One of the tougher decisions, which most Nigerians have to make on a daily basis is the one that commits to above-board general conduct. In other words, to do “proper things properly“. Most times, the choices we all face are legion. Is it okay for a chief executive’s spouse to be a contractor for the same company where his/her wife/husband calls the shots? Why not, if the spouse is open about this relationship upfront, recuses his/herself from the processes leading up to the contract award, and the latter process is both transparent and competitive? Is it okay for staff to accept gifts from corporate clients? Is the gift easier to justify if it falls below a cash threshold pre-described by one’s employers? And, are there instances, when, irrespective of the corporate policy surrounding gift taking (declaring upfront for instance, is an argument for a more transparent environment) not all that is acceptable is expedient?
The preceding posers speak to an elevated level of sophistication in the discourse around the ethical space in which most of us operate in the country today. Truth to tell, the quotidian examples with which most of us do battle are brassier, still. The law enforcement officer whose importuning for baksheesh is barely concealed behind his/her cloying solicitousness. The known fiddler who secures (or is granted) unfettered access to the business’ books of account. The office lothario, now responsible for entry-level graduate recruitment. The public officer for whom excellent service is a matter of the size of precedent considerations. The list is near endless.
Despite the best exertions of the incumbent administration, “corruption” is a big part of our national life.
When, then, one opts for conduct that is above board, the question, “why?” is always just around the corner. That “it is good to be honest” is so patently inadequate an answer. For in the absence of negative consequences for those with their snouts in the public till for instance, this idea of “good” must necessarily be invested with new meaning. “Good for whom?” is a useful starting point in deconstructing this notion.
If those who loot (both the public and private) treasuries ran a good risk of being caught, and punished, then “good”, for us all, is the gain from avoiding this fate. However, the fact that they nearly always go scot-free, who help themselves to the contents of shared wallets; and that the public externalities from their conduct are invariably negative renders the notion of “good” conduct suspect. For those who conduct themselves properly in our space suffer disproportionately from the infrastructure dearth that is the consequence of general bad behaviour. Folks on the “dark side” can supply themselves with the inventory (boreholes, solar panels/generators, fat bank accounts, etc.) that compensate for the want of infrastructure.
And this dynamic does not hold for public sector employment only. With the addition that folks in private employment who maintain an antiseptic aloofness from the predatory activities of their colleagues are likely to suffer a diminution of status (lost employment from collapsed businesses, to begin with) that their colleagues have taken insurance against.
The only concept of “good”, therefore, that is consistent with how we are currently organised as a people is one that promises rewards in the hereafter. While this weltanschauung requires that its partisans be deeply religious folks, the operant perspectives underpinning it fly in the face of the public display of piety that is now a fundamental aspect of our national character. Rare is that gathering of Nigerians that is not preceded by prayers and concluded by even more passionate evocations of God’s munificence on the gathered faithful. Even when anecdotal evidence abounds of the prevalence of less-than-honourable conduct all over the place.
Clearly, then, as part of the structural reforms without which this country will never cease to attend to its Sisyphean chores, we must aim for a secular formulation of what is in the public interest. God may well wreak havoc on all such as have caused pain to the commonweal by appropriating for themselves what ought to have been spent in the interest of all. But an eternity is a long time to wait for this to happen. Better instead to re-define a secular “good”, with rewards and punishments that allow us to build a proper community out of this cadaver of a country.