Among the first phrases of the English language we learned was 'Honesty is the best policy.'
In those days and times, it was not just a rhetorical saying.
Those were days when words, like our currencies of old, have their true values. Honesty was then not only said to be the best policy, it was also seen as the only good policy. They were days when honest toil gets rewarded with just pay. They were days when people literally reap what they sow, and here on earth too. The sanctions are heavy upon those who tried to break, even bend, societal rules and regulations for personal satisfactions. They were days of probity and accountability. Honesty, Decency and Integrity were the norms in those days. They were days when no one could appear to live beyond his/her legitimate means. They were days when men/women were called to account for their deeds here on earth without waiting for some Day of Judgment. Those were days when layabouts, without a visible means of legitimate income, cannot drive around towns in the latest hi-tech cars and dotted the land with mansions.
They were days when the family, the street, the whole town and even the whole Community suffer from the indignity visited upon one member. They were times when men would rather starve, than steal. They were times when it was looked upon with great disfavour when you take what does not RIGHTLY belong to you. Great shame, it was considered then for a family to allow one member to go hungry, to be homeless, and to BEG(!).
Those were days and times when the true spirit of BROTHERHOOD and SISTERHOOD was manifested in every single member of the society. All is for one, and one is for all. They were times when the words UNCLES, COUSINS, NIECES and NEPHEWS, simply did not exist in our languages. We knew only of BROTHERS and SISTERS. You are the son of your father and mother, and of every older member of your family who are old enough to be your parent. You are the brother not only of your immediate NUCLEAR family, but of every one else in the EXTENDED family. They were times you eat not only from your mother's pot, but from the pot of any member of the family where the pang of hunger strikes you. Food was not terribly plentiful, but everyone shares. Walled, palatial mansions were not abundant then, but no one sleeps rough, uncomfortably and (heaven forbid) on the street. There was love, true love in those days.
They were love that emanate deeply from the heart. They were not abstract love to be chanted like some religious slogans. Everyone was his brother's keeper in the truest sense of the word. The joy of one is shared by all, the sadness is equally spread around. There were then no policemen on our streets, since everyone looks after everyone else, and everything BELONGS to everyone. When no one is in want, the very idea of stealing is entertained by no one. Crime against property, there seldom was, since you hardly steal what virtually belongs to you. I can clearly recollect how women will leave their wares in front of their houses and go to their farms. The prices are indicated and whosoever wanted a purchase will simply leave the money and take the article.
No traditional society of Africa that I know of built a prison to incarcerate its members. None of them had a high-prized legislature and a high-brow judiciary. Since everyone knows the rules and mores of the society, there was no place for high-profile, big-ego legal luminaries to argue the arcane laws modern society evolved to keep its members in check. No society of Africa that I know of possessed instruments of violence to keep its members in their place. Police Forces, organized Military Forces, Intelligent Agencies are appurtenances alien to our African tradition. Every member of our traditional society of age were simply called upon to perform military duties when the needs arise.
There are minds who may argue that there were wars in those days. Yes, I readily concur that there were wars. Wars there were, indeed. But they were wars against invaders or EXTERNAL threats. To those minds, I say we are talking here about the violence a society launches against its own members.
Modern Societies have become a frightening ogre - terrorizing its own citizens. The more policemen on the beat, the larger the prison space, the more advanced a society is deemed to be. It is as though we have come to measure civilization by the amount of naked force a society can muster against its own citizens.
Let us get behind such masks as DEMOCRACY, JUSTICE, FREEDOM (DJF) and other abstractions that are used to mask naked barbarity. Civilization is not to be measured by how it treats its mighty, strong and rich, but how it treats its poor, low and impoverished. The strong do not need protection, the weak do. The mighty do not need freedom, only the poor needs to be un-enshackled. The ideals of DJF are meaningful to only those who have the have the means to pursue them or would anyone please stand up and name the place where in our modern world there is equal justice for all, or where democracy carry no price tag.
It appears as though some cruel law of modern civilization has ordained that the more cruel a society treats its defenseless (invariably poor) members, the more civilized it is considered. We can sweep our glance across what is called the civilized world, we shall come to the same conclusion. Since space and time constrains us from undertaken such as enterprise, let us look at one specific society. Which candidate is more appropriate that what is generally believed to be the richest and most powerful country in the world, the one that shouted the loudest about DJF: The United States of America.
Here is a nation conquered by starving immigrants from Europe which launched a genocide against the beaten Indians. Casting her greedy eyes on the outer shores, whole societies of Africa were emptied to build her plantations and industries - the source of her wealth and vainglory. Not contended with littering her hills and mountains with Indian bones, and bloodying her waters and rivers with African blood, America turned on her neighbours. Mexico lost half her territory. The Central American nations have all felt the violent jackboot of their avaricious neighbour.
Did America treat her weak citizens any better? If we are to be honest, we can only answer in the negative. There is no doubt that Africans in America are the weakest members of the American family. The slaves who built the wealth that today smoother Americans were promised 40 acre of land and a bull. Until today, that pledge remains unfulfilled. Emancipation proclamation by slave-owning Lincoln didn't entirely emancipate the ex-slaves. The Freedom Bureau set up to help the ex- slaves was killed by violent opposition from the slave states. From slavery, the lots of the ex-slaves became marginally better by share cropping, JIM-CROW and a very special breed of virulent racism. Every token action for their benefit continue to be termed reverse discrimination and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, there are said to be more African-Americans under America's judicial supervision (in prison or under parole) than are at college - even though it cost a lot more to keep them in jail than in college!
I do not condemn America. It is America's crimes that condemn her. I strive only to make a case as to why a society such as America and most modern societies cannot tell the weakest member of their families that 'Honesty is the Best Policy'
By what moral right can America tell its African-American citizens to be honest? Since when in her entire violent history, has America being honest? Some there may be in the African-American Community, whose constitutional make-up are not favourably disposed to stealing; they have my praise.
Many minds will undoubtedly be moved to ask of what happened to 'Personal Responsibility' and what would occur in the event of diminishing or entirely removing that inhibition that should be natural to every human. At the peril of distressing those minds, I say a society does not have a right to ask me of personal responsibility which has neglected its own societal Responsibility. Responsibility is to me not a one-way affair. I am bound by the limits of the morality of my society. No society that was built on crime and maintained on iniquity has any right to ask anyone to be upright. How can we install a culture of indolence cum opulence cum decadence on our society and then hypocritically condemn those who tried to get their "SHARE' by any means necessary.
Am I not being too lenient towards criminal? Far from it, the main problem I see is that there is too much condemnation, and far too little understanding. How many of us have tried to look at things from the point of view of those we branded criminals? What are crimes except infringements against laws of societies. What are laws except rules enacted by those in power to govern societies? Laws are not independent agents. If the truth be told, we will all agree (as someone as aptly pointed out) that laws are enacted to protect the INTEREST of those who have power to enact them. No more no less. Everything else is mere cosmetics. Those who shout LAW and ORDER the loudest are, invariably, those who stand to gain the most from it.
We can see in societies we today consider modern the heavy frown upon crimes against properties - the propertied class are enacting the laws to protect, (what else?), their properties. In these societies, the weak are left with no protection. They are poor, weak and defenseless. No account of them is taken when laws are made. The power that-be are aware that there is nothing they can do. And if THEY DARE do something, enough instruments of violence are in place to keep them in place. What else are the functions of the police, the courts and the prisons?
Violence does not come only in physical form: Economic and Social deprivations are also forms of violence, even if they are not so considered by our law-makers. In all these societies we called civilized, large proportion of the weak and the poor are so violated and societies have ceased to care. Begging, hunger, deprivations are no longer consider a shame, they are not even looked upon as source of embarrassment - just unfortunate. The poor must suffer so that the rich could live a life of indolent and opulence.
What right has a society which has sent me packing from my job to ask me that I be honest? Why should I listen to the preachment of a society which cared not whether or not I wear tatters as raiment? Has the society which does not feed me not forfeited its rights to my moral responsibilities. By what rights do a society that cares little for its citizens justify its claims to their upholding its moral laws?
Should honesty be my [best] policy in a society where the propertied class are visibly living beyond their honest means? I know that there are hard-working men and women who deserve the good lives. I begrudged them not. The measure of high civilization, I repeat, is how it treats its weak. No hard working man or woman should be entitled to what a million people cannot command. Honesty cannot be the best policy in a society where a man counts his worth in billions of cedis while millions cannot boast of a single pesewa! A society that makes it possible for some members to dwell in mansions, while millions wallow in hovels has no claim to moral responsibilities.
There certainly should be minds tempted to argue that there are not enough to go around: To them I say that, I see no problem of resources, I see only problem of resource-allocation. There has never been enough to go around and perhaps and there probably will never be. In the ancient society which I sketched above, there was sharing and caring, commodities that are lacking in our modern world. I see not the lack of resources, but the greed and avarice of man.
If only because of the circumstances of my birth, I am denied the instruments to develop my full potential. I am turned into a brute instead of a full Man, should I pile insult upon my injury by blaming myself? I think not. Any society that expected me to respect its laws and morality, should treat me like a decent member. That is the civic bargain. A society that break the accord, should not wince when I fail to respect my part of the damaged bargain. After all we so not expect swines to obey our laws on Morality? Why should we expect those we cast away to do so?
A lot of minds will undoubtedly, be distressed by all these. I only urge that we pause to consider the lots of our UNFORTUNATE members of our society. Those of us on whom society have showered with more than our fair share of the bounty, should try and consider what life looks (even if we cannot imagine how it feels) like on the other side. As we step outside our walled-mansions, into our air-conditioned Pajeros to the comfy environs of our offices, we might close our eyes to the sufferings around us, but we should not close our CONSCIENCE. A dead conscience it is that is not moved by the sufferings around it. Every cast-away member of our society is a potential success. Every Man is a potential success. Circumstances alone, determines the course. Nature endows everyman with the potentials to succeed, how the potentials are nurtured makes all the difference.
Am I not too lenient towards the thieves and the Armed Robbers? Would I hold the same opinion if I had been a victim of armed robbery? These are potent questions that I do not hasten to dismiss glibly.
Shall we not ask: Does a Man steal what he does not need? - Here I am recognizing the difference between a NEED and a WANT. I am tempted to answer in the negative, for the sole reason that a man who goes to the length of stealing what he does not need suffers from a mental disorder. To those who say that some men are pathological kleptomaniac, I say pathology is a disease that deserves our understanding/cure, and not our condemnation/denunciation. As a society, we should look after our afflicted. If a member of our family/society is so moved by pathology in the direction of stealing, violence, pyromania, they should be cured. I valued my property and will be moved to protect it, but I am not blind to the fact that failure to look after those in distress MAY get me in a difficult position. An unmoved conscience is a dead conscience.
That the propertied-class look after itself can be seen from the way it ensures the crimes committed against it. Crimes committed by this class are termed `white- collar,' and lightly penalized. Thus we have men embezzling millions of dollars and going to jail for two years, if at all. A man who steals yam and a chicken to feed his starving family will draw ten years in hard labour.
Violence begot violence. A society that continually violates the weak is asking for trouble. A society that allows its children go hungry, without proper raiment, without education, without the means to grow into men is begging for trouble. Since we do not ask brutes to become Good citizens, we cannot ask those whom we neglected to be part of our good family.
PS: This article was partly inspired by the execution in Nigeria of 43 armed robbers on July 20 1995. Their bodies were disposed of in a waste Disposal van. Society considered them a waste and treated them as such. Sad that lives could be so wantonly wasted by a tyrannical government that stole its way into power and maintain its illegitimate rule by sheer violence. Among, those in the corridor of power in Nigeria today is the treasury-looter - Umaru Dikko!