Some time ago we had the privilege of working with a multiracial group from a international institution on a team building program. Our brief was to break down racial barriers and open up communication between the nationalities and ethnic groups and help integrate interdepartmental working relations. In the beginning the group response to our activities was mechanical, lukewarm and far from enthusiastic. We then divided the group into racially balanced teams. The object was to eliminate ethnic tensions and make teams focus on working together to achieve specific objectives. Nevertheless there was still some ethnic huddling even among members of the same team. Ethnic groups command loyalty that judge others as below, above or apart in varying degrees of dignity or disdain.
However, as the games progressed and competition became more intense, with some teams losing and others winning games consistently we noticed that both winning and losing teams began to trade accusations of ethics or the “lacking ethics”. As the competition turned passionate, each team focused on how to win, “with or without ethics” especially if they believed the other teams was not going to play fair. This created strong bonds between team members to the extent that some teams mustered the audacity to accuse referees of wrong and unjust rulings. The question of ethnicity was forgotten or at least suspended for the rest of the day. All that mattered was ethics! This prompted me to ponder the question of ethics a little deeper. A code of ethics does not depend on ethnicity. Creating a code is a matter of honor, identity and pride that exceeds ethnicity. But a code or a constitution is not created at the stroke of a pen. It is born out of struggle, strife, failure and success.
Many of Africa’s challenges, conflict and struggles are thought to be rooted in its ethnicity. Perhaps not. Ethnicity is a global phenomenon and there are high ethnographic concentrations in cosmopolitan locations all around the world that do not dissolve into conflict. Whereas ethnicity may be a clue to the complexity of war and conflict, we are more inclined to believe that ethics is at the root of the ethos and ethers surrounding the challenge of transforming Africa. Nevertheless, we need a communal understanding of the word “ethics” to appreciate and unpack the significance of this finding.
Ethics has been defined as a moral code. But ethics is not as much a code as it is codifying ethics. While ethics refers to a set of rules, regulations, principles and practices to live by, it is more about a people’s response to a set of rules, regulations, principles and practices they are made to live by. If they have not participated in evolving, developing, making and establishing those rules, regulations, principles and practices, their response will be askew if not outright rebellious to the demands of those rules, regulations, principles and practices. Asking one ethnic group to abide by a code prescribed by another group is to invite conflict. On the other hand, agreeing or signing consent to a code of conduct does not mean compliance to the ethics required by the code.
Ethics is about the virtues, values, self-perception and vision of a people. Ethics is the lens through which people define, re-create and interpret the world. Ethics is the individual and collective response of a people to rules, regulations, principles and practices, but also a people’s response to circumstances, situations and opportunity. Ethics is the sum of the values of a people’s collective learning, culture, art, science, history and believed destiny. Ethics is the composite state of mind of a people governing their interaction with each other and outsiders in family, business, sports and politics. It is the sum of the learning and advancement of a society. It is evident in a people’s accumulated writing, history, eating, language, behavior, lifestyle, habitat and collective wisdom where the house of lords, the jury and elders of the community hold sway. Ethics is a code of honor observed by the honorable in society.
Though ethics is often described as moral sense or social norms its foundations are justice and right. However, ethics are developed over time out of struggle and competition to find out what works and what is unprofitable. This corporate learning is stored away in the group conscience as ethics. If a society has no science, art or civil behavior it stagnates in its learning and does not encourage the development of its institutions. Its advance in ethics is limited. A society is advanced when all its individuals and institutions work for the good and welfare of individuals, society and the state.
While other nations have long recorded history that has helped them journey through centuries of ethical development, Africa’s history seems scattered, spattered and dispersed. Its distant history is a record of the destruction of whole civilizations. It needs to be shored up and codified into a respectable whole. Much of Africa’s history (read ethical development) is fragmented, not written, lost unknown and untaught. The plunder, pillage and persecution of Africa’s peoples in the recent past has not helped the development of ethics across the continent.
For a society to advance it must raise its own teachers, writers and chroniclers. It must raise philosophers who format the thinking of a society and advance the state of learning, culture and statecraft. The state must sponsor social institutions that advance ethics. This is the only way to raise a nation from its past. This is where Africa must invest. A society that does not advance its own history is plagued to return to it, remain traditional and intransigent or imitate another and thus fall short on many of the counts of ethical development and practice. The advance must be home-grown in order to speak the people’s language. An advanced society has breadth and depth of language, literature and original thought to strengthen the society to address the challenges within and perils outside its existence. The advancement of a society is in the advance of its justice, righteousness and welfare of its people. In a world where tribal wars are no longer justifiable and ethnicity is no longer a principle of conflict, should we not invest and pay more attention to the development of ethics rather than the inordinate focus on ethnicity?