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Is holding onto personal values tenable?

By David Oginde | February 5th 2017

Just over a fortnight ago, two presidents — Barack Obama of the US and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia — vacated office at almost the same time. The similarities and contrasts between these two leadership transitions are interesting. On January 20, Obama handed over the reins of leadership to his successor, Donald Trump, in a tense but colourful official ceremony. Trump had been declared winner of the November 2016 presidential elections, but had to wait the two months transition period before his inauguration. In the meantime Obama stayed in office and oversaw the transition. After handing over, the former US President boarded an official helicopter and headed to his peaceful retirement.

At almost exactly the same time, on January 21, President Yahya Jammeh left the country having lost the presidential elections. Unfortunately, there was no handing over ceremony because his successor, Mr Adama Barrow, moved to Senegal after Jammeh refused to vacate office. Troops from several West African nations, including Senegal, were deployed to The Gambia to help drive Mr Jammeh out of office.

With the combination of the military threat and diplomatic persuasion from neighbouring leaders, Jammeh finally took off into exile in Equatorial Guinea. But, he also took with him millions of dollars from the state coffers and several luxury cars.

At face value, we can easily praise Obama for his statesmanship and vilify Jammeh for his undemocratic conduct. Yet, on careful analysis, we find that the two gentlemen were perhaps not too dissimilar in their behaviours — especially from a moral perspective.

Whereas President Obama readily handed over power at the end of his presidency, his leadership oversaw the institutionalisation of some of the most controversial moral practices. For example, in his reign, homosexuality was entrenched and gay marriages legalised across the nation.

On the other hand, whereas Jammeh had no qualms hanging on to power despite having lost elections, he nevertheless could not countenance same sex unions under his regime. In fact, he had warned in 2008 that gay people would be beheaded if found in The Gambia.

The fact is that the leadership landscape in our times is littered by many such moral contradictions. We have leaders who stand firm and are ready to die for certain moral values, but are at the same time totally blind to other equally important ethical demands. The consequence is that, the stories that recount the accomplishments of some these leaders, raise moral questions concerning the character of the leaders as well as the legitimacy of their programmes.

At the core of this contradiction is the question as to whether morality is or should be an antecedent to leadership. Machiavelli argued that true virtue is accomplishing one’s goals or ends on behalf of one’s constituents no matter the means. Thus the end justifies the means. However, many leadership scholars and practitioners have strongly disputed this disposition. They take the firm position that morality is a must when it comes to leadership.

But, what drives this ethical contradiction? It is what is known as dual morality, which occurs when there is an ethical dichotomy between personal conviction and actual behaviour. People use different standards to determine the rightness of actions depending on their context.

The concepts of life-world and systems-world, developed by Jürgen Habermas, the great German sociologist and philosopher, may be helpful in understanding how we sometimes compromise our character in particular settings and situations.

Whereas our life-world is driven by our values and beliefs, the systems-world is driven by the systems and structures of the environment within which we operate. Contradiction and tension comes when our systems-world colonises our life-world. This is clearly demonstrated in our two leaders.

Obama’s lifeworld appears to uphold highly moral family values — as demonstrated by the conduct of his own family. Yet, his systems-world seems to have colonised this and driven him to advocate for an obviously anti-family agenda.

But the same system positively informed the management of his leadership transition. Likewise, Jammeh’s life-world was obviously founded on strong religious values based on the Koran.

But, his systems-world colonised this, being in a continent where leaders do not leave power, and never leave empty handed. Sadly, this colonisation of our lifeworld is so prevalent in our own Kenyan society that we have become totally blind to the moral standing of our leaders — a state that requires serious interrogation as we head to national elections.

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