One of the unintended benefits of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is that several people are afforded more time and opportunities to reactivate, interact and catch up on dear but erstwhile dormant relationships. Despite our best efforts to try to turn back the hands of the clock to normal chiming rhythms, direct physical relations have been considerably affected by the global health crisis.
Consequently, practically every aspect of human-to-human social interactions has had to be redirected and rechanneled through alternative electronic platforms. Technology to the rescue! We have even coined reflective phrases such as, ‘The New Normal’, ‘Work from Home’, ‘Remote Learning/Work’ etc. Every area, work, entertainment, sports, etc. are finding new leases of life and relevance across the ether. Ultimately, the need and will to survive and thrive remains very strong in spite of the challenges.
For the socially awkward and professionally preoccupied, this was a welcome middle ground to catch up, mend and even build relationships. People seem to more comfortably express their emotions behind the relative safety or anonymity of keypads; sincerity, vitriol, passion, honesty, disregard, in fact a potpourri of varying emotions are unleashed in a passionate, often reckless and mischievous, deluge of constructive, destructive and deconstructed narratives. It’s been quite the wild ride.
I was fortunate to catch up more actively with old school mates from my university days. Interactions and engagement was tentative at first; cautious probing exploring and rediscovering familiar paths and friendships. The banter was/is gripping as can only be created by those who shared some of the best memories and lowest moments in their nascent adulthood; the collective sigh of being broke and financially indigent, being clueless, emotionally immature and desperate, intellectually arrogant, struggling with being the perceived victim of a domineering and non-inclusive society… My, what a time and what great memories and people.
We have also matured and excelled, in different degrees, in our chosen professions and careers. This added color to the conversations. It was delightful and comforting to relax in familiar circles, to learn new things and discover shared personal growth. Each individual has demonstrated some level of competence in their fields and discovered latent moral values and spiritual evolution.
Within our circle of passionate, entitled middle class progressives, Nigeria is a treasure trove of opportunities for intellectual engagement. We talked economics, politics, policy, technology, nationalism, insecurity etc. We identified productivity, subsidy, sustenance etc. as issues and contentions. There is never a dull moment and there is always an issue to discuss. Drama is synonymous with our dear country and we the people revel in the ‘gist’ and banter (probably more than in finding solutions to our myriad of challenges). One day recently, as we reviewed our dear country again and reflected on our challenges, the conversation turned to a debate on which component between Competence and Integrity is more important for a developing country such as ours.
As individuals who had gone through our own personal phases and experiences, it promised to be an interesting interaction. Opinions were varied, passionately promoted and eruditely defended. It was a joy that would delight our foregone lecturers; we encapsulated their biggest aspirations for an intelligent successor generation.
For those in favor of competence, the summarized thinking is that productivity can only be driven by judicious use of resources; time, people, natural resources etc. Such judicious deployment requires able hands and capable minds for effective execution; individuals or collectives of individuals who have distinguished themselves in their various fields. These are individuals who through their experiences and achievements have demonstrated that they understand what the process of building requires and understand the dynamics for progressive development.
Some have excelled in public service and others in private enterprise. Bringing their collective resource together can only help the country.
It is considered as more important because an upright but incompetent individual or group of individuals is ill equipped to understand the problem scope, identify real cascading issues and effects, develop apt solutions and drive the framework for effective execution needed for progressive development. In fact, the incompetent but virtuous are more likely to lead and propose solutions based on sentimental attachments and ideological biases which, more often than not, do not have matching relevance to the aspired goals. They are unlikely to neither understand the process nor appreciate the needed tasks. Thus, we risk empowering despots and directionless authoritarianism based on the mythical ‘best intentions’ fallacy. From their submission, this is an unsuitable recipe for progressive growth especially for a developing economy and country in its formative years.
On the other hand, the proponents of integrity over competence argue that competence is not a substitute for integrity, they are mutually exclusive. They posit that irrespective of a man’s competence, if his character is fundamentally lacking, whatever gains were acquired through competence will be quickly pilfered through the same competent ingenuity that guided the achievements. In their estimation, a leader or leadership can recruit competence. However, it must itself fundamentally be uncompromisingly committed to the vision and cause of the nation or group. The primary responsibility of leadership is not the grunt work; it is vision, building national identity, promoting progressive values, strengthening cohesion and unity, safeguarding the people, their interests and the future.
Thus, they argue, integrity creates the foundation and environment for competence to flourish. The case they made is often buttressed with the now famous lines from President Buhari, “If Nigerians do not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria”. They argued that our distant and recent history has revealed that competence, as adjudged by qualifications, experience, achievements, sectorial and global recognition etc. has never been the issue with Nigeria.
We have had several ‘competent’ individuals and group of individuals who have had the privilege of public administrative service but who have successively mismanaged the affairs of the country and betrayed public trust. When afforded the privilege of administration and governance, they have looted, brazenly stolen and abused power, infused division as well as committing several other atrocities and crimes against the nation and people. Clearly, for those in the camp of integrity over competence, men of low character are easily corruptible and would ultimately use the opportunity to serve as avenues for graft and self-enrichment/ self-interests promotion.
I was fascinated by the submissions of the two sides. Both have very valid points. Please note that it is not remiss to have an individual or group of individuals marrying both qualities. It is unfortunate however that the schism is now so gaping, alive and obvious that such distinctive dichotomy needed to be reviewed and sides chosen. This is the sad state of our nation. In all this, it is also important to note that both sides of the divide are committed to the same goal; progressive development.
In my estimation both positions are right. Equally, both positions are naive. Proper and objective analysis requires deference to the case peculiarities. Thus, one must contextually distinguish between competence and integrity.
One must apprehend their need fit in sociopolitical behavioral psychology and economics.
Integrity is a necessary qualification for social stewardship. Competence is a basic requirement for effective administration. They are complementary qualities.
It is important to understand the role each quality plays at different layers and stages of a nation’s development. At the developmental and foundational stages, the character of the leadership is as equally important as their competence. Integrity and competence are required to achieve stabilized national and economic development. One does not invalidate the other, they are meant to accentuate and complement each other.
Thus, we need leaders who exemplify integrity and statesmanship. They must have clarity of vision and a commitment to developmental progress. They must be above board/reproach in all state and personal matters.
We also need administrators who are competent on the job and clear on the desired deliverables and what is required to achieve the expected progressive mileage.
Incidentally, while competence is relatively measurable, integrity is alarmingly nebulous. Thus, how do we get men of integrity, a seemingly dying breed along with the virtues they embody, who are competent for the job of stewardship? A former Governor of Lagos State once said, “May our loyalty not be tested”. Perhaps, the crux of the matter is to substitute loyalty for integrity in the foregoing statement. Many have failed when their integrity was tested. Men of competence are plenteous but they can only truly excel in structured environments with sufficient guidance for effectiveness.
In my opinion, I think we are suffering from misdirection. The real issue is neither competence nor integrity. The real concern is the system. A system that inordinately rewards stewards and public servants and provides no consequential deterrent for mismanagement and misbehavior is a pot of confusion frothing to overflow. The real question is the fulcrum of almost limitless power and lack of social accountability. Ergo, a man of integrity would be frustrated in such a system and a man of competence may soon be converted to the gospel of graft.
We are living in a country wherein the dignity of labor is becoming a mythical virtue.
Integrity has been downgraded as we scramble for the pursuit of affluence, irrespective of how it is achieved. The average Nigerian is not concerned about competence in his own job but demands it from other public service administrators. This amnesiac perspective is interesting because the leadership reflects the innate values of the people. Similarly, competence is undervalued in favor of cronyism, nepotism, nefarious political oligarchy etc. Many seek and obtain degrees as social and vanity props rather than as instruments for forging a decent living. This is another issue; a corrupt system means that productivity has been sabotaged and aborted. What all these reveal is that issues of competence, integrity, insecurity, weak economy etc. are symptoms rather than the illness. We need to address the illness, a society with compromised values and challenging living conditions.
Whilst a wholesale national reorientation may be a bridge too far in the immediate, institutionalizing social accountability and responsibility would go a long way in laying the foundations for a progressive country. Thus, the competent individual will be allowed to pursue his intents safe in the knowledge that his competence would be recognized and adequately rewarded. The man of integrity as well would apply himself and improve his abilities knowing his efforts will not be pilfered, stolen or mismanaged. The balance will drive growth and development in policies development, education, politics, business etc.
We have to rediscover our fading and almost extinct cultural values and identity. We need to reframe our social and political structure to promote, reward and celebrate both competence and integrity. This is the only way we can properly activate the mechanics for an organized/developed economy and nation. We must situate our solutions to fit our problems with deference to our sociocultural nuances and not chase fantasies; let us fix the root problem rather than celebrate the unavoidable consequences. Both the man of integrity and the man of competence are endangered in our current political and economic system. More than the debate between competence and integrity, we need a campaign on social accountability and proper values. This is the necessary and often overlooked bridge between the competence-integrity divide.