By Gbenga Olumekun
Over the years I have watched with keen interest the conduct of man within the limits of his environment. I have seen him master the elements; I have seen him thump the highest of mountains and even swim the greatest of oceans but there is a negative quality that has kept denuding his ability to conquer his very self: dishonour is the name. Man in his very desire to survive the harshest of environments has found ways to insulate himself from extremes of temperature and the extremes of other elements. He can even travel great distances in time and overcome other components of creation that are infinitely larger and more sophisticated than himself but the carnal man has consistently fought a losing battle when it comes to the maintenance of honour and integrity. Imagine the descent into perdition of a would-be Apostle in the frame of Mr Judas of the Bible who had everything to his advantage and even functioned as the Minister of Exchequer. He had the Messiah at his beck and call and sat for three and half long years enduring sermons on every mountain but he missed glory because of a lack of the basic ingredient of honour. Mr Judas’ travail shows clearly the connection between honour and honesty. They are like conjoined twins on a journey which can only be to the same destination. Any man, woman, organisation or government that lacks honesty will also be devoid of honour. This is as much tie-in as we can get between two character traits.
In my personal reflections over the meaning of honour, a particular phrase kept on reverberating in my head, the source of which I did not initially know until I was prompted to do a thorough search so as to satiate my emptiness on the topic. It was then I came across the origin of the phrase, “Honour among thieves” which was amplified in the title of a book written by the renowned novelist, Jeffrey Archer in 1993 about a plot by Saddam Hussein to humiliate America by stealing the American Declaration of Independence and publicly burning it on 4th July in full view of world media. The master wordsmith weaved several gripping plots together to produce a masterpiece which he only could have manufactured but the kernel of the story is not of importance to us, rather it is the phrase and keyword which compel attention. The loudness of the subject matter would seem to suggest that thieves have honour, isn’t it? This is surely a topic for philosophers and wise men to write theses upon but that could not be my intention at this juncture since I am neither a philosopher nor a wise man. I am just a scientist with a fascination for dialectics.
The saying that there is honour among thieves originated from the mafia and other dishonourable associated organisations. It presupposes that criminals do not commit crimes against each other whereas they will be loyal to their associates especially when it comes to the protection of identities. This entails honouring oaths, allegiances and traditions. It would therefore seem that even corrupt or bad people sometimes have a sense of honour or integrity or justice, even if it is misplaced. As stated by a writer, “The meaning, of course, is the concept of professional courtesy, that even the disreputable and unethical do – particularly among themselves – adhere to various sorts of moral codes of conduct”. Be that as it may, without being circumlocutous, it will be unfair for those who are criminally minded to rejoice because there is actually no honour among thieves. This is in the sense that their conduct and activities are inimical to the common good hence would not in any way be commendable in the least. For what it is worth, honesty will be an absolutely hard commodity to discover in the storehouse of thieves.
It is good to steal if you are a professional thief since your ability to steal will impact on your success as a thief. That is why thieves will not disrupt their organisations by stealing from each other so as to build trust and ensure maximum effectiveness. They thus believe in treating fellow practitioners with honour. This means that lying thieving bastards can find reason to trust each other so as to protect their organisation from ruin. I have found several occasions when thieves refuse to steal from each other nor would they seek to expose each other to the law enforcers unless the safety of the larger majority is at stake. Little wonder they seek to abide by their code of ethics which are normally hammered into the recruits from the onset of their careers.
I have been fascinated by another sub-species of homo sapiens who are so very powerful that they control the destinies of nations and are so adept at holding on to tenuous positions even if their actions hurt the generality of the people. They can hold nations hostage and are gradually even holding humanity hostage. Some time ago they held America hostage and sought to wring every concession from the federal government by inducing a meltdown of government bureaucracy. They called themselves politicians. I hate the word but I cannot but tolerate it for the meantime. These are the power players who decide who gets what and what comes into being in any nationalistic setup. Of course, since they control the destinies of nations, they also hold the treasuries hostage. In order to perpetrate their vice-like hold they employ all time tested negativities to ensure their continued hold on the reins of power and by default the reins of the economy. In attaining their goal, treaties, agreements and the like, are treated like delicate chinaware to be tossed like basketballs in all directions with the single purpose of breaking them. Unfortunately societies thrive on mutual understanding and respect and once these are missing, the goals of sustainability and development become like day dreams which are to be visualised and never actualised.
Very often these set of people find themselves even in the bedroom rather than the corridors of power and they set about dismantling every semblance of honour in the society. They have several euphemisms for their acts and very often they delude themselves and often see their conduct as statesmanship when in actual fact they are nothing but brigands who have hijacked the conscience of the majority in order to perpetrate themselves in power. Many are of unfathomably depraved morals who desperately cling to power by depicting the greatest height of dishonour. They apparently do this because it is the only implement by which they can climb the social ladder and oppress the rest of society.
I am praying that this is a notion that will rapidly disappear because above wealth and power, honour holds the highest reward which we can bestow on virtue, and it is something that men naturally prize the most, and the most honourable are willing to die for. I have seen people change especially in their twilight years when they’ll be able to say like Solomon, “Vanity upon vanity, all is vanity”. I take solace in the words of Colton that, “Nothing more completely baffles one who is full of trick and duplicity than straightforward and simple integrity in another”.
To the simple minded, honour is a sought after virtue but in this time and age, it is becoming one of the scarcest commodities in the universe, and particularly in Nigeria. Only a few years ago, a newspaper vendor would leave his stock of newspapers by the roadside, only to come at a very convenient period to collect the proceeds from the unsupervised sales of his wares. The same goes for yams, bananas and other farm produce. I am still old enough to witness these. What makes it possible for the sellers to completely trust their patrons is nothing but the exhibition of honour in dealing with others.
From the perspective above one will see a pervasive absence of honour in the current age because nothing will be left of the wares if anyone tries that sort of stunt in the Nigeria of 2015. Fathers find it difficult to display honour to their children and because no one has taught them, the new generation does not seem to have an understanding of what honour means nor its usefulness in dealing with others. How should anyone expect honourable deeds from the offspring of a man who is devoid of honour?
This malaise of crass dishonour has now eaten deep into our governmental set-up. Governments do not deem it fit to honour agreements entered into with its citizens neither does anyone see any ill in leaders’ refusal to keep even the most basic of promises. In fact lying has been so perfected that it has taken the connotation of a vocation. I often pity many a government spokesman. In defence of his principal he weaves several webs of deceit and tells so many lies that anyone will need the wisdom of a Grandmaster to decipher and locate where the truth lies in any conversation.
Some societies have even gone to the extreme in perpetrating honour. They sometimes do not baulk at embarking on apparently criminal acts in defence of honour. Without a care for the modus operandi some go to the extent of pursuing “honour killing” especially when family image is at stake. Unfortunately in our dear land, honour has become a rare commodity to the extent that a convicted felon can be celebrated publicly whereas in times past, the stigma of petty thievery is enough to drive a whole family out of town, for good. What honour is in a man who returns from prison and seeks to do thanksgiving in a church? Or what honour is in a man who returns from looting public funds and seeks to throw retirement parties where his kith and kin come to rejoice and make merry?
Where has all the honour gone? Seems like it is a commodity in short supply in a nation of 170 million people. It seems dishonourable people have mastered the art of multiplication and self-perpetuation more than the rest of us. Or how can we rationalise the fact that dishonour is the norm in our society? Is it because of moral bankruptcy or the pursuit of filthy lucre that has made everyone to abandon the pleasure of being honourable?
Sadly, those who are expected to provide leadership are the greatest culprits. Instead of shaping our morals they have degenerated into the abyss of dishonour. Spoken word counts for nothing while agreements freely initialled are made to look like glassware which get broken with the most minimal of touches. If a government finds it difficult to honour and implement a 2009 agreement, how will it implement another one signed with fellow political travellers in 2011 even though this was supposed to pre-empt the impending debacle of 2015?
It is saddening to surmise that our politics is devoid of honour; our bedrooms are devoid of honour; our academics is devoid of honour; our bureaucracy is devoid of honour and worst of all our pulpits are devoid of honour. Society is built on the foundations of integrity, honesty and honour. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?