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Crisis of values: Reclaiming our society

Crisis of values: Reclaiming our society
March 12
12:25 2016

If we were to judge by the dominant tenor of headlines in the Nigerian media, we would come to the conclusion that the problem of our society is simply a question of formulating the right economic policies or fashioning a suitable political ideology. We can be forgiven for this assumption. Despite the undeniable importance of economics and politics, there is no doubt that the national discourse tends to overlook the most fundamental aspect of the society which is its ethical dimension.

In any scheme for understanding society, we must see ethics and values as the very foundation for developing all other sectors of society. Therefore, even as we attempt to design accurate economic policies and adopt the proper political ideology, we must also pursue ethical behavior in every area of our public life as the fundamental philosophical foundation. Our economic and political choices as a society are ultimately determined by our moral values. So, to modify former President Bill Clinton’s popular phrase, it’s Ethics, stupid!

Among the seven social sins listed by Mahatma Gandhi are ‘Politics without Principle and Commerce without Morality. It is clear that these two plagues are very present in our public life. To be fair, successive governments have tried to address the moral aspects of the Nigerian crisis. Over the past four to five decades, different regimes have initiated campaigns of ethical transformation aimed at entrenching values at the core of society. In the late 1970s, the then Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo issued the famous Jaji Declaration in which he called on Nigerians to eschew conspicuous consumption and to take on a new spirit of service. During the Second Republic, President Shehu Shagari launched the ethical revolution. In 1984, General Muhammadu Buhari initiated the War against Indiscipline (WAI) that levied a host of moral demands on Nigerians ranging from environmental sanitation and queuing up in public places properly to rejecting bribery and corruption. General Ibrahim Babangida initiated the Mass Mobilization for social justice and economic recovery, otherwise called MAMSER which preached similar goals. General Sani Abacha also introduced the War against Indiscipline and Corruption (WAIC). President Obasanjo made ethical renewal and moral rebirth as key pillars of his National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS). In the current administration’s Change tripod, war on corruption is pivotal.

These programs suggested that the national leadership recognize that a reorientation of values is necessary to drive the sort of transformation we want to see in our economic and political sectors. All these campaigns were aimed at inspiring the behavioural transformation of the average Nigerian citizen. Many reasons have been cited for why these programs failed. Some critics have suggested that some of the authors of the programmes were not themselves sufficiently sincere and so lacked the credibility and moral authority to really propel such ethical transformations. Consequently, these programmes could not be implemented as intended and failed to elicit the desired compliance by the citizenry.

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In other words, the leadership failed to supply a compelling example of the change they were demanding of the people.  Let us look beyond politics and consider the trends of the past thirty years. Look at the state of our schools – the perversion of the relationship between teachers and students that has warped what should be a vital mentoring relationship into an opportunity for various kinds of abuse. Spare a thought for religious institutions that have fallen into moral disrepute owing to a number of high profile scandals. Can anyone fail to notice the increasing disdain in which the younger generation holds the emissaries of organized religion? Or the fact that religious leaders are increasingly vulnerable to the criticism that they are far more comfortable courting the rich and the powerful than speaking truth to power?

Look at the level of vulgarity in the popular culture which further taints young hearts and minds. As a husband and a father, I am dismayed by the sexism and misogyny in certain genres of popular culture in which women are basically objectified as no more than sex objects and instruments of male gratification. I am disturbed by how such portrayals by the entertainment industry are warping young minds, feeding young males on a steady diet of sexist attitudes, sexual irresponsibility and a perverse sense of entitlement to the female body. I am bothered by how young girls are being conditioned to see themselves not as human beings with minds to enrich or dreams to pursue, but as sexual objects. I am disturbed by the vulnerability of the girl child. If the moral temperature of a society is taken by how it treats its most vulnerable demographic, then we must admit that Nigeria has not yet attained the place of the desired society.

In interrogating our crisis of values, we must give due recognition to the fact of our heterogeneity which imposes upon us the responsibility of competently managing the blessing of our diversity by developing out of our teeming multitude of traditions, a national consensus. Arriving at a broadly agreed upon set of values is one of the most urgent tasks for our public intellectuals and social thinkers. Unfortunately, our diversity has become an excuse more often than not for moral relativism in several quarters.

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It is obvious that all sectors of our national life are reeling from a crisis of values. Politicians are subjected to the most scrutiny and criticism because of our relatively high profile and the visibility of those found wanting. But it would be a grave mistake to zero-in on politics as the most troubled sector of our national life. In fact, I contend that the state of our politics and governance simply reflects the society’s moral condition.

The definitive elements of the national moral condition include a raging culture of instant gratification that feeds short termism, profiteering, and fraud. Without making unsustainable generalizations, we can all agree that too many of us are given to cutting corners and trying to attain inordinately disproportionate returns on relatively small investments. We are not as averse to cheating and exploiting our fellow beings as we should be. In fact, it has been argued that our social, civic, political and economic relationships in Nigeria are defined more by mutual predatory exploitation than anything else. We have succumbed to a feverish individualism that prioritizes the desire and gain of the individual no matter how illicitly pursued at the expense of the common good. The sense of communal being that used to be a cardinal feature of public life has been diminished by the rise of an “every person for themselves” ethos.

The decline of the common good as an anchor of public morality is coterminous with the ascent of money as the primary indicator of success in our society. The capacity for conspicuous consumption and reckless financial gratification has become the primary indices of status and accomplishment.  Unfortunately, the prevalent popular theology of success retailed by sundry preachers and motivational speakers insists that our youths focus on magical profiteering and the promise of wealth multiplied beyond their wildest dreams in the shortest possible time. Extreme religiousity now lie astride deficit of public virtue. Indeed, the theology of this movement interprets salvation in overwhelmingly personal terms. It has little conception of society or the common good. Rather, the individual is sufficiently primed to damn society and achieve personal success.

These messages only feed false hopes and avarice and push young people towards criminal endeavours. Indeed, these messages are even more damaging now because we live in a time that young people increasingly cannot see a clear straight path to success. We have raised a cynical generation that has come to believe that it is simply not possible to achieve success without soiling one’s hands or compromising one’s ethical standards.

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As the Greek philosopher Plato said, “States are as men are; they grow out of human character.” Thus, the Nigerian state is a product of the Nigerian society which is itself a product of the Nigerian character. To alter the nature of the Nigerian state and society, something transformative must happen to the Nigerian character. The behaviour of systems is the aggregated outcome of the values of the individuals that constitute it. Therefore, while political and administrative reforms are very important, the moral complexion of the human beings that inhabit the polity is equally important. Political structures and economic systems depend ultimately on their constituent human units for their success.

The Quest for Happiness

As a society, we seriously need to reconsider what it means to be rich. We need to ask ourselves certain questions. Are frantic acquisition and primitive accumulation all that we have to live for or should we be seeking intangible values that cannot be measured in terms of raw cash but which nonetheless are the real basis for living a fulfilled life? In all our traditions, the idea that there is far more to life than the pursuit of riches is deeply ingrained. It is a timeless truth that we need to re-emphasize today.

Contemporary social science research has established that the zero-sum competition for money and status in the developed world is a major source of unhappiness. There is abundant anecdotal evidence to suggest that people find new meaning and fulfillment in their lives when they free themselves from the acquisitive treadmill and begin to give of themselves. In other words, social science is now proving what we have always known through the moral wisdom of the ancients. Generosity rather than consumption is the key to happiness. Or as it is written in the holy book, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

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Both current research and our moral traditions teach us that the things that what we truly require for happiness is not money but otherwise simple things that we take for granted, such as – nurturing healthy relationships, cultivating friendships, serving others, raising well-adjusted children,  and being involved in a community.

True fulfillment does not come with increasingly fatter paychecks but from a life dedicated to the common good. Only a life that transcends the narrow goals of self-aggrandizement and self-gratification can be truly happy. And only a society of such transcendent selves can be truly safe. A society in which all individuals are committed to nothing more than the single-minded pursuit of their self-gratification at the expense of everything else is a dangerously predatory society in which no one can ever be truly safe.

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The search for values-based citizenship

As I have already noted, it is easy to criticize politicians because of our relative high visibility. Corrupt politicians abuse their positions and break the public trust. But so also do corrupt bank chief executives who embezzle depositors’ funds or corrupt journalists who take bribes and write their stories according to the dictates of their patrons, or the NGO executive who steals donor funds or the academic who demands sexual favours from female students in exchange for positive marks. What all these depraved persons have in common is that they have integrity deficits.

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The most significant indicator of national instability is not to be found in politics or economics but in the ways in which we are raised and socialised. For example, I was born into the Catholic Church in which the belief that the Church must be an active agent of social justice and political transformation is rife. This belief found expression in the social activism of Catholics in various nations and in the liberation theology movement in Latin America. And this understanding of the catholic faith has guided me through my years at the frontlines of pro-democracy activism and in my service in public office. Our parents, teachers, older relatives and friends leave long lasting influences on our lives. These early influences define our identities. The lessons drawn from those who influence us within and outside of the family determine what we later understand to be acceptable standards of societal behaviour. The family, very broadly defined, is the premier learning environment.

Research has shown that what happens to us in our earliest years has a formative impact on our personality and character development which in turn affects the rest of our lives. It is within families that we acquire critical life skills and survival sensitivities such as the awareness of danger, communication through language, and also the standards of right and wrong which are acceptable in society and which promote personal wellbeing and the public good.

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What all this means is that no programme of transformation of society can succeed if it is not domesticated in the ways in which we groom and raise coming generations. To renew our nation today, we must be reawakened to our duties as parents, spouses, wards, teachers and mentors. There is no relationship that levies as much responsibility on us to be moral exemplars as that between us and our children. As parents, we are the guardians and caretakers of the next generation. This is an onerous responsibility.

The monetization of values has broken down our traditional definitions of authority within the family. When I was growing up, the family was in concentric circles – nuclear and extended. Our most respected Uncles and Aunties were those who were reputed for their ethical constancy and moral authority. These days, the most influential members of the family are those Uncles and Aunts who have illicitly earned wealth from stints in government or corporate enterprise. Despite our knowledge of their crimes, we celebrate these men and women because of what we stand to gain from them financially. Those who are the real voices of reason within the family are marginalized, derided for their lack of financial heft and mocked for their insistence on values that we now consider irrelevant.

Parenting has never been more difficult than it presently is. The challenge of balancing the demands of the workplace with those of running a home and raising children is more acute than it has ever been. This is a burden that you can all relate to as women. As women in the marketplace, you are surely breaking new ground, breaking barriers to female achievement, breaching the glass ceiling that keeps you from fully manifesting your potential and in so doing you are setting a valuable example for the next generation of girls who will now see that there is no limit to what they can aspire to.

This is why I must call on men to step up in their role as fathers. I do not subscribe to the view that building the home is exclusively the woman’s work. Women should not be made to feel guilty if they choose to work and build careers. Parenting is the responsibility of the father as well as the mother. In my book, there is no excuse for Dead beat Dads! Children need stable parents who are present in their lives, whether the parents are married to each other or not. Today, as parents we can no longer assume that we have an exclusive influence over our children that we can exercise from a remote distance. In this age of mass media, the truth is that we are competing with legions of voices to shape our children’s lives. If we are unduly absent, our children will be reared by the internet, Hollywood, Nollywood or the house help. Such an outcome would be an unfortunate instance of parental abdication. Without mincing words, while we lament the delinquency of the younger generation, we must also as parents, both male and female, take a long hard look at ourselves. The truth is that for all the criticism we are quick to throw at our sons and daughters, we must also remember that we need to take our responsibilities as parents very seriously.

As parents, we must endeavour to be present in the lives of our children. Beyond that we must also exemplify a moral consistency that transcends the “do as I say; not as I do” principle which is merely hypocritical. Our children are far more sensitive to our deeds than we imagine. Our examples are lasting imprints on their character. Thus, it is only right that we see parenting not as a biological chore but as the first and arguably the most important sphere of leadership. Our children are our first audience. They are the primary audience before whom we model a lifestyle of integrity, purpose and service to the common good. They are the ones that we must teach and show non-monetized concepts of success and achievement.

As a network of women that have come together to strengthen women’s leadership in the public, corporate and social sectors, may I leave some thoughts with you about how you can position this very important space of yours as we search for solutions to the crisis of values in this country.

Take your place as leaders

Women across the African continent, and here in Nigeria, have done an excellent job of pushing for access of women in decision making. The case they have made is that the implications of women being excluded from decision-making are serious. It means if women do not have a voice where key decisions which affect their lives are made, then their capacity for full development and equality is severely limited. Women’s involvement in decision-making contributes to redefining political priorities, placing new issues on the political agenda which reflect and address women’s gender-specific concerns, values and experiences, and provides new perspectives on mainstream political issues. Without the active participation of women and the inclusion of their perspectives at all levels of decision-making, the goals of good governance and inclusive, transparent democratic processes cannot be achieved.

Women bring different leadership skills into the public space than men. Men have learnt (and are not born) to be leaders by seizing opportunities, competing with their peers, making themselves heard and not just seen, and building hierarchies and networks to get their agendas accomplished. Women have learnt, through their socialisation (as mothers, wives, daughters) to listen, to negotiate, to build bridges and consensus, to work in flexible ways, nurture friendships and relationships and to manage time better. We all learn these skills; we are not born with them. These skills that women have are undervalued as ‘soft skills’ in the harsh worlds of politics and business, and are not considered as important as the ‘hard skills’ that men have. The truth of the matter is that the skills and experiences that women bring to the leadership table are as important as what men have to offer. We therefore need to encourage a critical mass of women in leadership – especially in governance – so that hopefully, we will start seeing some real changes in the ways in which our communities are led and managed.

Socialise your children more progressively

Most of us have grown up learning certain attitudes and behaviours about gender roles and identities. Our mothers in particular would encourage girls to learn how to cook in the kitchen while the boys would be encouraged to go out to play. If we want to see a shift in values, attitudes and behaviours, then we need to teach our children to learn how to work and play as equals. Girls should be brought up to be independent, productive and creative, and boys need to learn how to value and respect girls. The deeply patriarchal societies we live in tend to render women invisible. If you want to see our society move forward with positive values, we need to raise our male and female in ways that provide everyone with the same opportunities.

Utilise the power of your networks

As women leaders, individually you might have clout, but as an organisation, you can be truly formidable. You need to use the power of your numbers and your political and social capital to take a stand on some of the problems we are grappling with in our country today. Men do it too! You need to lend your voices and take action on issues such as the large numbers of women in Internally Displaced Camps, the need for more women in decision making, the increased number of vulnerable and destitute women forced into commercial sex work, violence against women and girls, trafficking, the exploitation of children and so many other problematic issues.

Mentor the next generation of women leaders

I know that WIMBIZ has a well thought through mentoring program for young women, and that many women’s networks today have such programs which are vital for raising the next generation of female leaders. I would however like to advise that you build in the need for young women to have a better appreciation of what it was like to have a Women’s Movement sixty years ago. The Women’s movement globally and locally, has made a lot of gains over the years. However, a lot of these gains have been taken for granted, and if care is not taken, the modest gains that have been made might be lost. Women have fought for the right to vote, to be educated, to be protected from violence, to be able to inherit land, to have access to capital, to even be able to own a passport without the signature of their husbands or fathers for approval. There was nothing automatic about all these rights – they were fought for. A key agenda of the women’s movement has also been to ensure that women are able to make empowering choices for themselves. You therefore have a role to play in ensuring ongoing support, awareness-raising and sensitization so that women can indeed, make genuinely transformative choices for themselves and not false choices born out of coercion. When I listen to our millennial children these days, I worry about their fundamental lack of appreciation for and dismissive attitudes towards the various struggles won through blood, sweat and tears by preceding generations.

The Need for new Exemplars

Given the long history of failed campaigns to provide an ethical roadmap for Nigeria, we must ponder how the moral rebirth of a society occurs. My belief is that a nation cannot rise above the values of its citizens. If we want our country to function at a certain standard, then we must become the first exemplars of that standard.

Exemplars show that another way of doing business or politics is possible. They redefine standards and set the boundaries of possibility. They raise new plumb lines for measuring ethical behaviour. Vast areas of our national life require the redemptive presence of exemplars. We need them in public service, in our courts, chambers of commerce, business offices, public service, our universities and schools, legislatures, security services among other sectors. We need them at the fore front of advocacy for the many causes that require standard-bearers in our society.

I wish you all the best as an organisation, as you all commit to playing your role in making this nation great again.

Dr. Fayemi, former governor of Ekiti state and minister of solid minerals, gave this lecture at the Women in Management, Business and Public Service (WIMBIZ) conference on March 10, 2016, in Lagos.



Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.

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