Politics of Power and the Moral Imperative in Authority

Professor Akinyemi Onigbinde

By Akinyemi Onigbinde


Let us take off from the standpoint of offering a conceptual clarification by way of making a distinction between power and authority. It is important to offer a peg for our discussion in a forum, as this, crowded with men of authority, lest they are perceived to be people with power, even if their brand of power, a phenomenon they share with others with a less desirable pedigree, is deemed the same and equivalent. I shall explain. For example, drivers of articulated vehicles, otherwise called ‘trailers’, also wield enormous power on rickety roads network that is more of death traps than commuters’ links to their different destinations. Yet, assassins, hired, or self-sent, also exercise power, sometimes far greater than that of Mr President. Let us not ignore the power of office assistants who ensure that the needed files of pensioners are not easily located until the ‘needful’ is done by hapless pensioners. And let me not forget the academics, so-called, who holds her female students to ransom in sex for grade illicit negotiation. All of the aforementioned are in the business of power. But those variants of power have no locus with authority, because power business, morally defined, is dejure authority, and not merely a defacto exercise which power, qua power, may appropriate.

When we speak of power in the arcane arena of politics, the state, and governance, we speak in the realm of moral authority to wield power, bestowed on those individuals, and this ought to be contradistinguished from other readily available sources of power.

To be clear, the idea of power, power, as physically deployed, is also applicable to the armed robber, or the band of bandits, just as we speak of the president of Nigeria having enormous power at his disposal, albeit for the benefit of Nigerians, even when the power to be deployed by the gang of armed robbers who come visiting, uninvited, at those deadly hours is for benefits of its members. Whilst the president ought to be responsible and accountable for the deployment of the least of his powers, the benefits of powers-in-use by armed robbers, or non-state actors, if we must talk of responsibility and/or accountability, at all, must be in a restricted form, as such benefits are appropriated for the benefits of its members, assuming they arrive at their duty post in partnership, and not as individual traders of misfortune in a captive market, where sorrow, tears and blood are the only articles of trade.


Power and Authority

In their interrelatedness, power and authority can be disjointedly discussed in the affairs of men in a community where politics, according to the United Kingdom Labour Party ideologue, the legendary author of The Grammar of Politics, Professor Harold Laski of the London School of Economics, is defined as the authoritative allocation of values. Of course, politics and political engagement in the form of contestation for power is imperative because country resources, both natural and human, required to provide sustenance for a community are either in short supply or not evenly distributed. Even when such resources are available needs, as different from human wants, both coming in ideological capsules, often collide in the social space, and power, encapsulated in authority, is needed to mediate in the mix of centripetal and centrifugal forces at play.

Whilst authority, as should be exercised in the sacred room of those with political powers, to be effective should have a moral imperativeness to it, power may be so-exercised without authority, as with armed robbers to whose command we obey in rather a prudential way –to stay alive, or avoid being wounded for being disobedient to the command of the man with power consolidated in a barrel of the gun. Yet, more often than not, people with authority who ought to derive their power from a collective moral compass come to contest the cesspit of odious behaviour with bandits in the way and manner power entrusted to their care for our collective benefits, as a community of men and women, under a sacred covenant, is wrongly deployed, in such an amoral way making you wonder if our VIPs are not vagabonds in power, as the legendary FelaAnikulapo-Kuti once suggested. Yes, an occupant of the Governor’s lodge can be likened to the village bully if, under the cover of his office, power is exercised without the need to account for his action, or inaction, to any institution, something not expected of the sacred office into which he is deemed to have been voted.

Almost daily, we read and hear of a Governor in one corner of the Nigeria geographical space ordering the arrest and detention of one internet user or the other, whose intervention in his administration policy options is considered offensive to him. And our security agencies, more eager to please the man of power, without responsibility, act in such dubious order with much frenzy. Truth is, effecting the arrest of a critic by our security agencies is more effective, in scope and form, than ensuring the salvation and safety of a household under the siege of armed robbers, for all of two hours in the Abule-Egba neighbourhood. These state men of power, adorned in the name of authority come fully armed against a man whose only weapon of offence is no more than the tyranny of the blank sheet, or the computer keyboard. And we are expected to ransom the freedom of such state captive by pleading for mercies, just as we pay to the demands of the bandits, the required amount for the freedom of the kidnapped ones.

Lest we forget, the reason why we draw a such comparison between the use of power by an occupant of an exalted office, and the use of the gun by the bandit is the lack of moral compass expected to be navigated by someone in a position of authority. For example, we do not expect any form of courtesies from an armed robber, or a group of kidnapping bandits.

But how did we come to the expectation that politics of power or power of political office holders must come in a velvet of morality when, indeed, all we find around us is a mini civil war – in the guise of seeking political power? Indeed, back in the 70s, Sam Aluko, a Professor of Economics at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, of blessed memory, defined politics as ‘a call to war against opponents’. Around us, we see the power in (mis)use by incumbent office holders, first in an intra-party power play as they compete for the public space, as in who represents their common political party in an inter-party contestation for power position in our common community. And such war gets escalated and become dagger-drawn when the contest shift to inter-party affairs. Let’s consider it a mere skirmishes when incumbent power-position holders, who are supposed to be trustees of our common patrimony suddenly become monopoly players in a market, deciding who gets what in what is entitled to each and all. You witness it, in disallowing spaces for the opposition to the campaign, even for pasting campaign posters and mounting billboards. Go around the states and verify, right from roads leading to the state capitals, all that you are confronted with are billboards and posters of respective incumbent governors, where ever and whenever they seek re-election. Then you ask yourself, are there no other political parties fielding candidates for the same general elections in these states. I am from Ogun State, from Ilepa, in Ifo Local Government Area, where I maintain a reasonable presence because my library is located there, and I operate, effectively, from where my collections of materials are. My family house is in Ibadan, Oyo state, and I am in Lagos every week for some professional or social engagements. So, when I speak of (mis)use of power, devoid of moral rectitude, by supposed men of authority, I assure you, I have ample evidence to draw from. And you may go and verify. You may wish to take, as your starting point, the entry point into Abeokuta from Sagamu Inter-Change, through the Kobape-Oke-Mosan road axis, and terminate your exit journey at the psychiatric hospital Aro. But if you have enough fuel to spare, you may wish to continue your verification exercise on (mis)use of authority by going up to Sango, through the Itori- Ewekoro-Ifo, and Ilepa road axis. But you may have to visit your automobile technician to fix your car for its misalignment of tyres. And this is assuming you did not lose a tyre between the Itori-Ewekoro- Papalanto axis of that war-like damaged road network. I guess our rulers, so-called men of authority, endowed with state power at different levels of government must hate  us, so much, as to have the conscience to leave us to suffer as we commute on that axis

Whilst democratic manifestation is denoted by  the regularity of elections, as we have it in Nigeria, since 1999, the reality is that electoral process, to the extent that elections involve a set of activities, leading to the (se)election of one or more persons, out of many to serve in positions of authority in the society,(has largely been subverted. What gives credibility to the process and legitimacy to the elected persons is that the election is conducted according to all constitutional and legal dictates, and hence adjudged free and fair, even by contestants. Accordingly, a political system is democratic if its most powerful collective decision-makers are chosen through fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes. For an election to be credible, it must be competitive. That is, the candidates involved must be given equal opportunity. This implies that there must be no attempt to marginalize any candidate. The point is, competition ensures the legitimacy of decisions taken by the elected representatives. To the extent that incumbent administrations in the states shut out opposition parties out of the public space, and refuse to allow opposition candidates from using public facilities to canvas for votes, whatever elections that take place are deemed not credible, and so-called elected representatives cannot be regarded, as legitimate because the process is not fair and just to all.

Morality As Categorical Imperative

Let us, at this juncture, enter a caveat. We are enjoined to be moral in our political engagement with power and authority, either as leaders or as citizen–followers, or be guided in our activities in social society, not because we are good Christians or good Muslims, or because we are adherents of some religious faiths whose precepts we are supposed to obey by acting good. Yet, whilst we are compelled and obliged to serve the common good, as outlined in the article of faith that binds us together, with fellow citizens of our common political constituency, called the constitution, there is, indeed, a more fundamental obligation for us, as rulers, and as citizens of a country to obey the laws from the hands of the sovereign. The point to be made is that when we obey the sovereign, we obey ourselves because we are the sovereign. It is a misnomer, and not readily right or just, to obey the laws of the land on a prudential ground, that is, for fear of being punished for disobedience, and this precisely is the basis why most men obey the laws. Witness the habitual transporters who beat the red light injunction when no enforcement officer is watching. This set of road users obey the laws because they are afraid of the punishment that accompanies disobedience. Thus, if they obey, while the enforcement officer is present, their action is not morally justified, but purely legal and prudential.

The only rational basis to obey laws and exercise power, in a political environment, is on moral grounds because it is the basis and the foundation of human society.

Politics, and the quest for political power, when granted, ought to come in the moral package because the very beginning of civil society, with all the endowed authority to the ruler, is at the benevolence of moral agents, the citizens, who graciously surrendered their ‘natural right’, as divinely granted by providence in the ‘state of nature’, under the terms and conditions of ‘social contract’. To be clear, historically, there was never a ‘state of nature’, so-called, either in Thomas Hobbes or John Locke adaptations. The ‘state of nature’ is a philosopher hypothetical construct to rationalize the power of the state over the citizens, presumed free, in what Jean Jacques Rousseau once lamented as ‘free’ from birth, ‘but in chains’.

As he puts it in his famous opening statement of his book “Social Contract: ‘Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chain’. Yet, for the social contractarian of political obligation, ‘people could only experience true freedom if they live in a civil society that ensures the rights and wellbeing of its citizens’.Whilst political scientists may explain to us, deploying empirical validation in different statutes, codices, conventions, protocols and kingsly, pronouncements, decrees of tyrants and, of course, in today’s constitutions of Republics, they fail to explain to us the very foundation of the state from where the laws to bind citizens has come forth, philosophers are not content to take for granted the powers of presidents, as often explained in constitutions, or acts of parliaments. There must be something more fundamental to explain all of this contraption called the state. The main task of political philosophy, as different from political science, therefore, has been the reconciliation of the autonomy of the sovereign and the authority of the citizens, to the extent that the citizen obeys himself when he obeys the laws of the land.  He acts morally by not undoing what he voluntarily agreed to do at the beginning of time, whilst he subsisted in the ‘state of nature’, endure with a ‘natural right’ to do as he was pleased to act.

Let us explain this. In Hobbes ‘state of nature’, where life is deemed ‘solitary, brutish, nasty and short’, men existed with their ‘natural right’, with each, and all possessing rights over everything, with no one having a claim to anything, as personal belongings. Things are held on to, temporarily. Not even the strongest could hope to hold on to all he was able to muscle to himself. The point is, whilst an individual may be the strongest, such may not necessarily confer an advantage, as he may not be the most intelligent, or the cunningest in his environment. To that extent, others, deploying their endowed intelligence, may decide to combine efforts to outwit the strongest. In this unstable situation, no one is safe, not even the strongest, as alliances continued to change, depending on situations and circumstances. Under this unstable and unsafe template, and, because men in the ‘state of nature’ were rational, they were able to reason and recognize the need to create a society in which a common authority would be able to adjudicate amongst contending needs. And to do this there was the need for each and all to ‘surrender’ their ‘natural rights’ to the Leviathan who necessarily holds power in trust. One major lapse in the ‘state of nature’ was the absence of security for the life of the individual, hence one major responsibility of the Leviathan (the state) is the protection of the life and property of those within the social space of the state. Yet, despite the individual resolve to surrender their ‘natural rights’ to the Leviathan, a common authority, the right to self-protection is preserved in the individual. Thus, a state that cannot protect its residents cease to enjoy the obedience of the constituents, and should be subverted as it could no longer claim the name of the state, and submission to such authority amounts to slavery.

To be clear, Aristotle the ancient Greek philosopher has long anticipated the prognosis of the ‘social contract’ theory, as espoused in the 17th century different works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. In Aristotle, we find an inseparable relationship between morality and politics. Outlining what such a relationship entails was his sole preoccupation with Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle conceives ethics and politics as practical sciences that deal with human beings as moral agents. Ethics is concerned with individual moral action, while politics is concerned with human actions in the political community. What this suggests is that the task of politics is much more than the acquisition of political power, or even the provision of what is necessary for the life of the community. The well-being of the community is not confined to economic security and internal peace. On the contrary, the primary task of politics, according to Aristotle, is to care for citizens’ acquisition of knowledge and their moral conditioning. Politics then becomes an application on a large scale of what ethics should do in the life of an individual, that is, institute and teach action that will bring happiness, and the teaching of those actions lies squarely with the man in authority, through his/her actions, and of course, through the quality of legislation. A situation where men in authority assume such exalted positions, through foul means, and continue to espouse and act in ways that only engender retention of power by subverting the legitimacy of power, does not augur well for the polity, and the moral foundation of the community is weakened.

The point to be made, in all of this, is that obedience to power, as an authority, is considered a moral act, not merely legal, as constitutionally provisioned, because when man obeys the laws of the state, the Leviathan, man necessarily obeys himself as an exercise of freedom, and this is because he has voluntarily agreed, with others, to quit the ‘state of nature’ where existence was deemed precarious to the realization of his potentiality as a moral agent. Thus, to disobey the laws of constituted authority is to disobey himself, and presumptuously act immorally.

The Leviathan, the inheritor of all this moral obligation of individual natural rights, in the ‘state of nature’, is under a moral obligation to act justly, as failing to act in line with moral rectitude subverts the essence of its being, its creation from potential chaos and a state of anarchy, negatively understood, even if philosophically illiterate. Philosophically, a state of anarchy means freedom, and an anarchist is not a lawless person, but a seeker and defender of freedom and a free society. And the people so badly governed are under a moral obligation to reclaim their voluntarily abdicated rights to a trustee that has become untrustworthy of their individual and collective confidence. Such reclamation projects, as we have historically witnessed in the annals of time and clime, often come in civil disobedience, or through outright revolt to change the course of history.  And they remain potent to date.


The Essence of Omoluwabi and the Politics of Fiwagbayi of Egbaland

Let us, in closing, return to the anchor point of this commemorative lecture. The Yoruba concept of Omoluwabi is a correlate of Aristotle’s person of character. My position here is that the Omoluwabi ethos can be mined for an understanding of the character dynamics that is necessary for democracy to flourish through its public officeholders and power-seekers in Nigeria’s political space. In Yoruba culture, Omoluwabi is not the name of any specific person, but rather a concept that possesses both normative and descriptive content. As a description, Omoluwabi denotes an individual who has acquired a moral status that could qualify him as being virtuous. As can be generally submitted, the character is the result of being habituated in what is good and noble, thus, the essence of anOmoluwabi derives from being habitually moral. It is not an appellation one can unilaterally give to oneself. It is conferred by others in society who recognizes a person as a morally upright person. Omoluwabi is the ‘morally’ upright person who exhibits such virtues as honesty, respect (for himself, and others in general), decency, benevolence, etc.  From another perspective, Omoluwabi is someone who is thoroughly bred and is regarded as worthy of being entrusted with positions of responsibility.  An Omoluwabi is integrity personified

As a normative concept, it serves as the standard of acceptable moral behaviour. That is, it determines the boundaries of what is moral (Iwa rere) and what is not moral (Iwa buburu). According to some scholars, the concept of Omoluwabi is the bedrock of ethics in Yoruba cultural society. It is, for her, a significant concept that articulates the good habits people should acquire and the duties they should uphold. In other words, it encompasses all the ethical values expected of a person as a worthy member of society.

An Omoluwabi is not a person whose family history, lineage and life progression, with landmarks, are shrouded in some mystery. The life and history of an Omoluwabi must be an open book for all to read and interrogate, and explanations freely offered on observed lapses in character trait.

To be regarded as an Omoluwabi in Yoruba cultural society, you would not have been associated with dubious activities, either as an individual, in the company of others in your private life, or as a public person. Thus, it is a contradiction in terms to call a liar or corrupt person an Omoluwabi. It is akin to saying there is a married bachelor.

In traditional Yoruba society, character (Iwa) constitutes an indispensable part of social existence, peace and order, and formed a part of the qualities that a Yoruba person must possess before he or she can be reckoned with in the community. Like other traditional societies in the world, the Yoruba have unwritten codes of conduct which are meant to circumscribe proper attitude and behaviour. Accordingly, Iwa, as morality, is the unwritten constitution for the everyday running of the public and private affairs of the Yoruba nation and her people.  The Yoruba would say, for instance, Iwa l’ewa (Character is beauty) or Iwa l’eso eniyan (Character beautifies a person). What this shows is that if you have everything and you lack Iwa, you are considered not adorned, and not beautiful to behold.

Yoruba believes that Iwa is the daughter of Suuru (Patience). In other words, it is patience that produces good character. As some scholars have suggested, Suuru is the source of Iwa pele and Iwa rere. For those scholars, a demonstration of Iwa pele is seen in being mindful of the individuality of others. Operationalizing the Omoluwabi ethos in Nigerian politics would begin with the recognition of the place of morality in politics. As we have suggested elsewhere in this lecture, Nigerian politics is zero-sum because it is amoral. The jostle for political power is akin to a declaration of war against opponents.

Here in this hallowed chamber, before these eminent personalities, real players of Nigeria’s power politics and distinguished guests, beneficiaries and victims of Nigeria’s amoral politics, where power is often deployed without responsibility and with less accountability we are here gather to honour the life of Fiwagbayi, a quintessential Omoluwabi whose brand of politics is seen and described by all as contradistinguished from the ‘standard way’, so much that, either in praise or otherwise, he is regarded as a ‘Christian politician’.Of course, those of us who have had a ringside seat at the political battlefield of Ogun politics say it and affirm it, with all sense of responsibility, that our celebrant is so-regarded, as a ‘Christian Politician’ because, even ‘sinners’, those who would not play by the rules of engagement, amongst fellow politicians, are conscious enough that Chief OlajojuFadairo, the Fiwagbayi of Egbaland, keep as much as possible to the radar of morality in politics. I do not know when he got involved in politics, and how he played in his short romance with retail politics of the soap box, seeking elective office(s), but I attest to it, and without fear of contradiction that politics for Fiwagbayi, whose ancestors migrated from Eeri Oba to Ibogun-Somi in Ifo Local government Area in Ogun State, is not a do-or-die affair. And, as Bolaji Labanji, the distinguished newspaper manager and ace columnist says, his conscience is never for sale. Indeed, in our celebrant all the variants of Yoruba character traits, as found in Omoluwabi, are richly accommodated.

But enough said I thank you, all for your attention.


-Akinyemi Onigbinde

Being the text of a lecture in commemoration of the 80th birthday anniversary of Chief OlajojuFadairo, the Fiwagbayi of Egbaland on December 21, 2022, at Abeokuta Club, Abeokuta, Ogun State.