Over the course of the last few weeks, Nigerians have seen many politicians make open declarations of their intent to contest in the forthcoming general elections for the office of the President, and we know there will be more as 2023 draws closer. Today, we ask the all-important question: What would you consider when selecting the candidate of your choice – Character or Policy?
As it is common practice, some of us would want to see the intense debate over policy – what they intend to do or not do, why and how – with matters of personality pushed to the background. But personality can also be viewed as a character, and in some ways, character to me is more important than policy in choosing political leaders.
Candidates seeking political office naturally lay out their plans should they win the election. Those plans, which may derive from an ideology or from personal values, represent their public presentation of what they would do if they won office. An ideology is a broadly held system of beliefs – an identifiable intellectual movement with specific positions on a range of topics. Personal values are more idiosyncratic than those derived from an ideology, but both represent a desire to govern from principle and policy.
In many cases, the presentation of intentions has less to do with what candidates would actually do than it does with what they think will persuade the voters to vote for them. But such candidates, possessing personal ambition more than principle, would not be opposed to doing what they said, since it suited the public. They have no plans themself beyond remaining in office.
Then there are those who profoundly believe in their policies. They sincerely intend to govern based on what they have said. This is what many think elections ought to be about: ideas, policies, ideologies, and beliefs. Thus, in the case of the forthcoming general election, many of us are searching for what the candidates believe and asking whether they actually mean what they say.
It isn’t surprising that policy experts often decry the fact that the public frequently appears ignorant of and indifferent to the policies candidates stand for. Nigerian citizens can be driven by fatuous slogans or simply by their perception of the kind of person the candidates are. This “beauty pageant” approach to presidential and governorship elections infuriates ideologues and policy experts who believe that the election should not turn on matters as trivial as personality. They recognize the personal dimension of the campaign but deplore it as being a diversion from the real issues of the day.
But consider the relationships between intentions and outcomes in Nigerian presidencies. During the 2015 campaign, President Buhari made the case for tackling the high rate of insecurity and corruption as well as rebuilding the country’s economy which he believed previous administration – Obasanjo, Yar’adua, and Goodluck administration – failed to address or contributed to. There is every reason to believe that at the time candidates articulated their policies, they meant it and intended to follow it. What they believed and intended turned out to mean very little. Their presidency was determined not by what they intended to do but by something they did not expect nor plan for: The crash in the global price of crude oil, economic recession, covid-19, kidnapping, banditry, herders/farmers conflict, etc.
This is not unique to President Buhari. Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency, in terms of foreign policy, as defined by the ceding of Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon, Goodluck Jonathan by terrorism and insurgency in the North East. None of these presidents expected their presidency to be focused on these things, although perhaps they should have. And these were only the major themes. They had no policies, plans, or ideological guidelines for the hundreds of lesser issues and decisions that constitute the fabric of a presidency.
Frequently, candidates’ campaign policy papers seem to imply that they are simply in control of events. All too often, events control the candidates, defining his agenda and limiting his choices. Sometimes, as with the Covid-19 or Kidnapping and Banditry, it is a matter of the unexpected redefining the presidency. In other cases, it is the unintended and unexpected consequences of a policy that redefine what the presidency is about. Jonathan’s presidency is perhaps the best-case study for this: His policy or approach toward curbing terrorism and insurgency grew far beyond what he anticipated and overwhelmed his intentions for his time in office. No Nigerian president has had a clearer set of policy intentions, none was more initially successful in adhering to those intentions and few have so quickly lost control of the presidency when unintended consequences took over.
Machiavelli argues in The Prince that political life is divided between Fortuna, the unexpected event that must be dealt with, and virtu, not the virtue of the religious – the virtue of abstinence from sin – but rather the virtue of the cunning man who knows how to deal with the unexpected. None can deal with Fortuna completely, but some can control, shape, and mitigate it. These are the best princes. The worst are simply overwhelmed by the unexpected.
Nigerians who are concerned with policies assume two things. The first is that the political landscape is benign and will allow the leader the time to do what he or she wishes. The second is that should the terrain shift, the leader will have time to plan, to think through what ought to be done. Ideally, that would be the case, but frequently the unexpected must be dealt with in its own time frame. Crises frequently force a leader to go in directions other than he planned to or even opposite to what he wanted.
Policies – and ideology – are testaments to what aspiring leaders wish to do. Fortune determines the degree to which they will get to do it. If they want to pursue their policies, their political virtue – understood as cunning, will, and the ability to cope with the unexpected – are far better indicators of what will happen under a leader than his intentions.
Policies and ideology are, in my view, the wrong place for Nigerians to evaluate an aspiring candidate. First, the cunning candidate is the one least likely to take his policy statements and ideology seriously. He or she is saying what he or she thinks he or she needs to say in order to be elected. Second, the likelihood that he or she will get the opportunity to pursue his or her policies – that they are anything more than a wish list casually attached to reality – is low. Whether or not Nigerian voters agree with aspiring candidates’ ideology and policies, it is unlikely that the candidate-turned-leader will have the opportunity to pursue them.
Some leaders may want to focus on domestic, not foreign policy when they get into office. Fortune may tell them that they are not going to get that choice, and the beliefs they had about foreign policy – such as nation-building – were irrelevant. Some may want to focus on positioning the country as a regional power but be overwhelmed by domestic challenges that need all their attention. In the end, their presidencies would or may resemble their campaign policies only incidentally. There will be no connection, neither would things go as they expected.
When Hillary Clinton was competing with Obama for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination, she ran a television commercial depicting a 3 a.m. phone call to the White House about an unexpected foreign crisis. They claim Clinton was making was that Obama did not have the experience to answer the phone. Whether the charge was valid or not is the voter’s responsibility to answer. However, implicit in the ad was an important point, which was that the character of a candidate was more important than his policy position. When woken in the middle of the night by a crisis, policies are irrelevant. Character is everything.
I will make no serious effort to define character, but to me, it comprises the ability to dissect a problem with extreme speed, to make a decision and live with it, and to have principles (as opposed to policies) that cannot be violated but a cold-blooded will to do his duty in the face of those principles. For me, the character is the competition within a leader who both wants power and wants something more.
If this is vague and contradictory, it is not because I haven’t thought about it. Rather, of all of the political issues, there is the nature of the character, and how to recognize it is least clear. It is like love: inescapable when you encounter it, fragile over time, indispensable for fully human life. Recognizing character in a leader would appear to be the fundamental responsibility of a voter.
The idea that you should vote for a leader based on his policy intentions is, I think, inherently flawed. Fortune moots the most deeply held policies and the finest leader may not reveal his intentions. For example, Lincoln hid his intentions on slavery during his1860 campaign. German Chancellor Angela Merkel never imagined the crisis she is faced when she ran for office. Intentions are hard to discern and rarely determine what will happen.
The issues that George W. Bush and Barack Obama had to deal with as US president were not the ones they expected. Therefore, paying attention to their intentions told American voters little about what either would do. That was a matter of character, of facing the unexpected by reaching into his soul to find the strength and wisdom to do what must be done and abandon what he thought he would be doing. The grace and resolution with which a leader does this define him.
I think that those who obsess over policies and ideologies are not wrong, but they will always be disappointed. They will always be let down by the candidate they supported – and the greater their initial excitement, the deeper their inevitable disappointment. It is necessary to realize that a leader of any sort cannot win through policy and ideology, and certainly not govern through them unless he is extraordinarily fortunate. Few are. Most leaders govern as they must, and identifying leaders who know what they must do is essential.
As to the question of who has the greatest character among candidates who have so far declared their intent to occupy key political offices in 2023, I have no greater expertise than any of you (my readers). There is no major in character at any university, nor a section on the character in newspapers. The truth of democracy is that on this matter, none of us is wiser than any other.
Whether character or policy, just remember to choose wisely. 2023 is a defining year for all of us.