This week, I propose to use one of financial market’s tried and tested logic to explain an intractable problem of honour in our public life on the continent of Africa. I know enough about African affairs to understand that it is a continent-wide phenomenon that defies explanation – until now.
The problem, which everyone instantly recognises, is the dearth of men and women engaged in public service with honour; men and women who would tender their resignation from a public assignment on principle; who would live by a high standard of conduct in public life and fall on their sword the moment they fell short; who would quit rather than debase and undermine confidence in public administration. The Harvey Weinstein story which has made news headlines in Europe and America in the last five weeks has created a domino effect across public institutions and it is provoking debate about the boundaries of social interaction among male and female employees, bosses, colleagues, etc. Weinstein was, until recently, a Hollywood movie mogul of gargantuan repute. It now emerged that he had been using his immense influence and power to take advantage of women by perpetrating all sorts of sexual assaults on them, unchallenged and unreported for decades, based on numerous such allegations made against him. He has subsequently been dismissed from the company he co-founded and barred for life from his hitherto exalted position on the Oscar Board. There may yet be several criminal prosecutions of him in the UK and the USA in the near future.
The “Weinstein effect” is being felt by other prominent individuals inside and outside of the show business. “Inappropriate behaviour” and “sexual harassment” have suddenly acquired a whole new significance in the workplace, with some powerful men paying a long awaited price for their past indiscretions and lecherous behaviour towards the opposite sex. Is it any wonder why there appears to be no similar ramifications whatsoever in our own countries in Africa? Sexual assault on women in the workplace is treated with such levity in our own society, that no one breaks a sweat over it. The victim is often advised to just walk away and leave the man to God. Anyway, that aside.
Imagine, for instance, a government minister and a parliamentarian of several decades standing, suddenly found himself accused of placing his hand on a female journalist’s knee at a dinner function 15 years ago, which the publicity surrounding Harvey Weinstein has now helped unearth. The minister promptly came forward and admitted his “inappropriate” behaviour, then, tendered his resignation forthwith. Imagine that happening in our country? This is precisely what happened to Sir Michael Fallon, the UK Secretary of State for Defence. He thought the revelation (relating to an event 15 years ago), undermines his authority over the military personnel for whom he should set the highest standard of probity.
In countries across Africa, public officials are routinely accused of all kinds of “inappropriate behaviours” including: lying, embezzlement, office shenanigans, and other sexual peccadillos. One top civil servant in Nigeria was even declared wanted by his country’s anti-corruption agency, and somehow, mysteriously, got re-instated to high office, then, dismissed and later vanished into thin air, and no one carried the can for it! Why is honour so conspicuous by its absence in our public sphere? Is it because we are so poor, and when it is our turn to ‘eat’, we simply sit tight no matter what? The answer to that is no, because a lot of people who cling on to office actually have loads of money already. They have houses in cities in choice locations around the world in fact. Is it because of people with poor education occupying public office? I say, no, because a majority of people who cling on to office in Africa are highly educated, with fancy degrees from Western universities. Is it then because we are just bad people, very corrupt by nature and greedy? No. Our comportment are no worse than that of any others living under similar circumstances elsewhere in the world. Here then is the market logic.
Let me use one reasonably familiar example to illustrate the point. During the 1990s, there was an initiative to push for debt forgiveness for very poor countries unable to repay their foreign loans. The initiative was launched to coincide with the arrival of the new millennium; hence, it was called “Jubilee 2000” Campaign. It was a very simple idea, which called on Western countries to whom the debts were owed to do the once-in-a-lifetime cancellation of the debts. It did not happen exactly as demanded by the campaigners for one very important reason. No Western country wanted to be the first to write off any debt even though they, individually, had the means and recognised the need to do so. Why? Because the first country to do so would simply create markets for other countries not doing the same, and the debt-ridden country would soon be back to square one, accumulating further debts. The goodwill gesture of one country writing off its own share of the debt would have been in vain. It is called the debt spiral, or “moral hazard” in campaign lingo.
We fail to uphold honour in public life in Africa because we do not believe it makes a blind bit of difference in the grand scheme of things. There is always the likelihood that the position one vacates will be taken over by another with even more questionable character; Africa’s homegrown moral hazard. By contrast, Michael Fallon’s resignation from the UK government last week has set the bar for other ministers and public servants who may have similar skeletons in their cupboards. They will now all have to consider their own positions. Furthermore, there will be other chain of events associated with that in respect of new rules, sanctions, legislation and the like, to address the issue of “inappropriate behaviour” in public office.
Although a personal tragedy for the minister, the greater good of the public that will emerge will be his only consolation. Now, the question is, how many Michael Fallons do we have in our public sphere in Africa? Quite a lot, I would argue. Why then are we not witnessing them in action? Because we have no faith in our public institutions to honour or value our sacrifices. No faith that surrendering our privilege will ultimately count for anything. We fear; indeed believe, that it will be business as usual the very next day. As I said the other week on a different topic, and it is worth paraphrasing here. Honour in public life does not require every appointee, or elected member to necessarily be persons of honour; it merely requires the barest critical number to make the barest critical impact.
Source: Naija News