I admit that I have raised a loaded question, with no expectation of a satisfactory answer, a candid expression of my frustration with politics of self-interest parading as anything but.
Politics is the institution for managing the affairs of a community for the well-being of its people. As such, it is a noble venture. As the political community is the highest organisation, politics is conceptualised as the highest institution worthy only of selfless patriots.
There is a good reason for that characterisation. A community is a close-knit entity with a common purpose and a sense of history that binds it to the past and links it to a hopeful future. Active agents on its political scene come and go, but they share a common objective of contributing their quota to the progressive transformation of the community. Their pride is in the sacrifice they make for the community, even when they have little or nothing to show for themselves.
An early documented intimation of this conception of politics came from Aristotle for whom politics is the highest calling and politicians have the noblest assignment of framing the constitutional order of the political community, the goal of which is the good life of citizens. Note the characterisation of the three elements: politics: the highest calling; politician: with a noble assignment; political community: with the goal of good life of citizens.
If the good life of citizens is the goal of the political community, it makes sense that the institution established for achieving it must be of the highest ranking, and active agents in that institution with the responsibility for achieving the good life for citizens must be deemed as having a noble assignment. In that regard, the question “can anything good ever come out of politics?” would make no sense. The fact that this question makes sense is, therefore, a challenge to the characterisation in question.
Does the political community exist to promote the good life of citizens? Think of the foundation of local communities, from family to village to city. Chief Awolowo got it exactly right in People’s Republic. Every family wants the best for its members, and it must be assumed that when they join other families to form the nucleus of a state, they do not give up the goal of seeking the good life for their people. Therefore, a political community can be assumed to be justified because it seeks the good of its citizens.
If the above makes sense, then it is reasonable to claim that the institution established for the accomplishment of the goal is of the highest ranking. What is devoted to benefiting the entire community and prioritising the needs to be pursued for members is certainly a higher order than that which aims at the good of a section.
It must also follow that the group of citizens who take on the responsibility for the achievement and realisation of the goal for the people have a noble assignment. Politicians are a different breed in the positive way. They frame the constitutional order that makes possible the seeking of the good life and its achievement.
Something is not right! The above is not the reality that stares us in the face. The political community that we know does not seek the good life of its citizens. Politics as we know it does not appear to be the highest calling. Indeed, it is one of the most debased of any calling, which is why many good people find it nauseating and repugnant. And while it may still be a noble assignment to fashion the constitutional order for a people, it has evolved into a vile and base task in the hands of political charlatans.
What has changed then and since when? At the family and village levels, the political goal of the good life predominates as the community identifies the key actors who take the assignment seriously. With the combination of villages, the understanding of the good life gets murky, interests clash, and there need to be negotiations and compromises. Intrigues set in and the process of debasement follows in short order.
With the combination of tribes and tongues, the escalation and intensification of tension and anxiety over the understanding of the good life and its requirements is inescapable. Amid such a heightened sense of expediency, various characters of dubious integrity are catapulted onto the stage of politics with varieties of motivations and questionable agenda, which may be far out of the field of any sense of the good life that any of the component communities may have set itself. In the circumstance, there is a clash of conceptions of the good life, not just among the component communities, but also among the individual politicians. This is the state of politics, politicians and political communities today, ours included.
Can anything good come out of politics today then? Let us grant for discussion what is a contestable assertion: that we have come to an agreement on the good life for citizens of this country and it is encoded in the Constitution as Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. It is contestable to the extent that the 1999 Constitution itself is a work in progress still being litigated in the court of public opinion. To the credit of its framers, however, the bone of contention regarding the principles that are presented as the good life for citizens is that they are still not justiciable.
So, we have the good life. But we still do not agree on the various aspects of how to achieve it for the people. What structure? What level of government is responsible for what? And this is where the betrayal of the idea of politics as the highest calling and politicians as having a noble assignment is most pungently demonstrated. The hustle and bustle of politics as we come to know it becomes glaring in the attempt to frame the constitutional framework for achieving the good life with politicians seeing themselves as representatives of sections whose interest must outweigh that of the collective. They hold the Aces because there is no real threat to the existence and prospering of their sections should the collective fail or disintegrate.
There is a second level of hustle and bustle which further complicates the volatile political environment of differing tribes and tongues. Lone Ranger politicians with selfish agenda can negotiate across ethnic and national boundaries in a manner that benefits them but harms their immediate group. It is the nature of the contemporary politics. Some may find it a degenerate form of politics because of this; others may consider it intrinsic to the nature of politics. And it is the most problematic for the characterisation of politics as the highest calling and politicians as having a noble assignment.
For in the case of politicians with agenda of self-interest, there is nothing ennobling unless there is, what is unlikely, a coincidence of self-interest of the individual with the good of the political community. A system can probably withstand the egoism of a few, but it will collapse under the weight of many self-conceited individuals hustling for their share of a national cake they are not inclined to bake. They move from party to party in search of spoils. They look to exploit precarious circumstances which they probably helped to instigate.
About the clash of the conceptions of the good life sought by the various communities that come together voluntarily or by force, it is also inconceivable that something good can come out of the politics that ensues unless there is a strong determination for compromise to reach common grounds on fundamental issues.
But when such compromises have been attained, they are products of elite self-interests parading as the common interest. In the end, the good life for citizens is stymied while the special interests of a few get promoted. So, some good does come out of politics when elite compromise unintentionally benefits the collective. If the compromise lasts, stability can be sustained. But the moment it collapses, the benefits to the collective is fatally assaulted