Peter Obi and the Protestant Ethic

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By Akin Osuntokun

In the book titled the ‘protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism’ the German sociologist, Max Weber attributed the development of capitalism to the protestant ethic (protestantism is a form of christianity that originated with the 16th-century reformation, a movement against what its followers perceived to be errors in the Catholic Church).

What then is the protestant ethic? Inclusively it consists of of the dynamic interaction of the the following elements, asceticism, discipline, virtue and the doctrine of predestination-as amended.

Of all these elements, Weber argued, the reconceptualisation of the doctrine of predestination is the most decisive determinant in the causation of capitalism.

Predestination is the doctrine ‘that God has eternally chosen those whom he intends to save, that God has ordained all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others’.

That prior to being born, you are already fated as a prospective candidate for heaven or hell and the fate is immutable notwithstanding the personal merit or demerit of your human conduct.

It is the reconceptualisation of this doctrine, to the effect that, in addition to asceticism, discipline and virtue, success in entrepreneurial exertion, is a qualification for religious salvation; that anyone who lives a meritorious life ‘of sobriety, discipline, hardwork and simplicity could be expected to prosper and that such prosperity would be credited to him as the sign of the elect’.

It postulates that beyond religious work, all work would be regarded as a calling from God which must be discharged with a view to pleasing God.

It was this powerful incentive-that being successful in business will be reckoned as service to God, that unleashed the missionary energy and vision which birthed capitalism.

In this reconceptualisation, being a successful capitalist has become an end unto itself, where profit and surplus find meaning only in it’s utilisation as capital for reinvestment; a capitalistic repudiation of instant gratification in lieu of reinvestment; acquisition and preservation of wealth.’

This new interpretation-of ‘profit making as a duty of every day calling and a mark of divine election’ brought about a profound change of attitude towards worldly effort and the acquisition of wealth. Rhetorically, it is captured in such cultural epithets and catchphrases as ‘time is money”; “sloth is sin”; “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

And in postmodern parlance the prototype capitalists are those regarded as professional investors.

Following the protestant ethic, an anonymous biographer of Peter Obi wrote this profile “To understand Peter Obi, you need to look at his history. Peter was moulded by deep catholic values of frugality (many of his siblings are catholic priests and reverend sisters).

I understand that he briefly considered the priesthood. Peter was shaped by the core values of the society where he was raised: Onitsha.

The typical Onitsha trader *does not waste shishi*. These traders understand the value of money.

They do not see N1,000; rather, they see what that money can buy and the margin that can be made from the sale. They know that wealth comes from savings and investment. The average trader does not spend on ANY frivolities.

They are utilitarian. A shoe is meant to protect the soles of the feet, so they buy the cheapest and most durable they can find”.

“Peter is NOT a rare breed! There are too many like him in Onitsha, Aba, Nnewi, Ogbete, Alaba, Ladipo, Balogun, Sabin Gari, and many others.

Their history is that they start with little to nothing and build great wealth through savings and investments.

These are old-school business people. No flash. No noise. But they control immense wealth. That is the wood from which Peter was carved.

Peter won’t give shishi

He is serious when he says that he won’t be able to fall asleep if he pays $500 for a hotel room. None of his fellow traders in Aba or Onitsha will be able to fall asleep. It is how they were raised.

It is what they know. it is what Nigeria needs now. We need intervention. We need to be cleansed of our bad behaviour. We need for our heads to be reset.

We need someone to cure all of us of the madness that has taken over our country. One thing we are sure of is that Peter will plug the leakages. Peter no dey give shishi.

Before Peter Obi I had equally employed the Weber thesis to interpret and commend Aliko Dangote as follows:

In the cultural origins of capitalism, Weber argues that capitalism is rooted in the cultural mentality that deems wealth creation as a vocation, a calling and specifically, the protestant ethic.

In general terms and in my understanding, the human agent of capitalism is (in the idiom of post-modernism) the professional investor-who, beyond the material gratification of business returns, finds ultimate satisfaction in creating wealth as an end in itself.

The positive Nigeria that is struggling to be born is that in which the many contemporaries of Dangote (who likewise acquire considerable resources from the primitive accumulation stage of Nigeria’s capitalist development) should equally embark on profitably ploughing back the accumulated capital into Nigeria’s economy.

Dangote is, in this respect and in regard of his massive industrialisation of Nigeria and Africa, black Africa’s ultimate textbook capitalist.

BBC Africa offered its own perspective

“You can normally recognise a Nigerian billionaire from a mile off but Mr Obi is thrifty and wears it as a mark of pride.

He is quick to point out that he owns just two pairs of black shoes from midmarket British chain Marks and Spencer, prefers a $200 suit from Stein Mart to a $4,000 Tom Ford suit, and always insists on carrying his own luggage, rather than paying someone else to do it for him”.

“Even his children are not spared his frugality.

His 30-year-old son was denied a car, he said, while his other child is a happy primary school teacher – a rarity in a country where a politician’s name often opens doors to more lucrative jobs.

His tenure as governor of Anambra state has become a reference point for his presidential campaign”.

“His supporters point out that he invested heavily in education and paid salaries on time – the simple things that most Nigerian state governors tend to neglect.

He also left huge savings in state coffers at the end of his two four-year tenures, another rarity.

We don’t give shishi (money)” as a buzzword for his famed frugality and his prudence in managing government funds in a country with a history of wasteful.

You can normally recognise a Nigerian billionaire from a mile off but Mr Obi is thrifty and wears it as a mark of pride.”

In contradistintion to this philosophy and culture is a Nigeria steeped in hedonism, impunity; the resource curse and rentier syndrome (gaining significant amounts of profit without contributing to society).

Contrary to scriptural injunction, it is an economy in which you do not need to partake in baking the national cake to gorge yourself on it in gluttonous proportions.

The totality of the Nigerian rot is indeed encapsulated in the prioritisation of consumption and consumerism over the ethic of productivity and hard work-in which there is no positive correlation between productivity and reward.

As a matter of fact Nigeria is not merely indifferent to the syndrome, it increasingly epitomises the inverse in which the country is inherently alienated from anything good and proper.

In the past one month alone we have been treated to a unique culmination of this perversion in the life of two individuals in whose behavior we can accurately gauge the depth to which any society has sunk in corruption and the pit of institutional depravity.

They are the ill starred Ahmed Idris, the accountant general of the federation and Tanko Mohammed, the chief justice of Nigeria.

‘How do you explain that one person (the accountant general) took N80 billion it is not greed it is sickness. When you take N1 billion that is greed but when you take N80 billion that is sickness’ agonised the man of the moment.

Parallel to this anomie was the desperate lengths to which fourteen associate justices of the supreme court have gone to call out their presiding officer whose penchant for gross misconduct and abuse of office will put Jolly Nyame and Joshua Dariye to shame.

They cried out loud ‘Your Lordship, with all due respect, your conduct is the peak of the degeneration of the Court; it is the height of decadence, and clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude’

The characterization of Nigeria’s national proclivity for the prioritisation of consumption over production cannot be better captured than the famous Yakubu Gowon quip that the problem of Nigeria is not money but how to spend it.

It is a profligate mentality that has found resonance down the line in the absurd criticism of obi for cultivating the habit of savings in public life.

How else do you acquire and accumulate capital for investment in public and private enterprise? Yet it is not even as if the man stayed action on infrastructural and human capital development while embarking on savings.

Were we not taught in ordinary level economics that savings equals investment, S=I?

And it gets worse. Two days ago, the momentum for the lapse of Nigeria into national calamity intensified with the mafia tradition type attack on kuje prison.

What particularly stood amidst the grim highlights of the attack was the self-indicting recount of the defence minister, Bashir Magashi.

“Most likely, they are Boko Haram because we have a sizeable number of Boko Harams that are in detention. Presently, we could not locate any of them.

I think there are about 64 Boko Haram (members) in prison, they have all escaped.”

The messianic robe in which Obi is been appropriately dressed including the one you are reading was guaranteed to become an albatross not because it is not merited.

It has to do with the workings of the legacy of the power politics dispensation that was bequeathed to Nigeria by the two military coups of 1966. Quite apart from the excitement his exceptional public and private life has generated, the farther the gap separating the younger generations of Nigerians from the consciousness of 1966, the stronger the identification with obi.

Amongst the older generation who were schooled in the 1966 tradition, there is the intimation of a hang up that if Nigeria is going to get a messianic leader why should it be an igbo?

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