One quote that has always checked me over the years as I climbed the corporate ladder to the top of the food chain was made by Lord Acton, a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It says, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton believed that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. This served as a note of warning to me and I could either decide to prove Acton’s belief right or wrong as I progressed in life.
While I would like to say that I was able to completely prove Acton wrong, I can recall instances when having power threatened my morals, especially in Nigeria. I shared some of these stories in last week’s column, titled “Corruption, aka giving gifts.”
With the elections happening in a few days, I am spending a lot of time thinking about power and how our leaders are a perfect example of Lord Acton’s quote.
We have come to almost accept that those in power often do not have the people’s best interests in mind. They are primarily focused on their own benefits, and they may abuse their position of power to help themselves. In fact, if one is to do a survey among the next crop of leaders, we may find out that most of them are seeking power (in this case political office) for the same reason of amassing wealth for their families and friends. This is the only kind of ‘leadership’ we have come to know in the recent decades.
I always caution myself against giving in to cynicism because that is not my way. However, I have seen in many cases how the slight resemblance of power given to an individual in any position of high or low ranking completely intoxicates the person to act out in total self-interest. From the policemen on the street brandishing guns meant to protect as a tool of intimidation to exploit both the innocent and guilty alike – in this way, they do not discriminate – to drivers of top officials riding like maniacs and blasting sirens when alone in the car only to stop on the way to buy roasted plantain – obviously the siren and reckless driving were essential for the satisfaction of his craving for ‘boli’.
In Nigeria, sirens are a good way to point out abuse of power. My understanding of a siren is of a loud noise-making device typically used to warn of natural disasters or attacks or in emergency situations. Hence the reason people respect the siren and give way when they hear it coming. However, we can all say that isn’t often the case in our beloved nation.
I recall a memory, which I shared in my autobiography about the power of the siren. During a Sallah celebration some years back, I was in my village when a former minister friend rang me up to inquire about my whereabouts. I told him that I was simply relaxing in the village, following which he then mentioned that he was sending something across to me. At that time, I had no idea what it was but I was soon to find out a few hours later in a most interesting way.
My village is very serene with barely any sound of vehicular traffic and my house is tucked away far from the heart of town. All of a sudden, I could hear the sound of a siren getting louder and louder until it was almost at my gate. My immediate thought was that my minister friend had come himself to deliver the gift, I went to the gate with the intention of receiving whoever it might be.
When I got to the gate, I saw a Hilux pick-up van with a ram at the back. It had two other occupants, the driver and an orderly. I was rattled and had to ask if they had been responsible for the siren, to which the orderly, who laid down flat to greet me, responded with, “Oga, it is Sallah na.”
I couldn’t get over it – the use of the siren in a former minister’s vehicle when he was not in it. So, was the siren meant for the ram?
This got me wondering about the use of sirens, which naturally led me to ponder about the power dynamic that it appropriates, legitimizes and perpetuates. The siren has always had to do with power.
For those who do not know it, the siren was not invented in Nigeria or by a Nigerian even though we love the sound of it.
The siren has its origin in Greek mythology. It referred to a group of creatures who used to pose as beautiful women and then tempt hapless sailors with their lovely songs. Bewitched by the sonorous songs the sailors would usually crash their ships into the rocks and drown or be eaten by the creatures.
Does this sound familiar?
Think of flashing lights as beguiling beauty, think of the blaring sirens sowing confusion in the minds of drivers, and then think of drivers crashing into each other as they try to make way for the loud sirens in their wake, and you can see clearly where it all came from.
So, these people ensconced in close proximity to power symbolised, in this instance, by the possession of a car fitted with blaring sirens, couldn’t imagine not causing a ruckus even if it was just the driver and orderly in the car on a personal mission for their boss.
I felt bad and was tempted to tell my friend, who I was going to call anyway to express my thanks for the gift, about the incident, but I decided against it as I didn’t want to ruin the young men’s day.
The experience, however, got me seriously thinking about the level at which we abuse power in this country.
Another way the average man or woman abuses power is through the use of uniforms. When people hear ‘power,’ they think immediately of position or an office but power is a range of different things.
Growing up as a child in Akwukwu-Igbo, I came to the quick realization that there was something powerful about uniforms, but I didn’t fully comprehend what it was exactly until much later in life. But I could see even then that men or women in uniform always got plenty of attention. They did not just exude formality and officialdom, they also seemed to wield some sort of power and it did not matter whether they were policemen or soldiers, court messengers or sanitary inspectors.
Their uniforms seemed to transform and imbue them with power beyond the ordinary. Till date, put a man in uniform and watch him transform into something different, no matter whether he is guarding a bank, an embassy, or a fast food outlet.
If ordinary men with no position transform into self-serving individuals at the slight taste of power, do we have to wonder what they will do with even more power? My fellow Nigerians, our leaders come from we the people; so, time has come for us to start demanding better from each other be it in our offices, schools, streets.
Lawlessness shouldn’t be condoned. Neither should greed, unprofessionalism and mediocrity. If we the people become better, we will never settle for leaders that have no real grasp of what leadership entails.
Let us start with this coming Saturday as we go out to vote in a new or old set of people in power. Let’s call out things that will compromise the process of a free and fair election. Let’s be orderly when placing our votes.
Finally, let’s be selfless with our choices. It is my greatest desire that this year’s elections will be devoid of any violence, smooth, free and fair.