“Of all the disorders of the soul, envy is the only one no one confesses to.” – Plutarch, c. A.D. 46-120

Do you know that political power of any kind creates envy which the philosopher, as well as profound and prolific writer in the Danish “golden age” of intellectual and artistic activity and one of the fathers of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), calls “unhappy admiration,” and that one of the best ways to deflect it before it takes root is to seem unambitious?

Thirty-five years ago when ex-Nigerian Head of State General Murtala Ramat Mohammed (1938-1976) fell to assassins' bullets in the morning of that Black Friday 13th February, 1976, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo (b.1937) knew that he was the next in line to succeed him. But he left no one in doubt that it was 'Not His Will' to lead Nigeria given the circumstance. If he had sought the office of head of state eagerly, he would have stirred up envy and suspicion among the top brass, so he refused the throne, and by so doing made people to insist that he take the crown, which he did, however 'unwillingly'.

His successor, Alhaji Shehu Aliyu Shagari (b.1925) also used the same strategy to great effect in 1978 at the national convention of his party. Showing great disdain for the presidency, all Shagari wanted was to become a senator of the Federal Republic, but in the end emerged the consensus presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and went on to win the election thus becoming Nigeria's first executive president (1979-1983). The same applied to Alhaji Umaru Yar'Adua (1951-2010) and Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (b.1957) who did not join the early rush of pretenders like Peter Otunuya Odili (b.1948), Jerry Gana (b.1945), Orji Uzor Kalu (b.1960), Donald Duke (b.1961), etc., who desired to succeed “Baba Iyabo,” the then out-going president. Yar'Adua and Jonathan emerged their party's candidates ultimately and were later victorious at the polls. In all the above mentioned cases, the characters made themselves popular than ever for, according to Robert Greene, people cannot envy the power that they themselves have given a person who does not seem to desire it.

Therefore, the wisest policy of the powerful, according to the Elizabethan statesman, writer, philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, and pioneer of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), is to create a kind of pity for themselves, as though their responsibilities were a burden and a sacrifice. How can you envy someone who has taken on a heavy load in the interest of the nation? A man who has disguised his power as a kind of self-sacrifice rather than a source of happiness can only seem less enviable. Murtala Mohammed and Muhammadu Buhari (b.1942) come readily to mind here. A man who has emphasized his troubles can but turn a potential danger i.e. envy into a source of moral support i.e. pity. A similar ploy is to make people around you believe that your good fortune will benefit them abundantly. Remember “Farewell to Poverty.” To do this, you may need to open your purse strings, like Moshood Olawale Abiola (1937-1998), a wealthy business tycoon, who gave lavishly and endlessly in all kind of ways and for all kind of sundry purposes to prevent people from resenting the influence which he had bought in Nigerian politics and garnered their votes in realization of his presidential ambition. He would go on to win the presidential election of 12th June, 1993 by more than two million votes to beat Bashir Othman Tofa of the National Republican Convention to second place. Unfortunately, he also paid the highest prize in the end. One then wonders whether it is not out of envy that the powers that be at the federal level in the country have, one after the other, refused to sincerely honour the man till date.

One should also not be so foolish as to believe that you are stirring up admiration by flaunting the qualities that raise you above others. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar (b.1946) employed this strategy against President Jonathan at his own peril during the PDP national convention held in early 2011. The usually cautious Jonathan chose the exact opposite, even showing a healthy respect for Abubakar when he addressed the delegates. Whereas the condescending Abubakar, by making Jonathan aware of his inferior position, only stirred up “unhappy admiration,” or envy among the delegates, which gnawed away at him until they undermined his chances in ways he could not foresee. Only fools dare the gods of envy by flaunting their plus points. Any master of power should be able to understand that the appearance of superiority over others is inconsequential in such matters. Action Congress of Nigeria's pompous and arrogant, Nuhu Ribadu (b.1960), similarly sought to overwhelm the elderly but recalcitrant General Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) during the presidential debate held at the Muson Center, Lagos, also early in 2011.

A favourite expression of Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), son of Giovanni de' Medici (1360-1429), who made a modest fortune in banking in the late 14th century, and whom Machiavelli hailed as the wisest of all princes, was, “Envy is a weed that should not be watered.” By understanding the power which envy has in a democratic environment, Yar' Adua and Jonathan avoided the appearances of greatness. One is not saying that greatness should be sacrificed at the altar or that only mediocrity should excel and survive; but that a game of appearances must be showcased. Didn't C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) remind us of how appearances can be deceiving; and how outward show cannot be everything?

According to the playwright and editor at Esquire and other magazine, Robert Greene (b.1953), who wrote The 48 Laws of Power, by appearing as one of them in style and values, the insidious envy of the masses can easily be deflected. Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1987) and Mallam Aminu Kano (1920-1983) perfected this game to the extent that decades after their being called to glory, the masses of our people still identify with, and practically worship them. Again, by making alliances with those below you, and elevating them to positions of power to secure their support in times of need; the emeritus Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu (b.1952) perfected this game. By giving freely to all, and carefully concealing the degree to which it has bought you influence, Chief Moshood Abiola and Dr. Olusola Saraki perfected this game and lastly, by making a display of deferring to others, as if they are more powerful than you, President Jonathan perfected this game; he is the consummate master of appearances in the politics of Nigeria today. No one could possibly gauge the extent of his power…his modest exterior always hiding the truth.

Therefore, as the man presently occupying the driver's seat of leadership in the country, and one who campaigned vigorously for the office, President Jonathan, who has often tried to dampen his own brilliance by attributing his success to luck, must recognize that he may have won the presidential election with luck, he cannot hope to govern Nigeria with luck. So necessarily, he must come to terms with the “several strategies for dealing with the insidious, destructive emotion of envy.” He must understand that as he gained power, those below him and particularly those who contested against him in the election, will feel envious of him. They may be smart not to show it, but it is inevitable. He should not be naïve as to accept the facade they put up. Let the president read between the lines of their criticisms, their little sarcastic remarks, the sign of backstabbing, the excessive praise meant to prepare him for a fall, the resentful look in the eye, the demand for his resignation etc., etc. Greene warns that half the problem with envy comes when it is not recognized until it is too late.

Finally, let the president also expect that when people envy him they will work against him insidiously. They will put obstacles in his path that he will not foresee, or that he cannot trace to their source - a la Boko Haram! (for Obasanjo, it was Sharia, and for Yar'Adua, it was the Niger Delta militants) and by the time President Jonathan realizes that envy is at the root of it all, it may be too late. So, since it is far easier to avoid creating envy in the first place than to get rid of it once it is there, the president should, therefore, strategize to forestall it before it grows.

For the rest of us, let us always learn to display a weakness, a minor social indiscretion, a harmless vice so as to give those who envy us something to feed on, thereby distracting them from our more important missions, as recommended by Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658). Let us beware of excessive praise which is an almost sure sign that the person praising us envies us, and is sharpening his dagger behind our back. Let us also watch out for the hypocritical ones too, who slander us publicly, it is probably disguised envy as well. We should keep out of mutual mud slinging, or of taking their criticisms to heart. Sometimes, as Greene also recommended, when envy reveals itself for what it is, the best thing to do is often to flee the presence of the enviers, leaving them to stew in a hell of their own creation. Finally, let us accept that the effects of envy are more serious among colleagues and peers, where there is a veneer of equality.

‎For instance, once upon a time, there lived a perfect gentleman, scientist, poet, proven leader of men, enterprising entrepreneur and great sea captain by name, Sir Walter Raleigh (1588-1618). He was on top of all this a brilliant, handsome, dashing person who charmed his way into becoming one of the favourites of the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who is often considered by historians as England's greatest monarch. Unfortunately, Raleigh made no attempt to disguise his perfection, skills and qualities which made him silent enemies. In the end he was executed for treason, but envy will use any cover it finds to mask its destructiveness. Whereas when another perfect gentleman by name Archbishop de Retz (1572-1622) was promoted to the rank of cardinal in 1651, he knew instantly that many of his former colleagues envied him at once. Understanding the foolishness of alienating those below him, de Retz downplayed his merit and, (like GEJ), emphasized the role of luck (not perfection) in his success. to put people at ease, he acted humbly and differentially, as if nothing had changed. He later wrote that these wise policies "produced a good effect, by lessening the envy which was conceived against me..." Let's learn from this. Let's emulate de Retz's example, always!

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Articles by Ajiroba Yemi Kotun