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Values and a nation in troubled times

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Segun Gbadegesin

In the last few weeks, I have focused on the condition of the nation in these troubled times and the state of the institutions that are expected to make a difference. Two weeks ago, I highlighted politics. Last week, I examined religion. Today, I explore values in general, and morals in particular. How have our values contributed to the state of the nation?

The Holy Bible teaches that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The Holy Koran identifies the characteristics of righteousness: “believing in God …giving wealth….freeing slaves….obligatory charity…fulfilling promises…patience in poverty and ailment…..it is those who are the righteous.” Our traditional spiritual resources are not far behind as an Odu Ifa proclaims: “Be truthful and be of good conduct because the divinities support the truthful.”

Of course, I am not suggesting that our moral values come only from the Holy Books of our various faiths. Neither am I suggesting that only the faithful could be morally virtuous. We have numerous examples of individuals who have been moral exemplars without being religious. And there are many morally bankrupt leaders and followers in all faiths. Indeed, it is undeniable that some of our troubles as a nation are not unconnected with unabashed hypocrisy in high places as we operate bifurcated and contradictory modes of living inside and outside the church and mosque.

What values do we hold dear traditionally and how have we evolved over the years? I think it is fair to observe that traditionally, we hold a potpourri of values and we hardly make a distinction between religious, cultural, and moral values because we see them as mutually supportive. Yet, it is useful to separate them. For instance, one of our cultural values is having many children. But traditionally having many children is useful because our ancestors placed instrumental value on them as sources of farm labor. That is, of course, seeing children as mere means to parents’ end of affluence. And when times change and western education became an important asset, having many children became a burden. Yet, many parents still held on to traditional cultural value with serious social and moral consequences for them and society.

Religiously, we see Babalawos, Pastors, and Imams as representative of our various Supreme beings on earth. They minister to our spiritual needs and we are to follow their lead. But they are as human as we are, subject to human emotions and proclivities. Thus, when they let their emotions get the best of them, are we still supposed to follow the conduct they model at such times when they succumb to the dictate of the flesh? This week, I watched briefly a video of a pastor cursing on the pulpit, threatening to kill anyone who insulted his father. I assume that because of the veneration we have for our elders, especially those who sire us, this may be understood culturally, even if not encouraged. But is it acceptable religiously or morally?

Moral values emanate from the moral life established by a moral tradition. Moral tradition is the customary way of life that establishes codes of conduct for a people and provides the guidance not just for individuals but also for associations and entrepreneurial organizations as they carry out their organizational goals and purposes. As I observed last week, this is how morality, law, and religion, function as institutions of social control. Every culture or society has these institutions and their success or failure is in direct proportion to the effectiveness of these institutions.

Omoluabi is the central and overriding moral concept in the Yoruba moral tradition with counterparts in other traditions. Since I have made some observations on this concept in previous submissions on this page, I would only remind readers of few salient points. First, the Yoruba, like every tradition, is invested heavily in the future of its culture. Therefore, it makes serious efforts to inculcate its values in indigenes to guarantee its survival. Children are brought up in the knowledge and practice of these values. The successful culmination of such efforts is a cultured and morally upright individual referred to as omoluabi, the epitome of good character.

Just as the youth are encouraged to be of good character, so are elders. We know, of course, that much as the effort is grounded in tradition, it doesn’t always end well. Thus, we have omokomo (youth of bad character) just as we have agbaiya (elders of abhorrent character). The goal of any society is to have a preponderance of youth and adults as omoluabi. Unfortunately, often, the reverse is the case and when society has a large proportion of omokomo and agbaiya, there is bound to be trouble, anxiety, and unrest.

Is this such a time in the nation? With all the crises going on and what the nation is going through, is it out of place to infer that the absence of omoluabi culture is the culprit? Notice, of course, that were this to be the case, such an inference would not have exonerated any one individual, group, or organisation. There is enough blame to go round, and rightly so.

Let us identify some of the entities in the tool box of the proverbial omoluabi. There is honesty or truthfulness. A professional colleague once remarked in a publication that Africans are generally dishonest people. I took serious offence because it overgeneralised. Recently, however, such generalised indictment is coming from within Africa herself in various forms, from drama videos to journalistic reports. Whether it’s the former or latter medium, they often reflect reality, cutting across groups and classes. And that is damning.

How about moderation? There is reason why tradition advises a farmer to cover up his big yam tuber. It is to prevent unnecessary envy that may lead to avoidable conflict. But we are now in an ostentatious mode of existence in which we open for the whole world to see our success as predators of a common patrimony. I watched, with sympathy for the pettiness of spirit, a former senator gleefully displaying his hundreds of wristwatches, numerous shoes, and gold-trimmed suitcases in a video. I have never seen a hard-working industrialist or businessperson who made his or her money in the traditional way flaunt such opulence for public consumption. But that is where we are as a nation.

Integrity is the capacity for consistency, the ability to follow through with promises voluntarily made, an essential quality for individuals as for groups, including political organizations. Our word should be our bond and promises made must be kept. Otherwise, society cannot operate because it would be difficult to function without the ability to rely on the words and pronouncements made by others.

Finally, an omoluabi is a selfless person with fire in the belly to do exploits for the community and make the supreme sacrifice if necessary. He or she doesn’t seek the good of the self ahead of the common good. He or she serves with a clear conscience.

We are such in dire straits because selfish greed has taken over the communal spirit and many citizens feel forsaken, abandoned, lied to, and taken for a ride. The omoluabi philosophy is under attack. Dishonesty and promise breaking are the new norm in politics. But a policy of dishonesty is simply counter-productive. We are witnesses to the reality that if a political party relies on a strategy of dishonesty and promise-breaking, it may have a temporary success, but it will ultimately lose big when its modus operandi is revealed.

Our republican system of government has taken over the role of traditional communities. In this system, political parties, like age-grade associations, moderate conduct and set national agenda. Therefore, they must be above board. Dwight D. Eisenhower was right: “If a political party does not have its foundation in a determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.” (my emphasis) Translation: politics is inherently a moral practice. Our national crisis is consequent upon how we have disconnected the two.

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