When loyalty becomes a dirty word

When loyalty becomes a dirty word

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Loyalty has become a defining characteristic in the ongoing All Progressives Congress presidential primaries. Not to be outdone, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party has wrestled with its own loyalty blues of late, considering the spate of damaging defections by some of its prominent governors to the APC: Ben Ayade (Cross River), Dave Umahi (Ebonyi) and Bello Matawalle (Zamfara). “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it,” so says the American literary icon, Mark Twain. Besides loyalty to the country, then, is everything else fair game in politics? Is loyalty to the godfather, the aspirant, the candidate, the governor, or whomsoever, always conditional upon some other factor panning out? Is there an honourable way to betray a loyalty? More, is there even a duty to betray loyalty to a person on moral grounds? Or, more pointedly, do you jettison loyalty to a person or party if it is in the interest of your country? In the ancient world of emperors, monarchs and warriors, loyalty was given by their sheer presence and the brute force they exuded. They lived in a world where might was always right. People needed and sought protection from strong rulers, which they got by staying loyal. Staying loyal was the price you paid for staying alive basically. It is the closest to life in the savage kingdom.

In the modern world, however, loyalty to political leaders is embedded in a shared vision of society. Leaders who embody that vision the most secure the greatest loyalty of their followers. The likes of Marcus Garvey, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Aminu Kano, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo come to mind. The individuals just mentioned were some of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century. They were iconic figures, who committed themselves to causes greater than their own persons. Their personal interests became enmeshed with a shared vision so much that they are still remembered and still being lionised long after their demise. Any mention of their names in any gathering still invokes raw emotion and empathy. For those leaders, the political office was not sacrosanct. Their power was derived from their political conviction and the sheer number and enthusiasm of their followers. To this day, people still have fond memories of them because they believed in something. Something that transcends individual ambition and (flitting) political office. Today, many political and pressure groups have been formed in the names of some of these heroes and martyrs to carry on where they left off. That is loyalty to a person as a personification of a cause. None of those gallant leaders necessarily had to sponsor, finance or bankroll any of their protégés for positions. No quid pro quo or ‘one good turn’ of the kind people are familiar with today.

Loyalty becomes strained when a group, political association or party revolves around a particular (charismatic) personality with no shared vision or ideology other than the intention to either remain in or wrest power from an incumbent. This is not to underestimate the sometimes herculean task involved in retaining power or wresting it from an incumbent. It requires a lot in planning, alliance building and loads of incentives to rally the troops. Gratifications and robbing of palms naturally follow. In such a situation, it is normal to find an individual, or group of individuals, rising and standing out as a tower of strength in their party. Sometimes an individual stands out by dint of their oratory but, more often than not, in Nigeria, it is by dint of their deep pockets. And, over time, such an individual grows in influence over the party machine. The more people benefit from his largesse, the more he is idolised as a ‘national leader’. Promoting and pushing his protégés into political offices is an investment from which he hopes, one day, to reap benefits. His tastes, preferences, preferment and personal idiosyncrasies become dominant across geopolitical boundaries, as many become highly indebted to him. A healthy return on investment for a political figure of this type is fealty, which he usually commands from the throng of his followers. The problem with this kind of mass obeisance is that it is fickle. It is transitory and it is, ultimately, expendable. It endures for as long as key beneficiaries continue to be in need of material support. Once the cherished largesse is rendered superfluous by other events, then, there is nothing on which to anchor loyalty. Loyalty based on material support is time-bound. It goes with the ebb and flow of politics. Someone else is usually lurking in the background to make their own impression and establish their own cult of personality. What goes around, comes around. In such a fluid situation, sometimes, the best form of loyalty is disagreement.

That said. Questions of loyalty in politics are universal. It is not unique to the situation in Nigeria or elsewhere on the African continent. Party loyalty in Western democracies runs deep; it is tribal in its manifestation. In the UK and the USA, for example, there are constituencies where loyalty to either of their two main parties — Labour and Conservative (in the UK), Democrats and Republicans (in the USA) – has become primordial. Voters would come out to vote for candidates of either party in an election, in ‘traditional seats’ or their ‘strongholds’, without even looking at the profile of their candidates. Why? It is simply because of the shared ideology and vision of society that goes both ways. The leaders of the respective parties also enjoy the loyalty of their colleagues within the party ranks. Occasionally, when there is a defection from one party to another by an elected official, it is usually premised on the leader’s apparent departure from the party’s ideology. In other words, it is paramount that a political leader and his party’s core principles are in sync at any moment in time or risk a haemorrhage of support from the faithful.

In the current Nigerian political environment, loyalty has become the word of choice in the increasingly bitter primary hustings. Often deployed as a sword as well as a shield, it is being confused for gratitude or ingratitude. It is neither. The confusion has its roots in the nature of the political parties. Consider, for example, the case of APC and PDP, the two parties jostling for the presidency. The endgame for either of them is power simpliciter, as policy debate is routinely conducted in an ideological vacuum. Even if that attracts followership, it is not enough to command and sustain loyalty in the dog-eat-dog, bourgeois electioneering in Nigeria. A party needs to have a set of distinctive beliefs and principles to serve as a staple diet and propaganda tool for its members. Something that rolls off the tongue in casual conversations. Since neither of the two dominant parties has these, loyalty tends to be tied to the individual and his political ambition, and only partially to the party. This invariably makes it easy for support to be bought and sold like raffles. Moreover, it also makes cross-carpeting an anodyne prickle, rather than one that involves a serious soul-searching. Without core beliefs, betrayal becomes ingrained in the party hierarchy. This will always be the rule rather than the exception. Going forward, therefore, Nigerian political leaders must learn one crucial lesson: loyalty is earned, not bought. It is easier to betray a man than it is to betray his cause.

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