Why public trust matters
“When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.” – Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father (1743–1826).
TRUST matters in politics. It is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of the community.
Those norms can be about deep spiritual values or secular norms like professional standards and codes of behaviour. People want to be trusted. They respond to trust. According to the Stanford political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, trust holds a society together.
People do trust within some context, and this context can be past experience, expectation, past performance, credibility, honesty, shared values, intent and motive of the truster.
This operates under the guise of vigilance; and vigilance proceeds from the general awareness that each individual is not necessarily trustworthy, and so some degree of caution, watchfulness and insistence is required.
Trust works where a promise has been made and kept, which further engenders more trust. In a morally depraved society where vows are worthless, where commitments are cheapened, and where promises are made to be broken, it is absolutely uplifting to see words coming back into power in politics.
With their public declaration of assets, as required by law, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo have raised the ethical bar of governance higher for incoming public officials, for many years to come, and made themselves worthy of public trust in the discharge of their duties to the nation.
Not only has this singular act of transparency and accountability earned the duo more political credit and endeared them to millions of Nigerians, it will also restore confidence in the nobility of politics, rejig the legitimacy of the anti-corruption war song, and oil the efficiency of its political and moral machinery.
Coming a few days shy of the first 100 days of the new administration in office, this is a major victory for democracy, a fruit of the rising political consciousness of Nigerians and the outcome of the people’s determination to hold their elected officials accountable.
Both President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo have proven to the Nigerian people that their word is their bond, and that “A leader’s word must be the foundation of his integrity” to borrow the exact words of Professor Pius Adesanmi.
In the past, too much blind trust by citizens and misplaced confidence in leaders have met with collateral disappointment and betrayal.
What Buhari and Osinbajo have done with their public declaration of assets is a strong affirmation to the Nigerian people that respect for and adherence to the rule of law is a cardinal principle of governance, and that when leaders make promises, they have a moral obligation to keep the promises made.
This, in my view, is a counterbalance to the massive deterioration in public trust that became the poster-sign of the last democratic dispensation. Little gestures of accountability and transparency in the management of our national affairs like this contributes to deepening of democracy so that it can provide tangible improvements to people’s lives.
Making democracy work requires informed and active citizens who understand how to voice their interests, act collectively and hold public officials accountable.
This means that the people’s participation in democracy does not begin and end with their voting in elections. Through debates, protest demonstrations, newspaper editorials and their active involvement in governmental programmes, citizens should continue to express their opinions on how they are governed.
This is possible when the citizens themselves do understand the basis for citizenship, politics and government, have the knowledge base to make good policy choices and understand the proper use of authority.
President Buhari has successfully closed one door of expectations of Nigerians. The massive goodwill he still presently enjoys should propel him into putting in place the key architecture of governance and communicating the policy direction of his administration to the Nigerian people.
He should always remember that Nigerians voted him into power on the basis of their conviction that they are likely to enjoy better dividends of democracy under his administration.
Interestingly, the vast majority of Nigerians have a common list of what they expect from their government: tackle insecurity of lives and property, provide jobs for the teeming population of unemployed people, reduce bureaucratic spending, curb corruption and impunity, build a strong and virile economy, provide social infrastructure and resolve the energy crisis.
So far there seems to be a general consensus that the President is moving in the right direction in restoring nobility and dignity to public service and Nigerians have a serious responsibility to support his drive to rid the country of corruption and bad governance.
One area where the President needs to give due consideration to, is in the appointment of political office holders. There are already raging perceptions that his appointments so far have unduly favoured the North against other sections of the country. There are calls for him to respect the quota system of federal character.
I think President Buhari must not pay deaf ears to these complaints. If not properly addressed, they have their own way of eroding the people’s confidence in him, and this will give his followers a hard time trying to defend him against his opponents.
The popular support and tremendous goodwill he currently enjoys should not be frittered away. On the whole, the President’s public declaration of assets, even though it is still being verified by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) is a step in the right direction.
It is a good way to show that he has respect for the wishes of the people who brought him into power and the requirements of the rule of law.
In his reflections on the French Revolution, the great English statesman, orator and political theorist, Edmund Burke (1729–1797), offered wise advice to public officials to always see themselves as stewards of public trust. “All persons possessing any portion of power,” he says, “ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.” Every politician will be right to think about this always. • Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja (firstname.lastname@example.org).