Are power, economic advantage and sycophancy hopelessly entwined? Is sycophancy – and not hardwork or competence – the real visa to an individual’s career dreamland or lifestyle Eldorado in our societies?
Do people in power or position of influence encourage a culture of sycophancy among their followers and subordinates, even though deep down they know it’s all pretence and a bubble waiting to burst?
Take a look around and observe your environment… and up to the wider society. Have you noticed how the average person in our society respects money and power and not the personality or values? How people instantly warm up and kowtow to people in power and position of influence, practically willing to worship them because of their new status?
Have you noticed how people will slump to their knees, crawl towards power people (even if he was a former colleague, classmate or acquaintance) with clenched and raised fists in servile obeisance? How a First Lady on some “important pet project tour” will dump her handbag on a childhood friend to carry for her? And how the humiliated former bosom friend could no longer dare call her by her first name, but only address her as “Her Excellency, the First Lady”?
Have you observed how a group of distinguished senators would be ready to play bodyguard at the court trial of a higher power official just to prove their loyalty and position themselves for juicier appointments? I could go on and on, but I’m sure by now you understand my stream of thought…
Back to my introspections. Is sycophancy a natural human failing with people in power and positions of influence? Why is it particularly prevalent in Africa so much so it has more or less been integrated into our political culture? Even at the micro level, there’s what they even call “office politics,” and some have become masters of the act to gain unfair promotions, allowances and other perks of the office setup. But that’s for another day.
In his book, Another Century of War? Gabriel Kolko indicates that sycophants ultimately claw their way to power and wealth, and once they achieve that status, they tend to want to establish a cycle that rewards people like them with political and economic power. But non-conformists are shut out of any privileges.
He stated that “Those who become leaders of states are ultimately conformists on most crucial issues.”
On the other hand, he states that “individuals who evaluate information in a rational manner — and therefore frequently criticize traditional premises-are weeded out early in their careers.”
Further analyzing the relationship between power and sycophancy, Kolko said the culture of praise-singing and kowtowing to people in power is integrated early into the child’s educational system in human societies.
He said “Criticism is usually unwanted by institutions. The perks, benefits and privileges of power are too important to tolerate criticism, especially anything that diminishes budgets and power. People who criticize are often disparaged, for they are labeled complainers or whiners.”
A sycophant will never criticize or correct his superiors, as he wants to be fawningly pleasant. And he knows there are rewards for his flattering behaviour: contracts, appointments, promotions, or at least, retention of current job or position.
Let me point out that the intertwined problem of sycophancy and power is a global phenomenon, except that in the West they have learnt quickly the collateral damage it wrecks on their society in the long run and so have considerably dealt with it.
A famous US President, Theodore Roosevelt, clearly points out the evils of sycophancy:
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. …It is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else,” he said.
Today, it warms the heart to see images of former US President Barrack Obama (while he was in power) carrying his own umbrella; and members of his staff calling him Barrack. Or to hear that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel still cooks for her man every Sunday, and goes to the groceries store to get special delicacies.
Or the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron (also while still in power) travelling in a London Underground Tube to an appointment because it was quicker than going by car. And, wait for it, some of the passengers didn’t even recognise who he was!
Ruminate on this too: After the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January, Obama’s vice, Joe Biden — known for his down-to-earth manner and ‘man of the people’ reputation — opted to use the train to return to his home state of Delaware.
And that was not his first time. He was only acting true to nature. As a senator, Biden rode in the Amtrak train to Washington nearly every day, reportedly racking up 8,000 round-trips; so much so he was tagged ‘Amtrak Joe.’
You see, generally, these are the kinds of attitude often reflected in the Western society today. In the US, the democratic institutions and the media have a strong culture of standing up to their political leadership when they think they’re wrong. Just ask President Donald Trump.
In summary, in the Western world, leaders are considered as fellow citizens, not gods.
In Nigeria and most of sub-Saharan Africa, the reverse is the case. Journalists, lawyers, government agencies and awards institutions are mere political contractors and praise singers who will dance to the tune of the highest bidders with sycophantic articles, write-ups, radio commentaries and television documentaries.
By so doing, they rig the opinions of the average uninformed Nigerian and mislead him on the true quality, personality and disposition of their political leaders and their voting pattern, while they smile to the bank with their rewards.
But the problem of sycophancy is not entirely with the followers. In fact, it’s mostly a problem of the leadership. They encourage it, wittingly or unwittingly.
Here’s the simple, naked truth: The average person in power is not used to being told the blatant, unpleasant truth. If you do, it’s not because you’re patriotic and love the masses. It’s because you’re a traitor and in bed with the enemy or the opposition.
And what’s the effect on the masses? They buy into the culture of sycophancy. They try to win the favours of people in power. They flatter them and fan their egos. They distort facts and falsely paint a rosy picture of reality at the base. They mislead people in power and they in turn enjoy the fawning attention and feel like demi-gods.
But the motive of sycophants is actually about survival; and to unfairly influence juicy appointments and contracts to themselves or their cronies, even if they’re not qualified.
In a recent write-up, former presidential aide, Reuben Abati buttressed the argument that sycophancy is the biggest challenge to power in Nigeria, and said Nigerians treat their leaders like gods.
He said: “There are too many people approaching the man of power telling him things and seeking to influence him, they would kneel down if they have to. They will recite the Holy Books if they think that will help. They will do whatever it takes to have their way. All of this is never in the interest of the people,” he wrote in a recent article.
Very apt and truthfully spoken of Mr. Abati, but isn’t it also ironic that when he was in government service he famously always said “eye service is part of service?”
You see, in reality, this is a problem across Africa, which is also mostly responsible for the slow development rate on the continent.