this clear definition of my requirements, I am thus able to evaluate work done for me; and depending on how fit the work done is, I either retain the workman in question, or promptly discharge him (they are usually male) and look for another. In this sense, I have always believed that the response of that particular vice presidential candidate at the debates before the June 12 1993 elections was daft.
Undeniably, Nigeria is a much different reality from my homestead. Bigger, if nothing else. Besides, the different assignments before any manager of the economy are far more detailed. And there is always the danger of oversimplifying things when one extrapolates from the particular to the general. Nonetheless, given the much wider scope for impacting lives that the president and vice president of Nigeria (and governors and their deputies at the sub-national level) have, I would wager that a sense of what the key issues are with the country are no less important for them than a sense of what the issues are with the homestead are for the pater familias.
Ought we, as voters, therefore, to be interested in these peoples’ sense of what the issues are with the country? Put differently, does it matter where these people think they are headed? It is not enough, for instance that we grant our president and his vice the power to hire and fire economists, agronomists, educationists, and sundry such competences. It is no less necessary that we understand what our president and his vice think are the issues confronting the economy, agriculture, the education sector, etc. before we are invited to choose amongst competitors for this office. We would then, in essence, be vicariously choosing those economists, agronomists, educationists, etc. whose worldviews are consistent with our sense of the respective (appropriate?) solutions to the national problem.
In part, this concern is about how educated our president should be. If you ask me, I’d say pretty much so. Of course, given low levels of education amongst the voting public, and the preferred instrument of “one man, one vote”, it is possible that a well educated candidate might not properly represent “we the people” (the famed drafters of our constitution). Nonetheless, the broad spectrum of challenges that this economy must surmount over the medium-term, are too weighty to be charged to simpletons. Yet, the requirement that our leaders be properly educated transcends that provided by “institutionalised pedagogy”. Otherwise, our best cop out would be to restrict our most important representative public offices to teachers only.
Still, a phrase from “institutionalised pedagogy” recommends itself as we search for a functional leader. Arguably, s/he must be “worthy (of any such office) in character and in learning”. While I believe that fulfilling the “learning” criterion goes beyond the president’s (or his vice’s) ability to hire and fire. In other words, that it must include a rigorous (and robust) thought prism with which any candidate for these offices would refract experiences; methinks that we have not paid due attention to the “character” criterion.
The issues around the question, “how much ought we to know (about) our leaders?” were raised poignantly in a conversation recently with a former federal minister friend of mine. Passionately persuaded that the private lives of public office holders should be off-limit to public conversation, he denounced the rise in ad hominem attacks on the presidency since Dr. Goodluck Jonathan came into office.
Does it matter that a would-be candidate for public office is a serial monogamist, a substance abuser, inordinately in love with the tipple? And are these not private concerns? Should our president’s (vice president’s), governor’s (deputy governor’s) peccadilloes interest us? And how?
I do not believe that interest in these matters are of a salacious or prurient vintage (although, they may provide sufficient faggot for either). They are not driven by seizure of the moral high ground, either. Instead, they are very functional worries. A licentious president, caught in flagrante delicto, is a prime candidate for blackmail. Worse, if concrete evidence of these failings were to fall into the hands of “vested interests” (including, another sovereign). Unaware of (or completely uninterested in) our leaders’ vulnerabilities how are we to determine that policies are what they claim to be: in the best interest of the commonweal; and not at the behest of some unknown third party with undue influence on our principal(s)?
These questions and allied concerns give those ad hominem worries a deeper context.