Conventional wisdom is that high office is a gold mine where occupants cruise into easy wealth along with other spoils of office. In real life, however, the high office appears in the main to be a minefield that is suffused with explosives that come in various forms. The probability of a Mr Clean leaving the office with at least a speck of dirt if not a smear is closer to one than zero. This is in spite of the sometimes-deadly scramble for such offices as soon as they become or are close to being vacant. This is as true of political offices as corporate offices in the world of business and sadly, ecclesiastical offices.
A gold mine is a veritable treasure-trove that any rational person would want to have access to. A minefield, on the other hand, refers to a location suffused with destructive items such as explosives. It is also regarded as a hazardous situation that requires great care in navigating because of the abundance of destructive things such as smear campaigns and so on. The situation today is complicated because the world is in the age of mass media and in particular, social media.
There is indeed no boundary or limitations – no country, religion, profession, race, or office is exempted. Some persons do find themselves immersed in liquid gold while in office. But in all cases, goodness is no more than a honeymoon for sooner than later, guns, bombs in forms including bullets, abuse, and whatever come tumbling down.
I guess Donald Trump had cause to believe that he would be spared the relentless assault that public office holders face just because of his swagger and his wealth. One has the uncomfortable feeling that sooner than later, he will slump as the ferocity of attacks continue without let or hindrance. Each time one dares to watch a large animal surrounded by a pride of lions battle for survival, the mind goes to Donald Trump. He may yet survive and if he does, he should enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest political survivor of all time.
But it goes beyond the present. Even after an ‘honourable’ exit from office, the attacks continue. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is 72 years old and after leaving office he was regarded probably like the most popular head of government in the world by 2011. Now, he is serving a 12-year jail term after being convicted on corruption charges in 2018. His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, a woman, was impeached in 2016 by way of a nebulous charge of breaking budget laws.
South Korean leaders appear to be worst hit. It is like the office of President is jinxed. Former President Lee Myung-bak is serving a 15-year jail term after having been convicted of bribery and embezzlement. Park Geun-hye is serving a 33-year jail term while two others, Chuun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were convicted but later pardoned.
In Israel, 8th President Moshe Katsav was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to seven years in jail after being charged with rape and obstruction of justice. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for six years in 2015 on a bribery charge. And current Prime Minister Netanyahu is barely surviving what with charges of corruption against him and his wife.
Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia has a checkered past. After holding the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Mr Ibrahim was jailed in 1999 and released in 2004. In 2015 he was jailed again and granted royal pardon in 2018. He is poised to become the country’s Prime Minister.
Honourable Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnegen, 69 years old from Cross River State, Nigeria who should normally hand out judgment in favour or against people is finding out that high office can indeed be a minefield and that tables can turn such that he becomes the accused rather than the judge. As Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, he might have thought he was sequestered from the uncertainties of court processes and outcomes. Well, the story continues to unfold. He is currently under suspension in spite of local and international outcry and his buddies in the Judiciary are anything but buddies.
Above selected cases of turbulence after or during tenure are all about public servants. Persons in the private sector would probably shrug and repeat the cliché, “What business has a bird with a boarding pass.” But being in a corporate boardroom even at the apex can be as hot as being in a boiler room.
In 2010, the world was gripped by an oil spill that was televised live. Mr Tony Hayward was the Chief Executive Officer of British Petroleum operating the drilling facility in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, United States of America. He had to bear the brunt of the relentless spill of crude oil that damaged so much, took eleven lives and eventually led to the withdrawal of the CEO particularly after the statement “I want my life back.” The man was tired of the incredible pressure mounted on the company and by extension himself by the press, government, people harmed, and others.
Fast-forward to 2018: Mr Carlos Ghosn, 64 years old, a Brazilian who also holds French and Lebanese citizenship faces negative klieg light as Chairman of auto giant Nissan of Japan. The giant, who is even celebrated in a children comic magazine as a superhero is also Chairman/CEO of Renault and Mitsubishi. But he was recently in prison custody in Japan, has resigned as Chair of Nissan, yet the Japanese have refused to let him sleep in any of his six zanadus in Japan, France, Brazil, and Lebanon. He has been accused of being a spendthrift, passing his high lifestyle to corporate accounts.
Meanwhile, Dominique Mr Straus-Khan who had his eyes set on the French Presidency found himself in permanent political winter after holding the office of CEO of International Monetary Fund (IMF). A high-flying, very colourful man, a hotel maid accused him of attempting to sexually assault her. Was the story true or was he framed? We may never know, for the maid had credibility problems and there was a settlement. Meanwhile, Straus-Khan resigned his high office. In the age of #Meetoo, things could have been rougher for the man if it was today.
Nor are the assumed societal ombudsmen – the press sequestered. Ask the big guys in Fox News, the Republican Party megaphone who have had to face sexual harassment charges.
What is the problem then? Is it a crime to serve in high office? If everyone ran away from these offices, how will society run? Just this evening Fareed Zakariah used trend analyses to show that there have been great strides in the world which he traced to corporate chief execs and national leaders. The jailed President of Brazil is said to have presided over the greatest growth and development era in his nation’s history. Incidentally, Fareed brought in the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas whose advocacy is that the elite are actually destroying the world, a stance diametrically opposed to that of Fareed. He had even called for a suspension of the 2019 Davos summit because he thinks it is a meeting of oppressors. What or who may be the drummers that stand behind the curtain to create dance tunes that unwittingly dig the ground under the feet of high office holders? A few guesses.
First is the simple fact of jealousy. While high officeholders sometimes make grievous mistakes, less favoured colleagues and others could just go the extra mile to ‘pull him/her down’ (PhD). It is a case of small fries searching for the minutest infraction to pull down a big fry. Can one call those human beings sadists, for ofttimes they have nothing beyond psychological victory to show? There are some persons who constitute themselves into implacable foes and follow the big guy all through tenure and beyond. To such foes, nothing good can be found in the performance of their quarry. The person they love to hate is useless even if the achievements are so glaring even the blind can ‘see.’ This writer has very personal such experiences.
Ethnicity and race cannot be overlooked. If no less a person than Mitch McConnell the then Minority (now Majority Leader) of the US Senate could publicly declare that his principal engagement in office was to remove Barack Obama from office, the race card must be mentioned. And, can one not point an accusing finger at ethnicity in the case of Ghosn?
While in office, high officeholders are often confronted with issues such as conflicting government policies, convoluted laws, and in developing countries, even retroactive legislation and policies. Once somebody is after you, whatever it takes can be done to pull you down.
There is the issue of impossibility of pleasing every stakeholder which a child of the scarcity principle in economics is. At any point in time, demands are at least a dozen times more than resources available to meet them. Those not favoured are up in arms and sadly, even those favoured join detractors, holding that they deserve much more. High office is often a high-tension engagement, reason occupants are subject to several ailments and age fairly fast.
It is interesting however that in spite of insomnia, people in high office would be ready to perpetuate self in office. And those who want to go in are ready to throw a coat of dirt on an incumbent no matter how clean the person is and irrespective of personal sacrifices the person makes. It is like marriage – those in want out while those out want in. The samba continues unabated.