Almost exactly one year ago James Comey was fired as FBI director by Donald Trump. He has written a book entitled “A Higher Loyalty: Truths, Lies and Leadership”. During the month of April 2018 he was on all major TV channels giving interviews about his motivation and these can be viewed on YouTube.
He was a public servant who had served different political masters – at least three presidents before Trump. And, like all public servants (including those in Mauritius), he knows that his duty is to serve the country, to uphold the law of the land, not to be politically biased but to serve the government of the day to promote the national interests. So, it is clear where the public servant’s loyalty should lie.
But Comey got alarmed when at his first meeting with the new President the latter met him alone and asked for loyalty to him, the president. As the head of an important institution he was aware that an efficient democratic system depends on the separation of powers between the different branches of government, the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. Without ethical leadership a country can quickly go to the dogs. He tried explaining that to Trump. Sensing that this president would not respect the independence of institutions, he decided to keep notes of all his meetings and to circulate these memos within the organisation. His book makes use of the material collected by him and was vetted by the FBI.
Comey, who in his previous job as public prosecutor, had to deal with the mafia, says that Trump’s demand for loyalty reminded him of mafia Dons who first and foremost required loyalty to their person. All those who have watched “The Godfather” movies still remember the mob kissing the ring of Marlon Brando and later Al Pacino! His nominees to key positions in the Administration and the White House reminded Comey of the principle by which the “greatest Mafia Boss of Bosses”, Joseph Bonnano, lived as he candidly wrote in his autobiography “A Man of Honour”:
“Friendships, connections, family ties, trust, loyalty, obedience-this was the ‘glue’ that held us together.”
In fact Trump adhered to this principle of appointing his children, his friends, people from his Fox News network, to key positions in the Administration and the White House. And he mercilessly fired his own nominees who in his view were not loyal enough towards him.
The ineptness of the team he gathered around him brought in the limelight a term that had been used some 400 years ago: Kakistocracy – government by the incompetent (contrary of aristocracy – rule by the best). Wikipedia defines
“A kakistocracy is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified or most unscrupulous citizens. The word was coined as early as the seventeenth century.[It also was used by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, but gained significant use in the twenty-first century.”
The level of debate has gone down to four- to five-line tweets by an elected president who portrays himself as the victim of false news. He got elected while he himself did not expect it. He has no clue how government works – reminiscent of our previous lady president – does not understand the concept of continuity of government! Can we hear echoes here?
One may join the American poet James Russell Lowell who used the term in 1876:
“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people,’ or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”
Are there lessons for us? How many public servants in Mauritius have been exposed to this kind of pressure in the last fifty years? How many have stood for principles, convinced that there is a higher loyalty and that ethical leadership is also their responsibility?
Public servants go beyond civil servants. It includes the employees of parastatal organisations, the various political appointees who have been given their “bouttes” for having helped the politicians get elected. Unfortunately, recent history (the last 15 years!) has shown that individuals appointed as chairpersons or CEOs in many of the key national institutions have not understood their role and the importance of the institutions they head. They do not seem able or willing to shed their old skin of “political lackeys/cronies” to enter that of “public servants”.
Of course, to be able to make this transition the political appointees need to have an acceptable level of managerial culture and not be only people looking for a platform to promote their own interests. However, are they completely to blame? Do the politicians not have their share of responsibility?
It must be acknowledged that no leader has any personal incentive to change the system.
Belling the Cat
Abraham Lincoln’s message that “The American presidency is not one for ego, power, or self-aggrandizement, but for humility, ethics, and sacrifice”, is relevant for all leaders.
Whereas in most developing countries the leader is all-powerful because of the weakness of the institutional framework, fortunately for the USA they have strong checks and balances, institutions and a media that are very alert, a judiciary system that has been playing its role so far, individuals like Mueller (another former public servant) who understand that the State is permanent and above the interests of individual politicians.
Sadly, even though recent political history in Mauritius has shown that ministers have short staying power, a few civil servants have behaved as most obedient servants (and been dragged in an unsightly manner to the Line barracks!) instead of guiding many of the neophytes who seem to believe that beating their breast and loudly proclaiming that they have a vision is all that it takes to be a minister of the republic. Having a vision does not make one necessarily a visionary! Civil society (including religious bodies in many instances) has also developed a culture of “roder bout” and “nou-banism”, the press generally seems to have caught the “breaking news syndrome”, the citizen makes his/her voice heard through private radios and every time there is an election, and through social media (Facebook, Twitter). Is that sufficient to bring about change?
The dearth of leadership at all levels is blatant. But, who will bell the cat in Mauritius? Should the public service, at least the Civil Service, be the catalyst as it has the responsibility to ensure that the laws of the land are upheld, that there is one State that belongs to all citizens and is not the preserve of different warlords? Getting the Civil Service back on track may be triggered by any government that has the moral courage to undo the totally short-sighted change made by the 1982 government to the Constitution whereby they could fire civil servants in the national interest – just because they had doubts about the loyalty of some of them because of their patronym!