When leaders lie



It is a season of dramatic irony. One of the poignant dramatic ironies in the sphere of power and diplomacy was a claim made by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, and a counter claim by Wattana Kunwongse, Thailand’s ambassador to Nigeria. It was reported that Audu Ogbeh said, “Just like two weeks ago, the Ambassador of Thailand came to my office and said to me that we have really ‘dealt’ with them.” 

The news report further states, “But I asked what did we do wrong and he said unemployment in Thailand was one of the lowest in the world, 1.2 per cent, it has gone up to four per cent because seven giant rice mills have shut down because Nigeria’s import has fallen by 95 per cent on rice alone”.

Ambassador Wattana Kunwongse promptly refuted the statement attributed to him. According to him, “The report is not only misleading but a distortion of the actual conversation between myself and the honourable Minister of Agriculture at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on 30th January 2018, which was nothing short of positivity and optimism on both sides.”

Furthermore, he disclosed that “Thailand’s rice export to the world in 2017 (January-December 2017) reached 11.48 million tons equalising to $5.1 billion (USD), a 15.54 per cent increase compared to previous years, which is one of the highest figures on the history Thailand’s rice exportation. There is no proof of any shutdown of Thailand’s major rice mills,”

This saga brings to mind the influential book by a leading political scientist, John Mearsheimer; Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics. He identified two kinds of lying, namely concealment and spinning. Furthermore, he noted that there are five categories of political lies. These are inter-state lies, fear-mongering, strategic cover-ups, nationalist myths, and liberal lies. The book is a realist perspective; it is void of moral tutorials. Hence, some reviewers of the book excoriate his views.  Taking cognizance of the prevailing moral climate that eschews absolutism and prescriptive canons most of the criticisms against the book appear invalid. Well, that is a subject for another day. 

My essential concern is not to determine who is right or wrong, or apportion blame. But to examine what happens when leaders lie.  This is important because we live in an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between leaders and myth-makers. This difficulty is not due to mental laziness, or perceptional errors.  Rather, it subsists because the art of lying has assumed the status of rocket science, infantile distortion of reality is a thing of the past.  Many of today’s leaders can delude even the world-famous author of How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff. The point is even smart people that know all the criteria a claim must possess for it to pass the test of truth (logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and existential relevance) do embrace falsehood as truth. 

Lies are now to leaders what wings are to birds. This is because of the melding of moral relativism, political partisanship, brinkmanship, and ethical subjectivity. In a world where situational ethics is a governing force, many leaders have perfected the art of luring suicide bombers to buy life insurance. They know how to delude the blind to buy telescope. Lying is a vital element in the magic of transforming the banal to the sacred. Leaders cannot elevate subpar endeavours to the realm of the spectacular without the launch pad of lie. 

Without mastering the art of embellishing and horse-trading, the average political leader appears doomed to relegation and odium. Electoral victory is hardly secured without deceit. It is now axiomatic that if you are not a deceiver and you are not vulnerable to deception, the elite cult of kingmakers cannot entrust you with power. It, in part, explains why truth is now to most leaders what diamond is to the indigent; a treasure desired but beyond possession.  

When leaders lie, they squander trust. They erode the ethical foundation of meaningful leadership. Leadership thrives on truth and trust. Hence, every good leader is first and foremost a skilful breeder of trust.  Trustworthiness is the bedrock of effective ethical leadership. Excellence in leadership is elusive when trust is squandered. 

Effective leadership entails multifaceted collaboration. Result oriented collaborations do not transpire in morally neutral context, nothing is fruitful in grey areas.  When leaders lie, they start failing in the art of forging cooperation. 

When leaders lie their influence abates. Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of influence.  It is impossible to influence followers that are doubtful of your integrity. Integrity spells the vital difference between a person of influence and a charismatic manipulator. One reason why leadership deficit has retarded growth in Nigeria is because the elite class has made integrity vendible. It implies therefore that what we are led by enigmatic manipulators, not ethical leaders propelled by grand visions of national transformation. The elite class and their surrogates know how to manipulate public opinion to their advantage. They know how to manipulate our grievances and ethnic differences. They know to use the Holy Books to build walls, not bridges. 

When leaders lie they attenuate all that unites, and reinforce divisiveness. Nigerians have a way of dealing with sameness as otherness, because, feasting on lies is a national habit.  Any action inspired by a leader’s lie cannot be a constructive force that promotes togetherness. It is the moral responsibility of a good leader to ensure his followers do not act in error. Therefore, he cannot misinform his followers. 

When leaders lie they wreck the ethical foundation of a humane and prosperous society. Nigeria is vitiating in many sectors because the moral foundation of our society has been eroded by corrupt leaders. Over the years, many tectonic shifts have occurred in our systems of social ethics. We shifted from encouraging moral rectitude to applauding leaders involved in scavengers hunt. Materialism has subordinated our Afrocentric value system to ravenous individualism. Our individual pursuit of happiness has endangered our collective wellbeing. This ethical aberration gives hostage to fortune.    

When leaders lie their innate glory diminishes, not the splendor of their offices. This could possibly explain why Nigerian leaders are title maniac, and mistake honorifics for honor.  Recently, one of those ethically impoverished leader was at a public event, and was invited to the microphone to say something, but declined, because, the emcee did not trumpet his series of honorifics.  It is a deadly form of psychosis that makes most leaders to elevate label above content, title above function. 

When leaders lie they set off a contagion of vices. When we were young it was common to hear that “a good lair is a good thief”. If there is any modicum of factuality and acuity in that native mantra, then the corollary will be, a leader that is good at lying will excel in looting public coffers. 

Leaders should know that anything built on lies does not have a secured future. Hardly does history honor leaders who made deception an instrument of leadership. Hence, legacy-conscious leaders must eschew inspiring people with half-truths or outright lies.