Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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  • Social Development

The importance of moral goodness for nation-building 09 Nov 2023

Lynchings are commonplace in modern Nigeria. It is not unusual to drive through a city, town, or village anywhere in the country and find either a mob about to kill someone who they believe is guilty of a crime or the smouldering remains of a corpse by the roadside. The history of Nigeria is littered with countless victims of mob justice. Llody Toku, Ugonna Obuzor, Chiadika Biringa, and Tekena Elkanah were four University of Port Harcourt students who were extrajudicially killed by a vigilante group in Aluu, a community close to the university, back in 2012. Last year, Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, was lynched for alleged blasphemy. Perpetrators of these illegal acts of capital punishment appear to move on with their own lives without any scruples of conscience.
Having a disposition to dispense with human life and feeling comfortable doing so appears to be an aberration from moral intuitions. A growing body of research has shown that humans have a moral core or an innate ability to distinguish between good and evil, and right and wrong. Researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Centre, also known as The Baby Lab, have conducted studies showing that babies have a basic understanding of morality. Their research also shows parents and society can influence the belief system in babies, for better or worse.
Generally, the evidence indicates that a strong moral core is associated with a firm belief in honesty, fairness, and justice. Empathy, compassion, and respect are also vital human moral core values. But the fact that morality, while being inborn and universal, is not an inevitable human trait makes it necessary for individuals to develop and harness it for the good of society. For all intents and purposes, when people are fair, honest, and respectful to each other, they enjoy stronger cohesion and trust in their relationships. And there is less pain and hurt.
Much of the modern world's political philosophy and the idea of social justice can be traced back to Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived over 2,400 years ago. Plato's four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – are considered by philosophers as the foundation of natural or human morality. In other words, this fourfold spectrum of virtue is the definition of moral goodness.
Aristotle, the famous student of Plato, defined prudence as "right reason applied to practice.” This is the moral habit that entails judging correctly what the right or wrong action is in any given situation. Justice, as a cardinal virtue, inclines a person to doing the right thing. Fortitude, sometimes referred to as courage, is simply the virtue that furnishes an individual with the ability to do what is prudent and just. Temperance is the virtue that helps to keep our impulses and primal appetites in check. This virtue tells us that the imperative of achieving the greater good for society is far more important than our individual desires and biases and can help guide our moral decision-making.
Nigerians often argue that the lynch mobs who go about drenching their compatriots with petrol and setting them alight, while filming with their phones for good measure, do so because they have lost faith in law enforcement agencies and legal institutions. Indeed, faith in institutions has been at a very low point for a long time. Three years after #EndSARS – the non-violent protests that spread across the country in October 2020 to seek an end to police brutality – mistrust of law enforcement in the country remains. In a sad irony, #EndSARS tragically ended after members of the Nigerian Army allegedly shot some protesters at the Lekki Toll Plaza and in Alausa, both in Lagos. There is still no justice for the victims.   
The judgement of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on 26 October 2023, affirming the victory of President Bola Tinubu in this year's presidential election may have irreparably damaged the already sunken trust in the judiciary among millions of Nigerians, especially the youth. Many are aggrieved at the outcome of the 25 February election due to the many irregularities that took place as well as the Independent National Electoral Commission's failure to electronically transmit results from polling units to a central online portal as it had promised to do before the election.
The depleted public trust in Nigeria is emblematic of moral leadership failure. The mother whose daughter or son was tortured and killed by a mob red in tooth and claw would never shake off the feeling that the state failed to protect her child. The people who feel their right to vote was undermined by government institutions in 2023 might not bother going to the poll the next time there is an election. In Nigeria, moral sensitivity of public officials to the worsening plight of millions of poor Nigerians seems blunted. A case in point is the blithe disregard by the National Assembly for the feelings of Nigerians who have cried out about the government's plan to procure brand new Toyota SUVs for 469 federal lawmakers. These lawmakers are hardly making all possible efforts to address the economic hardship and insecurity their constituencies are facing.
Moral leaders lead with moral authority. They are fair, empathetic, compassionate, and honest. They are also truthful and do not stay silent when crimes are being committed against their people. Moral leaders show regard for the rights and dignity of their people, and they demonstrate accountability and strong commitment to the social contract. The absence of moral leadership in Nigeria has left a moral vacuum and resulted in the breakdown of social trust.
It might seem fallacious asserting there is a moral vacuum in Nigeria, given that majority of the people are either Christian or Muslim. But David Brooks writes that "Mere religious faith doesn’t always make people morally good, but living in a community, orienting your heart toward some transcendent love, basing your value system on concern for the underserved — those things tend to." When churches and mosques valorise corrupt politicians above ordinary members, then there is a poverty of morality in such faith-based communities. When many Nigerian religious leaders fail to condemn electoral malpractices, then one would be stretching the truth by saying such leaders are seriously committed to social justice.  
Writing in the September edition of the Atlantic magazine, Brooks says, "If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism." He was writing about the hyper-politicisation in the American society. But he could pretty much be writing about Nigeria where partisanship and tribalism have recently destroyed many longstanding friendships. Put in a different way, loyalty to a political tribe has been elevated above any basic attribute of moral goodness.
Social media platforms, especially X and Facebook, are great places for battling wits and expressing moral outrage against social injustice. Indeed, many people are doing these. But the platforms have recently become battlegrounds for casting slurs on political opponents or anyone who disagrees with someone's viewpoint. The breakdown in social relationships as seen on social media is eroding people's ability to be fair and decent towards one another – the very foundation of social trust.
Nigerian youth on social media have a clear sense of justice. Through admirable courage, they are justifiably fighting a good cause to ensure they have a better future – one that is not guaranteed by the older generation and the elite who have failed in their leadership obligations. While this fight must continue, it must be done with tact and considerable restraint in the face of provocation. One will implore the youth to continue using every space and wit they possess to seek Nigeria’s progress. But they need to do this by being fair even to those who want to ensure the youth should only be seen but not heard.
Even if the youth refuse to see eye to eye with the current government and their blinkered compatriots, they can still try to have honest conversations and strive to be good neighbours and good friends as much as possible, while building trust, which is an essential ingredient for building a nation. “We must either learn to live together as brothers,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said in one of his seminal sermons, “or we are all going to perish together as fools.”
Despite our biases, we can still be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of others and seek to protect them, rather than exploit them. We would have a better Nigerian society if we could show more kindness and generosity to other people beyond our clan and tribe, recognising their needs and feelings and seeking ways to support them. In the end, it is by appealing to our moral sense or the “better angels of our nature” – to quote Abraham Lincoln – that we can be truly human.
Nigeria stands at a crucial moment in our history. Millions of Nigerians are yearning for a more politically positive and economically productive environment. It has become much more pressing than ever before to develop a moral vision and values that will guide the country for the rest of the 21st century. As the world rapidly changes, it is becoming more uncertain and complex. The kind of leadership that is required for such a time as this is one that promotes unity and inclusivity.
Hence, public officials, business owners, religious leaders, and schools in Nigeria must arise with moral compasses to uphold basic principles of fairness, equality, justice, and respect for the dignity and freedoms of citizens. We need leaders who would promote dialogue for the good of everyone in the country, not only for a few. It is possible that many of our moral ills would be corrected by having leaders with better moral decision-making ability as well as citizens with a sense of civic duty and ethical values.

Martins Hile is a sustainability strategist and editorial consultant.