SEVICS people-3104635_1280 Is common good, good for everyone? Talk Africa

Is common good, good for everyone?

In 1965 my father who was also Michael Ukwuma gained admission into the University of Nigeria Nsukka. It was the proudest moment of his life. He had dreams of completing his studies in Business Administration by 1970. What young Michael did not know was that he will not be graduating from the University in 1970. In fact, he will be leaving the ranks of the Biafran Army as a Captain and will be nursing the hopes of returning to the University if he survived the killing spree by the Nigerian Army in their newly conquered territory. School years were not all he lost. While he and his three brothers were fighting, their only sister, my only paternal aunty was lost in the war. No one knows what became of her to date. They never spoke about it. There are no pictures of her. I don’t even know her name. This is part of our stories and lives. We are not alone. Many Nigerians have similar stories. If you are Nigerian, you might also have a similar story too. Do you? 

You see, this piece is inspired by an argument I had on Twitter earlier. I made a post that some Nigerians would find offensive and a well-meaning Nigerian tried to set me straight but we ended up in a chat that lasted the whole day. The bone of contention was the rationale for the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967 – 1970). While we both agreed that it was a needless war, this person felt that all sides should forget it ever happened and move on. On my part, I believe that the war was undue aggression against the Igbo people who only wanted to live free and determine their own destinies. The war set the Igbo people back many years and over three million people dead. Men, women and children starved to death because the Nigerian government cut off food supplies to the Biafrans. Besides, it was war and whatever it took to win was justified. The Nigerian President at the time, Yakubu Gowon believed he did the right thing in the name of the ‘common good.

SEVICS Biafra-1024x538-1 Is common good, good for everyone? Talk Africa
Some common literature on the Biafran War

Leaders at different levels, be it in public offices, the private sector and even nonprofits, often act based on the common good. The assumption is usually that the common good benefits everyone. It is supposed to make everyone happy and enjoy a fulfilled life. On the one hand, this may seem very applaudable, but on the other hand, does everyone concerned benefit equally from the common good? Maybe the better question is, is everyone concerned even a beneficiary of the common good? If you find these questions either thought-provoking or at least perplexing, then walk with me, while we explore why there may be no such thing as the common good.

To make leadership easy, it became important to meet the needs of as many people as possible. Or if we are being honest, leaders often find a way to keep enough people happy to stay in office. No one loves an uprising when they are the target. So that makes a bit of sense if you tried being in the leader’s shoes for a moment. It is a bit of a fix because the promise of leadership is to cater to the needs of everyone in the community, despite knowing that that is a task most people will fail at. People are insatiable and their needs remain dynamic and cannot often be solved. Technically, every solution will give rise to new problems. Therefore, in some sense, leadership is a rat race. It is important that we establish this background before delving into the intricacies of the common good and why it is such a daunting task for any government in the world to accomplish. In this piece, we will explore what the common good is based on the perspectives of the leader and those of the people. Then we shall explore some common mistakes leaders make in trying to work for the people and finally conclude with likely solutions. 

So What is ‘Common Good’?

The “common good” refers to those facilities—whether material, cultural or institutional—that the members of a community provide to all members in order to fulfil a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I am not a fan of flowery definitions and so here’s how I understand the common good. It usually is an agenda that benefits everyone. That is as idealistic as it gets. The thought that leadership decisions can indeed benefit everyone and somehow either solve their problems or make them happy is admirable. The best way to describe the common good is from an individualistic perspective. That seems odd, doesn’t it? But I believe that the human mindset centres on what it needs. Therefore common good must, first of all, benefit ‘me’, that is, the individual who makes the decisions. In my Nigerian context, never have I witnessed a political leader make a decision that did not favour them. On a lighter note, just before Nigeria’s current President Muhamadu Buhari signs the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill into law, he quickly says to the advocates who pioneered the initiative; “don’t run in the next election, wait till I complete my second term, then you can run”. That was not a direct quote but I am sure you get the gist. My point really is that the ‘common good’ is often soiled by personal interests, party interests and other sub-interests that may not reflect what all the people concerned truly need. Common Good is an ideal. If it works society benefits but that rarely ever happens because of perspectives.

SEVICS not-too-young-to-run-bill Is common good, good for everyone? Talk Africa
President Buhari Signing the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill

A Leader’s Perspective on ‘Common Good’

For most leaders, the common good like beauty depends on the eyes of the beholder. What a leader sees determines what he considers as common and good. For instance, in a very diverse (or maybe we call it what it truly is, a tribalised) country like Nigeria, leaders may see things from their tribal context. In a video that is available on YouTube the Premiere of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello explains the concept of the Northernization Policy. This was a fantastic policy to give a comparative advantage to the North to ensure parity in development between the Northern and Southern Regions of Nigeria. Nothing bad about that except when you consider that he would rather hire a foreigner rather than hire a Nigerian who is not a Northern begins to question the place of the common good of Nigerians in the policy. Such mindsets that put religion and tribe over national values are questionable. 

Do leaders approach the common good from a biased angle or are they able to form their perspectives to understand the national context at every given time and on every given issue? After writing the above line, I realised that this may be farfetched for many Nigerian leaders. Leaders within and out of the political spaces often prioritize personal aggrandizement as the primary goal of their positions. Little wonder, they look to leadership as children in a queue in a playground who must take turns to ride a prize swing. It is not uncommon to hear them scream “it’s my turn” or as we have learnt to say in Nigeria “Emi lokan”! When a leader wakes up in the morning, does he see the people he rules or does he see the subset from which he emerged? It is easy to say one or the other, but in their practice of governance, what do we see?

People’s Perspective on ‘Common Good’

In the minds of the people, leaders exist to care for them. They believe that the government should know and cater for their needs including the simplest ones. It has been known for Nigerians to blame the president for everything and here are a few examples:

SEVICS Ill-continue-to-blame-past-governments-for-Nigerias-woes-Buhari Is common good, good for everyone? Talk Africa

The list is endless and Buhari has said severally that it is unfair to blame him for everything that’s bad. The way I see it is, they are right. The people are right. Leaders promise all sorts of things, anything but heaven itself. The people bring in leaders to be problem solvers. So if the solutions proposed by the government of the day do not solve my problems, I can claim that the common good has not been achieved. 

Back to my Biafran story. If the Biafran people wanted to get a free state so that their people can be safe from attacks by their neighbours; the common good for them would mean safety either in Nigeria where no one is afraid of the Igbo person’s aspirations or a free independent Biafra. The Aburi Accord would have given them safety within Nigeria. But when the Nigerian government led by Yakubu Gowon chose to jettison the Accord the rest is history.

Common Mistakes Leaders Make in working for ‘Common Good’

It is not uncommon that many leaders have self-serving intents as they walk the corridors of power. They always claim that the people called them to lead. Forgive my scepticism when I think that they deliberately act out a beautifully made con script to make us believe that we chose them. Most times, they choose themselves. That I think is the first common mistake. Leaders should be organic. If the people don’t want you, don’t impose! In the long run, such leaders don’t see beyond their noses and will always fail to meet the expectations of the people.

The second common mistake I see is the assumption that representative governance is good enough. It isn’t and will never be. Here’s why. There are a hundred and nine individuals in Nigeria’s senate making laws for two hundred million people. Forgive the bad math but on average, each senator represents about one million eight hundred people. Most times, only the loudest voices will be heard, at most, the top ten per cent of the people. The rest have no representation. Remember where we started. The common good has individualized implications. Hence, the government is merely catering to the needs of the top one per cent and as you probably guessed; their needs are not the same as the bottom fifty per cent of Nigerians. Now you see why basic needs are not the government’s priority.

Thirdly, a lot of times, leaders like to sweep things under the carpet rather than address them. I will use a couple of controversial groups; the LGBTQ community in Nigeria and the IPOB. The government’s strategy is to proscribe them rather than listen or attempt to give them a seat on the table. The same approach made the Biafran war happen. Wishing what leaders perceive as a problem away is not a solution. Truth is that they are still Nigerians even if we choose to ignore them. For groups such as these, whatever the government did without meeting their demands to some extent would not be considered good enough.

Finally and for the sake of keeping this piece simple, a fourth common mistake is imagining that leaders deserve admiration and appreciation for being leaders. The common good is not a reward that people enjoy for being appreciative. It is easy to single out bad governance because it is often surrounded by praise singing, unwarranted pomp and pageantry. Many developing countries have this and 

Getting Common Good Right

For starters, no one knows it all. Not even the greatest leader ever. Therefore, the leader must talk to the people. Listen to them. Discover what they truly want and need. That means leaving the presidential palace and driving into the hinterlands and talking to the poorest people. You might have imagined that I will have so much to say in this section, but you might be wrong. I will stop here. Any leader who does not listen to the people, not their advisers or those around them but also those who would not talk to them, is not setting themselves up for success.

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