By Hope Eghagha
In the course of our lives we make promises. We promise ourselves. We make promises to others – friends, family, business or political associates. Men promise women. Women also make promises to men. A promise is a ‘declaration or assurance that one will do something or that a particular thing will happen’. A lesser person could make a promise to his superior. The reversed position is also possible; that is, a higher person could also promise a lower person that things would go in a particular way. A promise is indeed an assurance or a reassurance. It is often soothing, deferring hope and making one believe in the future.
Some promises are voluntarily made. When a man makes a promise of marriage to a woman, it is often because he wants to guarantee the loyalty of the woman. Such a woman with a promise looming over her would not be expected to entertain another man. Promises could also arise from coercion. That is, we are compelled to make a promise owing to circumstances. A promise is meant to assure the other party that a certain action will be taken or not taken. Two stronger words for promise are ‘covenant’ and ‘agreement’. Whereas we use promise in informal discussions, an agreement is more formal. It is true however that we could also have an informal agreement; this is what people refer to as ‘gentleman’s agreement.
Consensus building is part of nation building. Of course, a general consensus carries with it a promise, the promise of stability, togetherness and the common good. A general consensus is and should always be superior to individual interests. In other words, individual interests are subsumed under the collective interests. If a politician appears to alter the national interest, the forces which are party to the settled goal or consensus will call him to order. A promise broken destroys confidence in individuals and in the state. There is a Gaelic proverb which says that ‘there is no greater fraud than a promise not kept’. If the State or Party could break its promise to the people, the people in turn do not feel obliged to respect the state. This is where anarchy sets. Sadly, when some politicians break a promise, they hardly appreciate the level of destruction which they have caused in the polity. For such persons, self is more important than the collective. It will be recalled that one of the reasons given by the coup plotters when General Yakubu
Gowon was removed from office was his decision to break the promise of the 1976 return to civilian rule.
Once a promise is made, it is expected that it would be kept. But promises are not always kept. It is for this reason that sometimes people summon witnesses to be present when the promise is being made. Others go to the extent of documenting the promise, witnessed by a legal instrument. For example, an informal loan may need to be guaranteed by someone else to ensure repayment. There could also be an unwritten agreement on power rotation in a polity.
In politics and politicking promises are often made. Promises are made to the electorate or stakeholders in order to secure a nomination or votes. An election promise is a ‘guarantee made to the public by a candidate or political party that is trying to win an election’. In the advanced world, politicians are often held to their promises. This does not mean that they do not break election promises. On the big issues, a party could win an election and embark on a vigorous implementation once it gets into power. In First Republic Nigeria, we looked forward to and Action Group (AG) did fulfill its election promise on free education. The same was repeated in the Second Republic under Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).
The National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the Second Republic promised qualitative education to counter the UPN initiative. It also promised housing for all. A study of politics in the western world has found that ‘parties that hold executive office after elections generally fulfill substantial percentages, sometimes very high percentages, of their election pledges, whereas parties that do not hold executive office generally find that lower percentages of their pledges are fulfilled’. We cannot say the same for political parties in Africa; certainly not in Nigeria. But politicians also break promises. In 2000, while campaigning for president, George Bush declared that ‘if we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I’m going to prevent that’. It was during his tenure that America went to Iraq second time and later Afghanistan. Barrack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Prison. As of July 2021, that prison is still standing. President Buhari promised to end the insurgency and build the power sector. We are all witnesses to his days in office.
In nation building, there are unwritten agreements, just as there are usually written agreements. Britain, like Canada, China, Israel, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, is governed by an unwritten Constitution. This is a system in which codes of political conduct are not ‘embodied in a single document, but based chiefly on custom and precedent in statutes and decisions’. For such countries to succeed there is the need for maturity, mutual understanding and an abiding interest in the overall survival of the nation. In such countries, the nation’s primary interest is understood and appreciated by all stakeholders. This can only take place when issues of nationhood have been fully settled.
It is easy to break a promise, to ignore a written or unwritten consensus, especially when the levers of power are in the control of one man or a cabal. The message is that we are not only in government, we are also in power! What this means is that because they have the powers of state behind them, they can alter agreements. But we must remember that power is transient. A decision based on greed and self-interest could return to haunt one later in life. It could also lead to an implosion. It is therefore instructive for those who are in power to remember that soon their days in office would be over; soon their actions would be subject to intense scrutiny. On which side of the divide would they like to be remembered?
Finally, let me end this essay by quoting JFK Kennedy when he said “I would rather be accused of breaking precedents than breaking promises.”